Poetry Review: “Counting Blessings” by Morris Berman
It’s odd to see how the gringos
who come to this Mexican town
behave like they’re still living in L.A.
“You can take the man out of the country,
but you can’t take the country out of the man” —
As though an inner wall
protects them from life.
What is normal in the U.S.
looks like pathology down here.
Octavio Paz wrote that contact for the Mexican is communion,
For the American, contamination.
You wonder why we end up exterminating everything in sight.
As for the inner wall,
A Mexican friend said to me,
“But you have it as well.”
I had to think about that.
In his notable book, The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman compares the state of art and ethos in the United States to the protracted sunset hours of ancient Rome. This characterization of decline, and his works analyzing cultural history as well as earlier volumes considering the complexities of human consciousness, make it tempting to compare Berman’s recent contemplative book of poetry, Counting Blessings, to the missing personal reflections of a retired Roman statesman. Indeed, I found that Paul Christianson in his excellent introduction, had the same thought, citing Ovid writing from exile on the Black Sea.
To me, a retired Morris Berman is more like a retired Seneca or Tacitus, drinking wine in a villa rustica, considering the optimal moment for harvesting the wheat crop. The urban survivor who has choosen a new life far from international tempests now allows social and political passions to fade like old murals baking on a sunny stucco wall.
The demands of intellect, the temptations of Imperial ambition, the tragedies and disappointments have fallen away, at least for the moment; time now to observe small machinations such as the movements of “a complicated, delicate insect crawling along the edge of a pot” in the garden. Historic commentaries concerning the great movements of peoples are finished, he writes now of memories, regrets, and dreams.
From “The Courtyard”
I plunk myself down in a wrought iron chair
next to a wrought iron table (one covered with a pane of glass)
and smoke a small cigar while I sit and read.
Occasionally someone rings the bell: “Agua Ciel!” he cries
and I get up, and tell him
“no, gracias. Tengo sufficiente.”
How curious we would be to see the musings of Seneca, whether one thinks of him as a hallowed Humanist or a Nero-bought political hard-case. How does such an influential intellect settle into life in a quiet rural town?
Exacting and precise word choices and peaceful persuasion aside, at first the End-of-Empire metaphor pulled me in more than anything else. That and curiosity. How does a man of well-known intellect, a commentator so passionate, an embittered critic known for citing reams of evidence pointing to the disintegration of his own culture — how does such a man find repose, far from home in a land where (as Christianson points out in his introduction) the Reformation never happened? Berman, having crossed the border literally and figuratively, here offers to share his thoughts in verse, that most intimate of literary forms. At first I thought, scholars of Roman Literature, look up from the Silver Age and eat your hearts out!
Seneca the Younger
Before long, however, I see how it is. Berman dissects his life as an almost-honest man does. (Almost, for who can be entirely honest with themselves.) He lives with his neighbors and his regrets in the same way that we all do—or at least all of us who suffer the belated fairy gift/curse of self-examination. He finds repose one painful and beautiful piece at a time.
From “A Prayer to the God of Lost Causes”
When my father died,
I did not appear in the obituary.
His wife was listed as surviving him
along with various nieces.
Then came the dog and the cat,
and some beloved pieces of furniture.
In death, as in life,
I didn’t exist.
“Good journalism,” said one friend of mine.
And so it happens that one reads these verses with gratitude of several kinds. We give our own kind of thanks for Berman’s “Blessings.”
Thank you for a verse that shows me something that I would never otherwise experience. In “The Dodo Bird,” Berman takes us with him to a chilling concert in Germany where Yiddish music and songs, rescued from the fires of the last century, are performed for a large, silent audience. In this “unheimlich” moment we struggle with Berman, torn between the desire for rebellious objection and a polite and politic silence. We walk home beside him, in the cold stillness of a German Jewish night.
Thank you for a verse that reminds me that men love too. Indeed, in “I Miss You” and “Pentecost,” they seem to have hearts broken in ways uncannily similar to my own.
From “I Miss You”
Letting go of love
when you have no choice
is a little like dying without morphine
I am glad to be taken across the border. In poems such as “Communication” Berman ponders the meaning, if any, behind dog turds left at the doorstep, and the garbage he picks up outside his house every Saturday—discarded Taco Chip bags, broken glass, and Coke cans. These are remnants of Friday’s revelry and remind me of that disintegrating American culture, sad remnants of a revelry, which I, perhaps, have missed.
In the end, I am happy to join Morris Berman for a cigar or Martini and a story or two in courtyard or café. Reading Counting Blessings and perusing Berman’s blog makes me wonder what arguements might erupt, and what tales I might hear when the shadows grow long, the old moon rises, and darkness has fallen across the border.
Counting Blessings by Morris Berman is published by Cervena Barva Press (June 2, 2011).
Stacy Ericson is an editor for the academic journal Arctic Anthropology. Her work as a poet and photographer arises from a fascination with the power of imagery, both in word and in art. Her work often reflects her roots in the western states and an abiding interest in cultural interactions, ancient languages and religion, and visceral passions. She lives and works in Boise, Idaho. and her poetry, fiction, essays, and photos can be found at the old bouquet.