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Charles Bernstein reads from Recalculating

If you were in a bookstore and didn’t have the money to buy Charles Bernstein’s latest book, Recalculating, which is soon to become a paperback published by the University of Chicago Press, I’d say, “Take twenty minutes, go to the beginning and start to read The Truth in Pudding,” which will give you an idea of the book, and offers the sort of comfort and joy, for me at least, of reading someone like Nicolas Chamfort, that sublime funny Frenchman whose incredible wit and gift of irony eventually ironically led him to his death. Poems in this book are to be read over, thought about and smiled upon. Charles Bernstein’s essays read like poetry and his poetry reads like essays, beauty and intellect (intelligence can see a truth) are one, as sad as it is comic; out of great tragedy, which life serves up to us in spades, we need to have some fun—otherwise really we’d all go nuts—and everything is happening at once. “I am a Jewish man trapped inside the body of a Jewish man,” Charles Bernstein has lamented with a smile. He and his wife Susan Bee live in a brownstone with a backyard right off an F stop in Brooklyn, the easiest place in the world to get to. My kind hosts offered me several things to drink, but water was what I wanted, and it came nicely cooled to my lips. Susan knew I liked Charles Burchfield, and we talked about him for awhile. Charles had taught at the University of Buffalo so he and Susan knew the Burchfield museum very well. “I’ve been wanting to see the museum for many years now,” I told them. “I have got to go.” They encouraged me with words and smiles, then Susan excused herself because she had her own work to do, and left us to record. Life is work, and some of us lucky ones get to do what we want. For what is adding up to a lifetime, Charles Bernstein has aided and abetted the written and the spoken word as an editor, translator, teacher, seminal friend to many poets, and an archivist of their work at the University of Pennsylvania, and of course he’s a writer himself. He sat in his chair in his brownstone, as I trained the camera on him, and knew what he had to do: recite a poem, Two Stones With One Bird, which he had memorized and took thirty seconds to do. “Why not read some more?” Charles took his time searching through the pages, but when he found a poem he wanted, as you will hear, he reads it very well.

I am going to type out a few poems from Recalculating that strike my fancy; not a hard task to do; in fact, if not pressed for time I’d type out the whole book for you. It’s a lot of thoughtful heartfelt fun. The first poem in the book is Autopsychographia, which I think isn’t so much a translation of the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, as a diving board into something else. I’ll start with that and then type out three more going toward the back of the book. Enjoy.

after Fernando Pessoa

Poets are fakers
Whose faking is so real
They even fake the pain
They truly feel
And for those of us so well read
Those read pains feel O, so swell
Not the poets double header
But the not of the neither
And so the wheels go whack
Ensnaring our logical part
In the train wreck
Called the human heart.

1 April 1931


What I say is what I meant
& what I saw is what I said
But neither seen nor spoke
Is what I think I thought


The rich men, they know about suffering
That comes from natural things, the fate that
Rich men say they can’t control, the swell of
The tides, the erosion of polar caps
And the eruption of a terrible
Greed among those who cease to be content
With what they lack when faced with wealth they are
Too ignorant to understand. Such wealth
Is the price of progress. The fishmonger
Sees the dread on the faces of the trout
And mackerel laid out at the market
Stall on quickly melting ice. In Pompeii
The lava flowed and buried the people
So poems such as this could be born.


A poem can’t be sold like music can, can’t be sold like a painting, like a song can, nobody gives a dime, a damn, a poem don’t live beyond its words, its dark and backward suns, can’t be sold like prose can, only as if it were a story or the mocking echo of a poem, can’t be sold like junk can, chunks of mango tree in a garden (or fragments of a garden hose), vats of burnt oil, even like a goldfinch can, singing in a trash dump, the black tongue of the sewers, where algae bloom, can’t be sold like graffiti can, like a photograph or video can, or any arty film, can’t be sold like a print or a card can. Me, I’m a lousy trader in worthless things, beset by a plague of words

translation of Régis Bonvicino

Check out the poets and their work that Charles Bernstein has archived at Penn Sound:


Recalculating is published by the University of Chicago Press. Check them out here:


Charles Bernstein

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