Square Deal: Anselm Berrigan’s ‘Come In Alone’

The formal inventiveness of this new volume by Anselm Berrigan is satisfying and maddening. The latter reaction, as it turns out, is a satisfying one in relation to this work and many challenging works of art on and off the page. To clarify: Come In Alone challenges the prim verticality of the page when formatting lines with a compositional field pared into descending, rectilinear parts without much variation in shape. Does Berrigan adopt an anarchic, sprawling pattern for these poems, spilling and splaying lines and phrases here and there? Oh, no—even more jarringly, these poems resemble perfect squares at the perimeter of the page. This recognizable construction, however, winds up conferring even wilder aesthetic, discursive, and intellectual implications and enactments, offering multiple potential readings.

Even if Berrigan didn’t opt for this particular format, his lines reveal the proverbial heresy of being paraphrased and resist being quoted extensively, without mutilating his meaning(s) or undercutting his method. I shall quote very sparingly in light of the potential risk of mis-rendering what is stated, suggested, and/or diversely inferred. Because the experiential weirdness of reading this book is so bracing, let me give one example of a line that starts on one side of the page and moves to another side (beginning another line?), and then establish some questions regarding the practice of this singular poetry and where it leaves the reader.

Reading the top line on a page:

in the break there’s little light, enough to break, what that’s off remains , steering the no light

I follow it past the corner and down the right side:

I was working out on it, broken loose, not like I saw myself, the tools are cheap, as in available…

The textures here merge physical and personal space of the poem, the inner and outer, into a Beckettian kind of negation and distortion, simultaneously inventing and dismantling identity and context. What is being narrated is too shadowy and scattershot to crystallize comprehension. But here’s the rub: any expectation of an ultimate and coherent perspective is a dead-end; Berrigan wants to power-drive an omnium gatherum of attitudes, objects, and fleeting scenarios through multiply loaded, the provisional frames that are manipulated by the closed-circuit yet endlessly looping arrangement of the poemsof each page. These frames are themselves manipulated by the looping arrangement of the poems. If the squares are stable geometries they nonetheless occasion dizziness and bewilderment. The expository mischief is so infectious and engaging that, despite being confused I am also delighted, and I find myself readily capable of being in those mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts beloved by English Romantics and generated so ardently by zany American poets like Anselm Berrigan. If the reader requires a key for coming to terms with this kind of poetry, it’s that phrase quoted above: “what that’s off remains.” The remainder is the mystery; that which is “off” or eccentric, angled from clear paths of consciousness or representation, is both the means of perception and what is being perceived.

Come in Alone (1)

Since Berrigan is inclined to negate—“the no light” above, the “no memories in museums” in another poem, “the no ships of no space” in another, it is important to state what these poems are not doing: they are not stuttering, not slurring, not blending, not commenting, and not stating, but instead sifting the atoms, the very nature of things (Hail, Lucretius!) without naturalizing a stable, sustained apprehension of materials and without pinning anything down. There might be an approximation of Berrigan’s ars poetica in the final poem but I shall leave the reader to look there after a proper gallivant through this volume’s scattered scavenger hunt.

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Onwards to those necessary questions that perhaps lead us to think inside Berrigan’s box(es): What is the possible structural logic of these kinds of poems? When the centerpiece of a page, of a poem, is a blank, how should we fill it in? Or do we leave it empty? Does that space symbolize the openness of play and possibility or the menace of meaning’s abyss? In order to read these poems, one has to rotate the book, making the book a vehicle you drive and making you the steering column (exquisitely accentuating the book’s materiality and complementing the very material concerns of its contents). Should we rotate necessarily to the right or left? What if the words were to fall from their positions, the centrifugal force generated by rotation and reading not strong enough to sustain them? Can we envision what new combinations and fragments might occur if the poems altered their configurations? Will the words fall and the corners break? Let us heap questions upon questions onto these shapes in our midst. Cryptically and compellingly, Come In Alone beckons you to enter it, take hold of it, spin it, and never leave it alone.

Anselm Berrigan’s Come In Alone (2016) is published by Wave Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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