Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Truth that Must Out in The Telling, a new book of poetry by Denise Bergman


The Truth that Must Out in The Telling, a new book of poetry by Denise Bergman

reviewed by Michael Todd Steffen

Denise Bergman’s new book of poetry, The Telling (ISBN: 978-0-9910091-4-5/Cervena Barva Press/
P.O. Box 440357/W. Somerville, MA 02144-3222) with its hushed voice invites the reader to lean into the space of a shared secret that resists being told yet has to be. It is a secret a grandmother imparts to a granddaughter with stunning unexpectancy. It is a shock equal to the breaking of a jug full of water caused by a frail child’s stumble. And in poetry how could this recurrent image of the broken jug in Bergman’s memory of herself as a girl not get confused with the image of the secret, another child lost long ago to the grandmother, because of a premature birth, or because accidently dropped?

Yet the subject of this meditation in poetry undergoes, almost immediately, a shift from that overwhelming loss itself to the difficulty of how to talk about it, what to say. The uncertainty of the circumstances, the event’s remoteness in time, the shock and trauma amplify with an odd grace and relief the act of relating the tragedy, the telling of it, hence the choice of Berman’s title for the book.
That was the telling,
    my grandmother fleeing.
    A sepia memory
    mildewed, perhaps, or not

    the telling, as if a coin lifted from a box at the back
    of the bottommost drawer in the darkest
    most airless corner of the shadedrawn room

    her telling

    told to no one but me
    and that time only…            [p. 4]

Circling again and again around the sharing of this secret, echoing a smattering of images – the broken jug, the granddaughter’s “matchstick” thinness, blueberries from muffins, nest of elbow, a coin’s faceless verso – far from affirming the tragedy, Bergman’s task in poetry here is to witness perhaps beyond, or shy of, judgment, hovering at the process, the hashing out of what’s being told and the symbolic surrounding of the moment between grandmother and granddaughter. What surfaces as a result of this patient approach at truth and fleeing from it is an existential innocence wherein happening (verb) has equally violated those (subject) involved in what happened. In a striking sense, Bergman’s sympathy and con-fusion with her teller is a sharing, across generations, of grief’s burden. This book gives us an extended, original undertaking of the compassion and advocacy for the guilty by people of faith. Bergman’s task at the page confronts again and again the buffeting of the guilt involved in what happened to her grandmother in her attempt to understand it.

        Blue finger-
    on the faceless verso

    pulled from a place where memory
    is a crime
    and not remembering not
    a possibility.                [p. 52]

There is an imagistic, haiku feel to Bergman’s verse in its surrender of forbidden information, with a stubborn refusal to engage or speculate with the suspensions and deflections of rational discourse in conceptualized language. Through to the other side of the inadmissible and condemnable, the artist in Bergman has found this liberty of constriction, this poetic speech of things and sensations in their associative arrangements:

    Pink, chirping
    round of flesh from the V of her mother’s thighs
    wailing, arms and legs flailing

    drapes over her shoulder, nests in her elbow… [p. 34]

In this dissolving of conceptual boundaries for identity, the act or capacity to sympathize or identify is intensified in its moments of realization. We cannot help but fall in love with Bergman’s birches:

    Feckless trees.

    The leaning-in birch, weeping birch, white and paper
    birch swinging lank empty limbs.

    Spare and spared, undressed.
    Peeled-off pages of bark a mess of blue stain… [P. 50]

The blue of that stain is for the ink all over those “Peeled-off pages.” The trees mirror as it were miscarried humanity and also a troublesome manuscript in disarray.

In her praise of the poet’s originality, Martha Collins has noted Bergman’s resourcefulness, using “something so small to such large effect.” When we read the epithet “weeping birch,” for example, fleetingly somewhere in the back of our minds the usual cognate “willow” for the adjective “weeping” wants to emerge. Birch (willow) birch (willow), one written or spoken, the other implied, omitted, teasing our minds, until a joining of the two words (intentional?) erupts pages later in “a billow of steam” toward the unraveling of the book’s meditation:

    cloudless overhead, a dry
    dirt path

    a girl
    crumbling into bitten ground.

    Rain or shine
    a mother’s eyes track a billow of steam

    a blazing red
    sky.                    [p. 69]

The utterance of the word brings the reader an odd sense of resolution that retains its evasive burial. Penetrating the depths of loss and grief, hesitating around and withdrawing from those depths, the whole of what Bergman has shared with the reader here roves amply between the polarity of trauma and survival. It really hurt that bad. It hurt. It hurt. And that’s life. As the grandmother shared the blueberry muffins, something wholesome and sweet, with the granddaughter to sustain the revelation, Bergman graces the reader with shrugs of understanding, “no one dies/from a jug of boiled water” [p. 77].

The edition of The Telling by Cervena Barva Press – not Gallimard or Knopf – is impressive in its presentation of Bergman’s solemnity and silence, at times scarcity, denoting the thoughtfulness of her writing.

Denise Bergman will be reading from The Telling on Thursday January 24 at 7 pm in Basement Room B8 at the Center for the Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue in Somerville. Poet Kathleen Aguero will also read at this segment of the Červená Barva Press Reading Series.

No comments:

Post a Comment