Tuesday, May 15, 2012



Notes from Irrelevance by Anselm Berrigan
(Wave Books, Seattle, WA, 2011)

A commentator recently noted how with Notes from Irrelevance Anselm Berrigan constructs a poem out of disparate parts of everything that usually gets removed from out a poem—or something like that anyway. Cast offs and asides are here taken to be the meaty girders along which the poem rides. There’s clearly something a bit different going on with the workings of a long poem here. Just when you think there’ll be a break or indication of pause in the oncoming deluge, none such is to be found. The lines of the poem just keep on rolling.

Berrigan tweaks a bit what the nature of the long poem is and how it works. Rather friendly, with assured charm, Berrigan’s poem embraces his life: pulling from his daily affairs all matters with which it decides concern itself with delineating upon. It’s like a journal, but not. Berrigan for his own part appears rather more nearly disinterested than anything. With a growing family to care for and work matters to avoid, or entertain and thereby avoid, along with a host of other lively interests no doubt with which to occupy his time, he’s rather too busy to be so much bothered. Writing poetry is among the last of things on his to-do list and so the poem itself needs to take care of its own; which it does indeed do with matter-of-fact aplomb.

I sat down on a recent Saturday and read the poem straight through while sipping a little whiskey before heading out to the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of John Cage’s Songbooks. Almost immediately upon finishing I rose and walked to my desk in the bedroom and wrote the following response.


don’t last
won’t it
break useless
to be so
doing this
to thing
at it like
couple of
hymn headed
punk’d out
droll mixing
not matter
so what
who thinks
cool tags
buffed rims
some words
others recognize better
go here


I’ve met Berrigan twice: Once briefly @ Vesuvio’s after a reading at City Lights and one evening later on for a longer stretch at the house of some friends. He’s a tremendously generous conversationalist. Active socializing is an art and it’s rare to find those comfortable in such craft who are likewise of a truly sensitive nature—confortable enough in their own skin to exist just fine without all the buzz of activity found when constantly seeking to be among friends and acquaintances—unable not to feel always aware of their own self’s suffering through others: the conversation not one of mutual mindless escape rehashing the standard score but rather likewise commiseration of one’s ever-varying role in existence. Not how get out of it but rather just dig in with being in it.

This doesn’t make for easy living. In the poem, Berrigan describes himself as “being a poet and/ generally oversensitive/ sonuvabitch prone to/ cathartic self-retaliation/ at perceived slights while/ maintaining a surface of/ competent if protean/ functionality” which assuredly isn’t a simple frame of mind to exist in. Yet my ideal reading of Berrigan believes he would do just fine on a deserted island, although he’d undoubtedly prefer that island not be Manhattan, where he was born and currently resides. He enjoys his birthplace as it is—alongside with memories of it as it was—far too much to ever witness it so drastically changed.

And as difficultly hectic as Manhattan continues to be at times, he’s quite aware of the luck life has brought him to enjoy it as his central locale for so many of his years. He knows the streets and various settings well, eyeing the changes passing time brings to them.  

Reading the Times by
neon green light in this,
my neighborhood of
delusive transisting,
cleaned up for double-
decker tour buses and
their radio-voiced waves
designed to make a
museum out of the dug
streets. I love the view
up first ave on a clear
day, a straight line north,
a wiped-out horizon
stood on its side to
appear climbable above
the ordinary hum of
death that is traffic.

Gregarious and ever expanding, Notes from Irrelevance greets readers with an exuberance of personal warmth and spontaneity.

I’m going to make a list
of all the people who’ve
influenced me in any way,
with a brief explanation
as to how. Reality’s frail
blooming is of no concern,
being only there. One
mirrors the dynamics of
massing without reason,
lies an honest, productive
lie, awaits questions. I got
my first real six-string to
play a flamenco version
of kibbles ‘n bits. I was
taking the 12 or 20
questions seriously then
saw some potes of qualitay
taking them less seriously.

Berrigan doesn’t waste his time although he may allow time to waste him—having to go through routines of living—after all, that part of life is rather inescapable. Nonetheless, “what is most/ordinary every day is/ defeating the desire to/ harden into respectable/ indifference.” Not that Berrigan is any kind of hero. In fact, he rarely believes in them, at least not in any universal sense these days. (The pun is there because it’s elemental, given the facts, fantastical as much as not, as are they.)

Going out the door into the frenetic world of unavoidable interactions and delays and speedups and takedowns and always being caught up by the inevitable, is how life goes. Best get on with it. Grow with it. Move through it. Berrigan’s well on his way. This poem, in particular, evidences his avid willingness to share and discover what any of it all means as he goes along. It’s not as easy as it seems, don’t be fooled and don’t attempt fool around; be attendant to your affairs.  

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is "There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk": A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), other writing includes a plethora of book reviews and assisting Iranian poet Ava Koohbor with translating her poems from Farsi.  Some things are also likely to be appearing in issues of the Lightning'd Press house mag, 1913 Journal of Forms, Shampoo, and House Organ.  

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