Michael Tod Edgerton


Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Kelsey St. Press, 2003
$14 (paper), ISBN 0-932716-63-6

Nests are fragile constructions, meant to be abandoned and rebuilt in other spaces. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's new collection, Nest, is as much concerned with familial and social bonds as the condition of possibility for meaning and for that desire which is both precipitated by and disruptive of those bonds, leaving painful gaps in our world.

Nest proceeds primarily through the further development of Berssenbrugge's poetics of the interval. Space—between subjects, bodies, inside and outside, perception and the elusive real—is here pregnant with invisibilities, desire, possibility, and the tension between communal and individual forces. She is concerned with finding intersections and correspondences within a social "unit," be it one of friendship, family or community, that do not collapse the space of difference in their demand for cohesion. "You don't have to consume the space to exist…," she tells us in the first poem, "Permanent Home," a "structure" with "an appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation, heading towards hopelessness."

This hopelessness we learn is due precisely to this quest for permanence, the persistent demand for an impossible stasis in social relations that leads to the valorization of status quo over innovation, group solidarity over individual identity. It is openness and not absolute cohesion that is necessary. "A common mistake of the group is requiring each one to compensate for lacks in the whole, to care at any cost," she writes in "I Love Morning."

Berssenbrugge instead appeals to us to abide the anxiety of the gap, allowing a space for discontinuity, the unknown as unknowable, the otherness of others. Speaking through the persona of "The Retired Architect," she says, "…when I see my work express loss or failure, I no longer say, get rid of that[,]" as there is precisely a "disjunction needed for identity," one that constitutes "flesh" as "texture."

We also see this disjointed "flesh" of bodies, signifiers and perceptions articulating the page. Berssenbrugge is a poet whose form is often that of the sequence, and we can see in Nest that this seriality embodies in its linking of variegated repetitions and what I will call intimate disjunctions across a field that unfolds line by line, page by page and expands the poem's spaces and nurtures its multiplicities.

First house and space negate one another.

Then, they're a series.


I understand the situation by perceiving parts, one after another, then reversing in a glance
that removes time.
                                               ("Permanent Home")

This form mirrors the signifying chain itself, where meaning is constantly slipping away and can only be grasped retrospectively, moment to moment, as it unfolds. The dangerous desire is for meaning to coalesce into a static, definitive structure, into that hopelessly impossible "permanent home" which for some would inevitably feel definitively inhospitable. That we are bound by our alienation within language and not by any ideology we construct with it (those which would "compensate for lacks") is more than apparent in the title poem:

My mother tongue, Chinese, has an immemorial history before me.

I was inserted into it, a motive for my language.


My origin is a linguistic surface like a decorated wall, no little house at dusk, yellow lights coming on, physical, mute.

Its significance is received outside hearing, decorating simply by opening the view.

Wherever I look is prior absence, no figure, ruin escaping an aesthetic…."

The "house of language" is here transformed into a textured surface, bound up with the body whose limit extends through perception. Among her concerns we find the family romance and the oedipal seduction of language that inaugurates subjectivity. Indeed, the transmission of meaning from generation to generation is taken up more than once in this collection.

These poems exhibit the way in which meanings, perceptions, worlds fail to communicate themselves completely, to reproduce themselves exactly. They also show us how our survival depends upon these variations, these discontinuities which identify us, which engender our own desire and identity, and which desire in turn engenders. In "Dressing Up Our Pets" she asserts that

[t]he surface of the visibility of a family doubles over its whole extension with invisible reserve.

In my flesh what's visible, by refolding or padding, exhibits their being as the complement of possibility.

Since possibility is the situation as thought, as universal.

Whichever facet is her focus at any given point, Berssenbrugge is masterful at mining the infinitely complex imbrications of language, perception, desire, body and consciousness that comprise what we call experience. Nest is as excellent an example of this as you will find thus far in her corpus, and, in her words from "Susie, Kiki, Annie," it gives us a sharp awareness of the "mute probability of a reciprocal lack of understanding" with which we must deal carefully and not "remedy" with the imposition of one meaning over another absolutely.



© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review