June 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Kneel Said the Night
A Hybrid in Half Notes

Karren Alenier


Margo Berdeshevsky's Kneel Said the Night: A Hybrid in Half Notes is seductively terrifying. The Steiny Road Poet thinks the title alone suggests a noir environment of cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Who kneels in the actual or metaphoric darkness of night—victims of sexual predators who are suggested by "nightgowns, loved or raped in the dark before they were hung in the southern sun and shade"? A would-be Catholic-faithful kneeling for confirmation but just an unbaptized Jewish child wanting to fit in? A willing-to-learn woman at the feet of older women imparting secrets of ageing?  A wide-eyed child called to the bedside of her mentally and physically sick mother who is entertaining a lover?

This hybrid work of poems, stories, drawings, and photographs is populated with figures that expose a broken world. Finding the work complex and unsettling, Steiny conducted an interview May 5, 2023, with this prolific author of celebrated literature and visual art.


When asked how she would characterize Kneel Said the Night? Memoir? Meditation? Philosophic tract? Berdeshevky nixed the possibility of memoir and referred to the comment that appears on the back of her book by John Domini:

"How to save a bird-ling or a world? How to save a springtime? Terrifying questions like this loom before us all, at this haunted moment" yet when the night demands we kneel, Margo Berdeshevsky dreams up rare new postures. She starts from ruin, her planet ravaged and her body long past nubile, but spawns miraculous fables, the offspring of Mother Goose and
W.S. Merwin."

Berdeshevsky also referred to her subtitle A Hybrid in Half Notes. Here Steiny pauses to say in music, a half note is a sound played for half the duration of a whole note. Steiny guesses that what the author means by her subtitle is that in the broken world of this book, made up of words and images (these are her notes), the reader can expect a partial reckoning with the subject matter and its ideas. Don't expect a happy ending. No, gird yourself for a girl swearing and acting impulsively. Steiny experienced a flash of Thelma and Louise.

Berdeshevsky affirms by quoting herself that her book is meditative and/or philosophical. "I am the woman who asks how close is death, how near is God. As one sequence, in the opening chapter speaks of an old actress who 'will take you into the desert and there I will speak to you in the depths of your heart,' Kneel Said The Night moves from brokenness to quest, to nakedness, weaving together intimacy, revamped fairytale, erotic myth, and legend."


Aware that this book is different from her previous work, Steiny wanted to know where this hybrid collection fit into the author's overall work—was it a culmination of all that came before or something brand new?

Berdeshevsky said it was both. "I have been interested in collage, and the hybrid approach to all art, for a long time, but this is the first full book of mine that uses it [collage] as scaffold and structure."

Like Gertrude Stein who didn't believe in museums and made, with her brother Leo, a picture gallery of their home, Berdeshevsky puts older work in conversation with newer work. Berdeshevky pointed out that in her notes,  "… I have a long and deeply held artistic belief that an author's published works may be, and often beautifully can be in conversation with one another, in the same way that paintings in a museum are able to speak to one another, across walls and from room to room. It is a way for an author's voice to grow and look backward and forward across her oeuvre in her lifetime as a writer. In that spirit, I occasionally quote myself, echo, or use small snips of older works in present works. There is a long literary history of such, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Rimbaud to name a
very few. …"


Many references to Paris thread through Kneel Said the Night. Berdeshevsky offers stories about this city crowded with young prostitutes camped in the Bois De Boulogne—" One day, the devil's story in Paris is about prostitutes in woodlands of the Bois de Boulogne: young girls from the Eastern European borders brought when they were just old enough to menstruate, or not even." (from "Half Notes") or maybe it's our author demonstrating her sense of panache and safely strolling on the Boul' Saint Germain "A new, woven shawl for springtime. I wear it as I walk to the Boulevard Saint Germain. There have been no bombs this week. This month. Paris is a safe place. This week. This month. For now." (from "My Own…My White Plume").

This made Steiny curious about how living in Paris changed how and what Berdeshevky wrote? She said that Paris is possibly "one of my guardians" but also a "taskmaster."

"…Paris is good to me. It's rough and impressionistic and right now it's a cold argumentative spring, but the light is ever a factor. I like that it's so often a pewter kind of light, even in summer. (Argentée, the French say.) It's both a city of light, and a city of dark, to me. A walking place. It can be a lonely place, and sometimes that's good for the writing. And it's a global crossroad where old and new grind their hips against one another. And, it has the beauty of history and seasons and world consciousness and some grime and old ghosts—all that. And during those times when I am most deeply critical of, or disillusioned with America's errant paths, it's a place where I haven't had to pretend to agree with the madness. …

"Also, to write in a place where my daily language to buy milk and get on a bus and repair shoes is all in French, and for that language to not—be the language I write in, makes for an interesting disruption of predictable thinking. So, a different kind of circuitry can come for the words I type. ...."


To the important question, what do you want your readership to walk away with after they read and digest Kneel Said the Night? Berdeshevsky answered, "I speak through different narratives of a woman's intimate desire(s.) And her quest to know if she has learned anything in a long or a short life. … What it is or may be to grow old in a woman's body. What frightens her. What desire and the hungers for love have led her to. What she must risk, to be held. What or who does she belong to. Where can she travel to become free. Who holds her hand. Who influences her? Dead mothers, dead fathers, available or unavailable lovers, her own shape and flesh, fame, solitudes, illnesses, death itself, or something holy? Sometimes she is preyed upon. Sometimes she turns predator. But mostly, the women I speak of in their intimacies turn to the erotic and the mythic, the poetic, the mysterious, and even to ruin. Or, joy in the play and dances of life—all to survive. And to be a woman. And so, I hope that such thoughts and questions will belong to the reader after the covers of Kneel Said the Night have closed."

Margo Berdeshevsky doesn't hold back. This is a book speaking truth to power, a book that  women like Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan could get behind if they were still walking the streets of this world. Next best endorsement Berdeshevsky has is in a blurb from Pulitzer-winning poet Diane Seuss, another writer of mettle and innovation.


Next up is It Is Still Beautiful to Hear the Heart Beat from Salmon Poetry of Ireland.


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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

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©2023 Karren Alenier
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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