Literary Criticism

Reading Erica Bernheim – Commentary on “The Oversized World”

Erica Bernheim was born in New Jersey, and grew up in Ohio and Italy. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, she has been an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she teaches creative writing. Her work has appeared in the Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast, and Boston Review, among others. Her first book of poems, The Mimic Sea, was published last year after her manuscript won the second 42 Miles Press Poetry Award.

Ms. Bernheim’s work first came to my attention in the Iowa Review (Vol. 41, No.1 Spring 2011), where three of her poems appeared, including “The Oversized World.” That poem was picked up on a number of “tumblr” websites, and because it is such an interesting work I am providing the links to the poem here and here (where her poem “Darwin Light” is also available). Having not been acquainted with Ms. Bernheim before, “The Oversized World” was a welcome surprise. Since then, of course, I found that Ms. Bernheim’s work has been around for many years, but that, with her recent success with The Mimic Sea, she is now becoming recognized as more than just a talented poet.

A number of her poems are available on the web: “63rd and Pulaski,” “Elegy Next To Cleanliness,” “Like A Face,” “An Accident Waiting To Happen,” (which also includes “The Problem With Night Stories”) and “The Humiliation Parade” (about halfway down the page).

Ms. Bernheim writes poetry that, like Mary Shelley, wakes the dead monster, shocking its cerebral cortex into life and giving it a beating heart that doesn’t want to be someone’s bloody experiment. It is a type of poetry whose art of presentation is breathtakingly fresh. I am not a big fan of the MFA fare that usually appears in the college reviews, which either try too hard to make sense of things or be so heartfelt as to be nauseating, thereby losing a grasp on the truly poetic, or which contain great poetry that relies too much upon the staid poetic architecture and themes of the past. Flowers and trees, the seasonal life cycle, who did what to whom or got what after class/work, these are of little interest to me unless Rae Armantrout or Keston Sutherland (or their like) is transforming such subject matter into something approaching revelation. I like my poetry fully fledged, multi-dimensional, erotic, insistently contemporary, allusive, referential and literate to the extreme, but most of all, something that gives me pause and causes me to think about poetry and myself in a different way.

Ms. Bernheim’s work meets those prerequisites in spades. She composes poems in beautiful mosaics of image and thought, bristling with the abstracted realism of the everyday. She is one of the poets who are pointing the way forward to poetry free of the neo-romantic swan songs. Her style is not beholden to any particular era of poetry, by which I mean I do not detect a studied copying of the voices of other poets, although undoubtedly she has thoroughly read John Ashbery and other poets of the New York school.

Ms. Bernheim’s poetry often seems born at the extreme of consciousness: the mind that is about to dream or scream. Her themes are evoked in figurative phrases without a linear “argument” or the kind of development that we expect to find in classic poetry. Her touchstones are the symbolic gestures of everyday life that hold greater meaning than would appear on their face. Her poems telescope beyond personal experience to convey a sense of how the world is, so that the personal becomes the universal. We do not know whether there is also a private history that is the analogue of any particular poem, but it is not relevant in any event. What is important is the emotional texture of the weaving themes that create the wonderful fabric of her poems.

“The Oversized World” is wrought as an internal dialogue, but it is directed at the fly on the wall, the reader. One of its main themes is the way we manage our perceptions of the world, or the way those perceptions are managed for us. The world we know has become “oversized,” pervasive and invasive. We no longer have the choice of a retreat into nature as Wordsworth or Blake. Even a vacation in the woods will not stave off the malingering presence that follows us from work into our homes, into our bedrooms, into our minds and souls, where we often battle for the franchise of our own thoughts.

Bernheim combines this overarching metaphor and symbol with an advertising man’s sense of the connective tissue that binds us together. The introductory lines float on the light tone you might expect of a housewife, but gradually reveal a darker mood brewing in the morning coffee:

There is always a time to choose new curtains. What to
keep: a lightbulb the size of the city, a tank bent on
reconstruction, pilots and bubbles, sixty-one ways
to evacuate a twin with a twin with more twins in it.

