Saturday, 14 February 2015


Of shoulders like continents and  love in Ferrari

Many years ago when I first met Jim Berger in  Tanzania  we  shared art, music and literature constantly. He was one of many foreign teachers working at International School Moshi.
During those pre-internet days when there were no social networking forums,  this sort of open exchange was uncommon and quite uplifting for two young writers from totally different cultures.  I  thought he was a very abstract writer. We are talking 1981 and 1982.  As a young African author  I thought like (the rest of my generation ) that literature and art should serve a purpose.
Stimulate, educate, liberate. Message art. Bob Marley, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gil Scott Heron, that type of line.

Back then,  my writing was still in its infancy.  I had been an active  journalist for around five years. Had  few poems published. Was in a music band called Sayari.  Had just won a BBC Prize in 1981......little going on yet... not a total beginner, nevertheless.

Fast forward,  thirty something years later and in stumbles James Berger’s “Prior” 2013 collection.  I don’t think James has changed. He is still writing the same way. It is me who has a different perspective. James Berger is now a senior lecturer at Yale University, a professor running workshops and classes on language and literature. The man is still the same, yes, but with few more tricks up his steadily, evolving sleeves. Yes. Jim Berger  in evolution. Plays trombone instead of guitar (like those Moshi days), married with kids.  
 James Berger in London, Summer 2014...

I really enjoyed “Prior” which (for me) explores self understanding.  Having traveled a lot, became  parent and grandparent, published my own books and albums and still writing regular columns, I find it much easier to relate to "Prior" than in 1982. 

When we jammed in London in summer 2014, James was still the same artist. Tinkling and playing with sounds, melodies, words.
Jim blows his trombone in a jamming with London musician Nadia Al Faghih Hasan 
Author Joanna Klink writes that Berger’s collection gives us “a sense of the fierceness of being alive, and the sheer gift of being able to reflect on what that means," while award winning author and scholar, Richard Deming says, “Berger is a poet for this, our only, right now.” 

"Prior” is first and foremost, in my opinion, about personal matters. Family. Look, for example, at how James talks, unflinchingly, about his  siblings.
“It has occurred to me

That my sisters are almost entirely

Missing from my poetry...” (Tacit, page 59).
Ironically, Tacit, (used in music to mean silence), is symbolic of his disabled sisters.
My mostly deeply defining experience of language was the fact
Of my two sisters’ inability to speak their mental retardation, as we used to call it...”
Playful or not, JamesBerger the writer is very frank. Especially when referring to his children.
“My daughters can climb up the table now, how can I protect them?
My daughters  fly at the speed of time. How can I know what they know?”
(My Goal, pg 105).
 The very long epic piece, “Fragilist” is littered with various themes, divided in 17 stanzas. Amongst them, still wagging a pen of courage and bravery, James Berger tackles his origins and ethnicity. I am not entirely sure what stanza 8 and 9 (with this character called Moschiach) means to Mr Berger, but, some interesting lines:
“He studies Talmud. The rest of his ineptitude

He wears an arrogance he’s only recently discovered

A dark suit on the hottest day.

I am the Jew, it says, what are you going to do about it?”  
James Berger does not do traditional Jewish stuff like long beards or chants, yet he is entitled to question his own skin. I wonder why the younger me called him abstract over a quarter of a century ago?
My personal best is the little untitled story  on page 69. Poet is seated by the window of a bar on Broadway , reading and drinking beer.  In walks this “pretty girl , dark hair, wavy but not curly, small, smiling,” up to him and asks  if they know each other. Poet says no but later regrets not lying (“there were thousands of pretty girls  who looked similar who had that look”).
Unfortunately, those sort of incidents rarely happen. He is now older, has a bald, with lines “not the sort of man to elicit erotic mistakes!”
Lovely piece about aging and being less attractive to the opposite sex. I equally love the way it ends, “ I can never return to her. Of course. To what can I return?”
So cheeky.
When I was younger, content used to engulf me. As I developed, balancing  form and content is much , much more fundamental. That is why I am so fond of Jim’s word skills and phrasing, which matches his jazz trombone.
“Epithalamium : The Contraption” (pgs 60-61)
“We are being married under the entire sky”
“Our love is not a Ferrari”
And ...
“Our love is not an organic perfect unity

With every element linked in harmony

Like a cat or a sequoia.”
 Sequoias in California. Pic from Yosemite Scenic Wonders...

Contraption (the title) itself means a complicated machine.
“Shoulders like continents

Why is he so tightly bunched

Its music that pulls his brain off.”
(Stanza no 7 on Fragilist).

 I am thinking how subliminally, Professor Berger  pays tribute to us all with our messed up postures and repetitive syndrome. Shoulders like continents.  Beautiful line.
 “My aim, which is my goal, is to love
This semblance, ordering of bordering
Return to true strophes
That delineate the catastrophe.”
(My Goal, page 105)
 It is a hard task citing all the 100 plus verses.   Divided into, four sections ( In the Shape of Breathing,  New resolutions of Memory,  The Enclosure, I do Return, I keep returning), this is a must read. Happily recommended. Publisher is  BlazeVOX.

All pics by author

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