I’m Nothing If Not Polite

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Notes From Irrelevance is a long weave of sentence shimmers with influences of someone who has read and absorbed a rich range, from classics to the most experimental, making each phrasing kinetic with questions about the way he has experienced sound and the sight of letters.

Anselm Berrigan’s Notes From Irrelevance comes with the kind of big, interesting baggage sometimes best left out of a review. In this case its worth mentioning because he and Wave Books don’t hide his pedigree as the son of poets Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley. His other major baggage is that he has been the director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan, which gives him and his readers a multifaceted backbreath intimation of influence, much the way reviewers who compose poetry, if their pores are as open as they should be, will be affected by the poems they engage with as they make shape of their essays and verse. I refer to myself, but also to a long list of poets I admire who also write criticism and are as grateful as I am for the opportunity to dig deeper into the work they encounter.
Berrigan makes very clear that influence is of such concern to him that he plans to “make a list/ of all the people who‘ve / influenced me in any way,/ with a brief explanation/ as to how.”

Notes From Irrelevance is a long weave of sentence shimmers with influences of someone who has read and absorbed a rich range, from classics to the most experimental, making each phrasing kinetic with questions about the way he has experienced sound and the sight of letters. It’s a fascinating exercise, suggesting , in addition to parentage, Naropa, and less obviously, Imagists. It’s a book that should probably be read aloud in one sitting, with two or three people taking turns doing the honors. Like the best handcrafted fabric, it contains slubs and nibs and nubs that serve as gentle reminders of technique without overwhelming or scarring the whole.

I returned to writing
in a black and white
sketchbook in the
neighborhood where
I grew down to be
this writing in
accepted denial
of biography’s tension
with anything less
than total capacity
for kindness on the
outside, the surfaces,
the skating conditions
across a version of the
present. But for living
only in passing in the
so-called country I’d
kill all its insect life.
I would. I’d do it
without spite or
resignation . I make no
attempt to grasp time.

We’re on page two, with a few lines on page three, so be prepared to take a demanding, rewarding ride. If you’re going to look at yourself, be rigorous, be brave. Do it as unflinchingly as this, and mix undiluted pretty in with nuanced ugly as Berrigan does :

My sense of my own
history with images is
such that I consciously
developed a willingness
to let them go—to not
take pictures though
I’d keep feverishly
those gifted to me. I
might like the feeling
a photo meant I looked
like something : vanity
to affect to desperate
preservation of a
moment that never
felt settled or even
moment-like. I‘ve kept
hold of some shots
and now let fly an archive
online of pics other
peeps put up that has
very little to do with
me. This is a PG bar.
The tender does not
approve of our vulgarity.

These etched lines, and those farther along, work like scaffolding for everything that comes later, most affectingly :

I find myself walking
through Williamsburg,
Brooklyn, where I lived
some ten to thirteen yrs
ago, in an Italian pocket
by the Lorimer St. L
station, feeling as if
some gnawing vitality
is sheathed in plexiglass
around me, and there’s
the possibility of seeing
some neon reflecting
off the sheaths that
have a passing contour
similar to dust on a
contact lens mixing with
bastardized specks of light

He also plays with verbs into nouns in fresh ways, as he continues on the same page :

pretending to signal
an acid recidivism, but that’s
about as far as it gets, “it”
being my impulse to be
in some state of intensity
or drive that’s rarely ever
been a true encasement
for my measure. I can
imagine in an ordinary
fashion over imagined
conversation with the
boss as well as anyone

“encasement/ for my measure” is a welcome mist of metaphor for everything he has to say, and its an example of the pleasures slow reading can bestow. By the time he gets to measuring grief, or at least attempting to, he’s ready for the word “corrosive,” and the way that word works as an “encasement” for his questioning and naming :
do I not already contain

grief in corrosive images
rendered back at me as
an interruption of being
to be somehow grateful
for? As if lives plucked
from our scans of the
premises could steel us
up for the longer haul
more accurately depicted
by a series of idiosyncrasies

What he does here, and on almost every page, is to fulfill the aspiration of poetry by making shape of mystery. He leaves a reader refreshed, not in a simplistic, pink-lemonade way, but in the way fuel meets insight by illuminating feeling, invigorating thought and recall, making the “longer haul” a place of anticipated urgency. He wants us to be sure that he won’t ever

abandon my desire to
recede in and out of
interconnection
just because I can’t help
spreading out in strange
places form some need
to be seen in my life in
the world alone.

Here are the last lines of Notes From Irrelevance:

I’m nothing if not
polite even in absentia.
Love, Anselm.

“I am the mate and companion of people,” Walt Whitman wrote. I say Amen to that, and to this book.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →