MARTHE REED Reviews
Hello, The Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
(New Directions, New York, 2013)
Open to Accident: “Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, The Roses
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new collection, Hello, the Roses, takes its reader on a spiritual journey, a record of investigation into the imaginative and intuitive connection between her speaker and the world around her. The long, discursive lines for which the poet is well-known move meditatively outward from the inner locus of longing for connection through a series engagements sited within the “home” places of the poet: New York City, northern New Mexico, Maine. A collection of “essays” or tries in the original sense, these poems record a journey toward beauty and spiritual connection as a process of healing. We “open to accident,” she assures us, “intimacy can be the bridge.”
Intimate with what? Berssenbrugge reaches out to the peopling creatures, plants, and weather of her home places, the first poem titled “Animal Voices.” In lines often reaching beyond the width of the page, the poet chronicles a sustained attention, often visual in nature, though at times instigated by touch or smell or sound. These attentions call into question how it is we live in the world, how we attend or don’t attend to our intimate neighbors, and hypothesize possible means to breaching the silences between in a language driven by the potencies of dreams/dreaming, yet also often borrowing the lexicon of science.
I begin by imagining I hear thoughts. There’s a sense of pervasiveness; particles go back and forth in me. I write down today’s encounters, including the mosquito, as a dream to interpret. Certainly, one’s tie to an insect is imaginative truth. Not that my horse represents the union of intuition and imagining, she is that. Turning her head to smell the wind, she shifts into wind’s seamless dimension—mane, tail. (4)….A horse does not change frequency to change form.
In this poem, Berssenbrugge uses “form” as “intent” (4), the poet’s, which
bridges the gap between self and other, whereby “discontinuity becomes continuity” (5): a sense of the moment “deepening” or increasing in intimate connection. In the effortless way the horse becomes a form of wind, the concentrated attention of Berssenbrugge’s speaker allows her to be drawn out of herself, by “filaments of light like whispers” (9) into another presence: “within the illusion of my body, an emergence place” (11). Yet this is no “dialectic of self-other…. // Mists and petal together form their own pathway, precepts threading back and forth as if through live wires in air.” (29) A new compound reality forms, not two separate experiences, but a shared valence of experience.
Hello, the Roses offers an evolving awareness of how connections between self and her place-others manifest, operate, change, a record of movement from a state of alienation/isolation to communion: “I myself may be part of an emergence, dizzy, unaware I’ve crossed a threshold into new focus.” (25) Meditations on the nature of feeling/memory/being, the lines of these poems are laid down like accretions of understanding across the boundary of inner and outer, self and world: “wind, heartbeat, object falling into water, perception merges with the surface.” (39) Her attention caught by the material manifestations of the world “emplaces” her in the world, making her present against the background noise of illness – “my plans are still a sick person’s.” (23)
The attention of which Berrsenbrugge writes and the resulting sense of communion suggests the Buddhist notion of satori, the experience of shifting from isolated experience to immersive oneness: “Looking at the plant releases my boundaries” (51) – “My seeing becomes so slow, it seems to disengage; it grows cloudy; then suddenly meaning as a whole interweaves with my perception.” This sensibility is strongest in the second section of the book where the green world is Berssenbrugge’s focus. “Forest is the originatory fullness of presence.” (44)
I see her multiple aspects as living representations, her symbiosis with birds, relation to originatory plants, fragrance as medicine administered by an oracle. These aspects are not referred to, not associative, but intrinsic to my sight, as slowly gaps diminish and missing images appear or experience fills in; one transforms to another along an extended multi-dimensional axis of seeing the plant. It’s not a metaphor for the flow of our surroundings. (52)
The “flow” the speaker’s consciousness and the flow of the organism’s biological processes are imagined as sharing a single wavelength or motion: the speaker enters the flow of being, at least imaginatively. The poems read as records of awareness brought to deep stillness, as the speaker’s body moves in attentive deliberateness through an environment, through sustained perception/response: “My seeing becomes so transparent and natural, a vista of awareness into which consciousness forms.” (42)
Formally, Berssenbrugge’s poems resemble Wittgenstein’s linguistic clarifications in Remarks on Colour, both in their formal arrangement and analytical attention. Wittgenstein develops his claims as a series of points presented in short discrete statements. Similarly, each line or stanza in Berssenbrugge’s poems encodes a discrete stage of unfolding awareness/insight in a spiritual journey, composed as stages of a mystical argument. Though the foci are quite different for Wittgenstein and Berssenbrugge, there is a correspondence in the formal arrangement and progress of text on the page.
In the final section of this collection, the speaker’s illness moves to the forefront: the speaker “writing in empty space between pain symptoms.” (65) In attending to the visual field around her, Berssenbrugge’s speaker experiences not only a sense of communion or oneness, there is also relief, spiritual if not also physical. And where language had at times previously verged into the fabular (“clairvoyance,” “fairy realm”, “touch dimensionality”], in this final section Berssenbrugge becomes more concrete and explicit: “I may confuse longing with response from a plant, creativity I mentioned as air in the riverbed I know to be blue and loose as a bundle of petals in summer, when disease didn’t exist.” The speaker’s burden of physical suffering weights the transcendence described in the middle section of the book, the motive force for the speaker’s outward reaching: “I render physical pain into emotion.” (67) In the poem “The Lit Cloud,” the writing of poetry and its tropes manifest as the process underlying the unpacking of perception and awareness.
I come to a rock by water to watch the sun set. Sun lights a gray cloud above me with so many rooms and convexities. When I look up, it’s a scrim of lighting effects. There’s no volume to the object. I watch sunset in late summer, trying to quiet myself, to open my heart desiring relatedness; it comes as metaphors of weather, To work with a metaphor, it’s first visualized, then energized to this gray transparency expression in a shaman. (69)
Driven by suffering, the language of the poem maps a process of revelation and self-nurture. In sending ourselves outward into “an open circuit” in which “Our reflections are part of the play of sunlight and reflections,” Berssenbrugge argues we will find relief both physical and spiritual: “My being becomes fused and transformative, like a river in rain.” (71) A record of seeking, a book of spells to release grief/suffering, Hello, the Roses, is an offering to the reader of the “the immortal, a wave in the environment,” (87) “cosmic time coming forth as beautiful pattern.” (88) An exploration of the possibilities of communion and healing experienced as love via focused attention upon the human/other-than-human nexus, these poems point us out of ourselves, even and perhaps most vitally at the most intense experiences of embodiment, illness, disease. Berssenbrugge reminds us that we must reach outward into the world and find ourselves in intimate connection, in “streaming exchange” (84): an insight to liberate us from the tyranny, not only of pain or suffering, but also of deadlines, over-commitment, and the quotidian busy-ness in which we so often immerse ourselves. “Sacred means saturated with being.” (92)
Marthe Reed is the author of four books: Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink 2007). A fifth book of poems will be published by Lavender Ink (2014). She has also published four chapbooks as part of the Dusie Kollektiv; a fifth is published by above / ground press. An essay on Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue appears in American Letters and Commentary. With Nicole Mauro she publishes Black Radish Books.