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Forgotten Writers – Steven Jesse Bernstein

In 1991, Seattle poet, Steven “Jesse” Bernstein committed suicide by stabbing himself three times in the throat. By that time he had suffered years of mental illness, read poetry on stage before Nirvana concerts, and counted William S. Burroughs as one of his fans. It is likely you have never heard of him.

I was one in a crowd of regulars, spending all of my nights at a coffeehouse at the age of 19 when I was first introduced to Bernstein. We were going through that special snowflake phase all generations go through as we try out new writers and Buddhism and think we’re the first to discover everything. Then there’s that guy who whips out a guitar, believing himself to be the next Bob Dylan. Yeah. Those days.

As I received an impromptu coffeehouse education on Alphonse Mucha, Led Zeppelin, and E.E. Cummings, I was moonlighting as a nude artist’s model, oblivious to the fact that many artists have a certain agenda. I never took the bait with any of them but even if I knew, I would have probably continued posing, basically doing it for the attention I needed at the time. One of the most talented artists (Jon) was what he liked to call a “straight edge”. He didn’t drink or smoke or have sex. Despite that last bit, I always thought he was trying to get me in the sack. Like when he gave me nude Polaroids of himself or other small gifts and one of them was a hand full of photocopied pages of this poetry he had recently discovered. An obscure Seattle poet named, Steven Jesse Bernstein.

To most young men, I’m sure Bernstein was tempting as an idol. He didn’t look like he showered and there were tattoos covering his hands and he said disgusting things in his poetry, things you don’t say out loud. He wore hipster glasses before the first hipster was ever born. Jon could tell that some of the photocopied poems were a turn off for me so he ended up giving me one called “Come Out Tonight”. Then he played a CD of Bernstein reading his poetry. “No No Man” sounded like it came out of a swinging 1950’s NYC club full of famous writers with it’s tappy tap jazz and horns. And then there was Bernstein with his dry, monotonous snarl as he read his poetry over it. I was hooked.

The album is called, Prison and I looked everywhere, coming up with a copy of it at a coffeehouse called Buzz in Cincinnati. They sold CD’s upstairs and it’s only now that I appreciate what a miracle it was to find it.

 

Bernstein in 1988, opening for William S. Burroughs.

 

Unless you live in Washington state, Bernstein and his poetry have disappeared off of the radar. I can’t get my hands on his book of poems, More Noise Please! but did find a copy of I am Secretly an Important Man which I adore. It’s a shame that Bernstein is so obscure. He has a way of making you feel uncomfortable and inspired at the same time. His poems are brave and not unlike Charles Bukowski who also wrote about loose women and being the old guy at the party. When you read Bernstein you are reminded of that Ernest Hemingway quote, write drunk, edit sober though towards the end of his life Bernstein was winning his fight against addiction. Bernstein’s rambling poems are full of run on sentences and scenarios that put his image in a bad light. Stalking women. Puking after a bad bender. But for every “Crying and Shitting at the Same Time” there is a poem full of coherent beauty. A great example of this is “She Comes and Goes” and an excerpt of the poem is below:

 

She comes and goes

with apples in her hands;

the wind plays around

her legs. 

The movement of the stars

are reflected in her eyes. 

Sometimes I smell a bakery

when she is near. 

 

Now, she is in another 

country – two countries 

at the same time.

When there are no postcards

there is always her voice

in the wind – her face

moving like a pink sun

behind the sky. 

Then she returns,

the air trembling around her, 

as though her skin

had become a desert.

A mirage pours from her body

onto the flower bed.

 

This is from a man who recorded his album of poetry at a prison. I recommend that you find a copy of one of his books and if you can, find his CD which is pretty wild. Then you can show your friends and pretend you were the first to discover him.

Nicolina Torres
Nicolina Torres

When not working, Nikki is building websites and writing. She is the author of This Red Fire and Young Nation. She prefers to live in the country and is a new aunt to a potential bookworm.

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