BOOK REVIEW / No answer to the calling of the poet: New and selected poems - Stephen Berg: Bloodaxe pounds 8.95

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The Independent Culture
TWENTY-ONE years after publishing his first collection, the American poet Stephen Berg makes his British debut with a handsome and extensive selection which includes extracts from work in progress. His name has rarely been heard here, one more symptom of the transatlantic estrangement which became evident after the deaths of W H Auden in 1974 and Robert Lowell in 1977.

We have missed much of a generation of American work, as has America of ours, which makes the occasional volumes that do appear unusually hard to read. Lacking a context, it is often difficult to see exactly what a given poet is up to.

The problem is made worse in Berg's case by his attitude to personal experience. The predicament of the modern short poem is that, in the absence of a common body of cultural reference, its basis must usually be personal: the difficulty with Stephen Berg lies in sorting out exactly what his attitude to the experiencing self is. Although he writes eloquently of visiting Lowell in hospital and reading his work, Berg has none of the older poet's ability to see his life an an exemplary performance. Rather, Berg uses experience in a way which erases his own personality.

In 'Remembering and Forgetting', for example, Berg writes of his father's burial:

Three black men dug the plot

and placed the ashes, I was told.

I wasn't there. I taught classes.

A windy October day,

the sky a blue cloudless glare.

I hope they lowered him gently

the way they would have if I had

been there.

'I taught classes': like many American writers, Berg teaches writing, and some might blame the insipid quality of feeling here on that narrow experience. But teaching as it appears in Berg's poems is an experience of order, even joy, which removes him from more terrible experiences such as those recorded in 'Homage to the Afterlife', when his mother, told that she has cancer, turns to her son and says, 'My life is over and so is yours'.

The poem called 'Homage' is over-rhetorical and shows a formal debt to Allen Ginsberg, whose 'Kaddish' treated similar material much more concretely and movingly. Berg pushes neurotic material to the margin, aiming for a more neutral space in which to write. In 'Three Voices', for instance, he says: 'I dialled the home you were renting on Laguna Beach. / No answer.' The poem goes on:

I needed talk about poetry,

women, one of those talks

when we say anything to find

insight, truth - lost instantly:

you feel it, see it, can't say what it is

its doomed, wordless afterimage

stabbing the air.

This kind of vexed batting around the subject is an effort not to be 'poetic', which can be as disabling and frequently as grandiloquent as what it shuns. This means that Berg's improvisations around poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova have a sometimes tasteless emphasis - on her 'breasts', say, rather than the usual translation 'breast', which is foreign to the rigorous tact of the originals.

What makes Stephen Berg's work worthwhile, however, is its approach to a particularly American dilemma. Emerson expressed the ambition to be a 'transparent eyeball', to see and to be at one with what is seen. The image almost suggests that the writer's ambition is not to exist as an ordinary human being; transparency implies characterlessness.

This version of a Romantic problem has been central to an important strain in American poetry, and read in this light, the clumsiness of Berg's work show him caught in an intolerable paradox, that of an individual struggling to become universal. The work in progress, entitled 'Shaving', is a sequence of prose poems, and the rather more muted tone that Berg achieves here is more immediately persuasive to a British reader. Reading this book helps us to be put back in touch with imaginative energies that British poetry has not recently drawn on.

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