I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems

I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems

by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

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Drawing on four decades of work and including new poems published here for the first time, this selection of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry displays the extraordinary luminosity characteristic of her style—its delicate, meticulous observation, great scenic imagination, and unusual degree of comfort with states of indetermination, contingency, and flux.See more details below


Drawing on four decades of work and including new poems published here for the first time, this selection of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry displays the extraordinary luminosity characteristic of her style—its delicate, meticulous observation, great scenic imagination, and unusual degree of comfort with states of indetermination, contingency, and flux.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Over the past quarter century, Berssenbrugge has released her work solely in small press editions, many of which are now out of print. This collection serves as a worthy introduction to her elegant oeuvre, but does not take the place of a collection, particularly because Berssenbrugge tends to work long, and some of what is here is excerpted. There are nine poems total from her first three books, of which the 10-part "The Heat Bird," from the book of the same title (1983), serves as a kind of turning point into Berssenbrugge's first major work, Empathy (1989), half of which is reprinted here. Berssenbrugge writes what might be called proofs, working sensuously off the language of science to find the divides between elements over which one has control and those over which one does not, "a constant notation of parallel streams of thought and observation." Though all three are represented, excerpts from two of her Kelsey Street Editions releases, Four Year Old Girl (1998) and Nest (2003), should send readers to those beautifully produced volumes. The four new poems are the book's weakest, but seem transitional. ("Even if a detail resists all significance or function, it's not useless, precisely," notes the title work.) If the book brings new readers to the last three titles listed above, it will have done its job. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
New California Poetry Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

I Love Artists

New and Selected Poems

By Mei-mei Berssenbrugge


Copyright © 2006 Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93910-3



    Tang tang tang tang tang tang tang
    ting ting ting ting ting
    I eat a goat

    bite into the flesh
    of the spirit on the island

    brown-eyed spirit flies
    into emptiness
    like an empty goat skull

    odor of sea shell.

    Perpetual Motion


    You go to the mountains
    stretch in the light aquariums
    and wait—
    stillness turns in its well


    I touch your face
    of rosewood and sap

    the last vanished yellow
    of sunset on the mountain

    the first cellular light of a flank


    Walking up the mountain
    before an avalanche
    you'll find the sandstone
    of the peak tattooed with waves

    The summit moves with the tide.


    My great-grandfather dozed after drinking
    hot liquor in his dark room full of books
    When she entered to wake him without knocking
    as she did every night being the first grandchild
    he was dead. One fur sleeve touched the floor
    Once he carried her in his big sleeve through
    cold halls to the kitchen where they were burning
    straw. His daughter took her smelling of wormwood
    behind the fireplace to feed. It wasn't the same robe
    he died in, but the same color and cloth. My mother
    really can't remember the smell of lynx, herbs
    against moths, nor the slowness of his step
    which must have been told.

    The Reservoir


    The reservoir is trying to freeze over
    with an expanding map shaped like an angel
    Separated lovers on a coast keep walking
    toward each other. Low sun reddens
    their faces without heat

    They are weary of always moving
    so seldom touching, but never think
    to move inland, massive and stable
    Imagoes hatched on thin ice, it's
    their illusion membranes are brighter
    than occluded flesh of interiors

    Membranes have the density
    of an edge, and edges violent as lava


    All day she walked across the tundra
    He began to drive away obliquely
    at exactly her speed, so she altered
    her angle, aiming above him, as in a current

    He departed in a zone that solidified
    at his whim, so she reached for his hand
    Land cracked with their weight. He seemed
    to reach toward her, a hand like paper
    twisted and folded over, only a surface
    with wan modulations, like a map


    Then she delicately stepped out
    toward the edge, tenuous as a leaf
    as if waiting for a letter
    but it froze too swiftly before her
    At dusk his voice broke her concentration
    She turned, vexed, and saw he had not spoken.

