November Read of the Month: “The White Bird,” by William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt

Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson

Entering William Bernhardt’s debut poetry collection, The White Bird, is entering into the heart of human community. Always rich, often humorous, and at times poignant, these poems, which are diverse in style, guide us through the maze of parenting, longing, loss, working, traveling, and, among other things, falling in and out of love. Each poem offers precise, startling language reminding us that life is fragile and joyful; lovely and unlovely; monotonous as well as surprising. Never didactic or folksy, these poems speak in a convincing, compelling voice, and their imagery is stunning.

Bernhardt, an established author of mystery and suspense novels, consistently and subtly toys with rhythm and narrative pace in each poem. Each poem initiates a conversation between the reader and the poet, the speaker. It is as if the speaker is in the room with you, sharing an anecdotal moment, intoning, as he does in “Baden-Baden,” “As it turns out, the Black Forest / looks nothing like Black Forest cake. / And the gambling resort town of Baden-Baden / looks nothing like Las Vegas, thank God. / … And there is not a Starbucks on every corner. / Yet.”

It is this sure-footed, comfortable voice that shepherds the reader into this poem and into every other poem for that matter. “Baden-Baden” is populated with familiar cultural icons that dually serve as metaphor and symbolism, vehicles to the sublime and the powerful. Rarely does a poem or a work of fiction feature a McDonald’s with such profundity. Bernhardt is a master of using the ordinary to convey the complexities of the extraordinary.

In a style like that of the late Seamus Heaney, a genius regarding the use of unadorned, plain language, Bernhardt constructs his word images in everyday speech. For this reason, his poems are as satisfying as they are accessible—and not only to the literati but also to the blue collar retiree from the tire factory, or to the soccer mom, or to the soccer mom’s high school child for that matter. In the short poem “Paulette,” for instance, two adults on a date at a restaurant are “pelicans skimming the surface / of the water / but never touching it.” This is the moment of connection that never happens, but is hoped for, the painfully tantalizing second that is as familiar to a senior at the prom as it is to the forty-something divorcee on yet another dinner date.

Bernhardt explores such topics as the parenting of an adolescent (“The Awkward Age is supposed to be / awkward for you, not me. I should / be the parent / but instead I’m a marionette / with tangled strings, a poor sap trapped / in Shelob’s web / and you are the elusive hummingbird / who hovers in midair for a short time / and then skitters away / faster than my eye can follow”), a marriage proposal (“my shirt is hideously wrinkled /… I resist the urge to fix it / …forest green polo shorts… / held up by a braided burgundy belt / do not remotely match… / she takes my hand / and all my fears / and wrinkled clothes / dissolve / and I am glad to be rid of them”), and a middle-aged relationship (“My cat hates my girlfriend / and the one before her, and the one / before her… / Perhaps this is why they never last. … Perhaps it’s not the cat. / It could be…. / the gold-plated Scrabble set, / …the Judy Garland records…— / I prefer to think it’s the cat”), each of which demonstrates, in its own way, what Marianne Moore called “the genuine.”

What parent has not found trying moments and yet yearned for time to stand still, for the primal connection between the parent and the child to last forever? That this cannot and should not occur is one of the mysterious pains of living.

Never sentimental or dramatic but always tempered, often with irony, and always rendered in a gut-level, honest voice, Bernhardt’s poems explore the important milestones we experience as adults. Take, for instance, two poems: “Dinah and Me” and “The Moment She Said Yes.” “Dinah and Me” is a humorous, playful meditation on middle-aged adult dating. Given that over half of all marriages in America crater in divorce, this is a timely and relevant issue to opine on, and via poetic license. The speaker here playfully ruminates on the many reasons why a seeming plethora of dates has not panned out. This poem reminds us that it is always reassuring to remain in denial by concocting theories that stray from the truth of personal rejection, no matter how small or how large. “Dinah and Me” also affirms that the hunt for a satisfying relationship can be tough, no matter one’s age, status, or affluence. Bernhardt’s speaker manages to convey these messages without sounding syrupy or self-effacing.

The breadth of subject matter Bernhardt covers in this book is expansive and eclectic. The poem “Scratches” depicts the impact of writing during early childhood years, connects writing to later years, and treats reading as one of life’s comforts that is always a given in an uncertain world. “The Oklahoma Kid,” a frontier vignette, is also an internal odyssey. “Quailing” tells of a father-son relationship that is fraught with tension, envy, love, and loss. From one poem to the next, Bernhardt cuts from poignant and wistful observations to the joys of human experience.

Bernhardt’s poetry will reassure you of your faith in the power of language, poetry, other people, and finally in your own authentic self.

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