Arts & Letters
March 5, 2005

Excerpts from Doctrine of Similarity (13 Cannons)

Charles Bernstein

3. Sometimes

Sometimes
you burn a book because
it is cold
and you need the fire
to keep warm
and
sometimes
you read a
book for the same reason.
This is not a theory of reading
this is about staying alive
in a particular place and
a particular time.
This is not
because
you are weary of learning
but what it means to die
in a particular moment and
a particular space.

you are weary of learning
a particular time
a particular space
it is cold
this is about staying alive
you read a
in a particular place and
this is not a theory of reading
but what it means to die
and you need the fire
book for the same reason
in a particular moment and
This is not
to keep warm
because
sometimes
you burn a book because
and
sometimes


4. Schein

There's no crime like the
shine in the space between
shine and shame.

No shine like the mine between meaning and history. No space
like the rime between shine and face. No rime like the
lace between time and memory.

6. Dust to Dusk

The leaves turn dark before the trees are shot with light.

12. Anagrammatica

I'm a lent barn Jew
A mint bran jewel
A barn Jew melt in
A rent Jew in balm
A Jew lamb intern
Brain mantle Jew
Brain mental Jew
A bawl intern jem
Arab Jew melt inn
Blat ma inner Jew
Bam rat linen Jew
An altern IBM Jew
Ran tan lib Jew me
Balm at inner Jew
Rat bam Lenin Jew
Balm tear Jew inn
Atman Berlin Jew


Charles Bernstein, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is known as a theorist and writer of "language" poetry. Among his 12 collections, the two most recent are "With Strings" (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and "Republics of Reality: 1975-1995" (Sun & Moon Press, 2000). But he's also an active essayist, editor and translator, and has collaborated with composers.

Our excerpt four sections from "Doctrine of Similarity (13 Cannons)" is the third scene of the libretto for "Shadowtime" (1998-2000), a collaboration with composer Brian Ferneyhough on the life and work of the German Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin. The opera was commissioned by the Munich Bienalle for May 2004, and will have a U.S. premiere in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. [More information and audio at PENNsound.]

"Doctrine of Similarity" refers "to a key essay by Benjamin in which he explores the mimetic/echoic relation of language, world and cosmos," Bernstein told the Forward. There's lots of mimicking and playful echoing in the poems as well. Bernstein works with words as meanings and words as words as objects to be manipulated, shuffled, distorted and juxtaposed, often exposing new meanings not apparent at first glance.

In "Sometimes," the burning book and "staying alive at a particular time" clearly refer to dramatic events in Benjamin's lifetime, cut short at age 48 he was an influential literary theorist who escaped from Germany, only to die crossing into Spain in 1940. In the second half of the poem, Bernstein rearranges the opening phrases, redirecting the text toward our present predicament. "Sometimes/ you burn a book because" the phrase is not completed because "because" cannot make sense, or perhaps because for those who burn books, "because" is its own reason. Bernstein produces a new text with multiple possible readings that resonate with and extend the initial expression.

A similar approach can be seen in "Schein," a German word with many meanings sheen, shine, glow, illusoriness, sham that Bernstein puns over into English, researching the "space between shine and shame."

Finally, in "Anagrammatica," Bernstein obsessively rearranges the name Walter Benjamin into a series of identities, some apt epithets "Brain mantle Jew/ Brain mental Jew" others at best cryptic, like "A mint bran jewel." The work reaches cadence with "Atman Berlin Jew," attaching the universal soul of Hinduism to a very particular identity that proved to be Benjamin's fate. In one deft anagram, Bernstein tersely eulogizes a major thinker who lived in complete freedom of mind, but died as a Jew.