    from The Field for Blue Corn


    Certain colors are the conversation
    we held one dusk, that altered
    from the violent afterglow of fresh bones
    to the gray corolla of old ones, only minerals
    As restless matrices in blue sage dissolved
    a horntoad ran under a bush. I insisted it was
    a baby bird. Then a baby bird and a horntoad
    ran out. Now, on a hill I never noticed
    between two close ones we've climbed, I see
    at an altered angle. Some small shift in refraction
    has set the whole plain trembling and hostile


    I wondered if seasons were invented
    by our brain, which is maternal, to soothe
    chaotic events, since no springs here
    have been alike. Moths swarmed the elm tree
    one year, and bees the next, so I thought
    it was the teeming, but this year is dry
    austere, an anatomical drawing of the heart
    taken from life, inaccurate and scientific
    Branches without leaves over bare ground
    pretend to reveal everything. We revolved
    around ourselves as if we were central, the way
    the earth was, which is not, like this plain
    sun lights between the Taos Mountains and Jemez
    Now, move a little to the west. Seasons are
    an amulet against the heartbreak of things not unique
    dulling loss by flowerings, the columbine
    that died back. A rite of passage is the first
    winter, we need to survive meeting strangers
    as pulsating light and not explosions, the way
    a flower, as "the culmination of a plant"
    expresses its seductive intent


    Color is an aspect of the light on a face
    and on the pale gash of a washout in the hills
    like spans of window glass on winter sky
    The hue of vapors is revealed through a filter
    of clouds with soulful articulation. We see
    blue shadows on peaks normally glittering
    with snow. I learned the palette
    of diffuse days. Positive tones, finely altered
    are silence and distance. In curtained rooms
    a pulse beats in prisms on the floor
    Other days one goes out adorned and sunburnt
    All the more precious a veined wing
    Undiluted brightness is an aspect with heroic
    edges, in spite of common immersion in sun
    as from the lover's face, veiled or aggressive
    along a large but rhythmic wave. As with
    land, one gets a sense of the variations
    though infinite, and learns to make references


    Please stay a little longer, at least
    until the garden is turned, our old whimsical
    siege on arid land, where I have seen snow peas
    and columbine, even though not inert growth
    Extra effort to keep a flowering vine as it is
    entropy, is locked into our memory, since
    we'd naively assumed flowering was natural
    A sprout against its seed coat is the first
    battle, after the one with air. All the seeds
    seem to fall near the enemy. If I have failed
    to grow herbs in a knot, as in English gardens
    some motley hardy ones may take, and buckle
    the topsoil with incompatible roots. Please
    stay. Help me pace out the field for blue corn
    If a winter has seemed to pass as only our shadows
    on a rough wall, weren't they blank and rough
    as apple petals blown over and over each other
    to drift in heaps on the porches?

    The Constellation Quilt

    She stitched her story on black
    silk patches from the mourning dress, quaint
    as our novels will seem, but we still recognize
    tonight's sky, as if there were a pattern
    whose edges compose with distance, like nebulae
    or namings, so triangles become Orion
    Horse, Morning Star, not flanks and wings imagined
    in gases, or story pieced out of intervals
    from which any might grow, as if sparks ever
    scatter the same, or a name assume one face
    and stance, dated in cross-stitch in a corner
    Stitching a name like defoliate in white thread
    on white fabric leaves the leaf empty. In that
    century, it was a giraffe or a bear's act. Sometimes
    the only pattern seems shock waves advancing
    in parallel fanned lines, leaving a tide's debris
    whose pattern is moon, cryptic as if there were none
    the one safe assumption. Littlest sisters eclipsed
    are each another story of a marriage, using the same
    scraps for different constellations, Bear, Swan

    The Heat Bird


    A critic objects to their "misterian" qualities
    I look it up and don't find it, which must relate
    to the mystères in religions. Stepping
    across stones in the river, which covers
    my sound, I startle a big bird who must circle
    the meadow to gain height. There is a din
    of big wings. A crow loops over and over
    me. I can see many feathers gone from its wing
    by sky filling in, but it's not the big bird
    I walk into the meadow to find what I've already called
    an eagle to myself. At first you just notice a heap
    like old asphalt and white stones dumped


