Jeanne Bernhardt: The Snow Poems / Your Self of Lost Ground (2002)

Jack Ross, ed.: Spin 42 (March 2002)

Jeanne Bernhardt, The Snow Poems / Your Self of Lost Ground. Wellington: HeadworX, 2002. 48pp. RRP $16.95. ISBN 0-473-08217-9.

The field is newly a lake, the mist of boats
rising up between two thoughts, a pressed flower
then or later
stared down as though your face would
know, and meet itself, casting out this life
& death, to paint a fan.

I’m quoting from the last page of Jeanne Bernhardt’s very attractive miniature volume of poems and photographs (“Images / Text … Book and cover design” all by the author). What does she actually mean by these words, though? The field is a lake, with a mist of boats rising between two thoughts – is it the pressed flower that’s staring down? Is it staring down at your face – the face that might know and meet itself – and it is still this face that’ll cast out this life & death, in order to paint a fan? Why is it “and meet itself,” but “life & death”? Does the ampersand [&] have any significance?

John Ashbery, too, likes to employ (apparently) disconnected trains of imagery, giving a constant sense of surprise at the turn of each line, but I don’t know that he ever breaks up his syntax to this degree. Does it work for Bernhardt? There’s an agreeable sense of delicacy about the poem, contributed to strongly by the blurred photograph printed beside it. It does seem almost like an embroidered fan. I presume it’s a love poem: “pressed flowers” and “your face” generally tend to come up in such contexts. The rest of the sequence, too, is suitably romantic in tone:
Roll up this gypsy bed and all things in it, white butterflies
& letters left, this wrong address will haunt the strings

I don’t want to sound like a complete philistine, because I like the idea of this book very much: the tone of it, the Japanese detachment and precision. Precision, though – there’s the rub. Much of it I can’t decode, and I don’t really feel the author has much interest in helping me. I think she’s more interested in giving an atmosphere than uncovering a reality. The syntax is one manifestation of this.

It would be churlish to leave it at that, though. Maybe it does work for other readers (Bernadette Hall, for example, who says in the blurb that “there is a stillness at the centre of … Bernhardt’s poems … in which the body can dance, beautiful.”) The idea of “snow poems” is, after all, a compelling one. It would be nice to give it the benefit of the doubt.


Spin 42 (2002): 60.

[435 wds]

Spin 42 (2002)

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