Imaginary babies ask for organic juice and whole milk

To the mind, the window dressing (“new curtains”) that newly frames a perspective of reality is always available. But the poet asks, “What to keep,” and then begins building a surreal tower of images. A “lightbulb the size of the city” could be a gross abstraction of a desire for unlimited clarity and illumination, but on the other hand might well be so intrusive as to disturb sleep or invade privacy. The “tank bent on reconstruction” (not destruction) could be a good thing for world peace, or it might be a piece of propaganda since a tank is not a tractor or a crane. The “pilots and bubbles” seem light and airy enough, unless the pilots are dropping bombs and the bubbles are the kind that lead to stock market crashes. If the images are seen as innocuous ones, with the right “curtains,” the poet might be decorating a child’s bedroom with toys. Certainly, the politically correct “imaginary babies” that ask for “organic juice and whole milk” could signify the idealized future. But if we see a world that thrives on their opposites, the inorganic and the incomplete, the babies are truly “imaginary” and the line becomes ironic and cynical.

The phrase “to evacuate a twin” also gives us pause, for when we pan back to the words “tank” and “pilots and bubbles” other associations whirl into the mind: the attack on the Twin Towers, the wars in the Middle East and the Great Recession. These “twins” are not Russian dolls that can so easily be “evacuated.” But the language seems to go further, implying that one experience can replace another in our imagination, as if “more twins” have the effect of “evacuating” the original. So, for example, the 9/11 tragedy is redressed by “more twins,” i.e., by bringing death and destruction upon the Middle East. I do not mean to suggest that the poet is specifically keying on 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East, although we cannot deny the power of these symbols, as that she is examining the way our behavior and mental dispositions seem to follow this escape path. We instinctively seek the new and unique experience that supersedes previous ones. We live in a Darwinist contest rather than tradition’s preserve. The waking nightmare needs to be replaced with something else.

The false calm that resides on the surface of the first five lines is shattered by the next one: “I wait for each day to be over.” It is a sullen expression that discloses the enervating sadness of existence in this way, its drag on the consciousness. The day is never really “over,” for time’s diurnal margins only provide temporary respite (Trent Reznor’s “Every Day Is Exactly The Same” should be playing somewhere in the background), the 24-hour news cycle displaces the solitude of one’s own thoughts.. The ego becomes marginalized, miniaturized in the “oversized world,” and lost in the scheme of things. Identity is a disappearing shade, like those in Dante’s Inferno. So the poet’s proclamation, “I am the breaker of interrogations,” stands in opposition to the forces of society that question everything as a means to a litmus test, as she adds: “Remember: everything is a test.” The test is now one of loyalty, a test of allegiance to a country or a cause, a test of truth, a test of love.

The barrage of outsized standards imposed by the “oversized world” overwhelm the individual. The news is often carried in big headlines and newscopy hyperbole. The traditional reference points of nature and the arts, a sense of true proportion, the nominally precious things that we historically believe to be worth saving (“gardener of leaves, leaver of/sleeves, creator of estate jewelry and actual sizes”) become compromised. The exasperation of the poet (as a representative of those who advocate the virtues of art over those of the materialistic world) shows through in a sardonic warning (“See who protects you now . . . “), and it expresses a feeling of being no longer in a position to provide the inspiration and guidance which society historically draws from the philosophic and aesthetic minds. While everything remembered (the inherited or traditional view) is supposed to look like it’s moving forward, “in motion,” the poet feels it is “out of step.”

Out-of-step, following inconstant signals and misfired
fires onto pages made of ham. The oversized world

passes its scream-test. The oversized world pulls out
its knife, but only for show. It’s like your bones died two

weeks before you did

The “scream-test” (a much higher gauge than the “screen-test” for the photogenic), not common sense, becomes the new standard for intolerance. Here we are reminded of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream,” as much as by Ezra Pound’s poem, “H.S. Mauberley” (“The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace”). To “pass” the “scream-test” has various connotations, whether indicating alienation and anomie, or the socialized management of its symptoms. [Recently, there was a shooting of over two dozen people (including 20 first graders) in Newtown, CT by a lone gunman with an assault rifle and other weapons. Prior to that there was a mass killing in Aurora, CO, also by a lone gunman armed with an assault rifle. In fact, there have been numerous tragedies involving a lone gunman with high-powered weapons. Some would say that these events fail the “scream-test” and beg for restrictions on guns; others differ with that opinion.]

