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This review is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

NOT POETRY AS POETRY CHARLES BERNSTEIN, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) $20

When a prolific poet offers his first thick Selected Poems at the relatively late age of sixty, he takes a risk. Moves that might have seemed impressive in a periodical or within small books can lose their weight when gathered together. That self-deflation is the principal revelation in the three hundred pages of Charles Bernstein's first large self-selection, All the Whiskey in Heaven.

The first revelation here is that even the best Bernstein poems are prosy, very prosy: more specifically a series of prose statements. The single best, perhaps because it has an ostensible subject other than Poetry, is 'Report from Liberty Street', written just after the destruction of the World Trade Center in his native New York City. Were it not so prosy, this would be the most likely choice for general non-sectarian anthologies in which, indicatively, Bernstein's work has so far rarely appeared. Perhaps another momentous subject will move him as propitiously.

To anyone already familiar with Bernstein's poetry, I pose this test: try to remember the title of a single poem that isn't already the title of a book of his. If you can't, you've measured the negative weight of his individual poems. Should the title of this new book seem odd, incidentally, consider his other curious choices: Girly Man (2008), Rough Trades (1991), The Nude Formalisms (1989), The Sophist (1987), Controlling Interests (1980), and My Way (1999, oddly echoing Mein Kampf). Neither clear nor poetic, these titles are obscure. I'm not ...


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