Surprise of another 'impossible' category

A Review of 'Portrait and Dream'

Portrait and Dream

Portrait and Dream

by Bill Berkson

Coffee House Press 2009, 352 pages, $20 ISBN 978-1-56689-229-2

Bill Berkson’s Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems brings together fifty years of writing and sums up (so far) the singular career of an important poet, critic, and scholar of the New York School. Throughout the collection, a vast and particular lexicon is used to create landscapes with lines that extract and imbue the possibility of “living for the first time.” Through this language, which particularly categorizes not only in each total poem, but in each word, there comes the continuing surprise of another “impossible” category. Berkson’s poems reach into his own visceral pre- or post-history, perhaps our history, as the history of modern art “continues.” They are sleight and wrought, without a loss of love or a tinge of false cynicism, and are masterfully composed from a depth, which through this very assimilation, seems to disappear. Each poem allows for a “living” symbiosis between the language from this depth, and a language which wants to experience the feeling of every moment. Berkson’s poems bridge between these two fields. Writing often about the everyday experience, his “ordinary” sentences (or not) are appropriated as a “once in a lifetime” “experience” or poem. He writes:

which continues fully listened sees its image
           destroyed in the making
                                           which if artless would have (if) as true
      with a look
                its viewers
          it was particularly       Life

This brief quotation is taken from the poem “History” found in the earliest section of Portrait and Dream: “All You Want, 1959–1961.” Here we see Berkson writing in his twentieth year, beginning to create a continuity of poetics, which despite the logic of the sentence, resolves the crisis of self, and therefore art, with light and life (perhaps, in-light-of, life-like, or light-like).

From “Out There 1962–1972,” — the second book or section of the collection — Berkson would like to play on the title; for someone to be “out there” or “strange”; to be “out of there,” as in (having no more); or as in there as the antithetic to here, and the use of (out) to refer to something otherly,  perhaps metaphysically. He once commented to me that “Odysseus could be the king of the underworld, but he couldn’t see the light of day.”

The continuity of “impossible” or absolute, or other separate categories of sections takes a purgatorial turn “of life” or application of “metaphysical padding” here as I invert Berkson’s sequential order in this section (these four poems appear here in reverse, from “Out There: in this poem entitled “Light In Dark,”), Berkson writes:

Redundant pure
to be with a pleasure
in another light                      

                          in a flash
it’s cool here
light clouds balancing slightly
on your back
raised free
&easy by new flowers alarming presence
all or nothing so it must be
and is becoming as you see
there's a hand close by
on some grass patting down
ringing spaces anatomy of kisses!   


Buddhism says it is possible to get your mind together like the wings of abutterfly. It is also possible not to get your mind together and still exist,
like a
butterfly, but with no wings.


We walked quietly away
Straight through the mirror
Of uncontrollable pain.


Absentminded person
fades back and folds
between straight blue sheets
lulled to sleep
by early risers stepping backwards
through cold gate

The epigramic sense of the “preceding” poems (here in reversed order) “In The Breeze,” shares a node from “Light In Dark, breezy, where Berkson’s titles often operate and shift as active fragments or “life islands” of ordinary or exceptional categorization. A listing of poetics as “objects,” words, art and its antithesis (light in dark) as paintings, images or feelings, of us.

Through these passages “backwards,” perhaps the central node of Berkson’s typography or topography and depth crystallize and circumvent in his sentence or field which “as' a circle of light goes lifelik'e” (perhaps my imitation of Berkson’s line “the gray ball goes batty”). Here meaning connects through feeling, in which his lingual specificity limits every, or any other connotation of the poem, figural and abstract “portrait and dream … / oh truly modern art and amused and wrong /,” as he unwrites the underworld in his poem “Blue Is The Hero:” “scent which is a poor memory in our symbolist ears.”

If we can consider Berkson's transference of topograph (a geographical-verbo landscape) to the reanimation of life from otherlyness, we could consider the idea of a 'frankenstein' throughout his next successive book in the collection, "Parts of the Body, 1973-1983." The title plays on part as components or leavings, and body can refer to an anatomy of text, a lexical body. This ference or transference occurs in this collection as in the connectivness through the disparity of categories, from word to word, node to node, in title as well as (section) epigramic or not . In this lexical anatomy; life and "ordinary" poetic accountabilities are salvaged, / skin mirrors, nerve ends of dumb eclipse… / As prior excerpts from this poem which would retrospect to the beginnings of the prior manuscript (Out There), name not only usual conversational elements, but the transference of an a-priori literal language yielding an exemplification of a "metaphysicaly" shining "everyday" life / like… / an anatomy of melancholy. Berkson here borrowing Maldaror's title and specificity reasoning a subversiuon of a crime of aesthetics decontextualized into his own form, and cleared.

In the first poem "A-FRAME" from "Parts of the Body" where art (as in a painting) or language (as in the poem) create borders or "frames", as the sense of each different word or image create categories. Both the assimilated and dissimulated together occur here in language. As the history of western philosophy / or modern art represent the intelligence of feeling in the abstract, in the ancient or "metaphysical" world language is represented by the sprit. Here these concepts converge in Berkson's text with a dictionary.

The definition of A-frame is as follows: 1: a support structure shaped like the letter A. 2: A building typically having triangular front and back walls and a roof reaching to the ground.


air blue
ocean plain
and glowing
woman turning    
man on fire

Where perhaps the title's low end of (A-FRAME) could connote the crime of framing (someone or oneself). The top of the poem could be delineated as frameless; as the nature of the immaterial or spirit, begins the opening line / air blue . The poems' 'extinguishing edge' of fire or cyclical origin, can be said to surface or disappear, represented in the second line / ocean plain. As all life originates from the sea (and water puts out fire). Furthermore, human life occurs through the coupling of a man and a women.   (This line also simply defines 'the everyday' in Berkson's writing). The dictionary definition could refer to the singularity of body and spirit, but it also brings us home to a paradoxical living space whose rooftop is an extension of the ground.

In the last line of this essay I will excerpt from the last section of the book "After the Medusa (2001-2008)." As the title would play on The or This period of history, we should remind ourselves that the origins of Western philosophy and art are post-Greek, and we are modern or postmodern (or past that?). Further, with Berkson's own edge, the title plays on being after (being in pursuit, or over, a woman), or the archtype of woman, we or she are reflected or turned to stone, or past that….After….  


The no-singing elephant
in the sunny situation room

[…] Under twinkly blurs
deft circularity"