Saturday, October 27, 2007

Remembering Steven J. Bernstein

"The stars were much more valuable when I was a boy"

Steven J Bernstein was a 40 year old poet when he died by his own hand in 1991. In 1992 a CD of him reading some of his poems was released on Sub Pop Records called Prison. The aural accompaniment to Bernstein's verse was done by Steve Fisk. In 1991 I lived next to a busy 4 lane highway and opposite a hypermarket where misshaped families filled station wagons with junk food and plastic in huge numbers daily. I obtained a copy of Prison and drank in the work of Steven Jesse Bernstein like it was a virus which made me immune.
Bernstein's work is not going to make you happy. If you like the "I wondered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills" type poetry then stay the hell away from this, it will hurt you. Bernstein's word horde is a hostile swarm of black insects that assaults you as they show you how people suffer and struggle and try to love each other but inevitably end up breaking something...or someone. It is not pretty, but it is real and gritty and has a truthfulness about it that makes it beautiful. For a taste check out the first half of Morning in the Sub-Basement of Hell:

The black rubber tires of four a.m. pulling their heavy truck over my skull and bones. I remember the bottle as I lay awake but I'm too scared to touch it. A green cloud hovers in the air above the bed. Kiss the radio and smoke, wondering where all the sweat comes from. Ate two cans of soup, one after the other, and feel health. Now the crumbling artifice of the black sky cracks into orange lines, the traffic is a conveyor belt of brown candy bars. I put my mouth to the road and suck. Can you cry? I cannot cry. I do not cry. Instead I thank my lucky stars for the load of blankets. A glass of milk and shave in bed. The old gangster in me comes out and my hands are two pistols, aimed at the miserable ceiling. I unload all my fingernails into the chipped cream paint. Also with a pair of buzzing clippers I give myself a haircut, short like a vicious terrier or a Nazi, and stroke my mustache lovingly. Put that one on the table and let's see what's inside her stomach!

If you can feel the rhythm of the lines then you will gain an idea of how it sounds on the Prison CD (I could not find a stream for it anywhere on the web). More texts can be found at The Zealot's Law. There is a video or two (actually just film of the man himself, just stills combined with a track from Prison) on Youtube. Here is No No Man Part 2:

Bernstein wrote novels, plays, poems, recited at concerts and jazz clubs. Most of his stuff in currently out of print, which is a shame, but I know that he will be making a huge comeback any day now. He was a writer of quality and he speaks with the same voice of the human condition and of the absurd, bound, star gazing, gutter dwellers that we all are. You can order I am Secretly an Important Man from Amazon, it is the only one of his texts currently in print. There is a site on Myspace for Steven J Bernstein and the blog for it is an excellent source for info on what is happening with his body of work. The blog for the Myspace site includes The Best of Bernstein on the Web.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm one of the guys that runs the Jesse page on MySpace, I was searching the blogosphere for recent mentions of Jesse, and found your real excellent essay remembering him around his death day. Very well written, I hope others besides me reads it. When we do a best of Bernsetin update, and your entry is still up, we'll add it. Again, thanks, for this.


((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Thanks Deran, Nice of you to comment. Yes, discovering Jesse was an important step for me and I fully hope and expect him to be recognised for the major writer and poet he is one day.