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Anselm Berrigan
Free Cell
reviewed by
Adam DeGraff
City Lights Publishers, 2009, ISBN-100872865029, ISBN-139780872865020, 100pp, USD$13.95

Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan’s poetry collections include Zero Star Hotel and Some Notes on My Programming (Edge Books 2002, 2006). The poetry editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor with Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan of The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (California, 2005), and former director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Berrigan teaches at the Pratt Institute and Wesleyan, and directs the summer writing program at the Milton Avery Graduate School. Berrigan writes for Harriet, a blog from the Poetry Foundation.


I’ve been a fan of Anselm Berrigan’s poetry since Kevin Opstedal’s Blue Press printed Anselm’s first chapbook, On The Premises. (Or was Kevin’s press “Gas” back then? Yes, I believe it was.) It was a great first book. Here was a poet, finally, ready for consumption, a young writer already with the confidence to steal Mayakovsky’s cloudy trousers and the wit to bend Pavement songs back into poetry. Here was a kid with things to say and a thousand tools to help him say them. I remember thinking Anselm just might have the talent to help bring poetry itself back into a the national consciousness. But On The Premises was, aptly, on the premises, the premises being both local and logical.


Then, not long after this book came out, Anselm, with his commitment to the local/international poetry community, took up residence as director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks NYC for a few years. The work he produced during this period was varied and solid, beautiful even, but it was so attuned to the contemporary poetry world that it was not likely to reach very far outside of that world. It reached more readers than that first chapbook did, no doubt, but it was even more difficult for the general reader and remained a kind of private pleasure shared by a few hundred or so like-minded readers. Of course this is all fine, but poems are needed, perhaps especially, by others.


Now with Anselm’s new book, Free Cell, strangers will have a much better chance of discovering Anselm’s poems. City Lights, the same press that catapulted Anselm’s teachers, including Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’hara and Anselm Hollo, into the world wide atmosphere, has now got around to publishing the student. The power of both the paper press and poetry has lessened considerably since the sixties, but this release on this press still has the potential to widen the audience for poetry.


The book will not necessarily be a good read for a generation of non-readers, but it may be apt for winning over a few before they completely succumb to the null and void. The lines through-out are high strung wires of speech act and innovative lyric. The first of the three parts of the book is a series of shorter pieces all with the title “Have A Good One.” The phrase turns out to be a brilliant pop koan to contemplate endlessly. Seen by itself, it appears to be a command toward the recipient to joyfully possess the singularity of time and space. But deducing toward that singularity, the term, being so ubiquitous and generic, can have many tones and meanings. Consider, “Have A Good One// You are/ what your/ record says/ you are.” Here “Have a Good One” is laced with a kind of irony, as the truth held up to the light with these words is not a comfortable one.


Each section of the longer poem carries its own tone, and often its own new kind of language. “Have A Good One// Fathom cost by merit/ of vainly wracked advances/ to light takedown’s mist.// Keeping under wrapped pace with/ market forces’ multi-oribital yet/ self-revolving mis-circulation// of service’s inference. You will/ have more or less money at less/ value in the near future. Ideas?” Here’s a short poem with a dense and layered point that could be climbed for days, years even. Yet it isn’t insurmountable. It unravels with enough common linguistic rope to be followed by a smart and curious kid. The kid has to want to make the climb and that is one of the hardest tricks to pull off with integrity intact. Anselm does his best, using varied speeds, humor, drama, flat conceptual art movements giving pause to heightened lyricism, sharp images, double speak, puns, weird juxtapositions. Yet the integrity part is an essential element. It isn’t any trick at all, but an intuitive sense of felt empathy which is the biggest carrot to the untried reader.


The re-occuring motif of self-awareness of poet as “read” gives the book an added layer of intrigue. Here is a poignant example, “May I be broken open/ to lead the walk/ Am qualified as a relativity./ The abyss more fellow stranger/ than invocation made by lover/ of questionable judgement.”


Another trick? Anselm makes the poetry look interesting on the page. When was the last time you saw lines snaking down 30 pages, as the long poem that ends the book, “To Hell With Sleep” does? The effect is one of sinuous undulating motion and, besides looking cool, it works well for the speed of the poem. “To Hell With Sleep” abandons the intense kind of sense found in “Have A Good One” for free-wheeling unadulterated sleepless nerve, “Leave a pretty cop, go forth/ animated voice machinations/ aslop, in relation to enemy/ tacit replaces fucking, grim/ pink stripes, fleeced okapi/ snowsuits bloggering credenzas/ parsed whales come hither.” It is as if the book winds itself up into a tense ball of angst and hard work and then releases into a litany of unbound language.


The relatively short poem (two pages) sandwiched in between these two long poems works well as a centerpiece. Titled “Let Us Sample Protection Together”, the piece reads like a poetic statement. “Hit on by Echo, I go cold for the love of my/ own exile, and while I hope, my flesh/ explodes into an arrangement of stars/ pestered by darkness. Those aren’t birds you/ hear, just their corresponding holes in the sky./ All the bottled water isn’t fooling anyone.” There’s a sample. Buy the book. Then ask all of your local libraries to carry it so City Lights and the state of poetry may flourish. Amen.

Adam DeGraff always finds it strange to think about himself in the third person. Suffice to say he has written many poems and songs which you can find scattered in the wind like seeds. Some of his work can be found at He also runs a music venue/art gallery in Arvada Colorado with his brothers called D Note ( The time is now.

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