The “oversized world” is a terrorist. This “world” pulls the knife out “only for show” (or so we are made to think), because to control the illusion is to control reality (as Karl Rove said to reporter Ron Suskind: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”). The resultant effect instills the nausea of a living death (“like your bones died two/ weeks before you did”). To be “saved” people must operate below the radar and virtually disappear (“when no one/ notices they are there”). But being “saved” is not the equivalent of deliverance. The analogy in the line, “Think how things shrink from/cold,” plays on the “oversized” metaphor, so that “shrinking” is not merely withdrawing from life, but becoming smaller, inconsequential. But we are also becoming the cold that things shrink from. Her somewhat child-like insistence, “not just things, but things,” intends to take the reader from the abstraction to the reality, to the “things” that matter.

Accordingly, if we attempt to conceal ourselves and there is a corresponding withdrawal from things that matter, there is a parallel retreat from our human-ness (“the touch of a hand equally unsure”). Bernheim’s use of the first person plural (“we”) establishes the poem as a public and political statement. The image of the “hand equally unsure” is a poignant one, because doubt and questioning are principal features of what makes us human, for whom nothing is as “sure” as the pundits would have it. The “oversized world” tends to discourage questions that look beyond the litmus test. The “desire” of the “static” to be “drawn, to be filled-in” is the mind’s instinctive ability to complete the world with unprogrammed content, an instinct that we seem to have relinquished. The concluding lines confirm this reading:

Something will be built, bulleted, discussed, danced

a light two-step through, the naked, the pale, the
please stay here, the one who prefers to be with me.

It’s like taking down glass from a window. The
blessings have been blocked. The men stand around,

talking lawsuits out of their necks’ creases,
saying, Here, baby, let me do something for you.

The “light two-step” is that exhaustively elaborated, but inevitably shallow analysis that infects everything, from the unadorned “naked” and “pale” to the urgency of “please stay here” and the guarded pretension of “the one who prefers to be with me” (n.b., not “the one who loves me”), and becomes a false reduction of our experience. Everything is made to look clear and easy, as “taking down glass from a window.” The world of appearances, the surface of things becomes all there is, without deeper significance. If there is nothing under the rose, the magic, the spiritual, the poetry, the ineffable “blessings” of life, are “blocked.”

Ms. Bernheim’s coup de grace lays blame at the doorstep of “The men” with her caricature, “The men stand around/ talking lawsuits out their necks’ creases” (a Ralph Steadman-like image which imports phallic/anal symbolism). We might look at this as a feminist response to T.S. Eliot’s satire on middle class mores, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Instead of a search for the sublime, for spiritual fulfillment and for truth, our destiny is determined by “lawsuits.” More to the point, Bernheim indicts the distinctly philistine point of view of the traditionally male authority figures, whom she rakes over the coals by mimicking their wolfish condescension in the come-on, “Here, baby, let me do something for you.” It is a seduction without love. To surrender to the seduction of the “oversized world” is to acquiesce to being used by it.

Yet I do not believe the final lines convert the poem to a feminist tract, as the poem’s comprehensive strategy resonates as a broader social critique. Ms. Bernheim’s poem indeed follows a tradition of modernist artists who attempt to deal with life in the “machine age” that employs, as Adorno identified, “instrumental reason.” As Henri Bergson, she is making an appeal for the aesthetic quality of our knowledge versus the quantitative analysis of the majority, the modern jury, those who are schooled and hence easily deceived by the propaganda of the current regime. As she is a person of conscience, she follows the problems to their source. The particular modernist form of the poem requires the reader to dig deep, and in this way it is specifically meant to jolt the reader’s consciousness into a parallel investigation of the way our perceptions of life are being managed by the powers that be. Often it is necessary to deconstruct the text of reality in order to understand it.

This reading of “The Oversized World” may be a stretch for some, but this is where Bernheim’s amazing poem has led me. The poem is a fulcrum for some of the themes I have identified. These are not the only ones present, I suspect. The others are like lingering ghosts of ourselves, waiting to be drawn and filled-in. “The Oversized World” has haunted me from the first time I read it, and still does.

Steven M. Critelli © 2013


3 comments on “Reading Erica Bernheim – Commentary on “The Oversized World”

  1. I enjoyed reading your critique. My first thought upon reading the “tank bent on reconstruction” was Iraq, and how the idea was for the coalition to build a “New Middle East.”

  2. I have a tumblr page (there is a link at this blog) and am also on Twitter @Rockcru.

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