Reviewed September 7, 2012 by Daniel DeKerlegand.
As Anselm Berrigan states in the first page of his recent book-length poem Notes from Irrelevance, he has come to the text “armed with an early termination fee” and “a delusion with regard to neither denying nor being of the past, a lazy fly to center.” The poem is bombastic in its self-reflection and self-erasure, as it toes the line between “privileged iterations/of objective fallacy” and “pregame nihilisms”; the noisy resonance of these opposites is reflected in the line itself, which is vertically centered on the page, each line typically no longer than seven syllables. If Ashbery's long poems like “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and “A Wave” were reflections of a New York City consciousness marked by the burgeoning information age, Berrigan's consciousness in Notes is a New York state of mind dealing with its own post-ness, or, as he states, “symbolism into punk-post/appliance.”
Throughout the poem, lexical categories collide and reveal the hyper-referential nature of the contemporary American mind; line by line, Berrigan shifts from literary diction to the language of advertising:
Borne by plastic
scheming and a desire
to process love, I held
the gauze of complicit
and gave it a shaft to
embroider, to name,
to socialize in relation
to stuffed things bent
on providing nondisposable
In this passage, as in much of the poem, Berrigan's narrator seems to struggle between the reminiscent, personal aspect of the self that often speaks in the past tense — e.g. “borne,” “I held” and “gave it a shaft to/embroider”— and the attention deficiencies of cosmopolitan culture, which often appear in the form of the adjective. For example, we see “plastic/scheming,” “complicit/masturbatory friendship,” “stuffed things” and “nondisposable/comfort.” The self also reveals its struggle in certain key verbs, such as the narrator's desire to “process love,” which evokes the disconnect between information technology and human psychology.
In his 2006 book Angle of Yaw, Ben Lerner— a poet with whom Berrigan seems to share some affinities— writes that “a poem may prefigure its irrelevance,/thereby staying relevant/despite the transpiration of extraneous events.” However, if Berrigan's notes not only prefigure irrelevance but are, in extension, from “Irrelevance,” as Dostoyevsky's notes were from the “Underground,” what sort of a location is Irrelevance, exactly? It seems that, in one sense, the place of irrelevance could be that of the contemporary American poet, made largely “irrelevant” by more marketable media. However, retracting the metaphorical sphere even further, the place of “Irrelevance” could also be that of the individual psychological state in a post-industrial context, in which the individual's fifteen minutes of fame seem to have been reduced to a mere fifteen seconds, as “common folk” are made sensational overnight though Internet media dissemination. As the sphere of the “relevant” shrinks, the “irrelevant” becomes the shared identity.
Berrigan's world of language is characterized by a constant “re-/cognition” that initiates itself across the line break, the ego constantly redefining itself as it is barraged by new iterations. He writes:
One drifts out of re-
cognition while the
body pushes another
body from shade to
shade. Have A Happy!
A Swisher's moment
of success drives a yes
out the bar to brood
merrily over a tone
The self-conscious mind of the distanced “one” in the first line drifts out of its own “re/cognition,” that is, the awareness that it has observed itself before. The causal relationship here between the distraction of the “body” and the drifting of the mind is no surprise to those familiar with Western metaphysics, but the following exclamation “Have A Happy!” is certainly puzzling in the context. The omission of any noun renders the adjective a proper noun, the salutation thus transformed into the definitively generic, the “Happy” in itself. Conversely, the act of inebriation is labeled “A Swisher's moment/of success,” the bodily experience defined by advertising and branding, until finally the mind “re/cognizes” itself once again, outside of the bar.
The convergence of lexicons in Notes from Irrelevance makes for a dense read, despite the book's deceptively conversational tone; however, what Berrigan seems to be reminding us is that we cannot break from this density, even as we reckon our own individual places within the techno-cultural milieu, for “who can avoid/taking part in this multi-/layered exponentially/self-generating existence/we drive forward.” Therefore, while it may be impossible to remove one's self from the complexity of referentially, through the recognition of its place in irrelevance, the self may begin to understand its own personal significance within a world of impersonality.
Berrigan, Anselm. Notes from Irrelevance. Wave Books: Seattle, 2011.
Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, 2006, pp. 62.