Cosmic Travel: On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “A Treatise on Stars”

Cosmic Journey: On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “A Treatise on Stars”


REFLECTING ON MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE’S newest assortment, A Treatise on Stars (New Instructions), poet Bhanu Kapil tweeted, “I’m wondering what it means, really, all of the sudden, that so many people love her work.” I understood this sense — my copy of the guide arrived from the USA to my desk in London days earlier than the workplace was shut, and my quick horizons have change into smaller since. However there’s something hopeful concerning the huge compassion of Berssenbrugge’s poetry and the residing connections she gently illuminates between all issues.

A Treatise on Stars is Berssenbrugge’s 14th guide, and written in her characteristically lengthy, spooling traces. Departing from her earlier assortment, Good day, the Roses (2013), A Treatise on Stars turns its consideration from botany and the pure world to “sky beings.” The gathering gestures towards dimensions of expertise “exterior spacetime,” and weaves collectively consciousnesses in constellation-like patterns. Right here, “trying is an innate impulse towards wholeness,” and the easy act of witness is transportive: “Stars are holes in the dead of night; after I take a look at one, I am going there.” The existence of extraterrestrials is rarely solid into doubt. There isn’t any room for skepticism right here. In “Pegasus,” the speaker commits to believing:

Tales of beings from the celebs and of cosmic journey merge to characterize me as their listener.

I take every topic for her phrase, through the size of our dialog, and don’t ask for proof.

Although the phrases aren’t distinctive, they’re honest, and her experiences as such are major information, in some circumstances comprising revelation:

The burden of proof is rarely positioned on the storyteller, and the rejection of “proof” and quantifiable “major information” mark a step away from Western theories of epistemology as accessible solely by way of proof and reasoning, towards a broader sense of understanding. This strand of thought recurs all through the gathering. In “Lux”: “I current bodily proof the place relevant, however my curiosity is in my informant and her phrases.” In “New Boys 2,” the speaker encounters a younger man making an attempt to precise his experiences of being “among the many stars.” He bumps up towards the constraints of language, as “[m]any of those beings […] will not be bodily 3D, so it’s irritating to explain them.” Though he’s unable to articulate his story, Berssenbrugge’s speaker gestures to a distinct technique of communication: “I don’t have to query the truth of his story. / He’s honest.” As such, she carves out area for a reality that’s disconnected from empirical buildings of definition, data, and rationality.

There’s one thing fairly political about this — the act of believing with out demanding proof. Right here, listening itself is a response, an act of compassion. Berssenbrugge’s work is famous for its aesthetic achievements and “experimentation,” however such readings typically decontextualize the work, ignoring the poet’s background as an Asian American girl. This context is inextricable from the a number of views that the work engenders: deracializing the poet solely bolsters the presumption of whiteness as default, and smooths out planes of complexity in writers of shade who’re unable to disregard race of their lived realities.

Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and moved to the USA at a younger age. In an article for Poetry London the poet Will Harris describes Berssenbrugge’s place — consistent with his personal — as a “racialised topic” whose “views on the world” are, inevitably “distorted by the best way the world sees” her. It’s tough to not learn of the “alien resident who runs the B&B in Abiquiu” with out the clear rhetorical hyperlinks that “alien” has with “immigrant,” notably the place Berssenbrugge lives, within the border state of New Mexico. From this attitude, her curiosity in listening and rejecting “proof” and “proof” — understanding the worth in sincerity as an alternative — suggests a disavowal of mounted, dominant Western buildings of data. Within the context of the immigrant/“alien,” this may be learn as a rejection of a system that makes use of such “proof” and “proof” to measure such intangible qualities as belonging or id. “Witnessing includes a significance equal to reality,” writes Berssenbrugge.

Compassion, a sort of realizing, is a pressure that recurs so typically all through the gathering that it takes on a major presence of its personal. In a dialogue with Charles Bernstein in 2000, Berssenbrugge spoke of the Buddhist determine Kuan Yin as “muse”: “the hearer of all cries” in Chinese language, who “additionally represents compassion.” Considering of compassion as an agentive pressure on this approach, traces akin to “I breathe in area lit by sundown and breathe out to any star; our compassion attracts quantity into the vacuum / Becoming a member of belief with compassion to elicit area is a type of divination” de-privilege a human lens. On this configuration, compassion is a pressure that exists and acts exterior will.

