Stephen Burt on Erica Bernheim

2 May

Excerpt from Stephen Burt’s “Nearly Baroque,” in Boston Review

“We can also find the nearly Baroque in some recent first books. Erica Bernheim, who studied alongside Schiff at Iowa, specializes in the almost-adult, not-quite-committed love poem: “Roll over and tell me you’re a sofa, / backboned by an old quilt, tied to the notion / of design.” Her lovers communicate through their collections; without their nearly Baroque storms of flying objects, they could not escape to where they belong, in ridiculous escapades made possible only by a deliberately unrealistic imagination:

It is so nice to think of you, rappelling with bed sheets,
or without, tied around your middle and tied to one end
of a bed framed with photos of barbells from the days
of great holy mastiffs, along with wallets, soup cans, ribbons

from fashion girls in the eighties, sported, braided three times
around one common frame.

Note the braids.

Even the clearest love poems in the nearly Baroque mode involve some artifice. The lovers in Bernheim’s “Dialogue for Robots” cram the poem with rococo, not to say trompe l’oeil, paraphernalia:

Our hairplates gleam like roaches in this just-born light.
In front of our eyes are too many ways to breathe.

We wish to be admired for our glossolalia and our knowledge of foreign architecture.
We are aware of erotica and its place next to the hearth.

One thing we want still is a dainty pitcher shaped like one of our babies.
The last thing we touched abandoned its shape betwixt our mighty fingers.

These robots aspire to a lighter touch, and poets do not come much lighter than Hailey Leithauser, whose first book is nearly Baroque—and more nearly rococo—in its playfulness, its confections of wordplay.”

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