Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Earth and in Hell By Thomas Bernhard


On Earth and in Hell
By Thomas Bernhard
Three Rooms Press

Review by Thomas Gagnon

If Thomas Bernhard’s poems were paintings, they would be German Expressionist, emphasizing distortions of objective realities to convey subjective feelings (think of The Scream by Edvard Munch, not German but a definite influence on Expressionism). While, in 1957, the free verse of Bernhard’s poems is hardly renegade, his distortion of realities is much more so. It provokes.
A majority of Bernhard’s poems feature repetition, of words or phrases. This is impossible to miss. It is likewise impossible to miss what he is repeating: “decay,” “die,” “shadows,” “black blooms,” or “black is the grass.” It appears that Earth is Hell, with no salvation in sight. The joylessness of such a world begins to have a deadening effect, when, about halfway through the collection, there comes a different sort of repeated phrase: “I embroider.” And so he does. Bernhard is a maestro of language, which allows him to describe and claim his world. In one memorable image, he speaks of “a father who drove the northern storm like a beast/through the intestines/of Scandinavian cold.” (69) How vividly repellent! Mind you, Bernhard’s world is not always repellent, not “In My Mother’s Garden,” where 
The night is warm and my limbs
emanate my green ancestry,
flowers and leaves,
the call of the blackbird and the clack of the loom. (193)

Here, Bernhard “embroiders” a pastoral and domestic image. Language saves.

Bernhard does, however, accentuate the negative. If a poem begins with any joy or exuberance, it goes sour soon. In the second poem, a great-grandfather, apparently beloved by many, “wouldn’t give me a scrap of bacon/for all my despair,” and that’s the end of that. Others of his poems are (what I’d call) anti-Psalms. Most obviously, his poem “Nine Psalms” doesn’t particularly resemble the Psalms at all, apart from addressing the Lord. These are verses not of praise, faith, or exultation, but of anger, despair, and poverty. Many of Bernhard’s poems are anti-Romantic, in the sense that Romantic poetry often celebrated Nature. In his poetry, Nature is destructive. It is all “black”: “black chests of country earth,” “black woods,” “black grasses,” “black hills,” “black sun,” and so on. Nor does Nature nurture. This is most dramatic in the opening lines of “Summer Rain”: “Cease, you birds/no evening/comforts me…” (123) Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Wordsworth!

One of Bernhard’s poems, “At Twenty-Six,” brought to mind the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, who wrote the four-line poem, “On my Thirty-Third Birthday.” Unlike Byron, Bernhard has a lot to say about aging, that is, a lot of specifics:

Twenty-six years
among beer drinkers, saints, murderers and madmen,
in the city and in the swollen villages…
staggering from Christmas to Christmas…

Even Byron’s longer poem “Growing Old” is not so specific—witty but not specific. Anyhow, the vividness of “At Twenty-Six” redeems what might otherwise be a deadening dirge. Once again, language is the savior.

Bernhard makes big leaps. Often, he will lament the transience of existence. At another time, he will suddenly endow a character in a poem with thousands of years, or, once, with “hundreds of millions of years.” Often, he talks of decay and dying, and then he talks of glory and immortality—once in the same poem (“Into a Carpet Made of Water”). There is rarely a place between these extremes. “Chioggia” could well be the only poem evoking an everyday content (in one of my frankly favorite lines, “They scoop the sand from the skiff/and lie in the boat at night…”).

Safe to say, one would not confuse Bernhard’s Austria with the Austria of The Sound of Music. There is no edelweiss to greet you every morning, no vigorous nuns climbing ev’ry mountain. Nonetheless, there is a charm and a sweetness that emerges toward the end of this collection. There is a wise father and a nurturing mother; there are ever-present devoted ancestors. Even in a harsh world—and Bernhard presents a very harsh world—a home, it seems, can still be found.

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