Pushcart 2014: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, “The Lit Cloud” (Poetry) from Denver Quarterly, Summer 2012

A limited-edition collaborative work of poetry and watercolors by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith published by the Lelong Gallery

I come to a rock by water to watch the sun set.
Sun lights a gray cloud above me with so many rooms and
When I look up, it’s a scrim of lighting effects.
There’s no volume to the object.
I watch sunset in late summer, trying to quiet myself, to open my heart, desiring relatedness; it comes as metaphors of weather.
To work with a metaphor, it’s first visualized, then energized to this gray transparency expression in a shaman.
My cloud forms from earlier humidity, temperature change, thermal currents becoming manifest.
There’s a mutual need for presentation between sky and inner self.
I receive from the cloud a sense of dignity for my fervent desire to express it.

Per her Poetry Foundation bio, Berssenbrugge is associated with the New York School of poets, and the Language poets. Prof. Al Filreis of ModPo mentioned those approaches are particular favorites of his, and I see she’s also well-represented on the Penn Sound archive of readings and discussion he oversees, as well as in the literary journal he publishes, Jacket2. I’m very eager, and anxious, to get this one “right” if there is such a thing as “right” when it comes to reacting to reading.

I may see some examples of what Al called the Language poets’ “focus on language, on linguistic assumption-making, on the way in which language gets naturalized,” if I’m interpreting that correctly. In that first section quoted above, several instances leap out: “I come to a rock by water to watch the sun set. /Sun lights a gray cloud above me…” We expect “sunset” and “sunlight” as single words; separating the words, while certainly clear enough, is unexpected, and emphasizes them. And again in section 4: “I attend to the portal effect…/ I intend hope, loving faith…” with the near-anaphora serving to spotlight those lines. In between, I see other examples in terms of semantic content (“volume” has multiple meanings; a war and a dance seem like opposite things, yet they’re used to convey the same image) and sound (“metaphor forms” could, of course, be a coincidence, but I don’t think accidents are allowed, or at least admitted, in poetry).

But what I really see, hear, in this poem, is sexual metaphor: intercourse with the muse of nature, of weather, and the production of inspiration as a result.

The first of the four numbered sections of the poem, each ten to fifteen sentences long, includes “desiring relatedness”, “mutual need for presentation” (the term “sexual presentation” is sometimes used in the study of animal behavior to refer to postures that signal receptivity) and “my fervent desire”. The second section personifies weather, or the shaman (shifting pronouns, another feature of language poets IIRC), talks of emanations, undulating waves, and a pulse; sounds like action to me.

The third section seems to bring things to a climax:

Imagination, description, hormonally draws me to imbalance, stress, the urge for an eternal connection to discharge polarity, for internal security.
Like trees, mist, loons, I contribute to the expression of the place where I wait.

Hormones, urges, connection, discharging polarity, internal, contribution, expression? Sex all over the place.

The final section starts off with an afterglow, a direct-enough reference to the post-coital period: “Afterglow casts gold horizontality across water….” Not “horizontally” – it’s “horizontality,” a condition of horizontal-ness, for more attention to language. Then the speaker hurries through the woods, thinking of her work, and as the poem closes:

Here, a dragonfly at the end of the day shifts to an idea that’s worked into being.

Raven is a courier, shifting and creating mid-air.

I notice a strip of grass sloping back from my ledge, a foot tall with green blades and spreading panicles of purple flowers a low violet cloud!

An idea, more precious to a poet than gold. Not “the raven” or “a raven”; just “Raven”, another attention-grabber. But it’s the final line where it all comes to fruition, where the joining produces: another cloud, a cloud of flowers, and we’re back to where we started, with “The Lit Cloud” – lit as in lit up by sun light, or lit as in literature?

I’ll admit to having been a bit obsessed with Whitman lately, and every time I see the word “grass” I think it’s a reference. He had this same sense of being one with everything, with all people and all nature, and finding wonder and the mysteries of the universe, grass as a child, as the hair of the dead, as the rebirth of the atoms of our decay. Seeing Whitman here is probably a stretch; then I try to stretch it more to Wordsworth’s lonely cloud and sea of daffodils. But how about if I just let it be the poem it is, let it be Berssenbrugge, instead of trying to match it up with something else.

In one of my early college classes (I have a patchwork education going back to the 70s) I remember a professor trying to convince us that the opening Prologue to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” had sexual allusions. I thought he was nuts. I’m not sure if my reading here means I’ve learned something, that I’m brainwashed, or that I need to get laid.

I hope I don’t lose my ModPo certificate over this. But it’s ok if I do: I’m taking it again this coming fall.

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