In a 1998 essay recently reprinted in his book Close Calls with Nonsense, critic Stephen Burt christened the “Elliptical school” of poetry, which encompasses writers prone to “hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory,” who “believe provisionally in identities (in one—or in at least one—‘I’ per poem),” but who, amid their “fast-forward and cut-up,” “suspect the I’s they invoke.” He grants only an elliptical mention to April Bernard, noting that he wishes he had room to quote her first volume, Blackbird Bye-Bye (1989). That book embraces a rhetoric of zig-zags, shifting swiftly from one image or sentiment to the next, featuring speakers and selves who flicker in and out of poems, intimate yet unidentifiable.
The Ellipticals, Burt proposes, descend from Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, and John Ashbery, and include Susan Wheeler, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Mark Levine. In committing to privacy and obliqueness, they counter the first-person openness of the Confessionals (and their inheritors, such as Sharon Olds and Marie Howe); in avoiding scene-setting and narrative, they differ from contemporary storytellers like C. K. Williams and Stephen Dobyns. Bernard’s third book of poems, Swan Electric (2002), marks her first clear move toward such non-Elliptical styles. Speakers tend to linger for the duration of poems, and Bernard’s “I” grounds two long, engaging sections. With Romanticism, her most recent volume, she proceeds still further from “fast-forward and cut-up,” presenting coherent characters, feelings, and visions. But her coherence, in a nod to her Elliptical past, often accompanies indirection and disorientation, so that several of her poems read as close, if delightful, calls with nonsense.
A year after the appearance of Blackbird Bye Bye, Bernard published her only novel, Pirate Jenny. Growing up bored in the rural northeast, Jenny puts on sexy lipstick, stolen scarves, and crafted laughs. She drops her original name, Connie, after encountering a Threepenny Opera character who seizes her fancy. “The song called to a black revenge in her own soul: the scrub girl Jenny dreams of a pirate ship that will sail her into the harbor, cannons booming, to save her from the degradation of her sorry life, slaughter her tormentors, crown her the true Pirate Queen, and sail her away to glory.” Identifying with spies and Germans as well as pirates, Jenny sneaks away to New York, where she reinvents herself as a poor German émigré and joins the staff of an Upper East Side home.
It seems natural that Bernard, turning to fiction, might write a bildungsroman. Classically the form has posited the abandonment of the old self as prerequisite for the founding of the new, and Bernard’s poetry, from Blackbird Bye Bye through Romanticism, toys constantly with the instabilities and inconveniences of identity. Like Stendhal’s Julien Sorel or Balzac’s Eugène de Rastignac, Jenny barely thinks about her parents or past once she reaches the big city. At several points, she changes clothes in frantic secrecy, stuffing her old outfit into a trash bin—she seems to wish to shed herself along with her clothing. Her personality centers on decentering, on the desire to be someone else, elsewhere, and soon.
Charles Simic writes in Memory Piano that “poetry is one activity in life where consummate liars are not only admired but completely trusted.” One wonders, reading Romanticism, whether he had Bernard in mind. In her latest volume, Bernard behaves like the unreliable narrators more familiar from fiction (or, at best, fiction-poetry hybrids like Nabokov’s Pale Fire). It’s tempting to compare her to the devilishly dishonest Jenny, to dub her a pirate among poets. Given Bernard’s emotional candor, the label wouldn’t be quite accurate, but then Romanticism is a masterpiece of strategic, surprising inaccuracies.
While the collection is diverse—as likely to evoke the brays of Bob Dylan (“See for me if his eyes are still soft”) as the braes of Robert Burns (“Yon hieland bonny, hieland lassie”)—a delicate self-referentiality knits it together, permitting it to read at times like a single poem in many movements. Bernard invents authors, operas, arias. She repeatedly worries the notion of naming: “Her name cannot be spoken / Through the choke of rain”; “The composer’s name was Beagle or something”; “Never, never, say my name.” When Bernard finally provides a name, it’s under the pretense of literary context. The protagonist of a poem cycle “is Abigail, her novel is Under the Rose / by Langley Boisvert, published in London in 1886.”
Don’t believe her for a second. I did; I Googled; I blushed. There is no such book. (The wordplay of “Rose” and “Boisvert,” or “green wood,” rings again of the trilingual trickster Nabokov.)
If Internet searches yield nothing on Abigail, nor do her searches for herself:
What they could not know, she too was unable to know,
the nature of herself being unknowable to her nature, veiled, that is,
woman who is not known and will not be known until it is too late
and still she will not be seen, she will be unknowable
and even when she looks in the mirror
she sees not a thing. Except those ringlets,
glossy chestnut ringlets.
The passage is as dizzying as a hall of mirrors. The first sentence winds on endlessly, one awkward clause clunking after another, as though Bernard were trying to throw us off her semantic trail. We might not notice that she contradicts herself: “She … will not be known until it is too late and still … she will be unknowable.” The poet is attacking our capacity to follow. Like Abigail, we seize most naturally on the “ringlets, / glossy chestnut ringlets” that end the stanza with a conclusive cadence.
Yet those ringlets, encircling air and reflecting light, come as close to nothingness as something can. In an echo of Abigail’s curls, the cycle of poems revolves around an empty center—an unknowable girl, who, despite the author’s promises, does not exist. Bernard fills the poems with spirals of all kinds: rings, snakes, ribbons, cigarette wrappers. Gossip—the talk that floats around people and events, rarely touching on central truths—provides much of our information about Abigail. “The scandal sheet demanded: ‘Lady or Tiger?'” “It was known that she herself directed the terms / of the new trade treaty with Austria-Hungary.” “Rumor had it she would not age gracefully, / and rumor had it wrong.”
