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.
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.