Sunday, January 12, 2014


T. C. MARSHALL Reviews

Can It! by Edmund Berrigan
(Tucson: Letter Machine, 2013)

with references to his previous books in T.C. Marshall's collection--
Disarming Matter (Woodacre, CA: The Owl Press, 1999)
Life (NY: Boog Literature, 2000)

as well as
The Selected Poems of Steve Carey, ed. E. Berrigan (NY: subpress, 2009) & Alice Notley’s essay “Steve” in Coming After (Ann Arbor: U of M, 2005)

My Collected Edmund Berrigan

         The poet Eddie Berrigan is anything but collected. If you can do it in a poem or a paragraph, he probably will. We see and feel this polymorphous poetics surging forward with heart in his latest oeuvre, Can It!, where “the Unborn Second Baby” gives us his own songs in a delicious multitude of forms. Some seem totally made up, and some mostly matter of fact. Like his dad, he ranges freely among methods, neither owning nor owned by any discernible one. His late great father, Ted Berrigan, seemed to put all approaches to the test of telling some truth--whether it would be aesthetic or experiential or more often both. Young Edmund appears to let even more approaches into this book than his father before him practiced in a whole career.

         An approach like the one in “Opening” working with recombinant phrasing of sentences to form a quasi-narrative prose-poem still can tell truths in its various tones. We get faux-naif philosophical bits like “The right here is right by my side” or “My diminutive complete faith in supernatural power makes every moment religious” (21). These are the kinds of statements Ted loved that can make you laugh and simultaneously nod at how true they are. We also get whacky variations like “My diminutive is right here by my side, having terror” and “Having complete faith in supernatural waggishness, every moment an ingenious hope of the future is exhausting” (21). Between them comes an aesthetic observation: “Having pretended and then laid claim was an artful measure” (21). This is an aesthetics that depends upon neither seriousness nor univocality; it has taken the modernist lesson of collage into new territory of fun without leaving truths out of the picture. From Pound/Eliot to O’Hara/Berrigan and now beyond via Breton/Burroughs, this poetry calls upon its readers to experience the assembly of meaning in its “artful measure,” and to accept pretending as an opposite equal to high modern pretenses.

         At another point opposite to pretending and pretense, Can It! presents its diaristic pieces. The book begins in and frequently returns to straight-forward expression. The title poem, the “Foreword” and the “Epilogue,” and such pieces as “San Francisco Diary,” “Texas Road Trip,” and “Paris Diary,” all are prose accounts of lived moments or series of experiences. “Doug” is a poem in lines that tells simply of the passing of a belovéd step-father and fellow poet. All of these pieces are frank. Arch sensibility, camp, irony, and cleverness are minimized in these pieces; their tone is as plain as their titles (except in the title poem, which borrows a joke from Ted).

         Ted is the focus for several of these pieces. The “Foreword” tells us about the posthumous value of Ted’s writing for this son: “a lens I could use to gauge the situation” of going on without him; it “represented his voice but also his absence” and “was about adaptation and survival.” The younger Berrigan found a shared “interest … behind the words” in the “intuitiveness of poetry” as “a vehicle … for continuing our relationship.” Can It! is a book that is not just about these relations in “intuitiveness” but a lively enactment of forms of it. The poet’s hope here is for “a book that can carry this kind of information” in working “as both a whole and as parts” that we can enter “from any point like a memory” and “that feels infinite but remains brief.” All of these claims are realized in Can It!’s shaping of lyrical personal experience and imaginative recomposition of the parts played by words. Their writer names this book “a place where I could store intangible information while letting myself off the hook” (ii).

         That last bit gets inside the emotional value of this work and its ways of getting beyond the diffident cynicism of the age. “Oh Death,” with its mock poetic title, tells very simply and clearly Eddie’s memory/experience of the day Ted died. The most poignant moment seems to be when his poet-mother says, after announcing his father’s death, “If you feel angry and you want to break something, you can go ahead” (18). Eddie says he took up a plate from the sink, “felt a surge of emotion,” and put it back down. That idea of a need to break something provides a funny way to look at this book. Can It! breaks a few rules but also demonstrates an unbroken chain linking the young Edmund to his father Edmund, known as Ted, and beyond that to several threads of poetic inheritance. Sentences, lines, words, thoughts, and their syntax and co-ordinations get broken in some parts of this book “That tells a whole story by showing a fragmented record” (ii). However, the whole is greater.

         There are angers in it: “’Beyond age lies a pain in the river,’ he screamed, ‘and beyond that, lies!’” or the recorded Texas road-trip image of a sign in a yard full of broken-down trucks “which read, ‘You poisoned my son’s puppy!’ The word ‘poisoned’ was bigger than the others” (127). There are self-aware comments about griefs: “Movies where the male lead represents some kind of absence seem to resonate with me” (131) or “Doug had come into our lives and filled in some kind of empty space. Now he was leaving” (138) or the description of Eddie’s own astonishment at the peacefulness emitted by Doug Oliver’s dead body (142). These are fine expositions, but the detailed work of putting word next to word throughout this book is the really great memorial to the feelings of this young poet whose fathers were Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver. From the latter, this book takes its epigraph, “Emotions stagger forwards / in these distracted councils”; from the former, it derives a half-dozen key anecdotes and several poetic impetuses. There is a story called “The Blood Barn” that seems an homage to Ted’s cut-up cowboy novel, Clear the Range. There are cut-up poems, a “fake” interview, the simple descriptive poem “Doug,” the whacky “Objects: A Play,” the transcribed chat with a fellow poet, and the anecdotal piece with Ted’s jokey “post-card poem” à la A Certain Slant of Sunlight as its punchline. And yet, by including all this and more, Can It! is all Eddie.

