National Poetry Series 2013 selection
FENCE Books, 2015
Many recently-published books of poetry (and poem-like texts) seem to explore the location and formation of the self within some larger context. Simeon Berry’s debut collection Ampersand Revisited is one of these, and self-consciously so; David Wojahn’s back-cover endorsement pops the B-word (bildungsroman) to place this 2013 National Poetry Series winner firmly within the literary heritage of other (male) coming-of-age pieces. And Ampersand certainly is a poetic rendering of one young heterosexual male’s process of coming to terms with himself and his childhood as the product of two psychologically non-normative parents. Yet the real interest of the book lies in the choices Berry makes with the text, as opposed to within it. The book itself constantly asks the question of its own creation, somewhat like the narrator himself. This formal resonance is what gives Ampersand the power to inspire multiple reads.
The initial poem, set off in a section of its own, employs first-person narration and a past-tense focus. It’s actually the first part of a larger piece, continued in the final section of the book. Between these two past-tense parentheses, the second and third parts of Ampersand employ second-person perspective and a present-tense narrative. Although the present tense of the middle sections implies poetic immediacy, the choice of second-person places Berry (and the reader) at a distance from the events in question. The poet even seems to acknowledge this in his own text, in section four:
Perhaps the reason why I’ve been drawn to the direct
address all these years
is because you can talk to the beloved & the reader
without each one knowing
about the other (44).
Is that really true? Maybe we’d better ask who is the reader and who is the beloved, in the poet’s imagination. Does either category really include “you” or “I”? That is, does either category really include someone not mentioned or described in the book itself? Does anyone believe that “the beloved” and “the reader” are always separate, and that an author has the power to keep them separate? These are important questions; they brush up against the imperative to write, after all. A deep desire (or need) to compartmentalize experiences complicates this imperative, making a conflict that leads to an unreliable, unresolvable text. But I’m not sure that’s a shortcoming here.
The third section, devoted to the relationship with the narrator’s father and brothers, includes various conversations set off in italics. Most of these are important father-son dialogues, wherein their shared occult past is processed. But the direct-address “you” is self-referential—the reader is not the one talking to Dad about mind-reading:
He smiles. I told you: I forgot
how. But I kept just enough to
know when people are lying
This terrifies you. You
cannot unpack it all, & you
resent how little difference
education makes (30).
In these textual moves we are given something of a key to the many boxes of Ampersand Revisited. Here’s a book that pulls readers into the ambivalent experience of identity. We share the self-doubt, the freaked-out adolescent tightrope walk between peer-group approval and ostracism, all the dysfunctional make-do social solutions. The only way to get this stuff onto the page is to make a devil’s bargain with inadequate language (more on that later). The results of this bargain carry us through whatever frustrations we feel moving through this text as readers with our own subjectivities, and into multiple engagements with this book. At least, that’s what happened to this reader.
Consider the initial/final poem again. Perhaps the first-person narrative is used for experiences and relationships that the protagonist-poet feels more able to claim as his own. The nuances of past tense do help the more difficult stuff stay in place. Most of his relations with women are here; we meet his mother, girlfriends of his brothers, his own heroically orgasmic lovers (some of whom he names—not a comfortable choice for all readers, even if the names are pseudonyms). Berry’s own hindsight on this phase of his journey begins to take up space here:
Sex & the text may be compass points, but get too close
to the body & things
go awry, which is to say
they become inconvenient as things (53).
Yes. The failure of language to “thing” the body is one of the problems confronted by any claim of identity based on the body’s relation to the mind/self. Another knotty thread in life is the failure of everyday modes and mores to accommodate the body and the self it contains. Berry lives this failure when he finds no acceptable use for the part of his bodily experience that includes a need for
pentagrams to go off every
minute like cherry bombs
just to illuminate how to
avoid getting beat up (21).
He makes up for this by seeking an identity that can be approved, yet he knows he is Other. Some ways of otherness feel preferable to his awkward spiritual/occult experiences, perhaps because there is language to hold them (some language, at least). At one point, the narrator yearns for a slightly more acceptable form of unacceptability expressed in highly coded, stealthy language:
Why can’t your open secret
be a peroxide hologram
hidden in your locker?
Or a smudge of galactic
purple on your cheek? No
one wants to hear about
Is this a wish to be queer or to be a sci-fi geek? Being queer would arguably have been more dangerous than being a clairvoyant’s son, but at least it has a vocabulary, a nest of conceptual moves that offers some potential protection, some support, some recourse to justice.
The failure of language to embrace the body, and to provide comfortable identities, is a pivotal issue in this book. It’s a potent presence in current discourses about poetics as well. Where Berry’s narrator’s puzzled quest seems to take the form of a rambling reach for identity through socially-sanctioned behavior for brainy young cisgendered men, he does eventually recognize that these things aren’t paths to clarity. They’re only experiences that he’s left to organize as he sees fit. Ultimately, what’s most satisfying about Ampersand Revisited is its open-endedness. Berry leaves it unresolved, his questions and emotions untidy and echoing. And that’s just the way it should be.
Jay Besemer’s most recent poetry collections are A New Territory Sought (Moria) and Aster to Daylily (Damask Press). As Jen Besemer, he also authored Telephone (Brooklyn Arts Press), Quiet Vertical Movements (Beard of Bees) andObject with Man’s Face (Rain Taxi Ohm Editions). He contributed to the groundbreaking antholoy Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat). Jay writes critical texts for a number of publications and is a teaching artist at Chicago’s Spudnik Press Cooperative. Follow him on Twitter @divinetailor.
Simeon Berry lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. He has been an Associate Editor for Ploughshares and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist Grant. His first book, Ampersand Revisited (Fence Books), won the 2013 National Poetry Series, and his second book, Monograph (University of Georgia Press), won the 2014 National Poetry Series.