All the Whiskey in Heaven

By Charles Bernstein (FSG, $26)

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<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Charles Bernstein is not just a theorist of poetry but of language itself. The ideas guiding his creative work might be summarized, albeit reductively, like this: Words are meaningless in themselves, and find significance only when we agree upon a definition. Bernstein’s poetry tends to draw attention to the slipperiness of words, and to reload them with new, and sometimes better, meanings.

All the Whiskey in Heaven, his first book from a major publisher and required reading for poetry enthusiasts, selects from the dozens of works the author has written over the past 35 years. Don’t look here for intensely felt personal recollections or anything referencing particular biography. Instead, you’ll find verbal collages in many different forms. One of the foundational figures of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, Bernstein likes to borrow from various sources—political discourse, personal correspondence, mental-health literature and advertising—and see what happens when they bump up against one another. “I am especially interested in the treatment of depression,” one prose poem opens, but begins shifting drastically a few lines down: “Nowadays, being a husband, father, homeowner and Jew keeps me both busy and satisfied.” The poet is often quite funny (see, for instance, “Mao Tse Tung Wore Khakis”).

Though Bernstein borrows from other sources, his poems display imagination and great formal variety. There are rambling free-verse prose poems, long poems, songs, political tirades and even aphorisms: “War is nature’s way of saying I told you so.” While much of what’s here is unsettling and even difficult to understand, that’s the way it’s meant to be. This is the culture we’ve made, the one we’ve agreed upon—Bernstein is merely reflecting it back at us.—Craig Morgan Teicher

Bernstein and friends read Mar 28 at Zinc Bar.

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