Sunday, November 03, 2013

ModPo 2013 #56 Dissolving Days and Language in Flux: On Bernstein's "In a Restless World Like This Is"

Image of Lady Liberty looking on the WTC from

In a Restless World Like This Is

Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers—well, you can see for yourselves there’s
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you’ll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.

Info from Charles Bernstein, "In a Restless World Like This Is" from Girly Man. Copyright © 2006 by Charles Bernstein.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.

Source: Girly Man (The University of Chicago Press, 2006)
"When I Fall In Love" reminds me of a high school fair that I went to. Full of giddiness and almost-crushes and hot sun and green grass and a jail booth. It's hardly the song that one would associate with 911.

I'm not American but I do remember the day that 911 happened. It was surreal. I was on my home from work. I think I heard it on the radio, on an FM station. And then I received a text message. We were all watching the news. At first we thought it was just an accident. But when the second plane hit the World Trade Center there was something organized about it. It was hard to fathom an attack. This was the United States of America. And this was New York. Things like this didn't happen.

And that was the beginning of the senselessness that is reflected in Bernstein's poem. There is no good and evil anymore. That was the safe story arc of the past. There is no one enemy. And "enemy" is now a term that depends on whose perspective one is listening from.

The story has ended before it's begun. It was mentioned in the video discussion that he was trying to bear witness to these acts. "It" is gone or can never be understood. It's interesting that Bernstein ends with the "before the way back / has become totally indivisible," plucking "indivisible" from the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. of A. There is an attempt to find "the way back" and "indivisible" prevents the speaker from the "way back." Whereas "indivisible" means something positive in the pledge of allegiance, "indivisible" is a block to "the way back" in the poem. "The way" will not part to let you in. "The way" is indivisible. As indivisible as your pledge of allegiance. Does the property of "divisibility" allow a way to return? And return to what? That's the question.

Diversity defines the United States of America and diversity is also its undoing. Its varied faces include those of all cultures...even the culture of its "enemies." "The pursuit of happiness" and "inalienable rights" and "liberty and justice for all" are language constructs that keep the order. But all these are soluble and that's why these "days" are "dissolving." But more and more...these things are in flux. As language is in flux.

The language of power and war and even evil has fragmented. The tragedy of 911 highlighted this nature. The blame that people are so willing to pin on something is a phantom, an illusion. Chasing after "the perpetrators" is chasing after a ghost. There is no fixed meaning anymore. No safe harbor of once-upon-a-time. There is multiplicity, there is all-at-once, there is the mess of living.

And so I guess the title of the poem is at once a love song for the past and a statement about the present. We live in a restless world. We live in restless language. There is no one story (just as there is no "one direction") but the anguish could be legion.

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