By April Bernard (Norton)
To last as a Romantic, April Bernard says in a recent interview, “You have to be wise and passionate.” In her fourth book of poems passion and wisdom contend for the soul of Art.
Her Romantic suffers, feeling more, about more:
. . . it was the tree that caused an uproar, it was the tree that shook and shed, aureate as a shaken soul, I remembered I was supposed to have one—for convenience
I placed it in my chest, the heart being away, and now it seems the soul has lodged there, shaking, golden-orange, half spent. . . . [from “Beagle or Something”]
Her Romantic pretends what s/he’s asking for doesn’t add up to all that much:
. . . Hands with mine in the sink, washing dishes, the smell of wool, feet tangling mine in bed. [in “Romance”]
Ha! returns The Voice, the Force the Romantic was trying to bargain with: “What lies you tell, and call them love” (the end of “Unloved”). You think you’re the only one who’s ever gone through what you’re going through?
In Romanticism, the untrammeled Romantic in us struggles for expression in Art. The winner—no question—is the reader. April Bernard can do what she chooses in a poem, and what she chooses, here, is to remind us how Romanticism—which, she says, involves “the primacy of feeling; an embrace of the irrational”—enters our lives as it sneaks into our reading and listening and thinking, with glory and agony.
Romanticism has three sections. In the first you encounter Romantic states of being and feeling; in the second, among other wonders, a whole Romantic novel created in five short poems. The third breaks into song, lyrics with no music, including arias from operas that exist only in these pages.
Bernard doesn’t hesitate to say she wants to encourage a reader "to be an individual and be in society, . . . to have strong feelings."
This extraordinarily artful book uses intense pain as one of its colors. We luxuriate in sumptuous surfaces that mask pain:
That trinket of bulbous Baja pearl, hanging from a coin-purse latch, a gift from her dear Mama. The letters sheaved in a lavender ribbon (the ribbon edged with tiny loops of silk). . . . . . . no harm she has done comes close to what has stabbed at her, what now stabs— these cheap losses. [from “Last Glimpse”]
Here we can delight in invented forms, imported forms (a ghazal, “Paler Hands,” in memory of a famous ghazal-maker), and familiar forms reworked to dazzling new purposes (the unrhymed sonnet, “Heart or Head Canard”), all shifting the pain around, finding joys within it, offering pleasures liberally. Grief for a poet-friend who loved old movies turns into a sinuous dance of words circling Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” (“To the Knife”). We’re surprised by humor and tickled by connections that draw each poem into a larger body of feeling.
“I am a hopeless romantic,“ Bernard wrote last fall (in an essay in Lapham’s Quarterly)—the kind of “hopeless” that means “wholehearted” rather than “without hope”—the kind of hopeless that wrestles with hope in poem after poem throughout this marvelous book, which is so good it may change your mind, and then your life.
Susan Holahan is a writer and an editor of New Haven Review.