SEPTEMBER 21, 2020
REFLECTING ON MEI-MEI BERSSENBRUGGE’S latest collection, A Treatise on Stars (New Directions), poet Bhanu Kapil tweeted, “I wonder what it means, actually, suddenly, that so many of us love her work.” I understood this feeling — my copy of the book arrived from the United States to my desk in London days before the office was shut, and my immediate horizons have become smaller since. But there is something hopeful about the vast compassion of Berssenbrugge’s poetry and the living connections she gently illuminates between all things.
A Treatise on Stars is Berssenbrugge’s 14th book, and written in her characteristically long, spooling lines. Departing from her previous collection, Hello, the Roses (2013), A Treatise on Stars turns its attention from botany and the natural world to “sky beings.” The collection gestures toward dimensions of experience “outside spacetime,” and weaves together consciousnesses in constellation-like patterns. Here, “looking is an innate impulse toward wholeness,” and the simple act of witness is transportive: “Stars are holes in the dark; when I look at one, I go there.” The existence of extraterrestrials is never cast into doubt. There isn’t any room for skepticism here. In “Pegasus,” the speaker commits to believing:
Stories of beings from the stars and of cosmic travel merge to characterize me as their listener.
I take each subject for her word, during the length of our conversation, and do not ask for evidence.
Though the words aren’t unique, they’re sincere, and her experiences as such are primary data, in some cases comprising revelation:
The burden of proof is never placed on the storyteller, and the rejection of “evidence” and quantifiable “primary data” mark a step away from Western theories of epistemology as accessible only through proof and reasoning, toward a broader sense of understanding. This strand of thought recurs throughout the collection. In “Lux”: “I present physical evidence where applicable, but my interest is in my informant and her words.” In “New Boys 2,” the speaker encounters a young man trying to express his experiences of being “among the stars.” He bumps up against the constraints of language, as “[m]any of these beings […] are not physically 3D, so it’s frustrating to describe them.” Although he is unable to articulate his story, Berssenbrugge’s speaker gestures to a different means of communication: “I don’t need to question the reality of his story. / He’s sincere.” As such, she carves out space for a truth that is disconnected from empirical structures of definition, knowledge, and rationality.
There’s something quite political about this — the act of believing without demanding evidence. Here, listening itself is a response, an act of compassion. Berssenbrugge’s work is noted for its aesthetic achievements and “experimentation,” but such readings often decontextualize the work, ignoring the poet’s background as an Asian American woman. This context is inextricable from the multiple perspectives that the work engenders: deracializing the poet only bolsters the presumption of whiteness as default, and smooths out planes of complexity in writers of color who are unable to ignore race in their lived realities.
Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and moved to the United States at a young age. In an article for Poetry London the poet Will Harris describes Berssenbrugge’s position — in line with his own — as a “racialised subject” whose “views on the world” are, inevitably “distorted by the way the world sees” her. It is difficult not to read of the “alien resident who runs the B&B in Abiquiu” without the clear rhetorical links that “alien” has with “immigrant,” particularly where Berssenbrugge lives, in the border state of New Mexico. From this perspective, her interest in listening and rejecting “evidence” and “proof” — understanding the value in sincerity instead — suggests a disavowal of fixed, dominant Western structures of knowledge. In the context of the immigrant/“alien,” this can be read as a rejection of a system that uses such “evidence” and “proof” to measure such intangible qualities as belonging or identity. “Witnessing involves a significance equivalent to truth,” writes Berssenbrugge.
Compassion, a kind of knowing, is a force that recurs so often throughout the collection that it takes on a significant presence of its own. In a dialogue with Charles Bernstein in 2000, Berssenbrugge spoke of the Buddhist figure Kuan Yin as “muse”: “the hearer of all cries” in Chinese, who “also represents compassion.” Thinking of compassion as an agentive force in this way, lines such as “I breathe in space lit by sunset and breathe out to any star; our compassion draws volume into the vacuum / Joining trust with compassion to elicit space is a form of divination” de-privilege a human lens. In this configuration, compassion is a force that exists and acts outside will.
