Competent communal living entails inattention to things no doubt worthy of scrutiny: physically and psychically felt vacancies, emotionally textured spaces we wheel through daily. The registers and relations within those intricate shadings can daunt, as Henri Michaux says: "You cannot even conceive the horrible inside-outside that real space is." In Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book Nest, the infinite layers of real space compress subjectivity and objectivity. Here, domestic space loses its clarity and exterior space loses its void. Intimate geometry, the matrix of relationships, refuses to withdraw into "self" and aggravates the line of demarcation between inside and outside: "First house and space negate one another / Then they are a series . . . / House and space are composite." By exposing the myth of inside/outside, Berssenbrugge’s latest work undermines the basis for alienation. In this way, with a deep attention to inter-relationality, Nest constructs a world where home is at once vulnerable, suspect, and sheltering. A post-9/11 awareness saturates its investigations, and in light of the extraordinarily sentimental and nakedly sanctimonious efforts of poems seeking to grapple with 9/11 thus far, Berssenbrugge’s book offers us one hopeful example of effective and affecting response without recourse to direct address.
The nest, the book’s central motif, becomes a place to superimpose all kinds of structures—architectural, metaphysical, psychological, and social. It is the uterine nest as well as the French n’est (isn’t); it’s made of earth and sky. Both practically and structurally, it’s the image of return, an object built by and for the body, taking form from the body’s shape inside (as the bird nestles, turns, presses against), in an intimacy that works physically. Home, like language itself, is an emotional setting as well as an object, and anyone familiar with Berssenbrugge’s work knows how its screens, frames, and corridors organize and reference relationships. Here, the author concerns herself with how fragments and individuals interact with the whole, the grouping. Subject and object hold equal ground: they interchange and fluctuate, creating a continuous process by which the self recognizes others by changing itself and vice-versa. The constellation of the nest image (it finds analogues in the ear, clothes, and the internet, for instance), in defiance to its seeming simplicity, allows a network of synaptic movement. Berssenbrugge’s famously capacious lines slow down our experience and draw us into its continuities and expansions. Prepositional phrases, conditional clauses and passive voice extend our perceptual limits as they front the limits of our comprehension. In each poem, sentences play the part of lines. A portrait orientation replaces her usual landscaping of the page, providing an appropriate space for proliferate phrasings and arrangements of family, restless portraits imbued with the power to suspend conclusive being and singular sight. Conceptual multiplicity ("House and space are composite"; "dwelling and travel are not distinct"), however, is not an escape from meaning, but a dilation of it. She ties meditation and mediation into a happy knot, one as dependent on its materiality as its empty spaces. As one poem proclaims, "When I find a gap, I don’t fix it, don’t intrude like a violent, stray dog, separating flow and context, to conform what I say to what you see."
The book’s space-hauntedness serves as a metaphor for a linguistic hauntedness; both are inherited structures we inhabit and carry within. "Pre-determined space claimed by feeling" reveals the tyranny of language and its concomitant emotional constructs, shows us how rhetorical trappings domesticate us. Rituals and institutions of language, like all architecture, allow for personal connection and real feeling, but also lock us into their inflexible structures: "Negative space enters my house like spirits, low pressure under a table, in the petals of a rose, like a person you love."
At the heart of Nest is the titular poem, which plays out a radical drama of maternal language transmission, where the mouth-nest contains two "mother-tongues"—Chinese from the speaker’s mother and English to the speaker’s daughter. The "cross-hatched" language "translates as heart" through modulations of self-consciousness. Having left her language-nest for another, the speaker is freed and foreign, parasite and pastless. Here is the entire third section:
My origin is a linguistic surface like a decorated wall, no little houses at dusk, yellow lights coming on, physical, mute.
Its significance is received outside hearing, decorating simply by opening the
Wherever I look is prior absence, no figure, ruin escaping an aesthetic: hammock, electric fan, ghost don’t qualify as guards.
The comfortable interior my guest inhabits is a moving base, states of dwelling undetermined, walls cross-hatched like mother tongue.
The foreign woman occupies a home that’s impersonal, like the nest of a parasite.
Its value is contentless but photographable, in the context of an indigenous population, tipping between physical ease and the freedom of animals accumulating risk.
When the scene is complex, I turn to the audience and comment aloud, then return to room and language at hand, weakened by whoever didn’t hear me, as if I don’t recognize the room, because my family moved in, while I was away.
Text imbricated with outside, a wall is waves.
So, I decorate in new mother tongue, plasticity of fragment, cool music.
There’s a lock in it, of the surface.
It still lights apricots in bloom, leaves, skins of organisms, horizon, borders that represent places.
The reproduction of surfaces compacts a compassionate sense of betweenness. Alienation is "photographable" because it is an absurd reduction of complex interiority. Throughout the book, Berssenbrugge’s use of the lens and frame highlights the ways we are always looking through structures; because we see through an eye, we see through inherited paradigms of expression and communication. Nest gives us direct process—whereby what’s mobile and motive, sensible and sensual blur—without tidy interpretation, a discursive music that circles around and expands by weaving. Its inter-nesting private and public domains dismantle hackneyed poetic gestures such as simple analogy and objective correlative, which tend to reduce and stabilize more than render and speculate.
At the same time, Berssenbrugge’s arrangements of human presence in the phenomenal world focus on the dynamics of family life and the contemporary art world in such an intimate way as to amplify "voice" and "narrative" more than her previous work. The full prism of personality—a voice ranging through indignance, wryness, sincerity, confidentiality, and humor—animates the work, without lapsing into a rigid metaphysics of authenticity. For Berssenbrugge this might be the most revolutionary of all acts; since Empathy (1989) she’s honed an unmistakably flat voice whose hypnogogic effects apprehend internal cadences more accurately than any other contemporary writer. Objectivity in previous work—her scientific edge—seems to rely on an acute sense of alienation; now however, Berssenbrugge’s sentences carefully dodge the danger of embracing outsiderhood at the risk of avoiding the rigors of social responsibility. The work retains its power to hit the subconscious directly, yet the power’s conduit is a persuasively immediate persona, one who engages and activates the reader: "Space between her image and my perception allows her to store other images, by subtracting what relates to me." Like Stein’s work, but with an absolutely novel approach, Nest acknowledges a reader and positions her within the work. Stein’s repetitions, interruptions, self-styled grammar reproduce the recursive act of reading, as part of the process of writing. Berssenbrugge’s negotiation of objective and subjective strategies also produces, neuraesthetically, the latent processes of reading. The book builds the reader into it, a nest, thus acknowledging the social mechanisms of language and opening up the domestic to a world outside.