    There is a curving belly. The cow's head is away from me
    Its corpse is too new to smell, but as an explanation
    hasn't identified my bird. Twice I'm not sure if light wings
    between some bushes are not light through crow feathers
    but then I really see the expansive back swoop down
    and circle up to another cottonwood and light
    It's a buzzard with a little red head. You say
    that's good. They're not so scarce anymore. It should
    have been more afraid of me


    Fresh wind blows the other way at dawn, so
    I'm free to wonder at the kind of charge such a mass
    of death might put on air, which is sometimes clear
    with yellow finches and butterflies. That poor heap
    is all sleeping meat by design with little affect
    I decide in a supermarket, whose sole mystère is
    an evocative creak in a wheel. Not unlike a dead stinkbug
    on the path, but unlike a little snake I pass over
    All night I pictured its bones for a small box of mine
    Today I remembered, on my last night you wanted to
    linger after the concert, drinking with other couples
    like a delicate dragonfly


    And I can't predict your trauma. Potent and careless
    as radiation here, which we call careless, because
    we don't suspect anything. Then future form is in doubt
    Like a critic I thought form was an equilibrium
    which progressed by momentum from some original reduction
    of fear to the horizon. But my son's thigh bones
    are too long. I seduced myself. I thought
    I'll give it a little fish for the unexpected. Its paw
    moved. My back-bones are sparking mica on sand
    now, that carried messages up and down


    Glass that melted in the last eruption of the
    Valle Grande has cooled, and you can run
    among wild iris on a slope, or fireweed in the fall
    Its former violence is the landscape, as far as
    Oklahoma. Its ontogeny as a thin place scrambles
    the plane's radio, repeating the pre-radio dream
    At any time, they all tell us, to think of eruption
    as a tardy arrival into present form, the temperate crystal
    I still see brightness below as night anger, not
    because of violence, but its continuousness with the past
    while airy light on the plain is merciful and diffuse
    that glints on radium pools. I wanted to learn how
    to dance last year. I thought your daughter might teach me


    She did a pretty good job at elucidating something
    she didn't understand and had no interest in
    out of duty. She has evoked a yen for dance. Any
    beat with wind through it. In an apricot tree
    were many large birds, and an eagle that takes off
    as if tumbling before catching its lift. I thought
    it was flight that rumpled the collar down like a broken neck
    but then as it climbed, it resembled a man in eagle dress
    whose feathers ruffle back because of firm feet
    stamping the ground in wind. The other birds discreetly
    passed their minutes with old drummers of stamina
    but eagles entered swept ground oblivious to other drummers
    making streams of rhythm in their repetitions
    until pretty soon some of the other ladies' white feet
    moved to them, too, bound thickly around the ankles
    so their claws look especially small


    Where I saw their fine cross-hatch was competition
    not air moving through air or weather
    though the water balloon she tried to dodge
    as it wobbled this way and that like big buttocks
    before breaking on her shoulder was rain. The rain
    is not important. It rains, not very often
    but regularly. If I am far from you isn't the current
    of missed events between us an invention of potency
    like a summer storm at night, or when I see you
    A throw of food and household goods from the roof
    to all of us became a meteor shower across fixed stars
    In their parallel rain I can't judge each gift's distance


    I looked to my right. Though sun wasn't yet behind
    them, it was bright near each tree at the top
    of the ridge in silhouette. These were precise
    too, on a closer edge outside time, being botanical
    I mix outside time and passing time, across
    which suspends a net of our distance or map
    in veering scale, that oils sinuous ligaments
    or dissolves them into a clear liquid of disparates
    that cannot be cleaned. Its water glows like wing bars
    and remains red and flat in pools. On the way
    to that town there were green waist-high meters on the plain
    There was a sharp, yellow line on the blacktop
    In rain it remains sharp, but its dimension below the road
    softens and lengthens through aquifers. The eagles'
    wingbones began to stretch open with practicing, so
    luminous space in their wings showed against the sky
    giving each a great delicacy in turns


