by Peter Valente
Under the Impression
In James Berger’s Under the Impression, one finds poems in different registers, showing multiple ways in which he interacts with the world, often skeptical of the simple reductionism of complex issues. There are poems where language is at the center of his explorations; there are also more lyrical poems about his parents and meditations on marriage; and there are poems where he critiques the worlds of poetry and academia. Throughout the book, there is a healthy skepticism that keeps Berger away from any grand, totalizing gestures. He is “under the impression,” holding onto an idea that is not certain or clear. The poem is ultimately a working out of these impressions.
The poem “It Takes All Kinds, But It Doesn’t Take Much” has a kind of labyrinthine structure. The words wind around each other in a kind of spiral of language, based on varying rhymes. Its dizzying effect is meant to destabilize accepted and rigid meanings. Here’s how the poem opens:
Well it takes all kinds, does it not? Indeed, it takes all kinds.
There is no kind of a kind that it doesn’t take. It takes it.
It takes them. Not the entirety of the kind, but at the least
One of a kind; of each kind. Because, as has been mentioned,
It takes all kinds. With that in mind, would you be so kind
As to respond in kind. And yet, what is meant, precisely,
By this rind, for clearly we are not made privy to what has been innerly designed
He concludes, “I’m in Plenitude.” In this poem, Berger is approaching Kerouac’s speed, Berger’s buildup of the language has a wild energy. It is a volleying toward the Big Everything Work. In the last line he mentions the inner design that we have not been “made privy to.” This sets up a kind of question about the inside and the outside.
In the poem on the facing page, Berger writes, “The outside doesn’t know it’s outside/ (invisible indeterminate membrane)/ the inside doesn’t know it’s inside.” There is a constant negotiation between the outside (the world) and the inside (the I). The relation is mediated by language, “the conjugal verbs.” But there is a barrier: “the flaming angel/ against intelligence.” Augustine writes: “Since the angels were created, in the eternity of the Word, they enjoy holy and devout contemplation.” But a contemplating intellect is not in potentiality, but in act. Therefore the intellect of an angel is not in potentiality. For Berger, it is about becoming rather than being rigid or fixed in one’s ideas. It is about action and working for change. We must be open to changing identities, or opinions, making sure our ideas don’t become rigid, limiting, oppressive.
In “When My Mother Died,” Berger wonders about the nature of marriage, after witnessing the violence of his parents:
What did they fight about? What do any couples fight about?
What do Jen and I fight about?
Time and space.
Who controls more space? Whose time is more important?
Who gets to be the person he or she wants to be …
And how do they even determine that, in the circumstances
They find themselves in, in that marriage
Visiting his dying mother at the hospital, he feels that he is intruding, “as if I’d walked in on her/ going to the bathroom, or something./ And she said, ‘Go Away.’/ These were the last words she said.” It is a harrowing finish to a central poem in the volume. Times change and we watch our parents grow older. I remember the days I spent with my father in a nursing home as he was suffering from dementia and the times he would ask me who I was and if I would take him out of that place. I remember my mother passing away in the house I grew up in one night, with my father by her side. I was a sophomore in college. How much trauma is necessary to make us empathetic and sensitive men and women?
The old are not valued in this society; only the young are, as if they were gods. In “There is no Beauty,” Berger remembers a high school girlfriend and wonders “did I really make love with that girl?” A question like that arises, because he knows that “Flesh/ is legation to the imperial/ now, and it rips/ time, chases it and brings it down,/ unembarrassed that it lives on blood.” He imagines his young mother “racing ahead of time, unable to imagine with what brutal clumsiness/ it will knock her down.” So he concludes, “There is no beauty but youth.” Zeus, after all, went so far as to abduct Ganymede, who was the most beautiful of mortals, taking on the shape of an eagle, and making him the cup-bearer for the gods. And look at what Apollo had to go through in courting Daphne.
There are also critiques of the poetry scene in Under the Impression. In reading Berger’s poem “Someone Else Might Like This” I thought of the quandary poets find themselves in when their poems are rejected by a magazine! The poem begins with a kind of nasty rejection letter: “Someone else might like this; I don’t. I don’t think it has any imagery or discernable form or implicit form.” Maybe not, but it has energy caused by the buildup of the words, an inner dynamic strength. The problem is that you can never see “the entire system.” And Berger ends the poem on a funny note: “You’re in it, you’re of it, you’re grasping/ at every detail as if a synecdoche were a life raft.” So what is a good poem? And where’s “the algorithm, or set of quantifiable variables” that will allow you to judge it. Too many judges out there giving out the wrong verdicts. As Spicer said, “There are bosses in the poetry world.”
Leaving these questions aside for a moment, I’d like to focus on hope and the possibility of happiness, which are also essential aspects of this book. Berger writes about a hopeful future when
Work will not be oppression. Leisure will not be mindless escape. Love will be full,
without reserve or shame.
Our full lives, minds, and hearts will be engaged in our every endeavor.
The feeling of every moment will be a feeling of eternity.
This is, ironically, from the poem, “The Saddest Thing in the World is Joy.” It is one of the most powerful pieces in the book with its lines of hope, and the images of a new world. Such a world is not always visible, even though it is always there as a possibility, waiting to be realized. We must continue to speak truth to power, to expose the lies, and the corruption, and to keep on fighting against the forces of oppression. We must never give up, never lose hope. In this respect, James Berger’s Under the Impression is an important book. Read it. Don’t wait. Read it now.
JAMES BERGER has published two books of poems, Prior and Under the Impression, both on BlazeVOX [books]; two academic monographs, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (University of Minnesota Press) and The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity (NYU Press); and two volumes of manifestos for the Movement That Does Not Exist, The OBU Manifestos, vols 1 & 2 (Dispatches Editions/Spuyten Duyvil Press). James is a senior lecturer in American Studies and English at Yale University.
PETER VALENTE is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of 11 books, including a translation of Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Recently published was the collection Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum Books). Forthcoming is his translation of Gérard de Nerval’s The Illuminated (Wakefield Press), out later this year, and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan, out next year from Semiotext(e). He’s presently working on editing a book on Harry Smith. Twenty-four of his short films have been screened at Anthology Film Archives.