Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Poetry of Attention

The possibilities of perception

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Lacey Jones
Portrait of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
Illustration by Antonio Losada

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s writing pays close attention to the way consciousness interacts with the material world. Her poetry thinks deeply about a sense of order that permeates experience—the structures we ascribe to the universe. When Berssenbrugge won the Bollingen Prize, a biannual poetry award given by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, the jury described her work as “a visionary ecopoetics that directly confronts our planetary—and human—crisis.” A Treatise on Stars, Berssenbrugge’s fourteenth collection, explores our relation to the universe at every scale: from the petals of flowers to the horizons of New Mexico to the consciousness of the cosmos itself. Published in the winter of 2020, just before lockdowns began in the United States, A Treatise on Stars presciently paid tribute to our reliance on—and interconnection with—one another and our shared world. Dolphins and extraterrestrials alike participate in the book’s vision of “presence as reciprocity.” Even its formal qualities testify to this interconnectedness: Berssenbrugge’s characteristically long and end-stopped lines feel replete in themselves, self-contained. But their meanings unfold as they interact with one another. What seems atomized is revealed as profoundly enmeshed. For Berssenbrugge, a recent finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, writing is a way of perceiving the real that also works to transform it. Her poems make me less scared to look, really look, at the world, less scared to care for something I might lose.

I corresponded with Berssenbrugge over email after her Bollingen win. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.
—Lacey Jones

Lacey Jones A Treatise on Stars describes many different kinds of seeing: watching, looking, witnessing, observing, remembering, channeling. Why do you turn to poetry as a genre for dramatizing the experience of seeing?

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge I use the metaphor of seeing, of all perception, as a way of creating the world. And the world being seen co-creates our experience, and also us. It’s a rich, sensual interweave. It’s more atmospheric than one-to-one. The reciprocity of seeing and being seen, receiving light from a star, connecting, is like receiving love. The connection implies a unity which, throughout the book, I try to experience as love.

LJ When it comes to our relationships to the world and to each other, what does it mean, as you write in A Treatise, to say that this “love is a measurement”?

MB I’m working with the wave-particle metaphor in quantum physics: if wholeness or the field is the wave, then perception or measurement condenses it into a particle. If love were the measurement, what would it condense to? The loved entity? Which could be a lover or earth, universe? Whatever you can “measure” and materialize by loving?

LJ It strikes me that these ways of seeing and letting yourself be seen are acts of vulnerability with real risks. How do you see the relationship between vulnerability and poetry? How does it shape the way you write?

MB There’s a relationship of openness with vulnerability, with intuition, with receiving. I’m writing about plants now, and I think of a plant as receiving, then growing and transforming. That is what the color green expresses. It’s a discipline to try and stay open to wherever your intuition might lead you. There are treasuries of elements of poems all around us in the ether and in the Akashic records. I try to receive every impulse, every trace of an idea for my first draft. The vulnerability, which seems like the dark-bruise aspect of openness, might come if I have a preset goal or a preconception and I fall short, which occurs often. I practice to make something to give, but in reality I’m driven to write. Then once the words are sprawled onto the page, there are extensive revisions.

LJ Has anything changed about the way you see perception’s poetic work during this last year of crisis and reckoning?

MB I’ve been desperate to see, create, a world that extends beyond the immediate degradations of Earth, and I see Covid-2 as an emissary of this challenge. Fighting the awesome virus myself showed me a huge, otherworldly force that was beyond my preconceptions of ecology and stability.

I’m trying to incorporate this vitality into writing without being enigmatic, and the word that comes is possibility. How to incorporate possibility into my perception and then my assessment, so that one’s perception of possibility acts on the future? Even before, I found hope to be too small in scale. The dynamism I was shown is so vast.

LJ Your poetry is full of long, end-stopped lines: “There’s joy in transmuting a supernova into science and wonder, at the same time,” you write in “You Are Here.” What relationship do you see between poetic form and your interest in cultivating deep attention to the world around you?

MB I suppose there’s a private music to each person’s writing, and mine involves an extended line. I have a naturally expansive way of thinking, and that fits with the wide horizons of northern New Mexico, where I live. One possibility is that I extend as long as I can, before a sentence breaks of its own weight, and I start again. Or, since I appropriate found language, the line may break where a new fragment of language is being attached. I try to keep the form as open as I can to express listening.

LJ Critics sometimes describe your work as abstract. (Your most recent book contains lines such as, “Your consciousness lovingly assimilates new events to enhance cognition that ensouls space.”) And yet your poetry speaks so directly to specific ways of relating to other beings. Do you see your work as abstract, or would you use another descriptor?

MB I’m trying to unify the abstract in a continuous reality with beloved beings and their experiences, using the poem as a canvas. I could also use a word like general or conceptual for abstract. So, in the line you quote, “consciousness,” “cognition,” and “space” are concrete entities like people, stars, and plants. The abstract by itself somehow gives witnessing too much distance. I hope care can dissolve this distance, “ensouling” space.

LJ Your poems use terminology from a variety of disciplines, including science (“homeodynamics” “quantum”), spirituality (“star beings” “prayer” “ghosts”), and aesthetics (“symbols” “beauty”). How do these vocabularies speak to one another in your poetry?

MB Perhaps science and spirituality were not as polarized in other times, and aesthetics was not a separate subject. Science set itself apart from spirit in the modern period. I have tried to unite polarities in my writing: abstract and concrete, thought and emotion, space and time, universal and particular, science and spirit, science and the feminine, particle and wave. And I try to unify by my way of describing through my tone and intent. In “Stars,” the disparates are quantum physics and New Age metaphysics. My book seeks to correlate or equate this unification with consciousness and also community, which I equate with grace.

LJ Speaking of science and spirit, I want to know more about the extraterrestrials who make frequent appearances in A Treatise of Stars. How do you see them participating in your book’s project of “communal grace”?

MB I think of the infinite particulars that had to synchronize in order for each of us to exist. The force of that kind of intentionality, that kind of attention, I want to describe as “love.” I noticed in my travels that many cultures take for granted visits from extraterrestrials. I read several books of interviews of persons who were visited and transformed. I became interested in the relationship between faith and witnessing, in the influence of faith on the perceptual and emotional experience of an ET visitation. I thought of faith as a kind of perceptual sense itself, for seeing ETs as beings who wish us well. Grace entwines with faith.

LJ The way you characterize your poetic style feels resonant with this synchronizing intention—to unify, to care. How do you see the process of moving from intentionality to what is on the page?

MB I imagine there’s a dimension in which every intention exists as real, also every thought. Intention is agency, so the quality of one’s intention is crucial. I aspire to caring nurture as a kind of impetus that gives direction to writing a poem. Caring beyond the present. In this way intention is like a possibility that becomes real. The future and the possible become more kind.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including I Love Artists and A Treatise on Stars. Her collaborations include works in theater, dance, music, and the visual arts. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, she is the recipient of two Before Columbus American Book Awards and the 2021 Bollingen Prize for Poetry. Born in Beijing, she lives in New Mexico and New York City.
Lacey Jones is a PhD candidate in English and Religious Studies at Yale and an assistant editor at The Yale Review. She thinks and writes about breakdown, meta-discourses, and aesthetics.
Originally published:
June 21, 2021


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