Experimental Confessionalism: The Personal Turn in American Post-conceptual Poetry

1 August 2018

Felix Bernstein, post-conceptual poetry and the confessional

In many ways Felix Bernstein’s writing about Emma seems more direct and more ready to embrace the confessional than Charles’ poem. Not only is the cause of her death made explicit – one poem in his first volume Burn Book is entitled ‘Sui Cide’ (F. Bernstein 2016, 116) – but she is a recurring and powerful presence in his book. At the same time, however, he also uses techniques that problematise the confessional element, since his version of confessionalism is bound up with posturing, theatricality and transgression.

Here I want to look at the way Felix adopts the confessional mode and also problematises it. I will focus on one poem from Burn Book, ‘EBB’, a dialogue prose poem that clearly marks Emma, who seems to be talking from the afterlife, in its title (F. Bernstein 2016, 31-35).1

On the one hand, ‘EBB’ is confessional because it is as much about Felix as it is about Emma. It projects the effect of Emma’s death, but it is a coming of age piece, a poetic and performative bildungsroman. As Carl Watts says, the poem ‘charts a course from mourning to self-obsession’ (Watts 2016). It is about how Felix can forge an identity as a poet, without being weighed down by his illustrious literary heritage. In the poem Emma also functions as Felix’s alter ego: this is reinforced by allusions to an incestuous union and Emma’s assertion that ‘we share the same machine’ (32). But Emma as alter ego is the unsettled and unsettling side of Felix. This creates a delicate balance: Felix must listen to her but not over-identify with her: Emma says, ‘You’re not playing me. Or playing with me: you’re me-ing me’ (33). Their dialogue is partly about Felix’s attempt to retain his equilibrium in the face of onslaughts from Emma/the alter ego. Felix says at one point, ‘I don’t want to hear anything that would get in the way of my hazy discontent with life’ (33) to which Emma retorts, ‘So what? Worried I’ll make it all too blisteringly painful, a hailstorm of rage at the very fabric of your experience, so you’re asphyxiated by it?’ (33) Felix responds with ‘Right. I’m not in the mood to be brought to your level’ (33): it is as if Emma as alter ego is taunting him towards self-destruction.

On the other hand, the poem also distances and problematises the confessional mode. It is oblique and fantastical, and as a dialogue it allows for reciprocation. It is not just Felix talking about an absent Emma; rather Emma is able to reply and to rebut many of Felix’s remarks. This facilitates a point of view usually absent from elegy, that of the person who has died, who can quell misconceptions and uncertainties about their life and death. There are no names or characters, rather we seem to be dealing with two voices who are putatively – given the title and subject matter – Felix and Emma or rather ‘Felix’ and ‘Emma’.

Confessionalism is also problematised through Felix’s adoption of an ironic and transgressive stance. He continually raises the issue of his sexuality in conjunction with Emma’s death, almost as if there is a causal link, though this is very unlikely. Rather, raising the topic of homosexuality is a way to push back the conventions surrounding poetic elegy, to address the pleasures and pains of coming of age, and to strike out a distinctive poetic path. For Emma is not only his alter ego. She also symbolises the overwhelming weight of Felix’s literary birthright: through her insistence that Felix must move beyond ‘talking to a ghost’ (34), and her self-identification with Charles, ‘I was him’ (31).

The questioning of confessionalism, in addition, takes the form of poking fun at psychoanalysis. Early on, Felix gives the kind of psychoanalytic explanation that is both suggestive and unconvincing, ‘allegedly I have a melancholic fixation on you. I think you are the greatest and cannot be replaced … So I fixate on you as “object,” a substitute that is never the cause of my desire but resembles it’ (31-32). To this Emma retorts, ‘I’m not an object. Or a lack of object. I’m a ghost’ (32). Throughout the poem, psychoanalysis is invoked as a discipline that can offer explanations for emotional states and critiqued as a constricted modernist framework. Because it is tied to the Oedipus complex, it cannot address sibling relationships or the complexity of what Felix calls ‘post-postmodernism’ (Bernstein 2015, 22): a culture steeped in digital subjectivities and online profiles.

This convergence of the confessional mode, and its critique, is most prominent at the end of the poem where the confessionalism descends into complete nihilism. Self-flagellation, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth accelerate as Emma, a nagging and contentious alter ego, tells Felix:

You’re ill-equipped to handle the situations of nature, spirit, the infinite, etc. Do you not even miss me? Just want to join the ranks of the living, one group after another. One hook-up after another…One deconstruction after another… (35)

When Felix responds that ‘The core is damaged’, Emma makes a devastating response, ‘The core is emptied’. She berates him for his lack of integrity and lists all the comforts and joys that will be stripped away from him. These include fantastical ones, ‘no soft dragons flying you around, no mermaids for you to pet or squish’ (35), but also familial and everyday ones, ‘no grandchildren to goof around with, no jogging in the park’ (35).

This is about as dark and nihilistic as confessionalism can be: it reflects an abyss of mourning, as well as the insecurity of youth and the challenges of the neophyte poet. But we should not take it entirely at face value, because it uncovers confessionalism for what it is: a genre that can slide into self-loathing, joylessness and ultimately suicide. Maybe here Felix is voicing Emma and the thoughts that she might have had on killing herself: there is some turning of the tables. Be that as it may, Felix seems to be questioning the validity and helpfulness of confessionalism as a genre even as he is engaging with it.

Comparing the two Bernsteins, father and son, demonstrates that both want to avoid some of the possible pitfalls of the elegiac response to the death. Both reject the idea of poetry as healing or easy explanation. Both relate their poetic response to Emma’s death to the histories, contexts and purposes of poetry. But there are differences. Charles’s interjections about Emma are personal and yet diffused within a broader context. They are realised within a disjunctive, discursive approach to writing that is familiar from his previous oeuvre. Felix’s poem seems to fit more with the idea of an experimental confessionalism that is raw, confrontational and performative, but also aware of the shortcomings of its own premises.

  1. Carl Watts suggests that the dialogue in ‘EBB’ could be a text messaging conversation or a conversation that takes place in a chat window. That could be the case, but for me it is more performative (Watts 2016).
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