Mist and Metaphysics

Notness, Richard Berengarten (92pp, £9.95, Shearsman)    
In a Mist, Geoffrey O'Brien (81pp, £.8.95, Shearsman)

Richard Berengarten may be better known to readers as Richard Burns, the author of more than twenty five books, translated into 90 languages, a distinguished thinker with ties to the light blue colleges of Cambridge. Notness is his collection of one hundred sonnets, written from 1967- 2013. What is Notness? According to the afterword it is not only an anagram for sonnets, 'the "so called" core of isness is notness, just as that of notness is isness'. Unfortunately I do not know what isness is so I can not know what notness is, but what if it is not what it is, but what it is not? Is notness not isness? Whatever the weather, it is only a title. Furthermore there is a subtitle, 'Metaphysical sonnets', so therefore it is clear what this collection is and is not (hopefully).

It takes a certain level of intellectual seriousness to write one hundred metaphysical sonnets, especially in an age where, allegedly 'god is dead and no one caresÓ, it also take a certain, though perhaps slightly lesser, level of intellectual seriousness to enjoy a sequence of one hundred metaphysical sonnets. At first I could not sustain oxygen levels on Richard Berengarten's sky high thought planes, my attention-span slipped into crevices in search of simple pleasures.
Notness is not an easy read, it is a deeply contemplative work that requires some effort to be understood in order to be appreciated. The quotes that come before the contents page include Sefer Ha Bahir, Kierkegaard, Leibniz and Stephen Hawking, abandon hope all ye who enter hear without a heightened understanding of space and time.

However the questions posed in
Notness are to some extent universal. What is the nature of identity? Where do I end and you begin? Am I too old to enjoy teletubbies? (one of these questions may be fiction). There are interesting ideas at play if the reader is willing to bend their head around them:

   The cavern where the dreamer sleeps enclosed
   by panes of consciousness is made of stuff
   permeable to eternity.
        [From 'Approach me not']

This particular image becomes challenging because of the last word 'eternity', what is a cavern made out of stuff permeable to eternity? 'Enough' the poems continues 'of the limitations grammars have imposed on waves of seeing'. Expression is limited by the words we have and the formats we use to transmit them. I cannot describe everything that is in my mind, I can only translate a part of it with words. Throughout
Notness Richard Berengarten questions grammar, he takes apart pronouns and is particularly concerned with I, which 'explodes in thousands of connecting splinters' in the opening sonnet. Another of his main concerns is time, the title poem begins: 'the passage of time being relative/and its dimensions being infinite', where is time leading, he wonders, how soon is now? Who will read my book when I am gone? What time is the teletubbies omnibus? (I could explain how teletubbies and metaphysics are inextricably linked, but this is not the venue)

The sonnets in
Notness come in a full flush of styles but always shaped in 14 line blocks with no line breaks, as if to suggest space is unnecessary. Berengarten shows off his craft in jumping from rhyme scheme to free verse to rhyme scheme like a flea from body to body, his technique is always sound and his thoughts are well expressed. Though metaphysical poetry may no longer be in vogue,  the questions that its poets pose will always be relevant. If we cease to ponder our existence we may as well be robots on a production line, passing through the universe without asking why. Richard Berengarten is not afraid to pose questions in Notness and is commendable for doing so.

The opening image of Geoffrey O'Brien's seventh collection, In a Mist, is of a man face down on a kitchen table:

   with eyes closed
   as if to listen in
   on what he would say next -

   ''insufficient care
   for the meaning of words"
        [from 'In Memory of Oppen']

The accusation cuts like a knife, 'insufficient careÓ, could this be the poet dwelling on a bad review? However Geoffrey O'Brien is very unlikely to be accused of a lack of care for words, throughout
In a Mist he employs language deftly and delicately, bringing up scenes from lost conversations, fragments and memories. He dances through dissonant metres with an ear for music and an eye for the strangest of strangers meeting in the night:

   Puccini and John Wayne
   side by side
   the one with a cigarette
        [from 'Saturday Night']

The two stare at Lady Murasaki as she stares at the moon. Emily Dickinson stares at no one at all. In Geoffrey O'Brien's world things are as real as the appear to be, or they are not real at all, that is the nature of looking through mist. The fractures often speak of loss, the poem 'For S' starts with a recollection of suicide:

   Forty years
   since you stepped
   into nothing
   the subway roars
   as if still
   hungry for you

and continues with a number of descriptions of things that are there but not quite there: 'spectral confetti', 'watery icon of a smile', 'scraps of a voice', 'closed drapes and Viennese dissonance', 'ballet lessons for ghosts'. The poem is a world of light seen through half light, as if life cannot be completely resurrected in concrete terms. The discordance, or blurring of reality is perhaps what Geoffrey O'Brien's poetry strives for, it is sparse and the lines are frequently short, they often carry a certain music, like the most musical of the symbolist poets, Verlaine:

        The hour strikes
   I think again
   Of vanished days
         And cry
             [from 'Autumn Song' translated by Martin Sorrell]

The third section of
In a Mist begins with a poem of immense beauty. 'After Calder—n' contains two speakers: Prince Ferdinand, whose soliloquy is a comparison of flowers to stars and Princess Fenix who reverses the Prince's words and compares the stars to flowers. The Prince opens with 'Perhaps it was to speak for the stars/ that these flowers came'. This is a gorgeous passage, full of romance and wonder at the ever changing faces of time. Next comes 'Program Notes for a Festival of Lost Films', where the plots of fifteen invented films entered for a festival that never existed are put into poetry. The films have a vaguely familiar feel, perhaps the reels of the fake films have mixed with moments in real films. This passage shows a further exploration of an imaginary world, the films are strange and more or less incomplete, but then of course they are not films at all.

Geoffrey O'Brien is very aware that there is no real world, there is only our interpretation of reality. His poetry distorts pictures to reveal things we may not have noticed, as like the blurred landscape on the cover, we often see more by not seeing clearly.
In a Mist is a collection not to be mist, I mean, missed.

       © Charlie Baylis 2015