Notes from Irrelevance

By Anselm Berrigan

Wave Books
August 2011

Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp


How do you tell a true story about your life, about what it's like to live your life today, right now, and up til now, with everything The Cloud-ed over, smeared into the mass-perception of a teeming and ambient multitude?  If every assertion you make of your own identity is questioned immediately--or even if it's just the looming of a seemingly inevitable inquisition--what access do you have to who you are? Without using the words and ways of speaking already gummed over with over-use, how do you ungum your own spirit long enough to differentiate it and live it? How do you separate the tour buses on your block, hoovering up some historical hipness, from your particular view of the same street—"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." How can you get deeper than the surface when the dirt dug up in the digging is always more of the same, and the illusion of depth is just a pile of magic eye pictures? These questions aren't exactly asked in Anselm Berrigan's longpoem Notes From Irrelevance—more like they're the factory that formed it.

In an ever-intricating, nuancing, and modifying voice, Berrigan scatterpaints a kind of hyper-intimate self-portrait. Early on, as he's winding up, he says, "no/ matter how aptly/ uncharacterized by/ stranger and estranged/ alike, my brooding bent/ toward seeing, forcing/ an issue out of perceptual/ marginalia--'my life.'" Jobs he's worked, fabrics he's favored, "being/ happy and free on a bike/ in San Francisco ignoring/ and or leaving the party/ of thought," a sudden memory, via the Marquis de Sade, of Sade and the many uses of "Smooth Operator," all interweave in his thinking. These thoughts, these memories, incongruous at first, by virtue of being arranged in a single thin stanza, form a kind of unity, a disparate, flowing whole. "I at some point decided/ to be—or became,/ understanding later—/influenced by, potentially,/ anything," he says, and anything is exactly the substance of the poem, almost overwhelmingly.  Berrigan's point isn't to divine meaning from this proliferating constellation, but to make a space for honest connection and real human community.  "Meaning/ is not difficult to find," he says at one point, going on later to say, "I find/ meaning to be constantly/ on the offensive, attacking/ my desire to get going." Every path in the forest is always forking. Just going for a walk will spin you in circles, or spirals, or squares, and before long you'll be thinking in patterns you never intended, in modes you don't mean, for purposes you'd oppose. "The/ problem is in the looking—/ I don't think it works to/ plead for a voice out of the monolith to make/clear what you sense, feel/ know to be happening."

One must then create or steal or find a voice suitable to the making clear. Berrigan says, "I garble the/ rhetorical aspects of/ sensibility or silence/ them all together as/ occasion implicitly/ demands, to give my/ child a chance to unfix/ all she's told."  Though lineage is only one of an infinite number of influencing forces, here it functions on the go-forward. If Notes from Irrelevance is dense and crenelated, a sanctuary against meaning, it's only to open up free space, to offer a kind of honest uncertainty. Because the language we all share is over-coded and over-loaded with connotations, implications, bad journalism, and a million countervailing opinions, the disruption of the language itself is the only nostrum hopeful enough to permit continued personal expression.

Formally, Notes from Irrelevance effects this via sharp contrasts between the sentences and lines, that is the units of syntax and the units of rhythm. It isn't just that the one tends to be very long and the other very short, it's that the one is constantly compounding, modifying its meaning a little bit with each new clause, and the other is simply constant, about two inches broad for the book's duration. Rhythmically, you lope along, two to three beats to a line steadily from beginning to end with few real breaks. Syntactically, though, the dense concepts and the way they constantly deepen each other slows you down. Your mouth, or the voice in your head you hear when you're reading is ready to go, is ready to believe, but your mind stumbles as it parses.

Here's an example, a slice from about third of the way in:

Shit. Too-much-ness
must be a domestic
solitary state if ever
deemed source of
inspiration, which we
are going to consider
in broad terms for
the purposes of this
impasse, data now
so widely available
as to be conditioned
unavoidable, not only
impractically ubiquitous
but its own selling
point. Who can avoid
taking part in this multi-
layered exponentially
self-generating existence
we drive forward,
participate in, are subject
to, at once, regardless
of our wishes (though
typically, it seems, in
abeyance to them)? In
that we're waiting on
the okapi to organize
and go on strike, or
counterstrike. In that I
am waiting for the stuffed
okapi, the evil kitty, the
frozen hop, the spineless
doggy, the tubby fox
with babe to organize
and resist.

How do you parse this? The syntax does resolve, but the grit of confusion never washes off. You can understand "too-much-ness" from your own life, likewise the ubiquity and unavoidability of data. The animals of the final sentence seem to be a child's stuffed toys, so interpretation of a kind is possible: daunted by the facts of information technology, Anselm hopes for a coup d'toys. As with all interpretation it's based on affect and imagination, and, really, only sort of satisfies. Though each of these sentences is a bull's eye for meaning's next offensive, the uncertainty buried in them fouls meaning's instruments. Despite any sort of resolution, the lines themselves give off a dissonance that won't go away.

It's the hum of this dissonance that gives the poetry its power. Even by the end of the book, when Berrigan has focused his poem to just one friend and made of the rest of us eavesdroppers, when he's rendering a specific couch vaguely and lauding a vague set of habits specifically, he's maintaining this dissonance. This isn’t to say that the point of the book is keeping others out; the point is to tell truly of Berrigan’s being, and doing so requires a listener who already knows what he’s talking about.  This is the one way  communication is still possible, the one aspect of communication data and technology can't replace.