By Bill Berkson
Coffee House Press, 2014
136 Pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Alec Osthoff
While the name Bill Berkson may not be familiar to many readers, the names of his friends and conspirators may be: John Ashberry, Benadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara, and Ted Berrigan, just to name a few. Perhaps Berkson’s comparatively shaky foothold in the poetry canon is due in part to the close association with these names. Berkson’s poems seem quiet and measured when put alongside the works of these other giants. Expect Delays doesn’t carry the same flourish that O’Hara or Berrigan did, but instead wields a watchful aggression of its own. If John Ashberry is the poet laureate of MTV (a fact Berkson humorously mentions), then Expect Delays deserves to be in the National Public Radio Critics Circle. It’s a quieter yawp, but one still worth hearing.
The first book after his 2009 career retrospective Portrait and Dream, Expect Delays is a masterwork created by a poet who has worked his hands writing and teaching poems of all stripes. The book is split into four parts, with the first and last headers (Lady Air and Sister Cadence, respectively) containing the usual fare of diverse and thought provoking poems any reader would expect from an aged and accomplished poet, spattered with a few new translations of Dante, Pasternak, and Pushkin. The poems are all written with an obvious love for the sound and taste of language, and are fully conscious of their bodily effects. They are packed with criticisms and twisting images and that essential poetic effect Keats first called Negative Capability. In one particularly artful poem, “Costanza,” Berkson describes Bernini’s busts in great detail while casually mentioning that the exhibit was closed because a woman collapsed. The poem crescendos with Bernini ordering his servant to visit Costanza “under the pretext of bringing two flasks of wine as gifts to go with a razor/ And slash Costanza’s face”. But it is all very matter of fact and in such intense dissonance with the descriptions of the busts. It’s academic and it’s clean, but it’s also real, filled with bared teeth and fever.
The third segment, “Songs for Bands,” is the most interesting and most discussed portion of the manuscript. Ostensibly consisting of three sprawling frankenpoems, the apparent structure is more tenuous. The entire segment is composed of a curated collection of notes Berkson kept on his computer—“occasional lines, poem fragments, prose musings, scraps taken from reading, dream records, memory shots; stray, uncategorized notations, quiddities, and so on”. With this in mind, the poems are both unfinished and whole in this collection. “Songs for Bands” is a collection of non-poems or small poems that together leave a resounding effect. The poems take you from the trenches to the Pennsylvania countryside and then to Thoreau at Walgreens. It is haunting and comical, and breathing in the way that a well curated contemporary art gallery can be, though with a spattering of text saying “all words are prophetic” and “ALL SYSTEMS/ SUCK,” the individual lines often bear more resemblance to graffiti than high art. With vital and aggressive poetry like this, it is no surprise that Berkson was included in the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology. This masterful blending of high and low, poem and scrap, keeps the reader from getting too comfortable. The ground is uneven, and fertile with potential meaning.
The second segment, which carries the least weight, is composed of sixteen acrostics for Berkson’s loved ones. These poems are intensely intimate to the point where I had difficulty letting myself be touched by them. These poems also lack the surprising turns and masked potential for exploration so rampant in “Songs for Bands”. On the other hand, the reader is privileged with a glimpse into these highly personal relationships to a level that surpasses many of even the most revealing poets. There is also something envious about being able to publish a niche form like acrostics, and that alone makes the section interesting.
This book is worth reading for anyone who writes poetry, and these days that’s most people who read it. Expect Delays is peppered with little linguistic ticks that reveal the reader’s own stuck poems, and pull them into the light of day. “Songs for Bands” is particularly useful in its lyricism. But these moments and this language that ticks is delightful in addition to being valuable, and the poems stand on their own as springs of precocious lyricism and a lifetime of poetics. The physical book is beautiful, both inside and out, as is expected of any book released by Coffee House Press. It makes a worthy addition to any shelf, or nightstand, or classroom, or repertoire. It channels a quiet, deadly rumbling with all the language that made us fall in love with the New York School of poets to begin with.