A version (and a better edited version) of this review may appear in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 16, due out in early 2013.
“I Tell You”: On Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea
There are many things I admire and could discuss in Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea (42 Miles Press, Fall 2012), such as the certain voice, strength of tone, stoic rhythms, confident momentums that urge the reader forward, minimalistic images that gravitate around or in between the concrete and abstract and that deliver full pictures, etc., but I want to focus on you.
As I started reading, I quickly noticed the repetition of “you” throughout the poems, though, at first, I wasn’t quite sure who the “you” was. I didn’t think it was me the reader, though sometimes later it is or, rather, can be if you want. Sometimes the “you” felt like the speaker’s partner/lover. Sometimes it was just someone other than the speaker or the reader or the lover/partner – an ambiguous you, a ghost, a past, a memory. Nonetheless, the “you” caught my attention.
The way “you” is used makes the poems self-conscious, and the “you” also provides a back beat to the poems. The “you” gets a more impactful stress with each poem until it becomes a mantra or an expectation. The expectation of “you” creates the self-consciousness. It’s like the poem is staring at me from within its pages as if it can see me like a fish from within its aquarium. And each poem’s memory is just as long as the fish, because each poem’s “you” is different.
I took full notice of this “you” when Bernheim called out the “you” in “Car Rolls Off Clay Wade Bailey Bridge.” In this poem, the you is Cincinnati, at least at the end of the poem. (The Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, which I recently drove across as I moved from New York to Mississippi, crosses the Ohio River and connects Cincinnati, Ohio, to Covington, Kentucky.) The narrator is confusing in this poem. That is, when reading the poem, I asked myself, “Is the narrator an outside observer or the person drowning in the car crash? Is the narrator an intersection of the outside observer and the person drowning? Is the narrator trying to tell a story but the narrator becomes emotionally involved and actually becomes the subject of the story? Is the bridge connecting two states also the bridge connecting the two narrators?” I think it’s the latter two because the movement is from objective observation to imagining what it would be like to be that person who drove off the bridge to finally becoming the person in the end and uttering:
If it’s me you’re here for, say so, Cincinnati, listen, if you were beautiful, there’d be no need for this.
With that observation and the reading of other poems, I conclude that the “you” is also the speaker, the subject, and object of a poem. The speaker goes in and out of herself and in and out of what she is observing or talking to. She mimics the object by becoming it and then talks to it like she is talking to herself. She is the sea and the mimic sea. (“Mimic sea” is a term P. T. Barnum used for the early aquarium.) And doesn’t this happen to all of us, at times, when we get lost in our imaginations. We no longer have a sense of I but of you and becoming. Maybe it’s like binary stars that rotate around each other and after a while you forget which star is which star, and, in the end, the binary stars act as one in relation to the outer planets that orbit them, as if they were just one star. This is the new perspective that I’ve been seeing recently in contemporary poetry and of people in their twenties – a blended perspective, an in-and-out perspective. This blended perspective is done well The Mimic Sea, where the objective and subjective often become one and the same.
But sometimes the “you” is a person or persons. For instance in “Virgil Moon,” the speaker is talking to a partner or lover for the first two pages of the poem. But like in “Car Rolls Off Clay Wade Bailey Bridge,” the “you” shifts to Virgil Moon. You can see it happen at the poem’s end:
I’m sorry for still thinking of you, for wanting to clip your nails with left-handed scissors for no reason other than to be difficult, to repeat an old man’s mantra in your ugly ears while you pretend not to be asleep, “The bench is in the church, the bench is in the church.” Virgil Moon is willing to see my bet and raise us both, straighten our legs, and get our minds out of the soap dish, but the line at his window is too long. Tell me something dreamy and hopeful, why Virgil Moon’s hair is in such disarray, why his face has fallen so. If there is a reason to clean out the sink, I should not be notified. Virgil Moon, with your thick face, grab me by my ankles and make a wish. Play my heart like a terrible, hot fiddle, replace me with catgut, and see what I’ll look like come Monday morning. Virgil Moon, you are over the top and smell like canned beans. Virgil Moon with the top down, making his travel plans to the museum and the beach. Virgil Moon take back the ring. Spit me out sideways, somewhere near a track where dogs are supposed to race, and place your bets against me. I will disappoint.
Three things happen with using “you” like this. First, the “you” is or can be genderless. It’s just a “you,” and no gender bias can be attached to the other person. The other person, the you, is just a person and acquires only traits from his/her actions as laid out in the poem. Second, the “you” becomes a pivot for shifting perspective or conjoining perspectives. In this poem, the “you” shifts from the partner/lover to the mythic-like Virgil Moon. This seems a deliberate movement because, in the end, the speaker resents the lover/partner (especially when the partner masturbates without thinking of the speaker), and as a result the speaker (let’s call her Erica to make an uncomplicated sentence): because of Erica’s partner’s actions, Erica feels like what she wants Virgil Moon to do her – she wants to feel torn apart, her “heart [played] like a / terrible, hot fiddle” and replaced with catgut, she wants to feel spat out, and then she wants to be bet against. Erica’s hopes of Virgil Moon’s action mimic how she feels based on her partner’s behavior. Third, in this poem, the back beat, or main beat, also shifts. It starts with “you” but then is wholly transferred onto/into “Virgil Moon.” The repetition of “Virgil Moon” steals the rhythm. It steals the focus from the original “you,” the lover/partner. Power is usurped by rhythmic transference and Virgil Moon becomes the dominant subject in the poem.
The shifting you also allows the speaker to shift perspectives and feelings. It’s like she’s swimming around in circles of mimesis where the you and I aren’t certain but are often the speaker.
Maybe this is best explained with some lines from “Dinner – March”:
In your mind is the greatest picture of any subject forgotten. One doubles over […] manipulation of geometry, and why not, art of exploration. 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.
In the end, I think Erica Bernheim’s The Mimic Sea and its shifting you- and I-perspectives make us visually literate. It unravels us loose into a new poetic air. It fills the “nothing between” you and I.
I enjoy what I think is an honest experimentation or exploration of portraying thinking as it happens.//
And now a few words about 42 Miles Press. This is a new press. Its first book was Carrie Oeding’s Our List of Solutions. (You can read an interview with Oeding in issue 15 of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose or here: Reid interview Odeing.). Bernheim’s collection of poems is their second release. That’s two good books in a row. And two books of unusual physical poetry book shape, but put together with quality – a quality that can only come from someone or someones with the love of the book and an appreciation of the history of the book. These books are quite beautiful and fun to hold . . . and to read.//