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Erica Bernheim

 

When reading poetry I often have difficulty distinguishing signal from noise. Much of what’s going around now is different variations on this confrontation. There are golden proportions, where poetic signal is accentuated by the noise, shaped by it in ways that clear reception cannot anticipate. Unlike with cooking, these ratios are individual rather than universal. One poet may thrive with higher signal, while another may better divine meaning from the noise they mine.

This is hardly a newsflash: Poets have differing styles, film at eleven. Some poets work the chaos down to the letter, the phoneme and allophone even. Others do better to keep court with general syntax, but break down associations between sentences, lines, stanzas, so on and so forth. Writers flourish under various circumstances, and that’s only half of the equation. There is no accounting for what the reader may glean, to a point. The poet can only hope they’ve cast some new meaning into the world.

Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea splits the difference between signal and noise. It can be equal parts maddening and illuminating, not unlike searching for a radio station between towns on interstates out west; half of one song comes in like crystal, but the next is a chorus of snow. The question then is, for each reader, how much scratched aquarium glass are you willing to stare out of for a hint of something that you connect with.

The Mimic Sea offers no easy out, quite platitudes, or distinct advantages towards survival. Each line is a piece of a puzzle, but who knows how many puzzles there are and how many pieces of each? The pieces still illuminate in their own way. It’s not strictly surreal, things are quite firmly grounded here, but the poems will not define themselves for you. Of the few that come near to proclamation, Car Rolls Off Clay Wade Bailey Bridge  opens with:

And what of the driver, trapped between metal

and more metal, metal and water, water and time?

A concrete island, a wish for loosening,

a confrontation with his mother nineteen

years ago, too close to tell anybody, now

bored by tears in this condition of you.

Pulled in straight from the title we associate with the driver of the car plummeting off this bridge, or having plummeted, slowing down into the trap between fundamental elements like metal, water, and time. On stage in near-death, the parade of family members, the past as the future (which opens the book), the boredom of finality all emerge. As a car crash/accident poem there is much to parse but it’s not unpleasant to wind through, as the poem commands, to “imagine yourself”.

Where Bernheim’s sentences and lines are scrutable, the poems as a whole are less so. This is where the breakdown between signal and noise occurs for The Mimic Sea. Don’t mistake this breakdown for failure, as the book flows, surprises, and delights. But platitudes would defeat this book, where elements flash and synapses between words are continuously firing. Though, very often it props the reader at an edge.

The pit of the world

is something you think

you have seen. After learning

 

to read, we rarely look around

when walking. We are visually

 

illiterate. Unraveled, unravished,

we will come loose in that air.

 

from Dinner—March

The Mimic Sea is primarily constructed of things you think you have seen, shades, echoes, etc. You are left at the pit of the world, a gaping expanse at one side and the whole of the earth on the other. Insight follows befuddlement, learning one skill surpasses the other, picking up shades of life outside the aquarium but at the loss of everything within. It’s a book that itself comes loose, unravelled, but not through the poems. Rather the scope, at once myopic and focused on infinity, confronts the void with the earth. Bernheim strikes up the band between stations, and the melodies may be buried, but the poems are about the search and the discovery, and you’ll be rewarded through both.

 

The Mimic Sea
By Erica Bernheim
42 Miles Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0983074724’

I hope the Monarch butterfly I released this spring landed in Mexico tagged with
the ending line of the opening poem of Erica Bernheim’s Moonrats:

I’ve got rights and I should look into them.

This is the fewest of the “first books” I’ve read that feels completely self-interrogated and worked upon. It shines and it never presumes its own rescue. Dear Baby, I am held up/by anchors and antlers: one holds me down, the other/keeps me alone. There are statements all over this collection one could theoretically hear from NBC News’s Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel if he’d been released from captivity after five years instead of five days. Laid end to end, seven million hummingbird/eggs will take you to the bus stop and back. Ask the bodies I stand beside on any public transportation and they’ll tell you: I don’t toss about a term like interiority often.

Opening of The Superstition of the Clean Glass:

A cross-section of a tough person seems/touched in the middle of an island, and/we like it.

Bernheim’s is an interior lyric, on par with the elegiac verse of the late Larry Levis. Reading this book is not dissimilar to overhearing a soliloquy on intimacy pieced together by tape-looped recordings of “empty” residences visited and perturbed by The Atlantic Paranormal Society. I miss part-time investigator Donna, who also used to run the Ghost Hunters front office. Sometimes the Connecticut female accent is the only reason I remain in this country.

There’s a newer lyricism stirring around and around the Large Hadron Collider Chamber.
The newer lyricism is more about vibration and less about experience and feeling, experience and feeling having gotten humans squadoosh. This book continually reminds me buoyancy is better than tone, or being right. Bernheim challenges her reader to be intimate. She’s going to be intimate whether you choose to participate or not. I tried to impart to my Navy town how high on the courage-scale that ranks, but most of my neighbors care more about watching me fall off the fiscal cliff.

In the poem Fifteen Beautiful Colors, Bernheim examines light. I didn’t think that kind of magnification was possible anymore in poems.

XII. Two arms reaching make little sound grasps at smoke.
Nothing here will/bloom or rise, planetary faces.

Speaking of light, whenever sunlight is mentioned, something terrible has happened or something wonderful is about to happen. I love that. Prediction: Bernheim will win the third season of Spike TV’s Ink Master. Her championship tat will be whatever life form eventually emerges from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. She’ll pull on host Dave Navarro’s goatee and it will come off. As Ink Master, she’ll tattoo whoever she wants whenever she wants however she wants. As Ink Master client, my mother may desire three-dimensional Wedgwood buttons on her eyelids, or nipples? I’m praying for behind the calves, Mama.

I want the following gem from the poem Dialogue for Robots (pg. 67) tattooed on my pelvis:

In front of our eyes are too many ways to breathe.

It’ll be a cover-up for the botched Soul Train choo-choo.

There are poems addressed to a day-lily, a zookeeper, and a bellhop in here. They’re all provided the same equality of respect.

Let’s dig deeper into the Bernheim/Levis comparison. Here’s three lines. Pick which ones are Bernheim and which ones are Levis:

We go & there’s no one there, no one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees
You can recognize the words and not understand the sentence.
Put me in a scene and watch as nothing changes.

Try these:

It’s like your bones died two weeks before you did.
We was just two tents of flesh over bones.
Sex should be no more important than a glass of water.

Don’t worry, Good Will Hunting is still working all this out too.

Having appeared in the 2006 anthology Legitimate Dangers, Bernheim legitimately waited nearly two presidential terms to publish this full-length collection in 2012. She took her sweet time, I suspect, in order to release something rare, special, and dangerous — a finished book.