“Fate makes us who we are / Just as we make it what it is / But the sadness overwhelms.”
The above lines originate from the poem, “The Truth in Pudding” by Charles Bernstein, which can be found in his latest poetry collection “Recalculating.” The poem, much like the entirety of the work, reverberates and sticks like tar to skin. Instead of removing the mess, we let it set, becoming a part of us as we gracefully move from one introspection to the next.
Bernstein first gained attention in 1975 with the publication of his first poetry collection, “Asylums.” In 2010 an anthology, “All the Whiskey in Heaven,” was published, which encompassed over 30 years of Bernstein's work. An aspect of Bernstein's life that also went public was the tragic loss of his daughter, Emma Bee Bernstein, in 2008. “Recalculating” is the first full-length collection since her death.
The work, in a loving ode, begins with Emma's words: “The road tells you what to do. Throw on some shades, pump up the radio, put your hands on the wheel. Retrace your route in reflection, but look only as far as the blur of passing yellow lines to see the present. Race your future to the finish line.”
These words set the tone for the poetry that follows: a pursuit of brilliance and heart. Each of the poems stylistically varies, making it easy for readers to remain captivated. Though there exists a great heaviness to the compilation, readers can still laugh with pieces like “Poem Loading.”
Interestingly enough, the front cover of Bernstein's collection also holds special meaning. The oil-based painting, created by his wife, artist Susan Bee, was a piece of an overall May 2011 collection also entitled “Recalculating.”
Bernstein's titled piece “Recalculating,” which can be found towards the end, makes his collection fully circular by beginning and ending with thoughts regarding his beloved Emma: “I think of Emma climbing the icy rocks of our imagined world and taking a fatal misstep, one that in the past she could have easily managed, then tumbling, tumbling; in my mind she is yet still in free fall, but I know all too well she hit the ground hard.”
As expected, the collection is not without sadness. However, Bernstein takes readers on a journey of introspection that not only deals with mourning, but also his personal transformation following immense tragedy.
The difference between good and great poetry is its ability to make the reader feel. Some poets may be good, but Bernstein is perhaps one of the best contemporary poets alive. Bernstein, in all vulnerability, offers readers every emotion. In return, we complete the work, feeling ready for the race ahead.
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