Notes from Irrelevance, by Anselm Berrigan

 

Genealogy

Anselm Berrigan comes from an esteemed family.  The son of poet Ted Berrigan and poet Alice Notley, his brother is the poet and songwriter Edmund Berrigan.  Anselm’s wife Karen Weiser also works as a poet.  Notes from Irrelevance shows that Anselm didn’t get his book deal by trading on his father’s name.  (America, despite its populist and egalitarian posturing, has a yen for dynasties and nepotism.  See: the Presidency, Ford Motor Company, etc.)

Content

Notes from Irrelevance could easily bear the subtitle, “One man’s search for meaning in the second decade of the 21st century.”  Throughout the short volume, Anselm contends with the Big Issues: existence, meaning, faith, family, and literature.  Written as a single book-length stanza, the concept brings to mind the single-paragraph-as-book tirades by Thomas Bernhard or Molly Bloom’s ecstatic run-on sentence that concludes Ulysses.

By turns demotic, snarky, and self-referential, Notes from Irrelevance both charms and challenges the reader.

“             The computer,
not the quesadilla,
told me about a moment,
wherein my father,
talking to an old friend,
waxed nostalgic for a
moment they cohabited,
an extended moment,
and a fellow who heard
the rap from above got
mad and thirty-two years
later related his anger
in a comment box as way
of saying he couldn’t
deal with the sadness
he perceived in Ted’s
poetry.”

In the end, after the attempts to stave off his own irrelevance, Anselm dissects his own writing with cynical precision and acidic wit:

“Cosmic intercon-
nection of all beings?  Check.
futility of pain management as source
of humor in outlook?  Check.  Controllable
vices for purposes
of secondary level
of interior life, an echo
of conscience trailing
out?  Check.”

The question and answer format calls to attention that poetry is a language-making process.  The book demands the reader to contend with the language.  Long run-on sentences, sometimes tied into knots of clauses and sub-clauses, suddenly vanish in a spat of.  Small.  One or two word.  Sentence fragments.  Beautifully polished phrases collide with unexpected bursts of vulgarity.  An occasional pop culture reference pops up (Internet comment boards, the movie Apollo 13, etc.) making the reader realize the poet lives in the real world and is a real person.  The real-life aspect of the poet is a challenge for the reader, since the poet is the son of a famous poet.  Leaving the shadow of one’s father (especially a famous one) forces one to contend with the harsh sunlight of reality.  The Shadow of Fame drove Hamlet crazy and has been the reason countless kids of celebrities went from crèche to rehab.

Reading the book took little over an hour, but re-evaluating the images and the language will require me to revisit the text many more times.

Production

Wave Books is a small press specializing in poetry and operates from Seattle, Washington.  The book itself possesses a sturdy yet delicate feel.  A slim 64 pages give Notes from Irrelevance a chapbook appearance, an aura of the homemade.  On many pages, there are small imperfections, tiny flaws in the paper itself.  The text is printed on sturdy paper, just shy of good cardstock, while the front cover is devoid of any decoration except the poet’s name, each letter sliced and the title itself hunkered down on the lower right, almost an afterthought.

Wave Books puts out a great product, superior materials with stunning content.  Granted that sounds a bit dry and anemic, with all the personality of a State Department press release, but Notes from Irrelevance effects one on an intellectual and emotional level while the book itself feels good in the hands.  (Best accompanied in the morning with a cup of coffee.)

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