Several pages after the Abigail series, a brief, anguished poem about spiraling finishes with the image of a rose, echoing the title of Abigail’s book, Under the Rose:
Just as the whelk-shell, so I have spiraled.
That’s not it.
As the ibis feeds, so I have fed, and fed.
As the barley breathes gold-green in the wind, so I—
Let me say this plain:
I loved one as nothing else.
As the calyx anchors, then looses, the petals of the rose.
A cascade of inadequate metaphors impels Bernard to strive to “say this plain.” Yet in attempting to move away from figurative language, she traps herself in it: “I loved one as nothing else” is a simile. Rather than articulate her thought, Bernard wheels around it endlessly. Even the last line circles back to the title: The inner ring of petals on a flower is a “corolla,” which shares an etymological root with “corollary.” Here, when Bernard writes about her subject, she truly writes about it: she circumscribes, hesitates, and carefully fails.
If some of Romanticism’s most compelling work explores the tensions implicit in authenticity and articulation, many of Bernard’s earlier poems exhibit a tension recognizable from freshman-year dormitories. Disparate elements uneasily inhabit the same space, sometimes getting along, sometimes getting in each other’s way. The first lines of “Elephant Languor,” from Blackbird Bye Bye, exemplify the former effect:
On the elephant day, whimsy creeps up like the old bad friend at a party,
Some days go by “like elevators,” while others do not.
and you may compromise with a smile.
to dish, to nuzzle, or tweak off your lint,
Bernard kicks off with that rarest of formulations, the incomprehensible tautology. She must be right, but what on earth can she mean? To go by “like elevators”: is this to go up, to go down, to zip, to stall? How about not going by like elevators? If we try too hard to understand, we’ll tumble down the chute of semantics and land in the basement of befuddlement, probably breaking our legs in the process. A detailed examination of “elephant day” poses similar hazards. Bernard’s more fragmented efforts—the poems that earned her membership in the Ellipticals—present collections of beautiful oddities, like shelves of antiques. As in much of Ashbery, each element offers a suite of tones, moods, and possibilities, so that hunting a thread of narrative might be as questionable a proposition as chasing an elephant through an apartment building.
Quite often, Bernard’s first three volumes (Blackbird Bye Bye, Psalms, and Swan Electric) offer a verse of evasion. In her Eliotically apocalyptic poem “Blackbird Bye Bye” she writes, “Spare us the therapeutic realignment / Into the personal,” adding:
It is not something to share,
like a bunch of grapes, a glass of water,
a flat fried fish and then wine.
No; it’s the secret that moves within,
filling and storing up to the top,
up to the surface where it turns into something else again.
The moment you learn the secret, these lines warn, it will change, and you’ll know nothing at all. In the earlier books, secrecy marks much of Bernard’s sharing, so that reading can feel more like overhearing—an intrusion she’s nonetheless invited. The effect both frustrates and fascinates, as when, eavesdropping on strangers’ conversation, you hear only half of what is said (and that half involves large, tusked animals). In comparison, most poems in Romanticism are comprehensible on a single reading, if also rich enough to warrant rereading.
The first three books, particularly Swan Electric, also contain less mysterious poems, including a charming cycle about New York in the eighties. At her best, Bernard mixes remarkable cocktails of accessibility and opacity. In this sonnet from her third volume, she simultaneously shows and hides, advances and retreats:
At least that many buffet here, and I
erect as the monument despite my hope to be flattened.
If only the winds could take the horse-sobs
that heave from me, wind-whipped
without the grace of speech; if only
these small creatures with amused, skeptical eyes
could offer me their chittering, their business
of fetching and nesting in the fields.
One day I fear the barometer’s shift
will shatter the surface of the vessel,
jarring me into bloody words—catastrophe
will fill the strophe then—
Unless, winds, you take my speech and rend it
into untranslatable rainy hootings.
In its weather, wordplay, and superlative sorrow, the poem recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins—particularly his sonnet “No worse, there is none”—yet refuses the openness that marks his darkest work. All we learn of the speaker is that she cannot speak. Why she grieves—indeed, who or what she is—remains mysterious. Comparing herself to a horse, a bird, a barometer, she fractures her “I” in a wrenching reflection of her wish to be “flattened,” to be nothing at all. Yet the tortured, speechless self remains the indisputable subject of the work, holding the poem together even as the winds threaten to pull the speaker apart.
Despite such moments of despair, Bernard is pleasingly prone to clowning around. In Romanticism, she provides a series of fake translations of fake operas by fake composers. Few audience members, I imagine, would survive Claude DuFarge’s “The Cossack’s Bride” beyond intermission. After studying the Playbill to learn what had inspired a Frenchman to write about a Cossack, and who then decided to fund the English production, most would call it a night. Good thing the show isn’t real. “Flame of my candle, yet burn!” declaims one speaker in “Epithalamion.” “Hand on my breast, I kiss you!”
But one of the most stirring poems in Romanticism is, supposedly, the work of a certain Annalissa Beagle (mentioned dozens of pages earlier as the composer “Beagle or something”):
Don’t ask me if I have a home
If you can’t bear to hear
Of the years of wandering, the false starts,
The tender song that shuddered with the knowledge
Of the second verse’s sigh.
Homelessness is not a new theme for Bernard—in Psalms, she writes “Psalm of the One Who Has No Dwelling Place”; in Swan Electric, “Sonnet in E” explores “the diction of the dispossessed.” But here, pretending to write as a nonexistent British composer, she describes displacement with a new and heartrending directness. The games of Romanticism permit Bernard to deny responsibility for her statements even as she utters them with startling clarity. Late in the book, she writes that “indirection is not the way out.” Perhaps not, but here, at least, it’s a way in.