Book review: Girly Man

Girly Man
Girly Man.
Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press, 2006.

“We girly men are not afraid
Of uncertainty or reason or interdependence
We think before we fight, then think some more
Proclaim our faith in listening, in art, in compromise.”

Charles Bernstein’s writing combines a scholar’s discipline, an advocate’s passion, a theorist’s breadth, and a readiness to deflate everything with a good joke.

In Girly Man, anything can serve as inspiration. The verses in the “Reading Red” sequence respond to 25 paintings exhibited by Richard Tuttle in 1998. “In Parts” was written with Tuttle for the catalog of a gallery show, In Parts, 1998-2001.

Highway signs inspire titles: “Bridges Freeze Before Roads”; “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now.” “Warrant” was intended as a lyric for the composer Charles Bernstein’s tune, the theme for “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Koans, proverbs, and cliches serve as models for “Pomegranates” and “Self-Help.”

War inspires much of Bernstein’s work.
”War is never having to say you’re sorry.”
“War is the opiate of the politicians.”
“War is other people.”
“Some of These Daze” provides a first-person reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Politics inspires “The Ballad of Girly Man,” written in response to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech to the Republican National Convention, in which he taunted opponents of the Republican Party as “girly men.”

Bernstein enjoys humor. He could write news for The Onion and you wouldn’t realize it was produced by one of the leading academic poets and critics of our time (“Slap Me Five, Cleo, Mark’s History”). (Perhaps he already has?)

He’s among those rare writers who can perform their works effectively, and you can hear recordings online at Penn Sound and at the Electronic Poetry Center

In addition to new material, this volume collects some published before: “Let’s Just Say” and “World on Fire” were originally published as pamphlets.

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