    They took me to the little town where they were
    working, because I asked them to take me. To my left
    was an old porch with long roof boards going away
    from me, on 2 × 8 rafters perpendicular to them
    and the falling-down house. Light descended
    to my right. Narrow cracks between boards cast
    a rain of parallel bright lines across the rafters
    which seemed precise and gay in the ghost town
    They were outside its time, though with each change in sun
    they changed a little in angle and length, systematically
    They were outside the carnage of my collaborative seductions
    When I touch your skin or hear singers in the dark, I get
    so electric, it must be my whole absence pushing
    I think, which might finally flow through proper canyons
    leaving the big floor emptied of sea, empty again
    where there used to be no lights after dark


    Prosaic magpies arrive about the time ribs begin
    to show a beautiful scaffolding over its volume
    where the organs were. The buzzard now brings to mind
    a defunct windmill with a wheel hub, but no blades. The eagle's
    descending back still bears, after enough time has passed
    when the event is articulate, and I know its configuration
    is not mixed, or our mingling, or the "intent" of a dance
    If a bright clearing will form suddenly, we will
    already know of it

    Tan Tien

    As usual, the first gate was modest. It is dilapidated. She can't tell
    which bridge crossed the moat, which all cross sand now, disordered with footsteps.
    It's a precise overlay of circles on squares, but she has trouble locating
    the main avenue and retraces her steps in intense heat for the correct entrance,
    which was intentionally blurred, the way a round arch can give onto a red wall,
    far enough in back of the arch for sun to light.

    If being by yourself separates from your symmetry, which is
    the axis of your spine in the concrete sense, but becomes a suspension
    in your spine like a layer of sand under the paving stones of a courtyard
    or on a plain, you have to humbly seek out a person who can listen to you,
    on a street crowded with bicycles at night, their bells ringing.

    And any stick or straight line you hold can be your spine,
    like a map she is following in French of Tan Tien. She wants space to fall
    to each side of her like traction, not weight dispersed within a mirror. At any time,
    an echo of what she says will multiply against the walls in balanced,
    dizzying jumps like a gyroscope in the heat, but she is alone.

    Later, she would remember herself as a carved figure and its shadow on a blank board,
    but she is her balancing stick, and the ground to each side of her is its length,
    disordered once by an armored car, and once by an urn of flowers at a crossing.
    The stick isn't really the temple's bisection around her, like solstice or ancestor.
    This Tang Dynasty peach tree would be a parallel levitation in the spine
    of the person recording it.

    Slowly the hall looms up. The red stair's outline gives way to its duration
    as it extends and rises at a low angle.
    In comparison to the family, the individual hardly counts, but they all
    wait for her at a teahouse inside the wall.
    First the gold knob, then blue tiers rise above the highest step,
    the same color as the sky.

    When one person came to gain its confidence,
    she imagines he felt symmetry as flight after his fast among seven meteorites
    in the dark. He really felt like a globe revolving within a globe.
    Even the most singular or indivisible particle or heavenly sphere will adjust
    when the axis extending beyond itself is pushed, or the sphere it is within
    is pushed. What she thought was her balance flattens into a stylized dragon
    on the marble paving stones.

    Yet she's reluctant to leave the compound. Only the emperor
    could walk its center line. Now, anyone can imagine how it felt
    to bring heaven news. She is trying to remember this in Hong Kong
    as the tram pulls suddenly above skyscrapers and the harbor
    and she flattens against her seat, like a reversal occurring in the poles,
    or what she meant by, no one can imagine how.


Excerpted from I Love Artists by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Copyright © 2006 Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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