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Dale Smith

Scenes From Dramatic Life
A review of Integrity & Dramatic Life by Anselm Berrigan
Edge Books, $10 PO Box 25642 Washington, DC 25642
63 pages
This piece is 1700 words or about four printed pages long


A dramatic life isn't easy, but it makes good poetry. I remember walking the streets of San Francisco with Anselm Berrigan. We were learning to be poets, comparing survival notes and sharing the insights of neophytes who are unified in a struggle to comprehend the mysteries of their chosen paths. I was working through the theoretical tangles of Language Poetry, flexing my intellectual stamina on turgid translations of French prose. Anselm balanced my cerebral conditioning with pages of James Schuyler and Frank O'Hara. We traded poems, sat up late listening to Guided by Voices, Nirvana or Pavement, pints of beer tucked in our palms.
We delivered packages for a company called California Overnight, although I soon left for an office job. Anselm was tasked as my trainer. For weeks we walked up Montgomery Street toward the TransAmerica building, delivering packages along the way for architects, lawyers, bankers and the like. One evening, in light rain, we went fast, discussing poetry, family, New York city and Texas skies. People bloomed around us in their business suits and messenger uniforms. Watching Anselm, I knew he loved the compressed, urban rush-hour dusk. The social act of engagement with the polis appealed to his spirit.
We wandered through that city into the Mission, stopping at Dolores Park to watch people play with their dogs. We walked to pubs and taquerias, took drugs, drank beer, played pool and pondered over the poem and our anxieties regarding its possibilities. We compared influences, discussed books and read aloud, sharing encouragement and careful comments -- small rewards that lasted until again the bleak space of a blank page met our pens.


Dale Smith, Anselm Berrigan, San Francisco
Dale Smith (left), Anselm Berrigan, San Francisco
Photo copyright © Nancy Opitz


Anselm left Northern California in August, 1996. I moved away a month later into the mythic expanse of Texas hills and sky (which is really just a booming sillycon valley without the pleasant weather). He entered that most social of cities, New York, where the landscape, more than anything to me, compressed the social, putting it unavoidably in his path. I took up with squirrels and oak trees; read books, published magazines. "Everyone thinks they deserve a reward / for not dying," writes Anselm in his first full-length book, Integrity & Dramatic Life. "But there will always be someone available / to hate you. Your reward can wait, can wallow in mud; / I love mud."
Anselm writes with experience of treacherous social circumstances. He's cautious with it, forgiving but knowing. He's a student of streets, subways, conversation and intimacies. He's hard on others and himself, hard on the close human need to connect outside of ourselves. He's hard because somewhere in him he senses the bullshit of our hunger passed off as a kind of intimate exchange. The appetite to engage the social is constructed mimetically on the model of commercial consumption. "When you think of order / think take out," Anselm writes in "Advice to a young philosopher."