In this way, concepts such as compassion are untethered from any singular human subject. Berssenbrugge also does this with time:
Next week, you find me crying over a fawn whose mother was killed; I drove
to town for milk, but when I returned the fawn had died.
“It was very hungry, now it’s dead,” I tell you; “Its mind flows into my mind.”
“I’m weeping, because I want milk.”
The shift in tenses within these lines is disorienting: “gravity and time flex” as the speaker reports on past actions that happened “[n]ext week.” Linear expectations of time contort expansively. In conversation with Laura Hinton in 2003, Berssenbrugge spoke about her interest in dismantling Western structures of narration, stating, “Everything I do write presumes an East-West dialogue.” Her destablization of time here can be seen as having an affinity to Eastern conceptions of time: cyclical rather than linear.
The speaker’s voice flows seamlessly, inhabiting the consciousness of the fawn and griever without dissonance. Here, the dispersal of the speaker’s “I” speaks to a radical, active empathy that Berssenbrugge nurtures throughout the collection, unsettling the notion of the speaker as one “whole.” In this way, the boundaries between self and other are broken down, and neither one is privileged. Later in this poem, the fawn’s “pattern of being maintains without a fixed structure, whose virtual particles and fields may include my prayers, my compassion for it.” Active facets of Berssenbrugge’s “I” join other beings in the collection, suggesting that through the power of “prayers” and “compassion” — a kind of radical empathy — there is no discrete, “authentic” self to inhabit. Everything is connected.
In “Star Beings,” Berssenbrugge writes, “I radiate desert fragrance spontaneously.” Here, the speaker’s “I” emanates outward in the form of smell, physically dispersing itself. In an interview with Chi Tran in 2017, Berssenbrugge spoke to her own experiences of this shifting self:
[S]ometimes we fix an idea of an identity by using boundaries like, inside this boundary is me, and outside is not me. And I have a particular experience around these boundaries because I have a physical problem called Chemical Sensitivity, which means I react violently to a whole lot of normal things. And so my boundaries are not so clear. So, I think that in your habitual everyday existence, you can have a set of boundaries, but those are arbitrary and are always in motion.
Clarity, Berssenbrugge suggests, is not an aim of her poetry. Indeed, in lines such as, “When mind extends toward sky, it may take the form of a perceived star, because respect is a portal,” careful syntactic choices serve to further interrogate the expectation of one, discrete voice.
These entanglements give way to a democratization of relations between all things: “Any soul may distribute itself into a human, a toy poodle, bacteria, an etheric, or quartz crystal. / One ring of Saturn may view its human portion on earth as ‘an alien’ (ha ha) or the one you love comes from a universe where stars are not distant, no longer either hot or dark,” (“Chaco and Olivia”). I’m reminded here of Jane Bennett’s theory of vital materiality, defined as “a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota and abiota” and “draws human attention sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Great Chain of Being and toward a greater appreciation of the complex entanglements of humans and nonhumans.”
From this perspective, relations that bind the human and nonhuman are necessarily complicated and rendered more empathetic. The subtleties of Berssenbrugge’s grammatical shifts heighten the attention that she accords to the complex relations between words, sentences, things: “I became very emotional when I realized particles of my body are entangled with every person I’ve ever known, touched or thought of, not only family, but our president, every artist I’ve seen or read, strangers described to me by others or named in their prayers.”
With care and compassion, Berssenbrugge reimagines what a “treatise” — as a formal, systematic display of knowledge — might look like. In this time of enforced distancing, A Treatise on Stars speaks to the vital interconnectedness of all things, and points to active links with the nonhuman. It offers a meditative mode of attention without reproach. Reading it, I leaned into the patience that the collection advocates: an invocation to “[n]urture belief that your body’s infused with the deep intelligence of this information, whose sole purpose is to sustain you.”
Joanna Lee is a London-based writer and critic. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, The White Review, and The Poetry Review. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic, and works in publishing: formerly at Faber & Faber and currently at Curtis Brown.