Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 17.1 (Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge)


Empathy
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Berssenbrugge, Mei-Mei
Empathy


I am sure I bought this book in NYC in 1996 or 7. Probably at St. Mark's books, but I can't be sure. At the time, I lived in a sixth-floor walk up at the corner of 4th St. and Avenue B. I worked at a lot of 9-5 temp jobs in the city and had gotten into the habit of waking up early enough to get a bowl of coffee and a bagel at Nation, a coffeehouse on Avenue A that became a rollicking ecstasy-laced dance bar each night starting at around 9 p.m. (That didn't last very long, and I think the whole place got closed down for having underaged revelers continually smoking pot in the bathrooms). 

The owner was a middle-aged gay man with short-cropped, bleached-blond hair, who also loved dogs. Every morning customers brought their own dogs in and every morning there was some kind of dog-spat in the middle of the dining area. I was friendly with a Brazilian barista who used to let me play my own CD's whenever he was behind the bar. Each morning I did the crossword puzzle and wrote in my journal before going to work. It was a rough time in my life, following as it did on the heels of a bad break-up and then the sudden and unexpected death of my father, so I had plenty to write about each morning in my black marbled notebook.

I also went there on Saturday mornings, often bringing a book along to read. One particular Saturday I brought Empathy. One thing I remember about reading in cafes in New York, which I look back on with a measure of fondness and a measure of the opposite of fondness, is that it was always something of a performance. Ten other people were always also reading books and they were always looking at what you are reading and then making summary private judgments about the entire meaning and trajectory of your life (and vice-versa). It could be entertaining, or very annoying, depending on one's mood. Occasionally it could also lead to spontaneous conversations with interesting people. 

Which is a long way of saying that one Saturday morning I was sitting in Nation reading Empathy when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me why I was reading that book. I said because I liked the poetry in it. She (it was a she) asked if I was in school. I said no. She asked if I were a poet. I said I was trying to be, or something like that. And then we spent the rest of the day together wandering around the lower east side talking about poetry and then she dropped me at my apartment building, declined an invitation to come up to my apartment, and I never saw her again. It was a nice day. I later found out this same person was the long lost love of a poet with whom I became friends when I moved to Buffalo. 

I don't think I could ever write consistently or coherently on the plane of abstraction where the poems in Empathy operate, but I really enjoy sounding my way through them. Revisiting this book I am surprised at how many of the images in the poems remain fresh in my memory, as if I had just read them for the first time yesterday. I think the lines in most of the poems are too long to set properly here, so I'll use the first poem, which is a bit more compact. This poem is not representative of the collection as a whole, which is mainly comprised of longer poems, with long, often very long lines, of  up to 15 or 20 syllables stretching the entire length of the extra-large page:

The Blue Taj

There is your 'dream' and its 'approximation'.
Sometimes the particular attributes of your labyrinth
seem not so ghastly. More often blue shimmering
walls of the house crack with a sudden drop
in temperature at night, or the builder substitutes
cobalt plaster, which won't hold at this exposure.

Your client vetoes a roof garden, often
because of money, or he likes to kiss you at dawn
and you want to sleep late. Sometimes a person
holds out for the flawless bevelled edge, but might
end up with something half-built, its inlay
scavenged long ago.

Let a ragged edge between the two be lightning
or falling water, and figure its use: the distance
away of a person poised in the air with wings on.
If you string a rope through a pulley at his waist
at least you can lift the New Zealand ferns.
Any fall will seem deliberate.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Is it really fair of you to withhold the name of the woman who tapped you on the shoulder and/or the poet she had been lovers with?

That's a rhetorical question, btw.