Mei-mei Berssenbrugge: Seeking By Feeling

I see it feelingly.—Gloucester, King Lear

I recently came across Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 10-page poem “Fog,” a topic of keen interest to me. Beyond a few poems I’d read in journals, I was unfamiliar Berssenbrugge’s poetry, so before taking on this long, intimidating poem, I prepped/trained myself by dipping into her selected poems, I Love Artists. But training was difficult, and progress hard to measure.

However, after spending some time with I Love Artists, I’ve acquired a feel for the associative and oblique manner of Berssenbrugge’s work. To say I “understand” would be an overstatement; it’s more a matter of becoming comfortable with the uncertainty that seems inherent to the reading of these poems, especially “Fog.”

Out of my fog, a bit of clarity has emerged: for Berssenbrugge, fog serves as an emblem of not only her poetics (much like the Ponge poem I discussed in my previous post) but also her metaphysics (for lack of a better term). In the 4th section of this 12-section poem,  Berssenbrugge spells out her guiding questions/concerns:

She can describe for you the phenomenon of feeling her way through the fog. For whom does she describe this?

What ignorance can her description eliminate?

Which person is supposed to understand her description, people who have been lost in fog before, or people who have lived on the desert and never seen what she would describe? (sec 4)

These questions are central to the poem and, I’m suggesting, to Bersessenbrugge: questions of audience, of the other to whom her words are addressed; questions of knowledge: not only what we can know, but also the question whether knowing—western philosophy’s quest—is our best (or only) way of relating to the world and to others. Ultimately, the question that she explores is the tautological nature of experience and communication: that we tend to see only that with which we are already familiar; that what we call experience is more often than not simply a mirror or echo of our disposition, fears, etc.  

Behind these questions is the paradox at the center of all language/communication: if language depends upon not only the shared understanding of words, but also shared experience—common frames of reference—what can be communicated, beyond what we already know?: “What ignorance can her description eliminate?” How can we describe fog, the experience of it, to someone who hasn’t experienced that sensation? How do we escape the echo-chamber that we so often mistake for understanding and communication?

The poem decidedly rejects the ideal to which all communication allegedly aspires: clarity. The poem also challenges our general, seemingly hard-wired will-to-clarify, our impulse to dispel all doubt, uncertainty, or murkiness whenever we encounter it. Berssenbrugge suggests that what we call “realism” and its clarity is more a matter of oversimplification “smoothing over or ignoring discontinuities” (section 1) than of true understanding—or, perhaps more accurately, intimacy (to borrow a term from one of Berssenbrugge’s best readers, Charles Altieri). Clarity, paradoxically, prevents us from seeing:  

The bright light slows the senses. A picture of the space is bright light, as if etched by a laser, can slow your sense.

When we see or experience something with the senses, and the senses get slowed, we can stop at this object, for example, a person who is beautiful.

As soon as we see this person, perception is blocked by the desire to go toward the person, with the misunderstanding of fog as thought that just runs on and on. Her awareness is completely lost in distracting clearings of space. (sec 9)

Berssenbrugge points out that we are conditioned to see “lack of clarity” as “tormenting,” something “shameful” whereas “In any serious interaction between them, not knowing your way about extends to the essence of what is between them” (sec 7). The “them” here is, appropriately, unclear, but means something along the lines of two or more individuals.

Berssenbrugge posits a poetics that’s the complete antithesis of imagism, “clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images.” In the context of “Fog,” imagism not only reduces richness of experience, altogether disregarding or suppressing its shadowy, unclear, and unseen elements, but also falsely makes an instant, a moment, stand for all moments. This snapshot understanding is more clear precisely because it ignores what makes experience, experience: time and duration. And of course, time is what exposes us to uncertainty, “not knowing your way about.” Berssenbrugge explains, “Therefore we appreciate the fog, as the power to make the space continue beyond the single perception… “ (sec 9).

Berssenbrugge expands this poetic insight into how way we comport ourselves towards the world and others. True intimacy, the poem suggests, occurs when we enter into a searching relationship with that which resists synoptic vision: “The fog of the way we feel our way into this focus, seeking by feeling, lies in the indefiniteness of the concept of continuing focus, or distance and closeness, that is, of our methods of comparing densities between human beings” (sec 10). Seeking by feeling: our vision limited by fog, we are compelled to use our most intimate and vulnerable sense, touch, and cautiously find our way, our awareness intensified by uncertainty.

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