Winner of the Gival Press Poetry Award
The Silent Art by Clifford Bernier
From the Oxford American, Book Review by John Gosslee:
Poet Clifford Bernier’s first book won the Gival Press Poetry Award, landing $1,000 in his pocket. Though Bernier is a Washington D.C. resident, you might find this book, The Silent Art, in some swinging night club on the East Coast or at some hole-in-the-wall, gritty speak-easy where four guys who have played the blues in New Orleans for the past twenty years retired and go only by nicknames. The idea for the musical parts of The Silent Art came to Bernier while he was sitting on stage after a weekly open mic that featured a lot of improvisational music: his book is the jazz-music experience in poetry.
The Silent Art is bluesy and informal. The play in word choices—“cockatoos, the Nile, Broadway, and pickup truck”—intertwine with a musical cadence that lays down amusement. Bernier writes with fast-pitched rhythms like the lines from “U Street Strut” that takes place in a concert hall:
Drummer swings / lady sings, / he’s got sticks, / she’s got tricks, / he’s got beat, / she’s got heat, / she’s got moves, / she’s got grooves, / she’s got dreams, / she’s got schemes, / in control, / she’s got soul.
Like being inside of a recording studio, Bernier’s book brings us into the song with him. Bernier divided the chapters into terms that are often used in music theory: Espressivo, to play with a lot of passion, or Andante, slow and cool. In Adagio, the book’s first chapter, the words build with a smooth ease, like in the title poem: “The Mississippi draining into the Nile./ The hypothetical presence of wormholes./ Snakes with feet…The dialectic./ The final palm.” By the middle of The Silent Art, the book reads like a small orchestra—the instruments play in unison, but maintain their individuality. The poems bump and jive from one to the next like the songs of the jazz greats John Coltrane and Charles Mingus (whom Bernier writes about in two portrait poems).
Bernier’s book is a popping jazz song. He brings elements of Washington D.C.’s Old Town, his battle with manic depression, and the Day of the Dead together with the cacophony of street musicians, blues clubs, and some of his thoughts on love. Like an innovator brings some unexpected groove to music, The Silent Art brings some hip to poetry.
From Washington Independent Review of Books
Exemplars: A Poetry Feature by Grace Cavalieri:
“…Like Jazz itself these are poems of fervor, sometimes mournful, sometimes exuberant, but always serious equivalents of the music Bernier reveres. Musicians and poets both run toward pain, using sound to move through it. After it’s described— if a disciplined act—we have a piece, or a poem. If it’s valid, the vigor stays when we return to listen. Bernier weaves his legends from other countries with a primal beat to the line. He brings a resonance from other cultures that becomes pointillistic on the page. Musicians order their thoughts with portions of meaning, and so do poets; Bernier’s poems are well rhymed, and he makes spaces and line breaks serviceable to sound. This is part of his poetic exploration. Poetry is a ‘rhythmic argument’ and I think this term applies to Bernier—his recollections, his feelings, his loves….”
by Grace Cavalieri, January 2012
To read the complete review, click on the link below:
Washington Independent Review of Books
“Clifford Bernier’s The Silent Art takes us on a journey through countries, landscapes, musical forms and states of mind. Rivers flow through these places to the beat of conga drums, the wail of an alto sax and the voice of a woman singing scat. To read these poems is to enter a work of expressionist art. We might not always know what we’re seeing, and may even find ourselves a bit lost on unfamiliar terrain, yet, in the moments we spend with these poems, we cannot imagine being anywhere else or having any other guide but Bernier. Eventually, our souls catch up with each of these poems, and we are left transformed, knowing a little bit more about this universe than when we started. In that sense, these are ideal poems ‘uttered in the ideal way/at the ideal time/ by the ideal/ one.’”
—Judith Valente, correspondent, PBS-TV; co-editor, Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul; author of Discovering Moons
“Like musicians, poets strive for clarity, originality and perfect pitch. Clifford Bernier’s The Silent Art provides us with a bumper crop of each. As lovers of either genre well know, this is no small achievement. The poems found within this volume consistently walk the very fine lines between lyricism and conviction-detail and surprise. They embody Ezra Pound’s directive to those who toil in the poetic vineyard: ‘Make It New!’ His portraits of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus successfully embody each man’s essence, while successfully avoiding the cliches that often torpedo far too many literary portraits of these masters. And while these poems demand our full attention, they are as accessible and as moving as a walk in the forest. Let this music in your life.”
“Clifford Bernier is the consummate performance artist who harmonizes imagery with syncopated language to break through the silence of the page. Make no mistake, The Silent Art is a full-blown concert.”
—Karren L. Alenier, author of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On
“CliffordBernier’s The Silent Art is a beautiful jazz symphony sweetened with the zen of everydayness and a ‘double bass blues for Trane.’ Mr. Bernier is a wonderful poet with a musical soul as deep as Mingus. Ah Um indeed. This cat has great chops in the poetry and jazz of life.”
