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:
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:
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).
November 4th, 2013 / 11:00 am