Charles Bernstein’s poetry is relentlessly experimental, playful, eclectic, irreverent, often humorous and sometimes uncomfortable when it is at odds with the readers’ expectations or convictions. As one of the founders of the so-called ‘Language school’ of poetry (usually spelled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Bernstein explores the uses of language within diverse social contexts. His work focuses on the ways we rely on words, expressions, metaphors, and on the meanings our culture attaches to its own verbal productions. Bernstein’s poetic work often mocks the jargon of politics, popular culture, advertising, corporate culture or academia. By foregrounding the hidden workings of ideology in language, Bernstein’s work defamiliarizes our deeply held beliefs and values. As Bernstein says in an interview with Bradford Senning: “I want to engage the materials of the culture, derange them as they have deranged me, sound them out, as they sound me out.”
“The Darkness He Called Night” is, of course, a reference to the Biblical act of creation – more precisely, the moment when God divided light from darkness, creating the first dichotomy. Possibly no other pair of concepts generates as many metaphors as these two, light being associated not just with daytime but also with wisdom, virtue, happiness and hope. Darkness, on the other hand, connotes evil, ignorance and danger. These associations have become so commonplace that we are hardly aware of their metaphorical character, as of the fact that both literal and metaphorical meanings of darkness and light are mutually constructive and therefore interdependent.
Virtue, one of the possible metaphorical meanings of light, is what the poem attacks with its sword of irony, uncovering its dark underpinnings. Is virtue good? Always? For whom? Clearly not for those who find themselves outside of the zone it declares as just; not for those who transgress the standards it fashions out of its narcissistic attachment to itself. Its true “passion” is “reprimand”: there is no virtue without exclusion, it relies on an otherness that must be kept out of its territory. Distrustful of virtue’s “fervently/ displayed empathies”, the poem demonstrates the intimate link between virtue (its truth) and power. Disguised as “care”, virtue is, in fact, a form of “despair”; that the two words rhyme makes the juxtaposition even more striking. The poem, as in much of Bernstein’s work, disobeys the command of virtue, or any self-congratulatory ideology. Instead, it declares loyalty to that which is pushed outside, politically, aesthetically and morally, to “miscreants”, “shams” and “malcontents” of all sorts, those who will not improve in the name of our culture’s standards of good life.