Lifesaving Poems: Stephen Berg’s ‘Eating Outside’

Above the desk where I am writing this is a shelf on which sits more than a yard of poetry from North America.

I decided to move it into my office for practical reasons as much as anything. There just wasn’t room for it to stay mixed in with everything from everywhere else. It seemed to demand its own space. It may one day need its own room. I like seeing it there, growing silently, year on year, like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms (which reminds me, for some reason she is in the wrong shelf, on her own with the Brits…).

There are books by Sharon Olds and Robert Lowell and Raymond Carver up there which seem to have been with me forever. Another book I seem to have always had is Stephen Berg’s New and Selected Poems, published in the UK by Bloodaxe in 1992 and which I have just discovered you can buy on Amazon for 13p. Which seems to me both a bargain and something of a scandal. (If you look for him on the Bloodaxe site, he isn’t there either. Maybe, as we used to say about indie bands in the 1980’s, he has been ‘dropped’). A bargain, because 13p for 219 pages of amazing lyric poetry is a serious proposition, austerity or no. A scandal because I think he should be a household name, like Billy Collins and CK Williams.

Here, in fact, is what CK Williams has to say about him, on the back cover blurb:

Passionate and audacious, eloquent and zany, Berg’s poems deal with the most raw and emotionally rending themes, while maintaining a startling forthrightness of vision and a remarkable elegance of tone… This is the lyric striving to extend itself, and the human soul struggling to come to terms with all the lost and lonely corners of its mansion.

This is remarkable in the purple-prose world of poetry blurbs for being both selfless and true.

I read Stephen Berg’s New and Selected Poems cover to cover, during the time in my life when I had made an active decision to put poetry at the heart of the enterprise of everything I was doing. Mostly this involved reading, secretly, and writing even more secretly, occasionally sending a poem to a magazine and losing weight while I waited for a response. As I have written before, this coincided with the birth of my children.

I am not sure how I heard about Stephen Berg’s wonderful book. (If memory serves it was a review in Scratch magazine. Or perhaps it was a Bloodaxe catalogue). But I did decide to buy it, and read it, and learn from it. I love his head-on tackling of difficult subject matter. Far from feeling ‘confessional’ the poems sound to me as though he had no choice in the matter, simultaneously displaying self-awareness of the cost, both of writing them and concomitant silence. I think this is what people mean when they say a writer is up to the challenge of writing honestly about the age they happen to live in.

The book feels both weighty and slim. The titles of the poems (‘William Carlos Williams Reading His Poems’, ‘Wanting to be Heavier’, ‘At a Friend’s Birthday Party in the Garden at Night’, ‘Sunday Afternoon’) draw you in and give you an immediate flavour of something both ordinary and mysterious. It contains two astonishing sequences: ‘With Akhmatova at the Black Gates’ and the sixteen-page tour de force ‘Homage to the Afterlife’, each line of which begins with the words ‘Without me…’.

I thought about ‘Eating Outside’ this week as it is an activity I like doing and would like to be doing more of in this cursed British summer of ours. I admire its almost Chekhovian sensibility, with its cataloguing of ‘beautiful women’, ‘talk about work and love’ and overt symbolism of the moon.  Much more than that, I am very taken with the way the poem begins with a plain description of ‘fat pine boughs’ to one of the ‘self’, twenty-eight lines later, as ‘clear, white and unseen’.

Having spent time with this poem for twenty or so years, I am still not completely sure how this change is carried successfully into the ear and the mind of the reader. I do know that each time I read it, even though I know how the poem ends, these final lines seem to rise up out of somewhere very profound and unsettled. It is here, in a garden I know and have spent time in. You have been there as well.

Eating Outside

 

Fat pine boughs

droop over the vegetable garden’s

sticks and leaves,

the moon’s hazy face comes and goes

in the heat.

Beautiful women,

your skin can barely be seen.

The moon’s gone. Clouds everywhere.

A pale hand curls

on the tabletop next to mine,

there’s talk about work and love.

We’re like the moon at this hour

as clouds swallow it or dissolve so

it glides through the shaggy limbs,

full, like the grief inside us,

then floats off by itself

beyond the last tips of the needles.

The trees are quiet. In the house

my daughters play the piano and laugh.

The family dog races in and out howling.

The candles on the table have blown out.

I keep trying to explain

but when I go back, like now, there’s

the red hammock, the barbecue guarding

the lit back wall like a dwarf,

the self, awed by changes,

motioning to us as it leaves.

Deep among those arms, it pauses

clear, white and unseen.

 

Stephen Berg, from New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1992)

Lifesaving Poems

2 comments

  1. Pascale Petit

    Thanks for this, Anthony, I was only familiar with Stephen Berg’s later prose poems, but will get this collection. Agree, it’s hard to see how he got there in the poem, though perhaps somewhere around when the moon moves away from the trees, there’s a presentiment of the human weight leaving with it?
    Pascale

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Pascale, thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this. I agree with you, that probably is the moment. But the thing is, it is all so ordinary, it doesn’t feel like a major turn or shift, he keeps it low key and mysterious. There is no flag waving behind the poem as it were. I really admire this. Bishop does this as well in poem after poem. It is like watching a magician. You know the sleight of hand is in there somewhere, but are not completely sure where it is taking place. As ever with good wishes and thanks, Anthony

      Like

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