Under the editorial vision of Jeffrey Yang at New Directions, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s newest collection in seven years, Hello, the Roses, dazzles with her signature margin-to-margin lines on the physics of light, phenomenological structures of consciousness, botany, and human physiology. As her readerly fans would expect, a Berssenbrugge rose is strikingly radiant in a phenomenological, mathematical, or physiological sense rather than a classic lyric tradition. In this vein, the title poem, “Hello, the Roses” flows eloquently against the lyric topoi of a rose’s familiar literary permutations: Dante's beloved Beatrice in her celestial rose, the lovely roses of Robert Burns, William Blake's sick rose, Emily Dickinson's roses of western Massachusetts, the mystical roses of Yeats, Hilda Doolittle's sea rose, Dominique Fourcade’s click-rose, and Gertrude Stein's rose is a rose. In Berssenbrugge’s collection, the topos of a rose-as-woman or woman-as-rose is less obvious: “She” could be a scarlet Bourbon rose whose “inter-being” exists synchronously with the perceiver, or a subjective perception merged with the rose’s existence; or “she” could be the speaker herself. Neither does Hello, the Roses play upon conventional female topoi with the dark irony of Anne Sexton’s “Red Roses,” and not surprisingly, comic impulses of satire and parody are absent, as well.
In the phenomenological and empirical dimensions well-known in her poetic strategy, Berssenbrugge plays subversively with figurative representation, as in the poem, “Green:”
The green shadow is a two-dimensional reality that exists seamlessly upon three-dimensional undergrowth of saxifrage, reindeer moss, cinnamon fern.
A shadow in multiple darkening greens in the ground’s attribute of tree, the way a phenomenon is pre-given for me to come into presence.
Even with lavish uses of adjectival language—a lyric convention—the collection, as a whole, maintains a clinical yet musical diction reminiscent of the Steinian aphorism, “Rose is a rose is a rose” (“Sacred Emily”), restoring the essence of a thing—a rose—by shedding, through repetition, clichéd associations accrued through centuries of patriarchal lyric convention. In a less minimalist way, Berssenbrugge’s rhapsodic lines shimmer with defamiliarizations of the natural world and with delight in language itself. The word, “perfume,” does not merely evoke the idea of sweetness or fragrance. Instead, perfume is an “emotion” that “records as a sphere” in memory as a form of “touch[ing] dimensionality." In a paradoxical turn, even the invisible is perceived conceptually, namely, as a color of subjective awareness: “Invisibility comes through of deep pink or a color I see clairvoyantly." These shifts and transformations challenge preconceptions about our experiences in nature, such as encountering fragrant blossoms at dusk.
Conveyed through oblique comparisons, the poetry of Berssenbrugge’s collection depersonalize the very same perceptions of subjective experiences it evokes. One speaker describes a soul-body phenomenon of consciousness: “My soul radially whorls out to the edges of my body, according to the same laws by which stars shine, / communicating with my body by emanation." The scarlet Bourbon rose is the soul’s radial whorl, a configuration simultaneously hybridizing flesh (“my body”), the spiritual realm (“my soul”), and “the same laws by which stars shine.” Rather than describing the rose as vivid or lovely, Berssenbrugge’s title poem resists convention by referring to holograms, photons, the retina, then the optic nerve—“radiance stepping down to matter.” With scientific precision, the “sense impression of a rose” modulates in a journey of unfolding perception: “I inhale the perfume of the Bourbon rose, then try to separate what is scent, sense, and what you call memory, what is emotion, where in a dialogue like touching is it so vibratory and so absorbent of my attention and longing, with impressions like fingerprints all over." The site of the incarnate rose—along with a soul “communicating with my body by emanation”—spills into disparate realms, both empirical and ethereal. It resists a monolithic interpretation of the rose while conveying, musically and philosophically, a dynamic field of sensations.
As boundaries of flora and flesh dissolve, the collection’s poems are not only a means to a pleasurable reading experience—one where we encounter a beautiful rose vicariously, for instance—but a journey through a cerebral poetics of perception, as in “Verdant Heart:”
With respect to silver foliage of artemisia, magenta florets of ventana, yellow poinciana: meaning is the sense-phenomenon and develops into precise joys of imagination through which flowers are perceived.
To this end, Berssenbrugge’s metapoetic style not only conveys how our interactions with the natural world translate into our perceived experiences; additionally, her language embodies—or constitutes—a poetic encounter with those perceptions. While the subject inhales the perfume of cabbage roses and watches a garden glow at dusk “with a quality of light I might see when light shines through mist or in early morning reflects off water,” the notions of intention, awareness, and sensation exist concurrently with “the bio-photons of a plant and generate feeling in response." A nexus of light, paired with phenomenological language, culminates multivalently as the word “expression” could refer to creative expression or a genetic phenotype such as color: “Here, with a white rose, color is clairsentient, this color in the process of being expressed, like seeing Venus in the day." The rose-star trope is a conventional one, but inserting a reference to phenotypic expression is certainly a rare lyric move.
As a collection, Hello, the Roses shifts desire away from the body as a mediator of sensual experience to the realm of language and intellection, an essential Berssenbrugge gesture. Her oeuvre continues to raise our awareness of language’s role in consciousness and opens up ways of considering subjects in relation to objects of perception: Hello, the Roses encourages us to ponder the essential components of perception itself. The poems ask questions about whether language constitutes how we perceive experience, whether perception is equivalent to experience, or whether our perceptions are framed by the ways we use language. What is the role of language in defining boundaries between mind and matter, soul and body? As a poetic investigation of consciousness, Hello, the Roses encompasses age-old epistemological queries: What is beauty, and how do know what is beautiful? What does subjective experience have to do with objectivity? Is an object beautiful without subjective judgment? Are the criteria for beauty subjective or objective? And so forth—as Berssenbrugge’s collection traces morning stars, heady Bourbon-rose perfume, and the depths of a heart glowing at the speed of light.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012). Her first book, In Medias Res, received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she lives and teaches in greater Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Brown University and a PhD in literature from the University of California, Berkeley.
Hello, the Roses
by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
New Directions: New York, 2013
$16.00 paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0811220910