“Out of Uncertainty, Openness”: On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Empathy and A Treatise on Stars
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work is almost entirely resistant to summary. If you tried to paraphrase A Treatise on Stars—her first new book since 2013’s Hello, the Roses—you might find yourself, as I have, babbling about how stars distort our sense of time, distance, and distinctness from each other. Try and summarize Empathy—first published in 1989 by Station Hill Press and republished this year in a new edition from New Directions alongside Treatise—and you might do nothing but list the titles in the book: “Fog,” “Empathy,” “Chinese Space,” “Forms of Politeness.” These titles convey the diffuse, spatial feeling in her work, but they miss the precision manifest in Berssenbrugge’s movement from word to word. It is the tension between these seemingly disparate reading experiences that marks Berssenbrugge’s utterly distinct work.
The first line of Empathy is “There is your ‘dream’ and its ‘approximation’”; the first of A Treatise on Stars, “In late afternoon, stars are not visible.” Each has the declarative quality that is key to Berssenbrugge’s signature; each contains her kind of mystery—is a dream already an approximation? Shouldn’t it be obvious that stars aren’t visible in the afternoon? But to read a Berssenbrugge poem is to experience the juxtaposition between the certainty of a voice (not always certainly hers) and the spiraling, unfolding quality it takes on as it persists.
Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing in 1947 and was loosely affiliated with Language poetry and the New York school before relocating to New Mexico, collaborating with artists, and turning her page on its side. A Treatise on Stars is Berssenbrugge’s eighth single-authored collection, not including a first pamphlet publication in 1974 and the new poems in I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems (2006). Alongside and intertwined with these publications are a substantial group of extraordinary collaborative artist books: two with now-husband Richard Tuttle and three with Kiki Smith. In the collaborations, a reader experiences the true mobility of her sentence, but it is the collections which show the growth of the long line and landscape-oriented page that have become synonymous with Berssenbrugge’s work. Empathy was the fourth of these collections and the first after her initial artist collaboration. Its position as both a turning point in Berssenbrugge’s oeuvre and the fullest expression of her unfurling, precise poetics has gone more or less unchallenged since: Linda Voris marks it as the origin of Berssenbrugge’s engagement with “experimental” writing; Dorothy Wang describes it as her “breakthrough, and still best”; my own late teacher Hillary Gravendyk was baffled that it could have gone out of print when, after she vehemently recommended it to me, I said it was no longer available.
The thrill of Empathy is its opacity, the way it creates tension between the unit of the long line and the digression the poem takes along that line. Here is the end of a stanza from the poem “Chinese Space”:
and enter the main courtyard, an open structure like a ruin. This is not remembering,
but thinking its presence around eccentric details such as a blue and white urn turned up to dry,
although certain brightnesses contain space, the way white slipcovered chairs with blue seams
Printed on a wide enough page, the long lines here form a lineated poem’s typical staggered right edge, but the stanza also looks like a paragraph, due to the short last line. This lineation creates a smooth effect, and at the same time, the words send the reader off on different paths—the unexplained simile “like a ruin”; “thinking . . . around eccentric details”; how “although” and “the way” redirect the attention of the sentence. (Other classic Berssenbrugge markers include scare quotes and italicized conjunctions.) The tension between the momentum of the long line and the redirection of that momentum in Berssenbrugge’s diction makes it difficult to read Empathy for an extended period of time—one’s attention can easily wander, even when a poem purports to be “about” something, as in “Texas,” which begins “I used the table as a reference and just did things from there,” or “The Swan,” which begins “He calls it their stage, which echoes our first misrecognition of unity.” The poems’ texture often keeps a reader from being able to zoom out for a larger picture. But this is part of Empathy’s attraction—the complexity found even in small phrases. And when one does move through a few lines, the rewards are great, as when “The Swan” continues:
He calls it their stage, which echoes our first misrecognition of unity. Instances
of false unity he calls the imaginary, and he locates in them sites of her dreams,
out of which she is able to want him. The way stage lighting can be a story by itself, now
she makes time for a story, not coming from her or her coming from her story, but both from before,
seeing a flock of birds fly up from a frozen pond, while you stand in the wind, instead
of hearing wind about to arrive across a huge space, so that her train passes a lagoon
in Connecticut, and she sees swans swimming at the edge of ice piled against the shore, feminine swans.
