Defiant Poetry for Our Era of Crisis and Opportunity

It’s not clear, at least not to me, why Christopher Bernard, a San Francisco poet and novelist—and a founder and co-editor of the online magazine, “Caveat Lector”— has titled his new, exhilarating book of poetry, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses (Regent Press, $19.95). It’s an award-winning book that deserves to be widely known. Perhaps in the title, Bernard means to honor the political and the poetical sides of himself. Notice, too, that he means his book to speak to and for socialists, and not merely to reflect his own idiosyncrasies. Thetitle, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses, made me think of the classic, A Child’s Book of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson, who like Bernard uses the poetic words “verses” and “garden.”

Socialism and socialists don’t show up explicitly in any of the nearly 100 poems, some longer than others, some only a few lines long, while a couple of them go on for dozens of pages. Some have rhymes and some don’t. In some, the words are scattered across the page, others are much more box-like, with variations in matters of capitalization and punctuation.

Bernard doesn’t wave his political affiliations like a flag on the barricades, though he’s not hiding them either. Reading through this volume, one might conclude that the author is a twenty-first century socialist at a dire moment when some form of democratic socialism seems to be more needed than ever before, with capitalism as ravenous as ever.

Rooted in the crises of our day and age, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses speaks to the needs and wants of anxious readers and depressed citizens looking for answers, or at least want to know what questions to ask.

There’s an opening well-known quotation at the front of this volume by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” That quotation seems to reflect Bernard’s own feelings. The poem “Revolution,” which appears about half-way through the book—and that starts with the invigorating lines, “I began my life with a revolution/I will end it with another”—offers a sense of despair in the line, “mankind’s suicide and the holocaust of spies.” There’s nothing more revolutionary, Bernard seems to be saying, than the birth and death of individuals and societies.

The poem, “Revolution,” ends on a note of joy: “the future is ours/…we are newborn.”  A sense of rebirth is at the heart of this volume, which is divided into six sections and was written during the pandemic and the plague of Trump. The first section is titled “Prelude in Hell,” the last “Miracle.” At this late date in the history of humankind, socialism would indeed be a miracle of sorts.

The poems at the start of the volume directly address the horrific arrival of Trump and his cronies, including  the onerous Mitch McConnell. Bernard spares them no bile or wrath. The eleven “Trump Poems,” if one can call them that, pay homage to Genesis, the Iliad, Chaucer and Basho, and especially to T. S. Eliot, that arch-conservative as well an experimental poet, most notably in The Waste Land. Bernard offers parodies, both serious and playful, of several Eliot classics including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that includes the memorable phrase, “There will be time to murder and create.”

“My Father’s Rake” is also serious and playful, personal and “political” in the broadest sense of the word. It’s a kind of meditation on ownership and private property. It ends “Everything we possess, everything we are—/body and mind and soul and spirit—/is held between the past and the present and the future/ with outstretched hands forever.” If Bernard is indeed a socialist, it’s of the spiritual and aesthetic persuasion. He wants roses as well as bread, beauty as well as equality. Increasingly, he tells me, he has thought of himself as an eco-socialist. The author’s world vision is informed by his reading in Christian texts. The poem, “A Child on Calvary” rightly points out Jesus’s threat to the Roman Empire in the line, “This Messiah king must be rubbed out.” Still, despite his talk of calvary and the Messiah, Bernard is no Christian socialist.

Many of the poems explore the city of San Francisco, where Bernard lives, works and writes. In “The Coyote of North Beach” he communicates with a coyote who wanders across an urban wilderness, and in “I Am a Squirrel ” he takes time to portray a furtive critter who gathers  acorns and builds a home in an oak tree. No beast is too small or insignificant in Bernard’s socialist world. In “Faust Leaves his Heart in San Francisco,” the island of Alcatraz, once home to a notorious federal prison, “rises in the background” as though to say that the city on the bay isn’t all flowers, marijuana, fun and games. Faust is a major character here.

If Marx could rise from the grave, or look down from his secular heaven, he might describe Bernard’s poems as “utopian” rather than scientific. Then again, he might get into the spirit of these verses. After all, Marx loved Heinrich Heine’s romantic poetry and lived part of the time as a kind of “bohemian.” That’s the very word the German secret police who spied on him used to describe him in their reports on his domestic life with wife, Jenny, and their children.

Marx also might want to describe Bernard’s socialism as one that’s tinged with Christianity, though the poet himself points out that he’s “not in sympathy with Christian morality” and that he has “profound reservations about the Christian religion.” Still, in the next-to-the-last poem in the volume, “The Night of the Star,” he evokes the Christian myth of “The Second Coming,” retells the story of Jesus’s birth in a manger and the arrival of the three wise men. A derelict garage takes the place of the manger and the mother, father and baby are recast as American blacks. On the night of the birth, a “clutch of teens” pass a joint and back and forth. One of them who is surely stoned says, “Man, that stuff is strong.”  Bernard has an ear for the language of the street.

In an online interview, he recently said that his socialism “is of the soft kind.” Maybe so. Still, there’s nothing soft or mushy about The Socialist’s Garden of Verses. The language is consistently precise, and yet expansive, and the imagery avoids cliches. Then, too, there’s enough humor here to entertain and enliven an optimistic pessimist like Antonio Gramsci.

“Our work is just beginning, Bernard writes on the last page. “The earth and the sky are waiting.” He adds, “Take my singing with you out into the day.”

Walt Whitman, the preeminent  bard of American democracy, couldn’t have said it better.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.