Wednesday, January 18, 2017



Expect Delays by Bill Berkson
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2014)

Tributes were paid to Bill Berkson who died last year aged 76. The cause was a heart attack. Born in Manhattan in 1939, he was educated at the Trinity School before enrolling in the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began writing poetry. He graduated in 1957. After studying briefly at Brown University, he returned to New York where he enrolled in the poetry workshop run by Kenneth Koch. Berkson moved easily among the artistic milieu in 1960s Manhattan soaking up the atmosphere created by experimental art, poetry, theatre and dance and appeared regularly at gatherings of the New York Poets, gallery openings and concerts of experimental music. He is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, collaborations and criticism. Expect Delays brings together pieces written within the last ten years and is a follow-on from Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems also published by Coffee House Press back in 2009.

According to Tim Keane, who reviewed this book in 2015 in his article Clues If Not The Keys: New Poetry from Bill Berkson (posted on Hyperallergic) the title, an all-too-familiar traffic warning that Berkson said that he saw constantly flashing in and around him in San Francisco, “is an instructive mantra for the present time in which thoughtful patience has been supplanted by mediated distraction.” I also think it hints at a resigned acceptance of life, at hindrances and obstacles that will in time have to be overcome. The fact that we have been forewarned of them means that we have been told to be prepared for them and that means that we develop strategies for dealing with them. Berkson uses the downtime for dreamtime. A time for recollection, for regeneration, for recharging the creative batteries in order to assemble a series of collages which he wishes to share with his readership.

The book is divided into four distinct parts headed Lady Air; 16 Acrostics in Love and Friendship; Songs for Bands and Sister Cadence. The third segment, Songs for Bands is the most substantial piece and also the one that has attracted the most discussion.

Stylistically, the book is wide-ranging. There are complex prose poems, acrostics addressed to family and friends, narrative poems and translations of poems by Mallarmé, Pasternak and Pushkin.

The cover, designed by Linda Koutsky, is dominated by two colors which, to my mind, reflect the fluorescent orange and blue mentioned in the short poem called Reverie which makes its appearance in the first part of the book. It is short enough for me to quote in full:

Close up on an ancient blue convertible rolling down Beach Road,
orange cabana filled to bursting with complementary colors and one
daring fluorescent orange that isn’t.
            The trunk is open and empty;
the thief asleep in the passenger seat,
                        caught in the crosshairs
pink like the peony.

I hold this up as a model of how a typical Berkson poem works. The title hints at an undirected train of thought, a fanciful notion…and yes, it is an unlikely scenario but it is also very skilfully crafted. The car appears to be out of control, “rolling” with the brake off. There is something strange about this car: the car boot is open and there is no-one in the driving seat. The only occupant is the thief and he is in the passenger seat. Logic would suggest that the thief would have made off with the stolen goods but instead he is asleep at the scene of the crime. He is the centre of attention, caught in the crosshairs, which means that he is at the focal point in the poem. He is conspicuous, like a peony, the fine flower of excellence, when it is at the pink of perfection, proudly displaying its large, showy flowers. There are a lot of word associations going on here. There is the optical imagery and there is the color imagery. “Crosshairs” refers back to “close up” which is where the poem began. “Pink” carries with it the notion of “pinking” – which relates to the characteristic metallic pinking or knocking sound emitted by an engine when it is under duress. The poem is very visual, it is full of sound, color and movement. There is much to attract our attention – the car rolling down the road, the brightly colored beach hut, the car boot open and empty…this is a Berkson poem.

In Exogeny Berkson finds poetry in swimming pools. They offer blue yacht rhythms and whoever lies down at the edge catches the fever. In Lady Air, all words are prophetic and in If Only I Had Known When I Made My Debut, he poses the question: Is language mostly synonymous with restriction? He responds to this question with a statement: Never say “swivel” – speak “laminate.”  This is his mantra: do not restrict yourself as a writer by moving round and round in the same circles but bond layers together, to yield a multiplicity of meaning so that lines are made all the richer by their ability to build on one another and feed off one another.

The second part of the book consists of sixteen acrostics in eight poems addressed to family and friends. The opening poem, For Jim & Nina centres on the power of the ampersand, in its role as a conjunction, to hold all things together. This is Berkson at his most playful, delighting his readers with intelligence and wit.

Just as you were saying your muted “I dos”…
Infinitesimal bingo! ’Twas the enamoured cosmos sounding off in perfect pitch:
“My loves,” I heard it humming plainly, “marriage on Earth has this huge undeniable

“&”in it – the ampersand of dailiness & rapture, of wow & whoops, of piecemeal
            logic & postprandial why not, so on & eternal!”

