Have a good one.
by Keith Taylor
Early in Free Cell, Anselm Berrigan's most recent book, he writes: "I didn't come writing/out of the womb/you know." If that sounds just a bit too insistent, consider the familial weight this poet carries. If there is an unremunerated royalty in the American avant-garde, then Berrigan is a member of one of the royal families. His father was the wildly experimental Ted Berrigan, a central and charismatic figure in the New York poetry world for a couple of decades, until his early death in 1983. Anselm's mother is the equally influential Alice Notley, also willing to push the boundaries of our expectations of poetry, but in a quieter, perhaps more philosophical way than Ted. Is it any wonder that their son, when he found himself drawn to the same art, has needed to create his own space in the poetic landscape?
In the past he has worked with different approaches to the poem and has been more than willing to play with his voice and the language that contains it, but this new book has a much larger reach. The first three quarters of Free Cell is a long series of linked poems (or perhaps one long poem) called "Have a Good One." Indeed that phrase we Americans hear several times every day recurs whenever a new fragment in Berrigan's series is introduced. It is in boldface and in a different typeface from the rest of the poem, as if it is there to remind us of something new and different. Yet it is repeated all the way through--until it becomes dull, and then transcends dullness. By the end of the seventy-five-page poem, we hear it in a new way.
Within this series, Berrigan is able to bring in all kinds of things. Characters from comic books, sports, and popular music appear, close to wonderfully complex sentences that might even be using some pre-Shakespearean diction. Personal information nestles up against difficult philosophical questions. For instance, one section with
a very talky feel to it ("I drank some coffee & was trying/to remember the bathroom's location/& get there") is followed--after the imperative "Have a Good One," of course--by this more elaborately written comment:
only through porous antique
gestures of will can our love
be truly maintained as the set
of administrative functions we
require it to be, so as to weave
and burn with philanthropic glee
Other parts of the poem get very complicated, and it becomes temporarily difficult to follow the leaps the poet makes through sounds and syntax. But always he comes back to the basic elements of American speech and the direct representation of emotion, an attitude he seems to trust even as he forces us to challenge the prejudices of our own experience of language. After the last "Have a Good One," he writes only: "Yes." And that seems right, even possible.
Anselm Berrigan reads at the U-M Residential College on Thursday, April 1.
[Originally published in March, 2010.]