Notes from Irrelevance

by Anselm Berrigan
Wave Books 2011
Reviewed by Nick Sturm

“the hope / that we may remain / deeply unknowable / to one another…”

Anselm Berrigan’s book-length poem Notes From Irrelevance is a 65-page stanza with lines between two and seven words in length, the result of which is a continual column of language. Berrigan’s short lines, often built of long, tangential sentences, are crafted to be as colloquial as they are rigorous. Continually enjambed, these sentences are intricate machines of grammatical, intellectual, and emotional force. For instance, Notes From Irrelevance begins with a sentence 18 lines long. The subject and verb of that sentence, “I came,” do not appear until line 18:

Armed with an early
termination fee, a
delusion with regard
to neither denying
nor being of the past,
a lazy fly to center,
a transcription of
a stain on the soul
of the off-looker…
armless, disregarding
the mediated affect
of trees and their
privileged iterations
of objective fallacy in
the face of impassive
pregame nihilisms
tuned to talk’s vanishing
outline, I came.
Having received visual
evidence of the life
I was meant to lead (1-2)

This periodic sentence serves, rather appropriately, as the equivalent of pulling a “return to start” card. Berrigan makes clear from the beginning that he’s not interested in entertaining a passive reader. The flux between the languages of consumerism (“termination fee”), popular culture (“a lazy fly to center”), and an altered literary theory (“objective fallacy” echos “affective fallacy”), all colored in a quasi-heroic tone of spiritual transformation and historical renewal, creates a cultural and emotional texture that absorbs attention as much as it immediately reverberates back through the book’s title, making one just as aware of the book in their hands as the neo-capitalist culture it is a product of and reaction to. But in this flux a valenced clarity emerges in which the speaker, plagued by tension between internal and external demands, is frustrated with his inability to act despite his resolve (he is both “armed” and “armless”), and some vision, some cumulative moment, has revealed “evidence of the life / I was meant to lead.”

Berrigan’s manipulation of sentence structure and the poem’s barrages of erratic lyricism mixed with direct statement make this book a welcome challenge. It can be read casually, and the book provides enough anchors to do so, but for the reader who wants to truly meet Berrigan in this book, one needs to be physically, intellectually, and vocally active. I did not feel like I was living up to the potential this book engenders until I read it out loud, alone, walking around my house, from start to finish. Notes From Irrelevance is an experience in, or at the very least an approximation of, occupying Berrigan’s head, a space that instills a sense of profound artistic and political urgency as well as uncompromising personal judgment. The poem flows seamlessly between extended threads of thought on what it means to be a poet, father, husband, and citizen, into narrative digressions, recognition of paradox, moments of brave confession, and the rupture of skillfully constructed rants, all propelled by the belief that “I do not trust / the sanity of my vessel, / nor that of metaphor.” Berrigan is not attempting to unite the world around him–an impossible task–but rather to acknowledge the ontological fissures that plague and define his always moving “I”:

…I can
admire a kind of
comparison at times,
the kind that ultimately
collapses under the
weight of difference’s
brilliance and the hope
that we may remain
deeply unknowable
to one another… (40)

Here, Berrigan recognizes metaphor for what it is: a sophisticated kind of error, an incomplete, synthetic allegiance created to mask the unspeakable diversity of experience, a concept expressed more straight-forwardly in the lines “Blank is blank / is blank is blank” (11). Arguing, rather, for mystery and the reassessment of the value of meaning, Berrigan asks us to passionately interrogate ourselves and our reactions to a world in which delusion is the vehicle of ideology. In keeping with these aesthetic principles, Notes acknowledges the process of its own making and its own fallible, complex structure, its “frameworks of / brutal delicacy” (31). Swept up in the constantly turning voice of Notes, one feels simultaneously charmed and invigorated as Berrigan’s “I” expands beyond the self into a larger consciousness struggling for agency amidst the hollowness of contemporary America.

…I yell on
occasion to reestablish
presence, to push my
voice back into a quiver
of no control… (39)

With the voice as last defense, the poet’s outbursts become the articulation and defeat of his own irrelevance, both as poet and human being. Indeed, packed into a tight scroll of language that continually rebels against its own form, one could effectively describe the whole of Notes as “a quiver / of no control” (32). But the thing is that Berrigan is always in control–of the line, of the sentence, of the digressions–all in attempt to show that poetry is not a space for tidy representation, but a sprawling performance of thought and experience, a body of vocabularies.

Reveling in the mundane and the personal, and choosing not to secede the political and the cultural from the self, Notes is a call to arms for our ability as individuals and as a heterogonous community to reimagine how we live, and to boldly believe in that life:

…What is most
ordinary every day is
defeating the desire to
harden into respectable
indifference. (60)

Even in the midst of such rhetorical intensity, Berrigan is wise enough, and empathetic enough, to show us that although being kind to the world means, at times, not being kind to oneself, that we are capable of great tenderness: “I sometimes still put my / shoes on the wrong feet / not to mention Sylvie’s” (50). In such moments, and Notes From Irrelevance does not shy from them, Berrigan shows us that nothing is more subversive, or more necessary, than tenderness.