ALL THE WHISKEY IN HEAVEN: SELECTED POEMS
By Charles Bernstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26
Aptly depicted by John Ashbery as "a vast department store of the imagination," the long-awaited selection of Charles Bernstein's poems, "All the Whiskey in Heaven," is a stunning display of the poet's incredible verbal acrobatics, soaked in hilarious humor and serendipitous
wit, and anchored by a powerful emotional undertow.
For more than three decades, Mr. Bernstein has remained American poetry's most daring
provocateur as well as the genre's most articulate advocate. Today, even in the hands of its most widely acclaimed practitioners, poetry seems decorative, superfluous, apologetic and dispensable. It seems as if there were no better place for poetry in contemporary culture than those window boxes in The New Yorker, or as if it could find nothing better to do than be a
milquetoast coda to Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour."
With Mr. Bernstein, however, poetry is a speech act in the public arena in contention with, not as a housemaid to, political rhetoric, commercial advertising, financial diagrams, medical diagnostics, literary pulp and all the other genres of human language that make up the essential parts of our life at the dawn of the new millennium.
From "Asylum" (1975) to "Matter of Policy" (1980), from "The Lives of the Toll Takers" (1994) to "Let's Just Say" (2003), the poet looks at life with a kind of whimsical humor, pleasure and sarcasm that once characterized Benjamin Franklin's alter ego, that stalwart of American whiz kid cum arch-sage, Poor Richard. Just as the founding father's aphoristic wisdom laid the foundation of American culture, Mr. Bernstein, as a supreme satirist and unrelenting critic, has been shaking loose that foundation, or subjecting it to a poetic water-boarding.
His recent poems, especially, have sounded the unfathomable depths of the ground zeroes in our public and private lives. "Report from Liberty Street" (2001) is a capacious, mesmerizing symphony written in the wake of 9/11, a 21st century "Leaves of Grass" of Walt Whitman and "America" of Allen Ginsberg. "War Stories" (2006) is a powerful indictment of the destructive forces, including our own benightedness and complicity, that roam on earth in the sheep clothes of peace. And the book's title poem, "All the Whiskey in Heaven" (2008), at once an elegy and love letter of unsurpassable sadness, beauty and courage, is no apology for poetry but a manifesto as timeless as those Shakespearean lines that define the apex of English poetry, "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."