Songs of Bernie Bjorn

Set in the social milieu of the late fifties and early sixties, Diane Elliott’s hard-driving, vaguely disturbing coming-of-age verse novel pushes its way into the reader’s psyche with a sense of urgency akin to that of the dervish at its center—”all boogie and beat”—pulsing “with the force of lake ice cracking.”

Unfolding in fifty segments voiced from almost as many points of view, this kaleidoscopic rendering is as deliberately fragmented and fractured, as dazzling and disorienting as were the chaotic years of Bernie’s becoming. And therein lies its brilliance.

Are we to believe everything these narrators tell us? Why not? Since, as the novel’s last speaker reminds us, “all anybody knows/ is rumor.”


KIRKUS REVIEW

New poetry from Elliott (Shattering Porcelain Images, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Bernie Bjørn in multiple voices.

Readers learn about Bernie—her swallowed grief at having given up a first baby to adoption when she was a teenager, her fallout with her cold mother, her desire to give her daughter, Anna, a sibling, her untethered attraction to sex and men, her brilliance—in a series of 50 monologues. The characters include Leland Eckroth, who courts her mother and whom Bernie propositions; the boys she grew up with, now adults who might be lovers, might be helpers; Jack, her husband, who leaves his young wife perilously alone; girlfriends; a lawyer; and so on. The neighbors say that when Bernie moved in next door, she “livened up our gossip / lightened up our lives / she was all beat and boogie / full of hope love and curiosity.” Bernie has a direct, passionate influence on others: “Nights the naked sounds of her lovemaking / drove us back into each other’s arms.” Auburn-haired and thin, she’s nearly magical: “Some creature stepped out of a / Botticelli painting.” “Song Twenty-five—Pimp” makes clear her fierce singularity: “That’s when I knew / Bernie wasn’t anybody’s wife.” She’s fragile, too, enough to be institutionalized. One love interest counsels her: “Everyone who is in pain / who is lonesome and lost / is in a hurry / I told her / you must be patient.” Although the dramatic heroine doesn’t get a song of her own (unless it’s “Song Forty-four—Alter ego”), even a particle in the atmosphere gets a voice in this remarkable book. A riveting poem titled “Dustmote” makes a wild, weird interruption into the human voices to record Bernie leaving her husband: “I dust mote on her body powdered / felt the bloom scrubbed into her skin / heard her words why don’t you get a job / I’m going back to school // I dust mote dancing / heard the door behind it echo / last time last time / last time.”

These songs of the ardent title character sing like wildfire; readers should be singed and ravished by her burning.

Songs of Bernie Bjorn
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