These squiggles (PoemTalk #142)

Charles Bernstein, 'As If the Trees by Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us'

From left: Charles Bernstein, Tracie Morris, Marjorie Perloff, Danny Snelson


Tracie Morris, Danny Snelson, and Marjorie Perloff joined Al Filreis to talk about one of Charles Bernstein’s early poems, “As If the Trees by Their Very Roots Had Hold of Us.” It originally appeared in Senses of Responsibility (1979) and in 2010 was chosen by Bernstein to be included in All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems. We know the writing of the poem dates at least to 1977, which is when he performed it at a reading at the Place Center in New York (on December 18); he read that day with Kathy Acker. 

Our group observes that the poem is uncharacteristic, especially of writing in that early period with its intensely disruptive, disjunctive style at the level of the phrase. Yet the poem’s satire — a mock of “poet voice” and of the centrality of concepts like poetic “presence” dominant in that era — looks forward to Bernstein’s stance and tone of recent years. The group describes some connections between this early facetiousness and later antic strategies. And surely, these lines (beginning with a faux Eliotic wistfulness) —

We shore ourselves hour by hour
In anticipation that soon there will be
Nothing to do. “Pack a sandwich
& let’s eat later.”

— are meant to undermine any such subjective shoring. So, too, “the phonetic properties of these squiggles” certainly refer to the once-written words readers read when they read this very poem, but how seriously should we take that metapoetic nod? The stance and tone are ultimately not decipherable, and the four PoemTalkers variously disagree on the depth and purpose of the irony. “Hope, which is, after all, no more than a splint of thought” is an ironically fractured pseudo-saying, but the effect of lambasting clichés about hope is to reinforce the idea that the poem advocates the sense that everything is “constantly slipping away” (that Ashberyian trope and main cause for bleakness). In any case, this is a poem that itself does, as language, what it says. Every sentence dissolves — so typical of Bernstein early and late alike — as we get somewhere going nowhere.

Read the text of the poem here.

This episode of PoemTalk was recorded on the day (April 4, 2019) when some hundred poets converged on the Kelly Writers House to celebrate Charles Bernstein’s retirement from teaching. The recording session took place just at the start of a party that went long into the night. Bernstein himself entered the control room of the Wexler Studio at some point, and eventually joined in the studio itself — making a cameo appearance to read a poem during the usual Gathering Paradise segment. The talks and toasts were all recorded and are available as video and audio here. Photographs of the event can be seen here. The full-length video is below:

This episode of PoemTalk was recorded and edited by Zach Carduner. Nathan and Elizabeth Leight are generous supporters of PoemTalk, and the Poetry Foundation is our long-time partner in this project. We are grateful to Zach, Nathan and Elizabeth, and our colleagues at the Poetry Foundation (Nuria Sheehan, Janet Cheung, and others), and to the staff of the Kelly Writers House (Jessica Lowenthal, Director, and others).