         You can see that by looking back at two fine early works of his: Disarming Matter from 1999 and Life from 2000. Anselm Hollo’s jacket blurb for Disarming mentions the “little balloons” that appear above your head when you read that book with an ear for its music. It is a speech music with all the quirky stops and starts of our talking ways. A poem like “Eyes” might work with his being “the son of a dead man,” but its moves showed over a dozen years ago that this young poet had his own claim to “artful measure.” Each of the four sections of Disarming takes a different tack, one works with claiming the fourteener as Eddie’s own by making fourteen of them newly while another builds small square prosy inventions that veer between being tales and being personal philosophies banging against words as they go. “Words” ends “I remember my whole self accepted the words I chose not mattered it’s beautiful to be plain or not to. Does this not freeze, when I talk it slows down, words do not represent, nor sound” (45). This book is not what you’d call plain, but Life very much is.

         Life is one paragraph for each of his years at that point since birth in 1974. The first few are one sentence each, but each is what Stein said a paragraph of good prose should be—emotional. The three years of high school get one page starting “High School is a blur,” but the baker’s dozen sentences there present every anxious bit of those years remarkably, from “Start writing poetry everyday” to “Regrettable Tom Petty phase” and other sentences about writing, friends, money lack, girls, music, and lit. They include “Steve Carey dies of a heart attack” without placing him in poetry or the heart, but you can tell he had a place in both.

         Another work of Eddie’s that tells us a lot about him and what he works for is his edition of The Selected Poems of Steve Carey from 2009. The editor’s “preface” doesn’t do much more than give the poems a history, though it mentions their quality of “voice” and calls them “terrific to read out loud” and says they’re “meant to be heard” (8). If we turn to Eddie’s mother, Alice Notley, though, we get “Steve”—an essay that tells us his “exact sense of rhythm” comes from being a drummer and a singing guitarist (117). We also hear exactly how he loves “turns of phrase” (118) and that after Ted’s death “Eddie visits Steve a lot, sort of out of the blue each time” (125). Notley asserts that “Steve … lays his life on the line for and in his poetry, in order to write it properly” (127). These things could quite rightly be said of her second son too. He got his own heart and voice going from more than just Ted or Ted’s being dead. He knew how to shape a bit of a dad on his own out of what could be found and what was given.

         Steve Carey’s “About Poetry” (46) or “The Islands” (74) might be the song-shaped influence behind young Edmund’s poems and guitar playing, or not. The almost impossible image at the end of “New Petit Mal”: “A gaggle of bones / down through the scrub” (31) might have opened Eddie to his own constructions, or not. Carey’s poem “Poem” (91) may be about Alice Notley partly and maybe showed even Ted how excellently this adventure would go. That it could result in a lyricism of multiple tones like “We have forfeit / The requirement of our consent” near “’Bitchin’ kamikazee ingenue’ is right / (singing, ‘Do wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do’)” seems almost impossible until you hear it done again in “Sign hung from an Abandoned Coal Mine” (41) or “The Orbit Poem” (76) in Disarming Matter. When Notley writes “He has been hurt in his youth and the result is rampant poetry and also fear and instability; the more hurt you are, the more poetic you are, the less likely you’ll be conformist enough, or have enough professional stamina, to get the circumscribed recognition a ‘famous’ poet gets” (127), it could be about her second child now man.

         Edmund Berrigan’s poetics work a kind of politics on the poetry world like his mother’s claims about Steve Carey do. “The Orbit Poem,” in its last few lines, offers two sentences we can take as assertions among the things Eddie would like to do:

                  I have a desire to transcend conscious speech,
not to the exclusion of words or letters,
                  it is not a scholarly wish, must be removed
                  from the present past future inclusive everything
beyond understanding. The only reason I know
anything is by writing it down & forgetfulness
keeps everything down where it’s rooted & comes
to a permanent stop.

Can It! works against the full stop of death, both the literal kind—as in the deaths of Eddie’s poetic fathers—and the poetic kind in forgetfulness. As the book’s “Foreword” says, being able to “be visited from any point like a memory” is what makes a living poem a place to “store intangible information” and at the same time let oneself “off the hook” (ii). Can It! and the other works of Edmund Berrigan in my collection demonstrate a variety of lively techniques that can go into this practice. They also tell of a life being lived, as “Texas Road Trip” says of the words scribbled in a Cy Twombly painting. “in localized zero gravity and a whim of invention” 


T. C. Marshall lives near Fall Creek in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains where he used to walk regularly with Norman O. Brown; Tom claims to be able still to hear the wise old codger singing Morenita Mía on the trail and asking sharp questions about the biome. Some of Tom’s own creative works in progress can be seen at, on YouTube, & at His next performance to be YouTubed will come in the Spring and be called something like “Face their Violence or Face the Music.”

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