On this approach, ideas akin to compassion are untethered from any singular human topic. Berssenbrugge additionally does this with time:

Subsequent week, you discover me crying over a fawn whose mom was killed; I drove

to city for milk, however after I returned the fawn had died.

“It was very hungry, now it’s useless,” I let you know; “Its thoughts flows into my thoughts.”

“I’m weeping, as a result of I need milk.”

                        (“Consciousness Self-Learns”)

The shift in tenses inside these traces is disorienting: “gravity and time flex” because the speaker experiences on previous actions that occurred “[n]ext week.” Linear expectations of time contort expansively. In dialog with Laura Hinton in 2003, Berssenbrugge spoke about her curiosity in dismantling Western buildings of narration, stating, “All the pieces I do write presumes an East-West dialogue.” Her destablization of time right here may be seen as having an affinity to Japanese conceptions of time: cyclical slightly than linear.

The speaker’s voice flows seamlessly, inhabiting the consciousness of the fawn and griever with out dissonance. Right here, the dispersal of the speaker’s “I” speaks to a radical, lively empathy that Berssenbrugge nurtures all through the gathering, unsettling the notion of the speaker as one “entire.” On this approach, the boundaries between self and different are damaged down, and neither one is privileged. Later on this poem, the fawn’s “sample of being maintains and not using a mounted construction, whose digital particles and fields could embody my prayers, my compassion for it.” Energetic sides of Berssenbrugge’s “I” be part of different beings within the assortment, suggesting that by way of the facility of “prayers” and “compassion” — a sort of radical empathy — there isn’t any discrete, “genuine” self to inhabit. All the pieces is linked.

In “Star Beings,” Berssenbrugge writes, “I radiate desert perfume spontaneously.” Right here, the speaker’s “I” emanates outward within the type of scent, bodily dispersing itself. In an interview with Chi Tran in 2017, Berssenbrugge spoke to her personal experiences of this shifting self:

[S]ometimes we repair an thought of an id by utilizing boundaries like, inside this boundary is me, and outdoors just isn’t me. And I’ve a specific expertise round these boundaries as a result of I’ve a bodily downside known as Chemical Sensitivity, which suggests I react violently to an entire lot of regular issues. And so my boundaries will not be so clear. So, I feel that in your routine on a regular basis existence, you may have a set of boundaries, however these are arbitrary and are at all times in movement.

Readability, Berssenbrugge suggests, just isn’t an goal of her poetry. Certainly, in traces akin to, “When thoughts extends towards sky, it might take the type of a perceived star, as a result of respect is a portal,” cautious syntactic decisions serve to additional interrogate the expectation of 1, discrete voice.

These entanglements give method to a democratization of relations between all issues: “Any soul could distribute itself right into a human, a toy poodle, micro organism, an etheric, or quartz crystal. / One ring of Saturn could view its human portion on earth as ‘an alien’ (ha ha) or the one you like comes from a universe the place stars will not be distant, now not both sizzling or darkish,” (“Chaco and Olivia”). I’m reminded right here of Jane Bennett’s idea of significant materiality, outlined as “a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between people, biota and abiota” and “attracts human consideration sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Nice Chain of Being and towards a better appreciation of the complicated entanglements of people and nonhumans.”

From this attitude, relations that bind the human and nonhuman are essentially difficult and rendered extra empathetic. The subtleties of Berssenbrugge’s grammatical shifts heighten the eye that she accords to the complicated relations between phrases, sentences, issues: “I turned very emotional after I realized particles of my physique are entangled with each individual I’ve ever recognized, touched or considered, not solely household, however our president, each artist I’ve seen or learn, strangers described to me by others or named of their prayers.”

With care and compassion, Berssenbrugge reimagines what a “treatise” — as a proper, systematic show of data — would possibly seem like. On this time of enforced distancing, A Treatise on Stars speaks to the important interconnectedness of all issues, and factors to lively hyperlinks with the nonhuman. It provides a meditative mode of consideration with out reproach. Studying it, I leaned into the persistence that the gathering advocates: an invocation to “[n]urture perception that your physique’s infused with the deep intelligence of this info, whose sole objective is to maintain you.”


Joanna Lee is a London-based author and critic. Her work has appeared in The GuardianThe White Evaluate, and The Poetry Evaluate. She works in publishing: previously at Faber & Faber and presently at Curtis Brown.