The Poetry Project

A Treatise on Stars by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

Review by Chloe Zimmerman

In late afternoon, stars are not visible.

Everything arrives energetically, at first.

I wait to see what I’ll recognize, as diffuse sky resolves into points of light and glitter.

With this invocation, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge ushers in her newest book, A Treatise on Stars. In a correspondence of sun and earth and body we call afternoon, a subject is present beyond one’s capacity to see. Perception shifts with shifting light. Slow attunement of a localized eye. As we turn from blank page to first text, letters coalesce into entangled lexicons coalesce into poems. There’s a feeling throughout of tracing and retracing an emerging infrastructure of thought as, in the poem “Jaguar,” “crossing and recrossing arroyos and mesas creates a dense web between beings and home.”

“I’ve been writing about the stars and how to join the stars and the earth as one ecosystem,” Mei-mei told me as we sat down for an interview in her home, looking out across the New Mexico desert. “Somehow the stars have gotten separated from us and our articulation of stars is as these gigantic physical processes, whereas you could also depict a human being as cellular respiration… I’m gonna assume that there are gestalts of spirit and gestalts of soul in the heavens just as much as a human being is a gestalt of spirit.”

In the book’s extended lines of text, signature to Mei-mei’s later work and sometimes called horizon lines, we encounter permeable membranes. A pulsing matrix builds through continuous commingling of what we might consider earth and sky—a human body and stars meet as a silhouette; solstice sun draws lines across the ground; asteroids scatter bacteria into space; family and neighbors constellate like stars. And photons from a candle and a star meet at the retina. So the weaves become sight lines:

Look inside when you are struggling; every cell in your body emits light. 

Cilia beat rhythms into space, signaling cells of wildflowers in a field, signaling sky.

An image keeps surfacing for me, one I’ve learned comes from an experiment by Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus. Tracking a viewer’s line of sight in a painting, Yarbus focused on saccades, rapid movements of the eye from point to point, as how we visually comprehend a whole. These poem eyes word-constellate, gesture towards some unifying factor. In “Listening,” a painting “reveals reality by connecting a blue scarf with a woman’s blue eyes” and in “The Pleiades,” “everything seen establishes relation.”

Within these poems, every thing is touching every other thing, more like processes imbricated, ecologies extending into one another, dimensions porous. Like the work of visibility or memory in “Star Beings,” we find poems “cohering the dynamic quanta of infinity, so travel is easy.”

Such gestures echo the poem-making itself. In Mei-mei’s home, there were stacks of books on a table. Michael Donhauser’s Of Things, Joseph Campbell’s The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a book called The Omniverse. “I read them really intensely but almost at an unconscious level,” Mei-mei told me. She underlines phrases and passages, which get arranged into maps of sometimes hundreds of scraps of text and image, cohering into a single poem.

Yet while the generative process here might be collage, there isn’t a feeling of juxtaposition so much as a strange syntax all its own built from frameworks, entities, phrases interleaving, vibratory fusion. These poems glow like the moonstone we encounter in “The Pleiades,” a stone whose silver sheen swells as light passes through alternating feldspar layers, intermingled during its formation. “I try to get as much density into simple language as I used to in complex language,” Mei-mei said.

Conjunctions gesture to the malleability of words, their capacity to fuse. “I want to learn from what generated metaphor, the need,” we read. When Mei-mei moved from China to the United States at age one, she said in an interview with Laura Hinton, “all the linguistic structures were warming up in Chinese. I believe one experience that made me into a poet was switching from Chinese to English, because then you see everything is relational.”

Exchange, event, not particle, become the units of existence. So that bodies are “in the process of coalescence, outcrop of growing, infinite fields,” and stars “collect and grow in vast ecologies,” with interstellar gas as shared soil. The very act of witnessing transmutes. A swimmer’s cells might resonate with dolphins through vibratory ocean water. Thoughts may rove between human and fawn, as viruses transpose DNA, as body and galaxy are likened to a whirlpool in a stream. As we read in “The Pleiades,” “it’s difficult at night to hold onto self, when earth shifts through transformation.”

Here, disorientation feels akin to attunement. “Listening,” in particular, evokes a meditative state or perhaps the deep listening method of composer Pauline Oliveros, where in attendance to the closest and most distant sounds perceptible, near and far might lose their lines, cicada, heartbeat too. There is a loving openness to intelligences that might reveal themselves through animals or plants, stars or evolution. The poem “Pegasus” suggests that artists might be guided by frequencies from other beings and “reality may be a communal construct with these beings.”

And as we read in “Chaco and Olivia,” “channeling, part of daily experience, is an underrated technique in literature. It’s natural for an artist to receive information from a non-objective source. How does my body make room for another, who perceives with my senses?” These poetic musings blur with the reading experience, and with the process of research that builds them. There is resonance with Susan Howe’s telepathy of the archive, or with Jack Spicer’s notion of radio-diction. Like spirits speaking through a psychic medium, all ripples through an intimate voice. And in this way, it is an ecological poetics, as in “Lux,” where “psyche becomes increasingly collective, as it assimilates with the gorgeous world.”

In Mei-mei’s work, as in the processes that conjure it, we encounter an openness to unknowns, an ease in not knowing. In our last interview, Mei-mei told me, “After I’ve written so many poems, I’ve learned to trust the wandering…I write the first draft and I don’t understand it. It’s total chaos. But if I trust it, I was always writing at a level more than I knew. It’s really interesting how much you know below what you think you know. And so almost always the chaotic process turns into one unified whole.”

“What is the structure of this connectedness?” we read in “Scalar.” “The field is your light and not knowing, simultaneously, local light.”

#263 — Winter 2021