. . . Measure the distance between dead
people & their existing stars. And vice-versa. You may
be killed by a random shot of a cannonball.
Cities and the people in them provide Anselm with diverse thematic possibilities. The surreal composition of his line puts a tense distance between people and places. These poems go in and out of focus, move in close to something, then back away, retreating from the unconscious anxiety of contact into repressed elegies of truly beautiful, and funny, notes to a swollen world. In "A short history of autumn," he writes:
I want to hear people read poems. I went to have a drink somewhere
Else. I went to the office where I used to live. All in all
It wasn't enough. Where was the life I later led? Shall my tongue
Settle in its little tomb? Is this at all an improvement?
Someone is at the door. Shall I ask them in?
These lines waver between passive hesitancy and an active doing of things. And the tongue, in its "little tomb" reveals not only Anselm's own unsettling position (a poet with a cadaverous tongue) but a greater sense of social impotence. There are these people, these poems, but it's not enough. Where has the life gone, he asks.
The pressures of family and friends dominate many of these poems. And Anselm's poetic gift complicates relationships, which at turns are close, frightening, hateful or humorous. There's a struggle in this book to find a way out of the dilemma of one's choices. Anselm steps in and out of himself to test his decisions. "That calm big blue is a tinted lens /," he writes, "between inside and outside methods of heat / . . . every day / the abyss shakes its pom-poms / & smiles stupidly." Besides the surreal flotation of image and line, these poems prove their strength in irony and satire. "Tingling feelings are the best we have / though I'm obliterated at all moments / and reformed. Morning in the country. / Huh? You who love me are the best / we have, & havoc in the evening, stars / in New Jersey."
Rarely cute, the sarcasm and cynicism are balanced by the sincere engagement of someone attentive to the psychic reverberations of social entanglement. Certainly, O'Hara and Philip Whalen are two poets who have explored similar themes, but with different tensions and rules of engagement because the scene -- the fucking newly ordered world -- has transformed into a reified mockery of itself. The predatory '90s lust for interminable social communion dominates the spiritual vibration of individual desire. "The world makes sense / if you piss on its / beauty / or / in poems read to me by someone I love." The poet's task, given current conditions of vapid social exegesis, is to turn the world inside out. After all, "durability is not / an asset sucking / in a complicated manner / the tomato soup . . . all I ask / is that you sit there / looking horrified."
Sometimes it's difficult to sort irony from conviction, especially when Anselm pens works to fellow poets.
Some people should take a break. Have you eve
Met so many finished works? Doesn't it just kill you?
Yes! & it is terrific to say yes as Lisa says & says yes.
& so I say to the different variations of taking off
one's pants, don't put any on. Teachers & their pants
theories & their pants, the suburban moon. The D-train
over the Manhattan bridge when I should be at my job
has pretty legs.
The parataxis and enjambment provide these poems with speed. Ironic, satiric voices bleed into lines of more pure emotional address. The balances are acrobatic as they dazzle and confound, but also let you drop -- maybe into a net, but hopefully not.
I first saw the long poem, "Ghost Town," several years ago. Anselm has transformed it since then into the final section of this book. Trading NoCal light for New York grit, I get the sense that Anselm's poetic gift deepened, revealing to him the initial guiding impulse of these poems. The lines connect now with an angularity and contradiction of imagistic schism. In "Ghost Town" as it's printed in this book, the lines move between accusation and resolution, ironic self-evaluation and personal testament.
Understand labor       one must wash
off feelings of coercion                  legs aim
for salary & benefits            I hate you
take care of me             rubber legs grow
strong & turn      into fat            after dead
man shuffle      why not think games
Dressed in credit      I live in a ghost town
and it's a heaven       as any other
All these coats crumble             another
canvas stumbles through supper
We are quiet thinking violence is one
reaction      The arguments translate
invisible      into my hands
silence an alternate tuning      its buzz
derails            the comfort of guests
The calculated instability of statement and image, formally correlated with these broken lines, show the contradictory truth of a wilful personality. It's by strong will this stanza expands without losing control. When Anselm trusts his appetite, the poems show strength and vulnerability. His hunger is exposed even as he hunts for words that confuse or disguise the emotional experience of his perceptions. In "Poem minus thing," he writes:
To be serious at an expense
There's a niche well-pocketed
Often I'm permitted to blow
My brains out but you know what they say
About honey bears when you pluck
Out all those baby hairs If I don't miss
Something it's all in the mind
Relieve me of the love between your lines.
The rhyming closure of "blow" and "know," "bears" and "hairs" or "mind" and "lines" is disturbed by the verbal violence. A tight circulation of emotion and self-awareness holds the poem in a balance of subtle energy and surprise. Desire and desire denied take turns leading heart through the hard confidence of the head. But line strength and poetic confidence, (the result of broken hearts or stirred desire), deliver passage for memory's arousal of feeling and intention.
Usually, the shifting angles of the work create a mosaic rich in contradiction. But "In the paintings of Will," an invocation rises from the poem with soft deliverance of memory resurrected in color and sound:
          What colors February inhales
                    between birth & death
                              are greys and pink outlines of fallen leaves
                                        pasted to paper
      Brother slumped in chair
          Mother hands on lap
                    seated in front of foliage flaring
          as molten lava tearing through woods
A hand holding chopsticks away from ink blots
          eats my breakfast while I drink coffee
                    & read backwards black letters
          that carry no invention.
The compression of language anchors the floating sensation created by the painterly descriptions. But the direct narrative presentation here reveals an ear and mind sensitive to the technical problems of presenting poetic constellations. By conveying information with speed, compression and surprise, Anselm can release the ironic social gestures to confront himself suddenly, as in a mirror, blending lyric fragments with a leonine sense of delivery.
Integrity & Dramatic Life introduces a poetic and personal novelty to the often chaste circumstances of contemporary writing. An individual chases his ego through the shadows of numbing social excess, and returns to give an account that jangles with lyric charms and wry insight. I've discovered, as years fade, we learn to define more clearly our intentions, or shed the lives we lived, or wished to live, trying instead to shut up and listen to ourselves. Anselm listens and in that perception provides substance for intense appetite and strange desire native to those who struggle with the connective tissues of poetry.

Dale Smith is the editor of Skanky Possum


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