Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems by Bill Berkson
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2009)

Until Portrait and Dream, my encounters with Bill Berkson’s poems occurred haphazardly. So I was eager to delve into this book, especially as it bears one of the most effective titles I can recall for a selected or collected poems project.

“Portrait and Dream” -- as the back cover description notes, is “a title suggestive of both figurative and abstract.” Given the period of its making, 1959-2008, and that Berkson lives much attuned to his time’s art developments which certain critics have critiqued based on the (false) binary between figuration and abstraction, the title is purrrr-fect for capturing what comes across as the poet’s open-mindedness. The poet’s expansive view manifests itself partly in the many styles offered in the book.

Berkson’s attention also often resulted in lucid, witty, aphoristic and enjoyable results:
Nothing is more perfectly obscure than the trace of intention and no mess
            (from “Lorelei”)

Many of the poems are logically open-ended, logically if one is correct in sensing that this is a poet who writes to explore as much as to manifest an idea conceived ahead of the poem's writing:
Love comes but once to a shoe
and must be stepped on
if we, any of us, are to
survive . . . in its tracks, the moth
capered like his sailor-suit photo against,
my speedy dessert season, an armistice wrested
from the trees
            (from “Breath”)

Many poems bespeak light-ness, indicating the deftness of his touch:
Shadows fall from bricks
Let the sunniness of Classicism shine
You do the math
            (from “She Hung Up”)

Overall, the collection offers a voice marked by, but not weighted down by, wisdom. Which is all the better for his words to sing:
No rest for liquidity
Margin of error at risk

A very modern view
History cashed in

All that
In a fabulous snit

What’s left? Poetry installer
Downloaded clicks

Right back at you
Nothing behind

None other either way
Same old same old story

One finger at a time
Formal silence presses down

A deep note boldly enters
On bended knee

The way music
Loves company

Those breathers arranged by twos after eons
At the piano

Such talk
Let’s hear it

Imperceptible downbeat
Periodic oblivion

All thought

Like the reckless

Resident glory splinters
In that great picture of sunlight

Splendor showered on a vacancy
With just your word for it
            (from “As If You Didn’t Know”)

(As an aside, “As if You Didn’t Know” -- reminds me of the poems of another poet-art critic, Barry Schwabsky; results like these certainly indicate the fruitful relationships poetry can have hangin’ out with the visual arts…”As If You Didn’t Know” was written for Ed Ruscha, one of the many visual artists mentioned in this book and ranging over artists representing diverse approaches, e.g. Francis Picabia, Carlos Villa, Katie Schneeman, Willem de Kooning ….)

It’s such a treat to experience a selected or collected poems project offer the undisputable conclusion that a lifetime’s effort is not merely worthwhile for the author but also for the stranger-reader. A toast then to Bill Berkson’s life-work for being well-writ and the pleasures it generously gives.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere: Joey Madia's review of Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole over at New Mystics, and Aileen Ibardaloza's (and Aileen's mother's) engagement with The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes over at OurOwnVoice. Oh hey! And she just released her first novel (grin) : NOVEL CHATELAINE!

1 comment:

  1. Another view is offered by Tom Beckett in GR #19 at