Bernes, Jasper. Starsdown. Berkeley, CA: ingirumimusnocteetconsumimiurigni, 2007.
In Starsdown, Bernes constructs an apocalyptic Los Angeles in miniature, or as the speaker of the opening poem states: “The following are urban samples uncovered during crisis drills” (11). Readers find, rather quickly, the root of these crises, which are “the great wastes underground” (12), “digital pastorals,” and “keyword clouds” (13) that, no doubt, are products of a culture “gone all gooey and bourgeois in the middle of/ a now” (15). Likewise, strewn across the collection are Whitmanian lists, such as “pesticide…polyester,/ Chewing gum, detergent, mustard gas precursor, Heart valves, condoms, [and] contact lenses,” all which signify a “synthetic thought” that creates goods for buyers to consume and dispose of at will. Aesthetically, Bernes creates a highly-stylized world that mirrors the artifice of Los Angeles; he does so through alliteration and neologisms, such as “orchidized/ with chemical, chimerical crystals” (71), non-normative use of syntax, as in the poem “Nine Pools,” homophones, for example, when “Justice” becomes “Just this, just this” (30), and meta-linguistic wordplay, where “In the mirror, mom is mom, irreversible./ In the wrong end of the camera, wow” (78). The center-piece of the collection, though, is the thirty-page “Promissory Notes.” The poem begins with an introduction concerning the variable relationships between society, culture, art, and money, the purposes of which tend to be blurred when we discover “that money is a kind of primitive poetry because money is a piece of itself” (36) and, of the “sagging market,” one can “poem it, write value into the blank” (36), which, ultimately, becomes “the failure of metaphor” (77) with regard to poetry’s inability to aid in the creation of a utopian society. Important to the first half of the introduction is Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard, and the manner in which the decision allows us to no longer “trace long loops and ellipses with [money’s] origin in the gleaming, hurt tonnage of Fort Knox” (37). In other words, such as post-structural thought demonstrated the how one could, to some extent, separate signifier and signified and thus conceive of theretofore abstract languages (e.g. Language poetry), by separating the dollar from gold, Nixon succeeded in abstracting the monetary system to a greater degree than ever before. Toward the second half of the introduction, artists who composed pieces that were of or dealt with money, such as Ralph Blakelock, Andy Warhol, and the fictitious protagonist of the poem, Henry, are examined so as to show how “the link between labor and economic value has been if not severed, then obscured beyond all attempt at clarification” (38). The poem’s main section contains an alternating series of Xeroxed checks that have been typed on and prose poems about the aforementioned Henry. In some instances, the text clarifies the relationship between check-image and itself. For example, in the first pairing, readers find that “The recipient of the checks above and below—nos. 23 and 12 in the collection—remembers his encounter with Henry as follows…” (41), and thus incorporates the image into a narrative. In other instances, the connection is oblique, if not completely obfuscated. To a certain extent, the dissociation between text and image speaks to the introduction’s reference to the dissociation between the dollar and gold, as well as between labor and economic value. Furthermore, the ninth prose block highlights the arbitrary nature of whatever relationship the reader eventually does establish by offering a catalog of conflicting story-lines that begin with the anaphoras “in one version” and “according to” (57). It is not until the end of the image-text cycle that the speaker informs the readers that the typescript on the checks “obey a ballad meter, but one eaten away by neurological and semantic insult” (63), thus contributing to their absurdist, or at least irrational, content; the poem also traces the etymological roots of the word “check,” which “derives…from the Persian shah (king),” revealing its imperialistic origins, and eventually leading to the conclusion that “the very artificiality of the checks” within the poem simultaneously “proves their value and reproves the economy” as well as functioning as “a check against the commodification of the poet, [and] his increasing valuelessness” (63). It should also be noted that, due to the frequent conflation of Henry and the speaker (e.g. “Everywhere he went, I was. He had left notes taped all over my childhood”) and phrases such as “Hoppy Henry” (55), which alliteratively echo “Huffy Henry,” co-articulations between “Promissory Notes” and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are not without merit.