The pronouns here are unanchored, but we have the sense of a man and woman discussing the possibility of intimacy and its relationship to dreaming and the faculty of imagination. The conversation’s pivot to a sense-memory of a view from a train illustrates a different way intimacy and imagination might meet. Few volumes of poetry match Empathy’s tension between mysterious feeling and the confidence that some specific feeling has nevertheless played out.
As a result, critics have attended primarily to the readerly effects of Berssenbrugge’s diction and the feminist possibilities of her work, often routed through Berssenbrugge’s compositional process and her poems’ way of recontextualizing the language of inquiry used in other fields. Joseph Jeon and Dorothy Wang, however, have each described ways in which Berssenbrugge’s strategies of contingency, opacity, and dispersed consciousness work to thwart racial essentialism, offering a way to describe the fullest complexity and the shifting nature of the self. About “thinking its presence,” the Berssenbrugge phrase that titles Wang’s 2014 study Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, Wang writes: “The phrase . . . evokes both the ineffability of certain phenomena and their very real materiality and presence.” Empathy is Berssenbrugge’s most extreme example of this, a collection in which materiality and ineffability are both pushed to the limit.
The New Directions edition of Empathy notes that some poems have been revised, but the revisions are in most cases fairly minor: a tense is changed, a comma becomes a period, a line is broken three words earlier or later than in the Station Hill Press edition. Such changes rarely shift the overall feel of working one’s way through a poem—an outcome that surprised me, given how much Berssenbrugge’s readers (myself included) have made of the importance in her work of its particulars. That the poems can absorb such changes is a testament to the intensity of the poems’ effects. The new edition also includes a brief but thrilling afterword, which feels almost as if it was written in the same space Berssenbrugge writes poems. She observes, “I wrote from note to note, without thinking of form. I allowed emotion to glue sentence to sentence. I was exploring abstraction as lyric. I did not understand what I wrote.” The effect of that method is wonderfully palpable across Empathy, which explores how we make meaning out of language that precedes us.
Berssenbrugge is often described as a poet of the long line, like the horizon or the mesa of New Mexico (and in fact she has described herself that way in interviews). But this idea persists largely because of Empathy’s outsized importance in her oeuvre, rather than any adherence to that length in the poems she has published since. In Empathy, the long line is the dominant feature of every poem except “Fog,” whose prose paragraphs also extend across the book’s width. Four Year Old Girl (1998), her next collection, is split in two: the first section is written in long verse lines that require a wide, landscaped page, but the second consists of sentences each in their own “stanza” or paragraph. This latter form characterizes all of her work since, in Nest (2003), Hello, the Roses, and A Treatise on Stars. In A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (2011), Berssenbrugge describes how her process changed after she collaborated with Kiki Smith on the artist book Endocrinology (1997):
Today, I use a line that varies in length, because each sentence is a line. Line length is determined by the length of the sentence, and I allow the line to break at the page margin and wrap around until the sentence comes to an end. Then I double space before the next “line.” There is a dynamic tension between the extending sentence and the mini-breaks at the page margins, which adds geology to my landscape, and can also be architectural. Most recently, this lineation has given me enough structure to allow the poem to become very soft and still be contained.
This form—which has the feeling of a collection of quantum packets—resulted in Hello, The Roses being printed not in her signature landscape format but in a relatively standard vertical trim size (6 x 9 inches). Indeed, one of the interesting things about the new uniform editions of Empathy and A Treatise on Stars is their return to the landscaped format that Empathy requires but which A Treatise on Stars technically does not. As a Berssenbrugge reader, I can’t pretend it’s not thrilling to once again read her lines spreading toward a far right margin. But these two collections’ similar layout—and their shared use of technical language—belie the fact that Treatise approaches its subject very differently from the earlier collection.
