Julien Poirier

Bill Berkson


Bill Berkson’s poetry is a tortoise-and-hare countryside — no one’s watching the clock, although it’s lunchtime in early fall. When you read his poems, you say, "They’re doing it for me, I’ll do it for them." His life in art (first as a self-described "kid on the scene of the first New York School," later as a sleeper cell in the New York–Bolinas "axis of poetry evil") could be signified by a freshly minted tarot card: Collaboration. See the new magic of this year’s Bill (Gallery 16 Press, 45 pages, $25), with Colter Jacobsen’s great two-way mirror drawings and Berkson’s fugitive lines spun in juvenile detective silk. Bring your own tightwire.

A teenage crystal hanging by a thread — or as he puts it, a "human blood medallion" — spins through Berkson’s folio. An alphabet of poets and artists from Ashbery to Guston to Waldman to Warsh shows up in his prism, ricocheting light — "a puzzling brightness" open at all points where points leap into the second dimension. "Bands of distracted emotion snap" their fingers to a Hart Crane tune: "I have no system / but there is a motor," Berkson writes in the 1973 Angel Hair collection Recent Visitors, "primitive / American / sophisticate." And yet: "I insist on the poem having its own life, its own existence," he explains over the phone during a recent visit to Los Angeles, where his son Moses Berkson’s photography is on view at Constant Gallery.

What about Berkson’s art writing? His reviews read more like travelogues, with an equivalent claim to autonomy. In 2003’s The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings (Qua Books), he gives form to "the parallel text" through a string of dispatches from inside paintings. The poet’s eye becomes a 360-degree liquid camera unfreezing Franz Kline’s bridge spans: the paint is wet to us. Elsewhere, in reviews and in last year’s Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 2001-2006 (Cuneiform Press, 114 pages, $10), there’s a sweet-tooth accuracy of description — Wayne Thiebaud’s SF Victorians are "each a different pastel tone like those of Necco wafers" — paired with fluent shoptalk. It’s so much fun to be here.

"Functionally, art writing serves as commercial expository prose," Berkson explains. It’s often a portrait of the artist painting portraits of the market, and that’s why Berkson left it behind, mostly, for 15 years. (Artforum buttonholed him for monthly reviews in 1984. "Arrogant as ever," he explains, though at first it’s easy to mistake arrogant for elegant, "I thought I could make a little difference." Later: "I love to describe things — something that stays still…") Yes, for Berkson, "the sentences in a review turn up in a kind of order," but here comes the doozy: "Cracks in the order may show an alertness to, and duplicitous tolerance for, the actual chaos occurring in the mental space between the reviewer and the work."

What’s throwing all that heat called "actual chaos"? The birth of trust? Berkson’s pages are like starlit nights above the suburbs — to their own devices left, eyeing attic windows in Transylvania, they’re at home among "a host of secret, ephemeral, and often unspeakable perceptions." Best of all is their mysterious shimmer, which appears when an older writer gets replaced by a younger experience. A snapshot of Berkson’s out-of-body landscape as seen from the air: rivers of molten brass with tributaries of friendship bridged by action. Wonderful stuff. A great deal of valuable work. Fifty years of slow-dawning epiphany.

Cooking with genius


Kenny Shopsin is a philosopher-cook who shrinks his kitchen to the size of the world and enlarges the world to the size of his kitchen, likening his old stove to ”a whore’s ass” and pasting terrorists onto the wings of flies. Here are the rules at his General Store in Greenwich Village, New York City: no parties of five or larger, and everyone has to eat. Don’t insult the cook by ordering just coffee unless you want to eat it. Also, most legendarily, if you’re not a regular, you can go fuck yourself.
Why all the candy on the shelves?
“People like to take candy,” Shopsin tells Matt Mahurin in I Like Killing Flies. And as for whomever is waiting to kill themselves to blow up America, “I wish them luck.”
Mahurin, a committed regular at the General Store, is always in the right place with his camera. We hear from kindred spirits, meet the Shopsin family, and watch Kenny, an alchemist, turn soup into soup the way Harry Smith turned milk into milk. This is the cook as a cook in a kitchen where total collapse is fended off by duct tape, cups on string, a busted red flyswatter, and the metaphysics of telling fuckers off. A tin of shredded coconut, apparently invented to keep the dish rack from collapsing, is also and finally a tin of shredded coconut — useful for dusting a stack of pancakes speed-glazed with a flaming-hot spatula.
Mahurin’s film makes this clear: genius has something to do with food if the cook is a genius and everything to do with doing what you must do.
The Shopsins were squeezed out of their old shop of 32 years in 2002. I Like Killing Flies documents their lucky move down the street. Unscrewing the front door from the jambs, Shopsin cracks that he might use it as a cheap headstone. Compared to the original spot, the new Shopsin’s General Store is a sprawling, airy tree house but still quite funky. The West Village is getting way too slick and specialized, and everything about Shopsin’s funkifies through overdiversity — too much creativity. I counted 138 different soups on the menu, including pistachio red chicken curry and Peruvian shrimp avocado, as well as dozens of “Breakfast Name Plates,” including the Twain (“huckleberry Finnish crepes”) — yet all Shopsin cares to eat, he tells Mahurin, is his own chili stewed with a splash of coffee. He compares such counterintuitive fusions to sodomy. Mara and Zach Shopsin took orders from me and my girlfriend, and the cook himself, in his Shopsin’s T-shirt (he doesn’t remove it for the whole movie) made sure that we walked out with free candy.
Mahurin’s documentary is one you can live in. Your head fits right into this furnished hollow tree. The film mentions but does not explore the death of Eve Shopsin, Kenny’s wife, in 2003, but we get to enjoy her presence for the whole first hour or more, which is a blessing in itself. (Julien Poirier)
Opens Fri/20
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
(415) 863-1087