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Edmund Berrigan’s Can It!

Berrigan - Cover.inddCan It!
by Edmund Berrigan
Letter Machine Editions, 2013
169 pages/ $15  Buy from Letter Machine Editions or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time that I read the title of Edmund Berrigan’s bold book Can It!, I misread the words as a syntactical anomaly. The words seemed to combine a common inquiry (“can it . . .?”) with aggressive, declarative punctuation. This removed the deferential, cautious quality from Can It!, while adding an insistence that did not negate the underlying doubt; Can It! was a juxtaposition of the curious and the angry and a coexistence of blunt assertion and self-reflexive wonder.

Far from being an error, my misreading of Berrigan’s title served as an avenue into the text, which embodies many of the same concerns as the near-paradoxical titular wording. Can It! is at once an intimate and touching memoir of Edmund as a child and a young man as he experiences the death of his father Ted Berrigan, the later death of his stepfather Doug, and lives as a growing artist in New York City. Can It! is also a fully realized post-Language-School work, sections of which strive to tear apart Berrigan’s established personae and voices, and a playful tribute to the avant-garde surrealist aesthetic that was ushered into America nearly a century ago (and which seems to be experiencing a contemporary renaissance). These styles and traditions jumble together from section to section and form a whole that is rife with Whitman-esque contradictions and pleasantly revels in its inability to be pinned down in genre or intent.

Berrigan’s ability to create pathos while deftly narrating personal development is displayed in a diary entry dated “8/6” (the year is not specified) within the “San Francisco Diary” section:

I called it off with Anne-Marie today. She’s a really nice
person, maybe too nice for where I’m at right now. I feel a
certain amount of darkness, I guess, and I need to feel it back.
I also feel like I should have had a real and long relationship
with someone by now, but something always gets in the way.
Me. I’m continuously chasing my tail for no good reason (39).

Compare the ostensible sincerity of that entry with one of Berrigan’s more Language-influenced passages:

Let’s pass folks around. Should old acquaintance be forgot. I
walked last night through another pity. Pity throughout the
submarine lumber. ⅓ pity throughout the submarine lumber.
⅔ bivouac in the community. ¾ angle on the burning sphere
of gases in space. ¼ halted vagabonds. I’ve been waltzing and
lambada through the community (29).

Throughout the recurrent instances of sections such as these, Berrigan weaves the notion of language’s flexible mutability—just as a book can trade one influence or style for another, so can swaps and surprises take place within language. Within many of the later poems of Can It!, the playful aspects of language are emphasized—predictable nouns are replaced with other nouns, whether childish or profound. Using a technique that pushes these sections towards the previously mentioned surrealism, Berrigan repeats bits of language (whether lines or phrases) throughout a prose section/poem, or even between two different poems. Such effects maintain the shifting affects of Berrigan’s work. In part 3 of the section “The Ball-Hallelujah Connection,” he writes:

Melty became the most hated artist in
Fork Spindle Divisions
for choosing the most mundane
subjects, melt using a mechanical device
to fraction sorrow so as to remove all human expression
from his work (115).

All of these literary gestures could be interpreted as little more than a retreading of well-worn postmodern ground—a polyphonic conflation of voices, a nod to the collage, a stylistic pastiche—but Berrigan’s compounding of discourses contain a freshness that indicates their use in Can It! is more than mere imitation or idle repetition. Catharsis is a primary implicit theme in Berrigan’s book—using artistic creation and experience to overcome grief and post-traumatic confusion—and the shifting styles help advance this concern. Rather than wallowing in indulgent, post-Confessional emotion, Berrigan’s writing leaps between the memoir, the post-Language, and the neo-Surreal to both temper and expand the cathartic and broadly psychological elements of Can It!. The book also ties mental preoccupations in with aesthetic concerns and the formation of identity: if the self is composed of multiple discourses and subjects, then multiple catharses may be necessary to satiate the psyche.

Can It! is a smartly crafted work that, while paying homage to personal artistic development and the trials and revelations that development brings, also embraces its own status as both memoir and literary obfuscation, intimate confession and playful distraction. In this, Berrigan confirms the strength of his imaginative craftsmanship and fulfills the goal that he set for himself in the book’s “Foreword”:

So I’ve been looking to make a book that . . . works as both a whole and as parts, that might be visited from any point like a memory, that doesn’t rely on classification for definition, that feels infinite but remains brief, that tells a whole story by showing a fragmented record. . . . For nothing is easier than to drive air through the heart of the enemy. (ii)

***

Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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