Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, the latest book by the New Mexico-based poet, makes a case for wonder and communication with star beings.
The stars, the universe, and gazing at the night sky are timeless subjects of romantic poetry. But there is no longing, no yearning between two star-crossed lovers in A Treatise on Stars (2020). Instead, the central relationship is between humankind and the universe where “life is fundamental to stars,” “star-human communication occurs,” and “constellations are experienced emotionally.”
A Treatise on Stars is Chinese-born American poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s fourteenth book. It won the 2021 Bollingen Prize for Poetry and was a finalist for a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Throughout the book, extended serial poems move across the page in quietly powerful long lines, resulting in a hypnotic affect. The reading experience is so trance-like and meditative that it’s easy to overlook the book’s investigations into larger questions of existence.
Interconnectedness is at the core. Berssenbrugge paints a reality in which all species and beings are connected through space, time, and distance. The idea of emotional connection through distance is illustrated in “Lux”:
Juxtaposition becomes a blend of unconscious and external event; the more distant the relation, the more emotional, poetic, the perception.
In this reality, connections can be made through seeing (“Everything seen establishes relation”) and translates to feeling (“Observing and observed universe are complementary aspects of their love”).
Creativity through space, time, and distance is explored throughout, as seen in the lines from “Star Beings”:
Perhaps creativity is the unfoldment of relations between objective and emotion in space.
And from “Chaco and Olivia”:
Writing can shift the mechanism of time by changing the record, then changing the event.
The origin of creation is questioned in a reality where the cosmos communicates “through this web of images we imagine” and, “A word can mimic a crystal, and a crystal can describe, also.”
Often elliptical and reliant on intuitive sense-making, these poems also follow the narrative thread of a speaker and her small family and are deeply rooted in place, as seen in “Wonder”:
Chama River flows north-south to the horizon, then straight up through the Milky Way, like water moving beneath a riverbed that’s dry.
Abiquiu Mountain, El Rito Creek, coyote, snake, rainbow and rain, spider and hummingbird identify equivalent placements above, so wherever we go, there is company, nurture, from every star in our regard.
Even the long lines of text can be seen as mimicking horizon lines or the gently sloping mountain ranges seen in northern New Mexico where Berssenbrugge has resided since the 1970s.
The mingling of the terrestrial and celestial melds with the physical and spiritual, and connects humankind’s treatment of the world to our continued existence in it. The book makes the case for a larger empathic awareness, a “collective experience” in which “intelligences reveal themselves through animals or plants” and “we converse by mind-cell helixes of image and feeling.”
Gem-like and pleasurable at every turn, A Treatise on Stars is truly ravishing. Berssenbrugge’s book, both heart-opening and heartbreaking, reminds us of our deep connection to and superficial detachment from our surroundings. May it also serve as a reminder that we must go to the stars not just for the beauty but because “looking is an innate impulse toward wholeness.”