Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 14th full-length book of poetry, Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) is a book about everything and how everything feels. It doesn’t stay in one place, and it doesn’t begin in one place either, a vigorous and a deceptively meditative read to be sure. Deception is probably not the right way to convey this however, because there is no intent to ‘mess with’ the reader as far as I can see. If the reader is deceived by the work’s themes of nature, beauty, and memory it is only because they will have supposed that such themes equal an easy aesthetic experience, an undemanding sentimentality of the sort that has come to be the calling card of poetry’s cottage industry. Hello, the Roses’ 18 poems in three sections resemble at first stray sentences of observation and perception, but they nudge the reader ever so slightly away from the seemingly utilitarian purpose of record-keeping toward something more like topological feeling, at once a sense of movement and of place.
No, Berssenbrugge’s poems don’t lend themselves to any cottage industry marketing. They focus intently on layers upon layers of experience taking us through variable mesas of context and meaning, buoyed by surprise and vigor of thought, without the immediacy of experience ever being left behind. Such as here, from “Her Calendar”:
Here on the mesa, feeling became a resonating frequency in my body waking me up at night, as if through a series of vibrating lenses.
So my longing and acute night illness co-create a field for us, lenses instead of distance, tones not measures of distance.
One wants to experience from one octave transmitting to others, like vibrations across water.
A physical symptom resonates with terror, which resonates with immanence, its opposite; then, even the speed of light is limiting.
I let a quantum of light shift into feeling, a transmission like photons of sensation.
I sit in the dark suffused with kinds of feeling-feeling the mountain, dark space, transmits to me.
I gaze at the mountain using my peripheral vision.
Berssenbrugge’s approach to reality has some philosophical commerce with the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze whose essay “Immanence: A Life” has it that “Absolute imminence is in itself: it is not in something, to something; it does not depend on an object or belong to a subject.” This can be hard to think through outside the realm of abstraction, but in Berssenbrugge’s work we can appreciate an advantage poetry has over philosophy, that it has the capability to leap, to oscillate, to progress from abstract to concrete and back again; to actualize extra-sensorial phenomena as though it were as visceral as the air on any foggy wet day. It relays sense.
One thing both Berssenbrugge and Deleuze do share across the poetry-philosophy divide is an approach to lived experience. About our always and already shifting reality both virtual and actual Deleuze says, “What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality but something that is engaged in a process of actualization following the plane that gives it its particular reality.” A process of actualization is continually unfurling in Hello, the Roses, via the poet’s empathic acuity coupled with an insistence upon the interconnectivity of discourses ranging from fashion, to biology, to music. It may be that the poet is working through some disagreement with Deleuze, as in the opening lines of “Pure Immanence”:
I don’t feel connected to what I experience, and I speak with him about it.
I try to connect through the outline of animal, starting with our dog, then turn to a black wing against the sky.
When I see a picture of the beloved animal, I think of that animal, who isn’t here.
We feel so often disconnected, separated by arbitrary circumstance, and yet who can say there is not sense, affection, the contingency of good or bad vibrations? Recently an article appeared that detailed how physicists believe they may have isolated a state of matter that was consciousness itself, whatever the thing is “that makes all those neurons and synapses “tick” and merge into “you”. They’ve tentatively (and kind of hilariously) named this state perceptronium. Of course we know that poets often get to those discoveries first, only in a different medium and context, and I kind of want to tell everybody to just read this book instead of sticking to hard science on the question of perception. What Berssenbrugge does that science can’t always manage is expand perception beyond corporeal and linear schema into an almost extraterrestrial utilization of basic human technologies. See the wonderfully titled “DJ Frogs”:
Where rhythm should be, there’s space around an expected beat I don’t hear; my pulse falls through subtracted space.
It’s not a communication breakdown or break in feeling, it’s abstract.
Frogs communicate para-accoustically with the future, grabbing the potential beat (silence) and materializing it from far off in light years.
Can frogs DJ? Well yes and no but whatever, I wanna go to that rave! And I don’t think this party analogy is all that far off either. To whit the book’s final section, from “Immortals Having A Party”:
The shape of a pond is like the character for heart; its flow is slightly restricted; muddiness heightens reflectivity of the surface, glass water; bird on a rock doubles by the far shore.
There’s a feeling of love, for which reflectivity is the substrate.
Space is denser fluctuating light; emotion turns into information underlying all particles that reflect and gravitate, which coherent, virtual, connected, not just in time that precedes and gives weight to spring.
For immortals, the emphasis is not always on spring itself.
They seek prophetic signs of the substrate, greening branch, a cluster of white flowers, wood thrush, more like awareness, orientation, than any season.
Berssenbrugge makes poetry that engages the social and the solitary, and most importantly seeks not to decouple them. Experience is both communally resonant and isolatable to synapse fireworks, but those synapse fireworks have to come from somewhere and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has it that we may go to that somewhere too. Here is a poetry rife with both detail and the frisson of ideas, not averse to breakbeats, willing to dance or just go for a walk. You should be too.
Mike Hauser has lived in Milwaukee since 2002. He has curated reading series such as Too Close For Comfort, Salacious Banter, and currently, Ineluctable Place. His work has appeared in West Wind Review, Bright Pink Mosquito, and Delirious Hem, among other places. His most recent chapbook is Psychic Headset, published in 2008 from Mitzvah Chaps.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and grew up in Massachusetts. She is the author of several books of poetry including Empathy from Station Hill Press and five books from Kelsey Street Press: Sphericity, Endocrinology, Four Year Old Girl, NEST and Concordance. Her most recent book, Hello, the Roses, was published by New Directions in 2013. Berssenbrugge lives in northern New Mexico and New York City.