In that new afterword to Empathy, Berssenbrugge goes on: “I wanted to feminize scientific language and philosophic language. I wanted to diffuse polarities between emotion and thought, between image and discourse, representation and abstraction, material and immaterial.” A Treatise on Stars would seem a natural sequel, and indeed the two books share more or less explicitly the pursuit of feminizing scientific and philosophic language and diffusing the space between material and immaterial. But each takes a distinct approach. If Berssenbrugge in Empathy “did not understand” what she wrote, in Treatise we feel the power of intention: “I practice to see light in this process of evanescence, like an aroma.”
This means that Treatise has less of Empathy’s complex texture, even as it deploys similar technical language. The sentences are shorter; they hold one’s attention as much by clarity as by confusion. Which is not to say the reader should expect a scientifically conventional argument about stars—these poems are as difficult to summarize as Berssenbrugge’s previous work. In A Treatise on Stars, though, that difficulty comes from a delicacy of repetition and variation—we stay much longer with a single idea, and slowly the world expands around it: our experience of stars, and then gradually how their relationship to space, time, and feeling changes us. In “Scalar,” she writes:
Time also enfolds.
Your present state may not relate to what’s past, but to a more fundamental structure, like a pool of widening rings from a stone.
This moment cuts through the physical universe now and seems to hold all of space in itself.
What happens today may be altered by an event in the future, since space consists of ambiguous, foggy regions, where a particle may pass on your last day.
Awareness creates the duration you experience.
Treatise does none of the wandering that characterizes Empathy: the simile in the second sentence (“like a pool of widening rings from a stone”) has a clarity that would elicit a shock of recognition were it in an earlier Berssenbrugge collection, but here it maintains Treatise’s more meditative feeling. Nevertheless, there is surprise at work. An electricity builds between the sentences—how we move forward and back; what we expect will come next and what actually follows—adding to the extraordinary sense of anticipation that Berssenbrugge manipulates across the collection. In following and deepening into stars, Berssenbrugge turns to light, to sound, to presence, to the relation between space-time and (terrestrial) nature, in such a way that brings the stars to us and then suspends us with them rather than launching into a familiar portrait of the cosmos.
There is also a spirituality here, a belief in connectedness, which in another poet’s hands might trace a more generic pattern. The crackling charge of Berssenbrugge’s language holds us. It’s a different feeling from the kind of word-for-word reading Empathy asks of us, but the outcome is similar. In “Jaguar,” she writes:
All around are invisible realities where contact may occur.
Some hear coyotes speaking in computer beeps; some entertain guests unaware.
Owls, for example, have one song beyond the range of our hearing, interleaved with multidimensional information.
The 4D projection of this song generates a star.
I invite you to stand close tonight looking up, while our heart frequencies entrain, and we experience heart cognition, a kind of analytic thought oriented around images with feeling.
To get the flavor of Treatise, we need time to re-arrange our expectations. Taken on its own, much of this particular quotation feels like it could have come from a clickbait science update—coyotes in computer beeps, owl songs, song-generated stars. But Berssenbrugge does not stay with the cognitive reaction of surprise or wonder at such knowledge; she offers the intimate gesture of “I invite you to stand close,” opening space for a more embodied experience that endures and changes over time. She reminds us that only “some hear coyotes,” that owls are taken “for example” and not as totality. “Our” appears much more in Treatise than in Empathy, whose most striking pronoun is “she.”
The second half of Treatise seems to relate almost everything to stars: a painting’s matching of blue scarf to blue eyes, the vibrations of dolphin songs in water, and perhaps especially, the creation and existence of the collection itself. In “New Boys 2,” she writes: “He’s read my work and thinks me more knowledgeable than I am, since my poems aren’t true.” But then a few lines later, she observes:
Early on, I divined that this book already exists in the future.
After all, I thought of it; it’s a probability somewhere, complete, on a shelf.
My intention is to consult that future edition and create this one, the original, for you.
Elsewhere in the collection, she asserts that “Writing can shift the mechanism of time by changing the record, then changing the event.” If as she wrote Empathy Berssenbrugge didn’t know what she was building—if, in fact, part of that book’s enduring triumph is its prioritizing of the local connection between words, how the smallest turns become a deeply complex poetics about perception, shared feeling, and disagreement—in A Treatise on Stars I get the feeling that Berssenbrugge not only know what she’s building, but is aware of something more: the language and the life that thrives around—and precisely because of—this new thing.