January Read of the Month: “The Ocean’s Edge,” by William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt

Reviewed by Carl Sennhenn 

No one perhaps would suspect, surely not expect, the author of acclaimed and prize-winning mystery novels to write and publish poetry.  But William Bernhardt, the author of the successful Ben Kincaid series, has done just that with two volumes of poetry, The White Bird and now The Ocean’s Edge.  If The White Bird came as a surprise to many of his readers, The Ocean’s Edge confirms the obvious: whatever his chosen genre, Bernhardt is a writer of many talents, talents he holds up to view for our pleasure in his second volume of poetry.  It will not fail to please, as well as astonish, readers familiar with his work in prose, for now they will discover new facets of his talent to astound with his insights and to please with observations marked by perception delivered with wit and occasionally wry humor.

In the poem “For Sure,” Bernhardt tells us, “Poetry makes poor plumbing.”  If we had ever thought to link the two occupations, we would have said, “Surely.”  But Bernhardt’s poetry does what plumbing cannot: it plumbs, illuminates, the experiences of being human.  It indicates what it means to be fully human—that is, humane—in the various roles and situations life affords us to fulfill.  For instance, as a wise and loving parent in the same poem, Bernhardt shares with his readers this wisdom: “Love means saying you’re sorry every fifteen minutes or so. / It is never enough.”

Two of the gifts all true poets share are those of the keen observing eye and the ability to translate into words what the eye has seen. William Bernhardt proves once again in The Ocean’s Edge what readers of his first volume of poetry soon realized: he is a superb observer-poet.  Consider in “Song of Lara” the line “… your eyebrows do backbends over hazel eyes.”  I confess I shall henceforth never look at eyebrows without hoping to see them doing backbends.  In the same poem, as a poet he claims himself “able to sleep but / unwilling, because I would rather be aware.”  It is that awareness that makes him observant and, as a result, a poet who has much to share with his readers.

In “Anthem,” his claim is true: as a prose writer, and now poet, Bernhardt “will not (I’d amend it to cannot) be a clone. / I will not be a Xerox, carbon copy, template, stereotype.”  He is an original—a member in good standing of a literary tradition of the poets who share vision in their unique voices. To those who have heard Bernhardt read his poetry or speak about writing, the voice in these poems is familiar and rings true—true of the man and his vision of life, shared common experiences, and literature.  Even when he writes of matters which may be beyond the reader’s usual experience or, until he reads Bernhardt’s poetry, his interests, one can sense, then appreciate, how close he comes to common experience, and in this manner something experienced vicariously becomes part of the reader’s experience repertoire.

Bernhardt’s interest in poets ranges from Dante to Swift to Wordsworth to Dickinson and Beatrix Potter as indicated by allusions to, and sometimes brief quotations from, them as well as to comic books as in “Clark,” in which the hero’s disguise is “red highlights and a cape.”  The reader is reminded of Dante’s circles of Hell, Wordsworth’s wandering “lonely as a cloud” and “fields of daffodils” and Dickinson’s “letter to the world.”  And Bernhardt not only knows the range of traditional poetry and poets but also proves himself the master of two older forms, the haiku and the sonnet.  And in those poems, as in “Sonnet 4,” when he declares, “A poem only says what words can know,” Bernhardt shows us again and again his words know much about life.  In “Chatting with the Big Guy,” asking God for permission to do as he wishes, Bernhardt shares with us His answer: “It’s not about being shamed to say no. / It’s about wanting to say yes.”  To that I add, say yes to Bernhardt the poet, and say yes to “The Ocean’s Edge.”  Neither the poet nor his work will disappoint you.

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