'O Rose Thou Art'
If poetry has a point it is this. “Finished reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s ‘Hello, the Roses’. A new way of seeing/understanding the magical kaleidoscope connections we share between all living and non-living things. She’s like Gertrude Stein crossed with the Bergson of ‘Matter and Memory’, only with this naivety of style which is half dyslexia and half genius. She’s dazzling.”
Like Gertrude Stein in her expressive distortions of syntax and her use of mysterious incantatory objects. A rose is a rose is a rose.
She renders visible new perceptual and compassionate relationships between the landscape and living beings, across the living spectrum, flora and fauna.
Like Bergson or Whitehead in her logic of a world of images where everything affects everything else, however faintly. Only here she really spells it out. If time is vitality, or the élan vital, then ‘You and I nest within many such fields from a rose.’ (54)
She implies affective relations between animals, plants, and humans without anthropomorphising; no glib sentiments or cheap gestures for doomed ecosystems. And yet, there’s compassion. She makes us love nature rather than hate mankind.
‘If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.’ (Wittgenstein)
Others give up too easily. What would it be for a rose or a dog to perceive the world? Try and convey this strange majesty:
‘When she whispers, you catch fragments of words, which seem nonsensical.’ (Berssenbrugge)
Our lady of the cut up; Berssenbrugge, old school. Has a long table and a pair of shears and snips her way through underlined phrases in Deleuze and biology textbooks and fashion magazines. Even her own phrases repeat as if approached from another angle. How could one translate these subtle shifts in register which betray their origins without smoothing out the halts? A translator’s words would derive from one source, as opposed to the General Text.
An unrepentant follower of Chögyam Trungpa. A bona fide Tibetan Llama who went Andy Warhol. Rather than hide behind robes, embrace America as it is: drink, drive, bang. What if there really was a deeper ethical connection to the world and others which saints have found, each their own way? What if? Easier to be cynical and close a question of scientific credibility.
Dyslexia as significant form. The best artworks make a virtue of their flaws. Not an achievement despite, but because of. Uninhibited by proscriptive grammar, there’s something distinctive about her modest style which is not affected but natural.
Just as her syntax does not recognise standard English, even when transgressed, so her perceptions don’t employ arbitrary restrictions on relationships. ‘The violet, looking back, loses objectivity and enters the expansion of recognized things.’ (47)
‘Hello, the Roses’ can be read productively alongside Goethe’s ‘Metamorphosis of Plants’. Both share a ‘delicate empiricism which makes itself identical with my plant.’ (51) Berssenbrugge enlightens us to ‘invisible wires of this passage’ (28) between the natural world and ours through a near psychotic empathy. She brings with her a botanist’s encyclopedia: beeches, ferns, saxifrage, reindeer moss, Solomon’s seal in bloom, young yucca, reality sunflowers, cereus, matrices of ephedra, oxalis, striped maple leaves the size of my hand, an elixir of pine needles.
The second time you read it it makes more sense than you thought. With its use of ready-made phrases and unorthodox sentences, I couldn’t figure out why it was still a page turner. Then it came to me: the singular charm of ‘Hello, the Roses’ derives from the faint contours of common human occasions (a trip to the lake at night, a night out in town, an experience of illness), but qualified by a childlike logic linking nature and innocence: a dress can be a compassionate response to a dead dog, a swamp is a belt-drive turntable for a DJ Frog, gaps in the forest canopy a vase opening for flowers and birds, and besides, there’s ‘no time, so at sunset love from others can look like one rose’. (22)