The poems in this section are, by their very nature, autobiographical. They are a celebration of marriage, friendship and family life. One poem in rhyme is addressed to his mother, Eleanor Lambert, on reaching the age of a hundred. In the poem

Runways sparkle, models glide, A-List Best-Dresses command couture’s front-
            most rows.

It is a fitting tribute to a celebrated fashion publicist who created the International Best Dressed List and New York Fashion Week.

The section headed “Songs for Bands” signals an abrupt change of style. This is what we have come to expect of his writing. At one point, Berkson told PBS “I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry, and at some point the worry ceased….I gave myself permission to do what I’ve been doing all along without worrying about it.”

The section is a heady mix of desktop diary entries, weather reports, quotations, observation, facts, dreams and nightmares, extracts from the letters of famous artists, composers, novelists and poets, gossip and happenstance. To all of these, Berkson adopts a scatter approach. In the notes at the back of the book, he tells us that he “went for a format that could hold together the range of things – occasional lines, poem fragments, prose musings, scraps taken from reading, dream records, memory shots; stray, uncategorized notations, quiddities, and so on – that happen ordinarily in handwritten notebooks, but that occurred here with the formal edge of being already “typeset”: literally, 14-point Garamond in a Word .doc window.”  Essentially, “given any arrangement of discrete parts pulled out of sequence, [he] wanted to test how loosely such a sequence could proceed from page to page (and still “be”).” There are no smooth transitions here. The reader has to be prepared to take each entry at its face value and not seek any specific chain of connection. The quotation from Edwin Denby, which appears as part of the sequence, is central to Berkson’s philosophy here:


“Meaning is a peculiar thing in poetry – as peculiar as meaning in politics or loving. In writing poetry a poet can hardly say that he knows what he means. In writing he is more intimately concerned with holding together a poem, and that is for its meaning.”

-Edwin Denby.

In one prose piece, Berkson quotes from a letter in which Mozart makes the case for changing key, not from one key to a remote one but to a related one thereby keeping the ear of the listener finely attuned to the music. Berkson says Amen to that. Even when adopting a scatter approach, a certain amount of discipline is necessary to hold a poem together.

Growing up in Manhattan, Berkson was surrounded by the freewheeling conversational tone of the New York School of Poets who regularly made reference to the contemporary world of art, music and drama and often cited city landmarks and each other’s names in their work. There are many names scattered throughout this sequence and many references to other art forms as well. This serves to remind us that Berkson, as well as being an author, enjoyed a long career as an art critic and curator for late Modernist American art. In New York, he contributed frequently to Art News and Arts and, after moving to the Bay Area in 1970, he wrote for several art journals and was also a corresponding editor for Art in America. The titles and / or themes of some of his poems bear testimony to his abiding interest in art. He also collaborated with painters and painters have for their part contributed to some of his book covers.

In one particular poem, Costanza, which is set at the Getty Museum, Berkson describes how he and his son Moses, along with other visitors, are unable to gain entry into the gallery exhibiting Bernini’s sculpture of Costanza Bonarelli because a woman has fallen. The guard could almost be saying to them “Expect delays”…for it will be a while before they can gain access. Berkson uses the time occasioned by the incident to reflect upon seventeenth century Europe and its political wranglings. The guard’s repeated announcement that a woman has fallen brings us back to the present again and again and acts as the focal point for holding the narrative together.

Another poem with a reference to the world of art, Decal –which I take to be the abbreviated form of decalcomania, the art or process of transferring a design from specially prepared paper on to another surface – makes use of a lot of “transfers” in its vocabulary: morning / evening; earth / air; silver / magnolia; spa / sea.  The image of the butterfly is itself an example of transformation.

Readers have to take Berkson’s work on his own terms. Those who look for tidy conclusions will not find them. There are no neat closures. Life is not like that. Instead, Berkson prefers to leave room for multiple interpretations. In Strangers When We Meet Berkson writes:

I like to have a little secret at the end of my poems,
The way nothing is ever finished…

One of his many strengths lies in his ability to suggest a series of endings, to use metaphor to its fullest extent while at the same time leaving the reader to work out his or her own conclusions.

At the end of Songs for Bands Berkson includes this “snippet” – for me it sums up his writing in a very engaging, personal way:


How my mother in her last year asked me for the first time ever to read her some of my poems, and at the end of one bedside reading said: “You take ordinary things and make something beautiful out of them.”

This was his strong point, and we thank him for making poetry all the richer for it.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014),  The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).

1 comment:

  1. So wonderful to find this. This is one of my favorite books ever, so full of seemingly offhand brilliance, a lifetime of aesthetic work and wisdom summed up. Mysteries for days. Thanks Neil for engaging.