In his second book of poems, Figuring in the Figure, Ben Berman pursues both the fragmentation of forms (poetic and otherwise) and the formation of a fragmented narrative. Lines from “Re Form” declare this dual purpose: “Fragments, / too, seek their own form of narrative.” The narrative in this collection leads to a father’s witness of his infant daughter’s first discoveries of herself, yet it begins in another stage of life—a young man’s post-collegiate drift, aching for the shape of a self and a life that he will come to find in unanticipated forms. “It’s better to figure things in than out,” Berman writes in “Figures,” and his collection tells the story of a life and art that could bear that line as a credo.
Berman, who is the poetry editor for Solstice Literary Magazine and teaches English at Brookline High School in the Boston area, can also be found at his website and blog. His first collection, (2012), is also available from Able Muse Press and was awarded the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry. Berman has constructed Figuring in the Figure in three sections, each beginning with an epigraph from Robert Frost’s essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes.” The epigraphs (and his book’s title) do more than suggest Berman’s preoccupation with the form and structure of poetry: they serve as mile markers in the movement of the book, which in fact transitions from an obsession with formal elements themselves into an obsession with what the formal elements of poems can do for a writer and reader. The quote that begins the final section of the book, on fatherhood, declares this shift and also describes what the best of Berman’s poems do beautifully: “The figure is the same as for love…and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification…but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
Fatherhood and ideas about fatherhood form the axis of Berman’s book, yet a baby doesn’t make her first appearance until more than halfway through the collection, when Berman writes in “Transformations,”
Point to a flower or faraway planet
and a baby will stare at your finger
as though pointing, itself, was the point.
The baby here is a baby-in-general, with a specific child yet to emerge in the poems, but these lines demonstrate two key through-lines of Berman’s work. The first is the plainspoken observation of an action, object, or principle that through the poem becomes the basis for a revelation or insight that lifts the reader beyond the thing observed. The second is a delight in wordplay, clearly visible in the lines above. In “Transformations,” Berman hitches a ride on observation and wordplay to arrive at an entirely more sophisticated point: the reflection that as a baby reaches for our hand, “…the notion / of elsewhere suddenly feels unbearable.”
This brings us to a third through-line: Berman’s engagement with language and observation alike carries a childlike wonder. There’s complexity in such wonder, and it welcomes us to see and hear through new eyes and ears. In “Figures,” he dwells on the play of the words “caption(s)” and “legends,” noting that the art of writing an accurate caption of a picture is “…the kind of invaluable / practice that only takes place in legends.” He could as well be describing the poet’s art. Elsewhere, he asks the reader to riddle out near-koans such as “Better to be charged by—not with—violating / a rule” (“Re Form”) or “the right in right now is intensive” (“Nothing Archaic About It”).
Formally, Berman’s poems make playful use of terza rima, a form that traces its lineage to Dante and uses triplets with an interlocking rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.). Berman follows the convention in English of writing terza rima in iambic pentameter and uses slant rhyme throughout. Far from rigidly adhering to one structure, Berman’s particular approach to terza rima becomes even more engaging when it flies loose into open forms. He often employs staggered—formally fragmented—lines, which in some cases allow a poem to be read in multiple ways. “Gap Years,” a key poem in the second of the three sections of the book and which describes a young man’s searching for self, makes the most inventive use of this device. Like May Swenson’s “The Shape of Death” (1970), it consists of two poems, side by side and staggered by one line (the left column beginning and ending before the right), that can be read both left-to-right across the adjacent lines or straight down each column, creating shifts in perspective that reshuffle the meanings of the words. Berman writes:
…the very word,
contract, reminded us
us even further
that we’d fly to the other side of the world
of the constricting grips on our futures.
“Gap Years” in particular shows Berman’s mastery of the intersection of that liminal space where the syntax of a sentence and the self-containment of the line coexist and can be made to work with or against each other. In “Arch Poetica,” Berman writes, “aesthetics are meant to perform / specific functions,” and he demonstrates this principle in his deliberate constructions.
The third section of Berman’s collection follows the most linear and self-contained narrative and tells the story of his wife’s pregnancy, the birth of their daughter, and the early months of their daughter’s life. Like many men, the poems’ speaker seems to first define father as not mother. A mother’s role in the interval between conception and birth has a distinct form, both obvious and profound. A father’s role, in support of a pregnant spouse and wrought with particular self-doubts, necessitates the creation of its own form.
“Birthing Class,” one of many poems in parts, describes an expecting father’s sense of alienation from his wife’s physical experience of pregnancy: “our unease / with being labeled The Moms’ Helpers.” Even after his daughter’s birth, Berman describes a sensation of apartness from his wife’s experience—a sense of awe at the physical nurture provided by the mother in the womb and out. In “Roots and Wings” he uses the second person to speak of passing off his rooting daughter to his wife to nurse and “wondering what it would be like to express / your letdowns.” The wordplay continues here (see “letdowns”) but is subdued compared to earlier in the book. In the same poem, he shows a new father’s search for his footing: “(you) have to flail / about like an upturned tree in the wind, / your roots flapping so hard they look like wings.” In other poems in this section, Berman describes his role as father as at times existing in tension with his wife’s role as mother, a tension that bleeds into their roles as spouses: “the exacting / art of a marriage teeters between the tight / coordination of / opposing motions” (“Shifting Centers”).
A definition made in opposition can only limit, as it defines by absence. Through the poems in this final section of the book, through the birth and early life of his daughter, Berman comes to redefine father as something more like present in the life of his child. His plainspoken observations extend to and elevate the sublime banalities of swaddling and diaper changes, stacked blocks and housework. In “Shifting Centers,” he describes a sensation any parent can relate to, male or female: the sense that one’s self as seen by the world is incomplete when the world sees you without your child. Running errands alone, he writes, “no one in line coos, or smiles, or wants / to overhear me sing / quietly to myself.” After so much searching for the speaker’s self through these poems, that search is resolved in an echo of the image of the father’s flailing roots as he watches his growing daughter “flapping her arms like / the / branches / of a tree possessed by a tempest”—her first discovery of her own engagement with the world, and the first hint that she will lift away from the presences that nurture her.
As I considered Figuring in the Figure as a whole, I kept returning to “Transformations,” a poem right in the middle of the book. There, Berman writes, “I want to live on the verge / of my ideas—all my beliefs set / in stone, stones waiting to be turned over.” This fine collection demonstrates the coiled potential that exists when one occupies that state, engaged in life and language as a unified process of discovery.