Letter Machine Editions
In the epigraph of “Can It” Edmund Berrigan
quotes his stepfather, also a poet, the late Douglas Oliver: “Emotion staggers forward/ in these distracted councils.” Considering the source, this quote is, itself, emotion staggering forward.
Edmund quotes his parents other times in this book too. In fact the name of the book is a quote of a poem by his father, the poet Ted Berrigan: “'Song For The Unborn Second Baby'/ CAN IT!” The unborn second baby, at the time this was written, was Edmund. One can speculate as to what this phrase might mean as a title of Edmund’s book. One possibility is as metaphor for the collection the book contains; the canning of poems to be preserved for the reader. (Bring a can opener.) Berrigan writes in the book’s introduction about the way “seemingly disparate elements unite in a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole.” Another possibility evoked by the title is Warhol’s soup cans, which is reinforced by the beautiful painting on the front of this book by Erica Svec; a crushed can dreaming (through its straw) of fireworks exploding over the Magic Kingdom. The main thing though, I think, is the doubleness of meaning evinced by the orginal poem. “Shut up!” the Edmund’s father is telling him, before he is even born. It's a funny thing to say to an unborn baby and one wonders at further meanings. The normal meaning of the phrase is juxtaposed against a second possible meaning which occurs when one picks up the phrase and turns it around. The poet is giving a message to his son, a cri de cour of human potential, a slanted way of saying “It Can!” The book itself becomes an example of what can.
Emotion staggers forward. As I write this I’m on my way from Sunnyside New York to Joplin Missouri to see my grandmother before she dies. I know a review isn’t supposed to be about the reviewer, but that’s not realistic, is it? Of course your circumstances are going to affect your reading. I’m full of thoughts about my grandmother so reading this book in that context creates a pointed reading. And that is, at least in part, what reading poetry is about, right? So that’s what this book was up against for me. My grandmother has decided she is ready to go. Yesterday she told my mother she didn’t know if she could wait for me. I called my grandma to ask what that meant and she said that she didn’t want to rush me but didn’t want to wait for me either. So I got on the next plane out and took Berrigan’s book with me.
There is a remarkable push and pull between poetry and prose in this book. The prose is as crystal clear as the poems are shadowy and slippery. It’s a rare double feat. The only other book I can think of that pulls it off this well is Basho’s travel journals.
I’m thinking about those thousands of books my grandmother read over the course of her 87 years. She read a book a week in her prime. All that memory, all those stories. Is any of that transferable? Or does it all just blow away like smoke? Maybe it leaves a trace of sorts, distilled down through the generations. I think I’ll read a poem from this book to my Grandmother when I get there. Here’s one called “Metal Coil Assembly Shrub” where Berrigan writes, “You read this book and it helps you live. Alive! Alive!”
Another great thing about this book is just how ornately the transitions are stitched into the seams between the seemingly disparate poems. For example a pair of vaudevillian philosopher roaches yuck it up in the opening bit and then, in the next piece, roaches are crawling out of the memory of Eddie’s laundry (sometime in the eighties) and leading the family out of the house. The roaches lead the poems forward in these first two pieces just as they lead the family in Ed’s memory.
I found another line in the book that encapsulates everything for me right now. “It’s about sleeping, looking at me, That’s her!” Sleeping here, for me, now, is synonymous with dying, but also with that opiate sleep before dying, and also with dreaming, also with falling in love. Looking at me in your dreams, it says, "That’s her." I mean, take it how you will. How I am taking it is the one dreaming of you is the one you are dreaming of.
Sometimes in the more densely thicketed passages of this book I trip over sense and meaning and find myself in the hands of music. And while that’s enough, I still search for the sense that’s there because I want to know. What if it speaks to me? The tension between what can be known and not known in the words builds mystery. Following this mystery to its point more often than not leads to beauty. “Where are you for Adam coal duck one leaf feather/ earlier title big beat like beige lemme/ seethe anthem planet set structure naught/ better than go for days so noise/ you beam sorry out of sight tremble.” Right, I’m going to have to think about that, but it's wonderful to read out loud. Because it's so wonderful to read out load I want to think about it.
I’m on the ground now at O’hare, on a layover in Chicago. In the background I can hear Eartha Kitt singing “My Heart Belongs To Daddy.” So subjective is my reading of Berrigan’s book that even hearing this song plays into my reading of these poems. I just called my mom to see how grandma is doing. My mom was giddy and I could hear my grandmother laughing in the background. What’s going on? They are giddy? My grandma must be on the upswing. Maybe visitors are lifting her spirit.
There’s a transcription of a tape recorded conversation between EB and JC (the poet John Coletti) in the middle of this book that is one of the most entertaining things I’ve read in a long time. I laughed as I read through it and then, seriously, something just killed me and for a moment I couldn’t stop laughing. Here’s a piece of it…
EB: Do you think it’s possible to give credence to definitions of good and bad.
JC: No, but it helps everybody keep from, uh, killing each other…and it helps everybody stop loving each other too…if everybody didn’t define their own sense of good and bad, we could move probably…like go to capacity…but to make essential the idea of good and bad…that’s the ultimate height of seriousness within a large group of people…Some people are darker, coked up, like Miami on dialysis and they like to get fucked up…that’s what happened with religion right?”
EB: Giggles. Maybe…wow…
JC: I guess that was a Mormon complaint.
EB: Have you ever waltzed.
It's funny. My grandmother, who is full of her own ideas about what is good and bad, taught me how to waltz. I read this book as I think of her. And it helps. That's the point.