The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

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MAR 2019 Issue

Anselm Berrigan’s Something for Everybody

Anselm Berrigan
Something for Everybody
(Wave Books, 2018)

Given our times, a cynic might be excused for assuming Something for Everybody, the title of Anselm Berrigan’s most recent book of verse, is an ironic indictment of well-intentioned yet over-simplified gestures towards equity and inclusion. While the off-kilter arrangement of those words on the cover further suggests this assumption, in actuality, these poems celebrate a persistent, sophisticated generosity of perception. Throughout, Berrigan reframes and transforms unexamined routine into moments of energized space to promote fresh ways of engaging reality. That this is achieved without strain is a remarkable testament to Berrigan’s serious commitment to play as a compositional porthole through which the mundane becomes magic. The collection’s opening poem, “What the Streets Look Like,” immediately establishes this commitment by way of a letter the author writes to his mother: “Mom … I have / a greater empathy for / pigeons after two months / at work in the unnatural / country.” In evoking a common trope (poet writes home regarding the strangeness of his new environs), Berrigan inverts the formula by turning a traditionally safe setting (the country) into a site of liminal wonder:

One feels less than
nostalgic for the like-
lihood of being mugged
but likelihood itself
feels less than evident
unless one is being
unstable and unspoken
coming to dreaming…

These skinny, two-foot lines, promote rapid enjambment and frequent surprise, effects that heighten the author’s sense of displacement in a small upstate town. For him, getting mugged—or at least bracing against the possibility of getting mugged—is status quo. In a world where norms are upside-down, the unstable proves stable and one, it would seem, can become accustomed to anything. Attuned to this irony, Berrigan parses “likelihood” across two lines, thereby creating visual estrangement of a word that means “expected.” The maneuver is more than merely clever: it suggests even the most familiar realities can engender alienation.

Unsurprisingly, then, the aesthetics laid forth in Something for Everybody are far from expected. The collection is chock-full of styles and modes, from intriguing collage work in “Lengthening Arches” to the masterful handling of lyric idioms in “To a Copy,” to the Olson-like field composition technique of “Self Portrait with Lasers.” Despite all this variety, Berrigan’s ebullience, openness, and “busy frivolity” course through every line. The poems here show him to be, in one aspect, a clear descendant of Frank O’Hara, whose own effervescent poems evinced fast-paced, urban-centered locales as launching points. Naturally, the particulars are different: whereas O’Hara remembers listening to Billie Holliday at the 5 Spot, Berrigan, in “Tilebreaker,” rides the L with Polvo jamming in his earbuds. In both contexts, poems loaded with seemingly-clogged detail lead, paradoxically, to spacious rumination. During Berrigan’s musical passage through underground tunnels, he reflects: “war and aesthetics / sit in temporal / relation to one / another as both / are and are not/ ignored and endless…”.

Elsewhere in Something for Everybody, Berrigan’s poems demonstrate a remarkable range of tonalities. Five poems named for the nearly-obscure poet Jim Brodey contain moments of startling clarity. (“I only hold against you your name” begins one of them, and later continues: “I / Hold that really can you believe it’s a quarter / Century since you turned that last corner forever.”) “I Felt Like an Amputated Leg” and “17 Mini-Essays on The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard” are tour-de-force homages to Raymond Chandler and Joe Brainard respectively. “Inquire Without” is an eerie, reproachful poem about soldiers (American?) marching through France and Germany, encountering “without word or comment” the destruction a world war has wrecked upon Europe. Several other poems, moreover, are effective collaborations with friends and children, including “Poem for Los Angeles,” a charming co-write with Berrigan’s daughter Sylvie: (“Want to say goodbye to anybody?” Berrigan asks Sylvie. “Yes. Who? You. See you later. I’m / Going to chase all those pigeons.”)

By contrast, some of the poems in Something for Everybody are as densely constructed as the thorniest works by Stevens or Ashbery. In such cases, any ostensible difficulties are rewarding. One of the collection’s finest moments is “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?,” an extensive philosophical musing on imagination and memory, where clarifying acts of definition are deconstructed; there is even an ingenious metapoetic moment in which all of “What the Streets Look Like” is cited in the penultimate position of “& What Does Need Mean?” Throughout the entire poem, Berrigan powerfully weaves theoretical inquiry with the most personal moments of the book. “I need / things that don’t go together / to be put in time together,” he claims mid-way through the poem, an admission that is followed by a near 20-line memory about his half-sister’s memorial service. The moment is so personal and moving, it resists partial quoting. In the same poem, he recalls his mother saying to him “I can’t find out what / the streets of New York look like / by reading anyone’s poems any- / more”—three lines worth the entire price of admission.

And yet, in spite of the book’s heady and dazzling academic sophistication, my favorite poem, “Seven” is deceptively straightforward:

When I was seven
in 1979, I’d go buy
the paper, for my
father, from Oscar’s
dark green newsstand
on the corner of first
avenue & St. Mark’s
Place. Oscar always
called me Oscar when
I stopped by. “Thanks
Oscar,” he’d say as
I handed him the
quarter. “Bye, Oscar”
I’d say, turning
around, going
back on my way.

In 16 short lines, Berrigan manages to address the complex nature of reality and ways in which we willingly participate in the gaps between actuality and language. But like all fine poems, “Seven” resists mediation. Instead, it asserts itself as itself. As an instance too mysterious and universal to be reduced to exegesis, I will turn to this poem—and four or five others from Something for Everybody—again and often


Tony Leuzzi

TONY LEUZZI's books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

All Issues