Chien Lunatique by Christopher Bernard
“And now, the continuing stoooory of a quack who’s gone to the dogs,” – Veterinarian’s Hospital sketch from The Muppet Show
“They won’t last a year!” – Rod La Rocque about “the talkies” (films with sound)
With searing anger and a jaundiced perspective on modernity, Chien Lunatique: Poems, by Christopher Bernard represents a portrait of an intellect at its most reactionary. The back cover name-checks everything
from the Renaissance and the philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth century to the nihilism of postmodernism, from the death of God to the bankruptcy of humanism, from the midnight of the Enlightenment to the immortalized barbarism of the internet.
All of that apocalyptic negativity about modernity, humanism, and the Enlightenment make it seem like catnip for the knuckle-dragging thugs of the alt-right and their Boschian-visaged paladin, Steve Bannon. At least the poetry within radiates with an intelligence and passion, albeit with a few missteps.
Percy Shelley saw poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Given how the acknowledged legislators of the United States are a blathering Lovecraftian heap of nativist hate-mongers and sanctimonious hustlers, perhaps we could think of a better parallel. The legislators of this country, of both parties, are mainly self-serving, self-aggrandizing parasites placed into office by constituents either too stupid or too oblivious to understand how voting against their own self-interests work. Herd mentality versus a rival herd mentality. Still, democracy embodies the voice of the people, even if that voice is incoherent, uninformed, and unintelligible.
Chien Lunatique, aka “the Mad Dog,” is anger and rage and exasperation hewed into poetic form. The challenge comes in fashioning something recognizable from blinding anger. In the first poem “Black Fire,” the poet tells us
He belonged to the charming, hopeless breed
of obsessive scribblers whom nobody reads
A Hugh Sewlyn Mauberley for the Internet Age. Like Pound, Bernard is an innovator and reactionary, a politicized poet, and a seeker of good government in times past. Unfortunately, Chien Lunatique can’t hold a candle to Pound’s early masterpiece. Bernard’s poetry collection lacks the refinement and deft editorial hand required to elevate Chien Lunatique from novelty to transcendent masterpiece. Less an indictment of the subject matter than of botched execution. Anger can cloud judgment and being beholden to the emotions can make one miss obvious errors. There are numerous stand-out poems in this collections, but others should have been excised with the blue pencil.
Case in point, “The Young Man Reviews Books on YouTube,”:
“My name is Buford P. Sheetsalot,
And I post (for a fee – I’m a greedy snot!)
Book reviews on YouTube.”
Even though he’s a boob;
Pontificates on selfies
Video-captured on unhealthy-
Looking rooftops in L.A.;
Like an old-fashioned popinjay,
Ugh. Stop! Just stop! I’m not sure what is worse about this poem: the subject matter or the form it takes? The cheapjack doggerel is pretty horrendous. Complaining about the Internet at this point seems pretty passe and outdated. Now, granted, YouTube can cultivate a fair share of horrendous comments full of racist and misogynist animus. But the Internet has been around for twenty years. Complaining about this seems like a futile waste of energy. Mainstream publishing has its negative aspects, but the desire for a multinational conglomerate to produce nothing but works on par with Alice Munro is naïve. Worse than naïve, its childish.
“A Young Man Reviews Books on YouTube” should have cut from this collection. Several other poems should have also been excised. The worse part is poems like “A Young Man” drag the entire collection down. We writers – myself included – have fragile egos, big ideas, and hair-trigger emotions. Unlike presidents and CEOs, we don’t have chiefs of staff to tells us “No.” But we do have trusted beta readers, first readers, and friends concerned with both our well-being and our literary reputation. Once a book is out in public it is subject to the worst impulses of the critical community and the general public. I’m a champion of Christopher Bernard and his unique literary perspective. Which made reading this poem all the worse, a cliched nails on blackboard cringe.
On the other hand, “The Invention of Fire” is a magnificent anti-ode to civilization. “[C]ivilized life,/ that Frankenstein monster of silica and code.” The line previous asks “What if we could / unpave, unpollute, unpoison the world”? Then begins stanza after stanza of apocalyptic glee:
A wind picks up over the empty land:
its blows forests of sky dishes away,
flocks of radios, stereophonic herds,
the clotted brainpans of obsessive nerd,
Thankfully the contrived rhyming doesn’t last, the destructive energy propelling the poem beyond the ersatz wit of tortured couplets:
rollerblades, Velcro and nonstick pans,
silicon chips reduced to sand,
rare earth metals melting down with smartphones,
the burnt-out husks of intelligent homes,
trains and steamships and telegraphs and sails
crossing the seas like clouds of white whales[.]
The rhyming couplets reduce to the apocalypse to the mock-heroic, although if that’s the intended tone, it undercuts the gravitas of the situation. Day in and day out, the mass media blasts us with grim stories about climate change, technology run amok, and refugees of war. If I get the same message in clever rhymes, do I need to this stuff seriously?
A poem devoid of rhyming couplets and a preachy thesis is “Sleeping Beauty.” Short and taut, it breathes the same air of civilization’s collapse and impending doom, but without the usual tone of hectoring-preacher-turned-stand-up-comedian that pervades these poems. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Locked inside a maniac civilization
hustling between suicide and oblivion,
her face pressed against the glass,
her breathing cannot penetrate the air,
the wind’s sheer footprints
stumbling in a perp walk seven billion strong,
the crevasse catching her ankle in its teeth,
the glacier slipping from her bed,
the salt thickening her hair as it rises,
the shadows craning over her cradle
with a railing witch’s eyes.
If only all these poems were that good! The concision and imagery create an allegorical portrait of a world gone mad. I could write an exegesis on what the images mean, but that would defang it. Just absorb the images, letting them sink into your subconscious.
A book filled with poems on the aesthetic level of “Sleeping Beauty” would put Bernard in the running to be the next Ezra Pound. (Pound remained a gifted poet all his life, but was ruined by his obsessions about economics and good government. The taint of antisemitism and his stubbornness to recant has forever poisoned his literary legacy.) On the whole, Bernard’s poetry reminds of John Updike’s early poetry, clever but slight. The ability to have complete creative control over one’s literary output can be a double-edged sword. Chien Lunatique is not a bad poetry collection, far from it. But it also not a stellar poetry collection.