By Edmund Berrigan
Letter Machine Editions, 2013
Mixed Genre, $24.00
Reviewed by Laura Carter
In the later pages of Edmund Berrigan’s new mixed-genre collection, Can It!, the writer reproduces a poem of his later father, Ted Berrigan, called “Song for the Unborn Second Baby.” Underneath the reproduction, the younger Berrigan simply writes can it; it reads as a coy homage both to his father and to the New York School, whose emphasis on juxtaposition, Personism, and affective variety and multivalence is present throughout the book. The larger import of Can It!, however, lies in its introduction to the life of the writer as recounted, sometimes simply, in an eclectic set of forms. From the brilliance of “The Blood Barn,” a short story, to the poignant diary entries about everything from dating to friendship to the loss of the poet’s father and stepfather, Berrigan gives us his usual New York School “come off it” style without it necessarily being the dominant mode of the book. There is knowledge in these poems, and sophisticated language play that make the book difficult to stop reading.
The strength of Berrigan’s writing lies in how he mixes genres with relative ease. For instance, the transitions from a “diary” entry to a poem or a lyric to a short story appear seamless and completely natural. Moreover, these formal transitions mirror the narrator (presumably Berrigan himself), who always speaks off-the-cuff and lives off the beaten path. There are travelogues, stories of time spent (lived) in San Francisco and New York, but also plenty of poems interspersed within the book. Can It! is, in a sense, part of the New York School tradition—and it shows this by being facile with words and wordplay, with the daily and the abstruse.
In the Introduction, Berrigan cites a variety of sources, which include Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, Merlin, and Siminski and Terkanian’s A Field Guide to Desert Holes, among other books. This is a motley collection of materials from which to build, or from which to begin, and we don’t feel the usual push and pull of critical or literary theory tugging at this book. The book that inspires Berrigan’s lines are these lines from Clear the Range:
Suppose then, he had been a quarter of an inch
greater, the little tiger! In that case, he’d shrink;
he’d be pestered by a howling cloud of boy-wasps.
He would have been drinking free of charge,
in the bar. He’d lie in a corner, with a sack over
his face, and a pool of red flies all around. For
nothing was easier than to drive air through the
heart of the enemy.
The book’s narrator (in part, Berrigan) tends to go for the jugular in places. He mocks magic, as if decrying, intellectually, the rhetorician’s hands that part truth from itself. In “Opening,” Berrigan writes:
I have two magic hands, but I have loaned one to a bystander. Don’t ask me about this. My diminutive is right here by my side when fanatic preachers keep a flame of terror. Having complete faith in supernatural powers, every moment an ingenious hope of the future is exhausting our present game trade is an artful one.
There’s a bit of irony in this piece, and Berrigan lightly mocks the certain, the Absolute, perhaps. He continues to mock, or to take shots at, the holy, etc. In “Did His Eye Melt?”, Berrigan creates a dialogue with a couple of folks, and continues to play genius moves, such as:
“Can I put a pun in our tracks?”
“To make flat rain come.”
“Someone’s going to a prayer.”
Pow points at Walk. “Yeah, a prayer.”
“He ain’t a son, he’s a sandhog.” Pow coughs.
This is how much of the book goes, and yet we have such wildly diverse moves in the diary pieces and interview pieces that work to give us a share of Berrigan’s life. The book’s brilliant “The Blood Barn” is a story about fighting. Using the requisite names and symbols, Berrigan gives us the tale of Ron, Ron:
When he had shed the tea, the Man, the Lathe put an owl on and placed his horse head beside it.
[T]he Blood Barn paid a visit to the temple of Us. The Ron noticed a long queue of Moons outside. Like the Ron, they wanted to age the Living God of Us, but as ordinary Moons they needed permission.
This brilliant piece is a linguistic play with articles, syntax, and theory, but also fine piece of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the book.
Some of the most touching parts of Berrigan’s Can It! are the family memories, and there are plenty of them to give you a picture of who a poet is, both inside and outside of his writing life. It’s always a remarkable thing to hear something that feels truthful and poignant without seeming to try too hard to make itself sincere, and Berrigan’s diary and prose entries are full of story without being narrative—there’s always a look at the interior, too, and some lightheartedness attends some of the moments of his life, too. And this is all that makes Can It! a remarkable juxtaposition of affect and intellect, all with an eye and ear to the truth of genre, filtered through Berrigan’s personal lens.
Berrigan creates worlds for us, but they’re not uncommon worlds; they’re worlds with which we can identify, and the more intellectual or abstract moments are part of a shared horizon. We get the sense that he is working to create a book, and does, that has a little bit of everything contained within its covers. He’s not afraid to bring the personal into the poetic, and this is part of what makes this book a gem.