‘Fortunate Light’ by David Bergman
Author: Christopher Soden
September 7, 2013
In his diminutive yet formidable collection, Fortunate Light (A Midsummer Night’s Press), David Bergman has achieved something relatively rare in contemporary poetry: a way to discuss sex that is intriguing, witty, intelligent, nuanced, frank and subversive. He is not salacious or graphic, but neither is he lofty or coy. In “Narcissus” he interprets myth as same-gender eroticism, punctuating with a succession of “O’s” (not “Ohs”) indicating surprise, pain, defloration, and yes, orgasm. “O said the lake / as he threw himself / into the still / body of water./ O said the lake / in surprise /and then pain / and finally in pleasure, /o after o….” It’s an inventive and cynical take on sex. Narcissus, a modern synonym for self-obsession, informs this piece suggesting love as mirror: useful only insomuch as it reflects the beholder. Consider how quickly the poem moves in those first few opening lines. The breaks come very early, the lines are clipped, yet they resonate. They are dry, sly, suggestive and a bit jaundiced.
I do not wish to suggest that Bergman only writes about sexuality, love and longing, but I think it’s safe to say it comprises much of the sixteen poems contained in Fortunate Light. These poems show great variety, ingenuity and scope. There’s something quite astonishing about a poet who (in “Distraction of Beauty” ) has the audacity to describe a “bubble butt…flexing its cheeks…like a pulsing sea anemone,” and does so without a trace of tawdriness or irony. He finds an image that implies an otherworldly, luminous, yet dangerous curiosity, and weaves it into an anecdote about ephemeral desire, reverence, elders and propriety.
In “The Hitchhiker” Bergman uses an odd structure – beginning by describing a time in America’s recent past when hitchhiking was in fairly common practice, despite its inherent dangers. He then goes on to describe a fantasy that cuts away from the initial narrative, just as it starts to get interesting. When he returns the teenage boy to his family, they invite him to stay. He only agrees to linger long enough for a slice of rhubarb pie, remembering from the night before: “…his ass…and the mole on his chest…” There is something deeply unsettling about this situation, fantasy though it may be, and not implausible, if the young man were gay, or perhaps, just centered. The poem explores (among other things) the risks of intimate consortium with strangers and possibly discovering one’s benefactor is a psychopath.
Ironically, the idea of a male driver making a pass (however subtle) might be the stuff of nightmares for some young men. But here, a night of pleasure is considered fair trade for a much needed lift. Not only is the transaction considered mutually beneficial, but Bergman takes careful steps to insert homoerotic connection into an archetypical depiction of idyllic American Family Life, worthy of Norman Rockwell: “it’s noon. Dad’s pulling his first burgers off / the grill, his kid brother’s in his baseball /uniform, and everyone’s so happy…” Notice how Bergman creates a vivid milieu, by judicious use of images: grilled burgers for a home cookout, brother’s baseball uniform for Little League. The boy isn’t portrayed as freakish or promiscuous. Bergman’s “fantasy” would seem to be at least as much (or more) about acceptance and inclusion as scoring easy sex. He consciously makes the distinction between consensual, relaxed sexuality between guys and actual jeopardy. By injecting himself into an iconic paradigm from which we often feel excluded, he expresses painful, subversive yearning.
Fortunate Light is vastly pleasurable, filled with graceful, vivid, subtle verse, brimming with exquisite imagery and sophisticated, masterful technique. Bergman has a knack for inspired detail and engaging the reader, bringing so much to even seemingly simple scenarios. He has a gift for wry, melancholy revelations that make us smile and cringe at the same time. Such is the nature of incisive wisdom.
By David Bergman
A Midsummer Night’s Press
Paperback, 9781938334023, 40 pp.