Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's intricate collagist poetry expands the traditions of innovative American lyric and feminist experimentation. Dense abstraction and concrete imagery borrowed from the realms of continental and Eastern philosophy, psychology, religion, architecture, art theory, conventional and alternative medicine, physics, and other sources commingle in her work with a painstaking account of visual experience, emotional states, and surreal drifts. Berssenbrugge makes statements that seem absolutely authoritative, but these are only to be dissolved and displaced by fresh new possibilities and rich uncertainties in the flux of long lines of verse.
The daughter of Chinese and Dutch-American parents, Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and grew up in Massachusetts. The author of nine books of poetry, beginning with Fish Souls (1974), Berssenbrugge won an American Book Award for Random Possession (1979) and The Heat Bird (1983), among other awards and fellowships.
Berssenbrugge frequently exerts, as she puts it in "Naturalism" (1989), "an erotic concentration on a vicissitude of light." The preoccupation with ever-shifting perspectives on constantly changing visual impressions is erotic in its intensity, prolonged focus, aesthetic pleasures, and inextricability from meditation on female/male and mother/daughter intimacies. Even as she marks how individuals cannot master each other's subjective truths, the poet suggests that separations between a self's inside and outside are arbitrary; in the long poem Endocrinology (1997), a speaker declares: "She can't see where her sadness ends and someone else's is." Furthermore, the "erotic" exploration is fraught with many disruptions and erasures of memory. An apostrophe in "Fog" (1989) plaintively questions: "If you do remember correctly, how can we compare the feeling without being influenced by what has happened since?"
Frequently Berssenbrugge perceives "the body as a space of culture" while also perceiving it "as nature," especially when it is threatened or "taken away by disease," as in Endocrinology. In "The Four Year Old Girl" (1998), which alludes to a struggle against a rare "genetic disease," the juxtaposition of sentences about genotypes, phenotypes, and selves with sentences that include water images foregrounds the disjunction between confidence in one's stable identity and movements toward disintegration.
The unpredictable, often disjunctive journey of sensuous, sensory thinking that Berssenbrugge's poetry embodies provides a trenchant criticism of the distortions of efforts at representation, as well as an affirmation of desires for lucid perceptions, intimate interchanges and, as "Value" (1993) has it, "a moving frame" that "reframes the space for utopian content."
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