Deborah Bernhardt, Echolalia, Four Way Books, 2006

[Review Guidelines]

Deborah Bernhardt is not pleased with the page. She tells the page this herself:

Dear Page:

I hate you. The intentionality of this container
can be moved to strike. The artificiality too.

Wooshik says a rat-tat-tat-tat is an echo in your voice.
A ding-a-ling-a-ling is a song for your house.
This house

is a continuous present—

As one might guess from the tourettic title, Bernhardt has a lot to say about language, riffing on sounds and individual words one moment and the shapes of ampersands the next. Even the type is carefully scattered across the page—brackets and lines representing the seating arrangement at a wedding reception, for instance. And then, shockingly, she turns around, offers a prose poem about her mother's cancer. "Her voice is completely colorless, twenty-four hours later, when she calls me collect and says I think I need help. / Your ragdoll heart, after twenty-eight years of never hearing that, would crash out of its cradle too." She dips and spins about the page, the whole thing finely and wholly choreographed.
      This is not poetry that is pleased to be confined in any way. But Bernhardt manages, as much as anyone manages, to make use of constriction. Her poems bubble into different forms—mingling dialogues, forwarded messages, bits of other texts—that at once expand and refine her voice. There are no gimmicks to this kind of echolalia, just careful play that pulls the reader between pausing and seeking out more.
      Perhaps Bernhardt's biggest accomplishment is that she manages to keep the momentum steady. Even in the absence of narrative, she still gives her audience something to read forward to. The words dazzle, but they don't distract from what's truly happening. Bernhardt is no sleight-of-hand artist—she gets to the point and then cuts you in half.

Hard to master, though it disaster,
the intent. Their loss. Accept
keys. Accept

the intent where it was meant.
Lost I: my mother's.
A disaster.

–Even losing You, I love.
I shan't.
Of losing:—the fluster.

Fittingly, the book ends by channeling e. e. cummings, even calling him by name. The lines, "I want random; / i want i don't know," seem to deliver the last word on the book's many subjects. Having argued against form and function and language, unsatisfied even with the page itself, Bernhardt in the end wins the argument not by breaking structure or cracking grammar, but by making every rule and sound work for her in a way we're not used to—leaving her reader surprised, satisfied. [TF]