—M.L. Liebler, poet and editor of Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams
“Cliff Bernier is a musician of the word. His collection of poems, “The Silent Art” begins by seeing a blank page as the “nada.” But, like music, “ideas [are] plucked from air” so a “page, tossed across silence” soon becomes “a language.” The poet-musician describes the process of writing, as words begin to utter sounds as if poured into drafts of recorded charts, works in progress, aspiring to leave behind the cacophony of “cockatoos” to sound as a “choir” and to yield words to “guitars strum,” piano grooves, “flute fluttering.”
Bernier is also a traveler of spiritual realms when he writes that, “poesis [is a] water-hole dreaming,” as he asserts that “under the skin of the earth our ancestors are waiting to be born,” conjuring us to imagine other lifetimes, “timeless” ones, moving across the world, “from Shanghai to New Orleans,” or from “Congo Square,” not abducting but gathering sounds, packing “bones and sticks” that will make drums, to play drums and bongoes, to “make jazz, jaiza, jass, jazz.”
Yet, in the awe of witnessing beauty, of hearing the sound evoked by the arrangement of his words, it is still Bernier who conducts the readers to speak, to speak the poetry as if words were notes drawn from music charts. And the reader becomes a musician too, a reader of musical notes instead of a reader of soundless words. Thus, the reader is freed to improvise meaning, as a jazz player, following a studied rhythm, summing up with self-harmonies engendered by the reader’s own voice, pitch, tone, the experience of sound…
For Bernier wants to “roll” a “moon in his mouth & spit it out,” to speak it and play it for the reader in “syncopated sunsets.” So Charles “Mingus speaks in Maa,” Ron Carter resolves Sino-Tibetan “patois” in musical dialects, and John Coltrane “blows blues,” where sounds of music become meditational ohms immersed in misty, and “rainy nights.” “The Silent Art” is, indeed, composed “hymns in the transcendent tone of an angel/ probing the harmonic potential of time” and in the space of bistros, clubs and cafés.
In the end, Cliff Bernier’s “The Silent Art” is music as sung poetry; it is poetry arranged as a concerto. His poetry is “love, in the furious discovery of spirit/ in the relentless urgency of light” traveling at the speed of sound in the “appearances” of light waves to be played and heard beyond the eyes of the reader, reading with “eyes like quarter notes,” read as music for the eyes.”
Author, Psaltery and Serpentines, Winner of the 2009 Gival Press Poetry Award
“The physical world is a natural anatomy for exploration. Only when the poet’s “knowing reality” combines with sensations of his imagination does it become art. In Earth Suite, Cliff Bernier brings poetry to just such a vivid fulfillment. His observations are a humanist’s encounters, expanded into philosophical experience. Each poem in this book captures the continuous present, with clarity and precision. Bernier achieves richness with unforced power, relying instead on simplicity and a purity of style so persuasive, it makes you wish for more.”
—Grace CavalieriProducer/Host, The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress
“Cliff Bernier is a lover of the earth and of her peoples; of forests and rivers; of plows and cities; of Seoul, Japan, Zimbabwe, Virginia, home. Traveler, seeker, powerfully cadenced praise-singer, he embraces the humble and earthy, the cosmic, the natural, and the human, the exotic and the modern. Bernier’s savvy, post-Edenic vision is both pre-national and trans-national; and, like Whitman and Snyder, deeply, profoundly American.”
—Judith McCombs, Author, The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New
“Earth is planet, earth is loam—the bookends of these lovely, well-crafted poems. Either way in Cliff Bernier’s Earth Suite, earth is alive with beautifully organic and exotic aromas, colors, sounds, suns and sands. And there is nothing too enormous (the Big Bang) or too small (the curl of an ear) for Bernier. With his keen eye and heart, with his love of language, place, and myth, the poet subtly folds himself into the circularity of content; he becomes the ocean wave, the wind’s current, the very earth under his feet.”
—Anne Harding Woodworth, Author, Spare Parts: A Novella in Verse
“Yeats twice sailed to Byzantium—on paper. But what songs are brought back by a truly “travelled man,” who wanders the world, and who has “read and thought”? They are the lyrics, the lures and allures awaiting the traveler of Dark Berries—from the streets of Paris, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Babylon, to the midnight vigils, the markets of flesh and fruit, and the blear of the dawn bullet-train. For Clifford Bernier, strangeness and passion move between “primordial waters” and the frieze of the stars. Can we escape into the exotic and erotic, or do we kneel before the “geometry of home”? Imagination’s growth, and the body’s lethal growth, compete in Dark Berries: compete for “blood in the bone of the spine of the book.” ———David Gewanter, Author, War Bird