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Romanticism

Romanticism
April Bernard
W.W. Norton, 2009

Most of the poems in this collection, the fourth from April Bernard (whom W.S. Merwin deems “brilliant” on the flap copy, a poet of “power and ambition”) are rather lovely—and at their weakest, merely innocuous. A few are knockouts.

Romanticism derives a lot of its content and emotional thrust from music. For example, the unassumingly titled “Beagle or Something,” the book’s fifth poem and one of its best:

The composer’s name was Beagle or something,

one of those Brits who make the world wistful

with chorales and canticles and this piece,
a tone poem or what-have-you,

chimes and strings aswirl, dangerous for one

—for one feeling a little vulnerable, she goes on to say, and the lyric moment is a sort of epiphany of sadness brought on by the silly music and the vision of a shaking tree seen through the windshield. Few things are more annoying that a forced poetic epiphany, but I like Bernard’s epiphany for being humble and self-effacing and taking place among the “telephone wires and dogs […] along Orange Street”; I picture her—or me—driving and crying down the Orange Street in my neighborhood. Because a dumb song does make you cry when primed for crying.

Plus, the epiphanies are few and far between in this collection. Many of the poems are spare, mysterious six-liners, such as:

In a Stolen Boat,

push off what seemed safe: The fishing dock,
pitch pines, children glazed to sheen
by ruthless summers. Past

the jetty, past the past, to open sea—
all violet and green, that choppy path between doom and luck—

Put your back into it, and row.

Another high point is the book’s lone prose poem, “Underneath,” one part of a brief sequence titled “Concerning Romanticism.” “Underneath” is a poem I will read again and again for gorgeous, open lines like “Do you know what it means to be ‘under erasure,’ that lovely post-structural notion, your words and deeds red-lined-through by some revisionist, who may be guiding your hand so that you are complicit in the silencing?” I wished every poem in the book was as lush and layered.

The third section of the book is the most overtly musical and was the least interesting to me initially—a number are based, according to their epigraphs, on various opera. These struck me as amusing but rather low-risk. Then I discovered the end notes where Bernard discloses that the cited arias, composers, etc., are her own invention. The risk in these poems, then, is that a reader may not get to the note. Being in on the fakery instantly imbued the poems with more intrigue. Which is to say, Romanticism is a rare book I’m inclined to read twice.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.