Anselm Berrigan (photograph by Star Black)

I am going to start with a “Note for poems” that Anselm Berrigan wrote about his most recent book, Pregrets (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014). I found the “Note” on the press’s website, which I encourage readers to check out, as Vagabond Press is publishing some remarkable things. Although I don’t believe I have ever before reviewed a book by beginning with the author’s statement, I think Berrigan’s “Note” is useful in many regards. Here it is in its entirety.

I get an odd kind of pleasure from writing longhand underneath pre-selected titles, titles that seem to imply or propose a tonal space from which to begin generating and/or arranging material. A small show of drawings, prints and paintings by Jasper Johns at the Museum of Modern Art titled Regrets made me curious to try that word as a title this past spring, and the term Pregrets — the fantasy or fact of getting ready to feel sorrow or distress, the attendant humors such a frame might provoke, the probability of not landing in the predetermined spot, the derangement of proposed memories — popped into place after awhile and eventually took over as the primary term to work under. As the process of writing these poems is on-going, I don’t have a further assessment to make of their makes, and don’t want to force one out just yet, out of fear of stopping the vehicle before it ends on its own terms. I can say that I’m relying heavily on what I consider internalized collagist wiring to make relatively quick decisions about what gets into the poems.


As someone who has written about Jasper Johns many times, including a review of the exhibition that Berrigan cites, the minute I read the intriguing title, Pregrets, I wondered if there were any connection to Johns’s Regrets. If Johns’s title evokes a looking back, Berrigan’s suggests a going forward, knowing that in both art and life “the probability of not landing in the predetermined spot” is high. The outcome cannot be foreseen. In both the artworks and poems, a cool, melancholic mood prevails, for neither Johns and Berrigan is given to dramatic self-revelations in their work.

There are 19 poems in Pregrets, with such playful titles as “Pregrets vs. Egrets,” “Regrets,” “Egrets” and “Degrets,” in addition to “Pregrets.” The book is 42 pages, which isn’t long by today’s standards. The poems are all around 25 lines long with no stanza breaks, a single extended movement that hovers, shifts, and twists, as the lines ravel and unravel between sound and meaning. This is the opening of “Regrets,” the first poem in the series:

a century of drawing, endorsed on spine
by the scary amp code of pre-photo-
graphic childhood, bystander to a con-
versation (see: religion), micro pigment
for waterproof and fade proof lines

What is our experience of an exhibition? What is the takeaway? Is it a collection of memories, a catalogue that helps spur our memories, or something we add to, or access, in our life? What kind of a touchstone is it for us? Instead of describing a specific work in the opening lines, the poet provides the reader with bits of information at once common and technical (“a century of drawing” and “micro pigment”). Clearly, the experience of art is one of the threads running through this book from the outset. And intrinsic to this experience is the many different languages and vocabularies used to describe it.

Berrigan’s Pregrets can be read as a series of undated diary entries. In a diary — as opposed to a literary form, whether it is a crown of sonnets or a series of quotations — the writer can work in multiple genres at the same time. This is what Pregrets shares with Johns’s Regrets, a series of paintings, drawings, and prints — or multiple genres — which together form a record of his investigation of a reproduction of a ripped, crumpled, and stained photograph of the painter Lucian Freud perched on the edge of an iron bed, one leg tucked under the other, with his hand clutching his hair as he looks down and away. Johns first saw a small reproduction of the photograph in the Christie’s catalogue announcing the auction of Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969). Commissioned by Francis Bacon, the photograph was taken by John Deakin around 1964.

The difference between the artworks and the poems is that Johns is subjecting this motif to a variety of examinations in discrete mediums using distinct processes, while all sorts of writing enters Berrigan’s poems and, in many cases, exits just as quickly. Each is tenacious in its own way.

how many bites the glance at the cosmos worth
tonight, palmetto bug with handheld bellows
threatens, on an inward suggestive tip, a take
over of directional collection–correction? – we

get those confused, phrasingly, tin can


The poet is standing outside at night near some palmetto trees, looking at the constellations. On the “Acknowledgements” page, the reader finds the following: “Grateful thanks also to the Rauschenberg Residency/Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for providing time and space to work on these poems.” Writing about his experience of Johns’s exhibition at MoMA, at least tacitly, while in residency on Captiva Island, Florida, where Rauschenberg lived and worked for many years, Berrigan never comments, speculates, or gossips about the well-known relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg. It is not that kind of diary. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t allude to Rauschenberg, which he does in the last lines of the first poem: “desire for stuffed goat/to make appearance bound to the observer.” Since “Monogram” (1955–59), the famous Rauschenberg piece he is referring to, is in the collection of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, it is likely that the last time he saw it was at Robert Rauschenberg: Combines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Dec. 20, 2005–Apr. 2, 2006).

Inspired by Johns’s title, Regrets, and all that this loaded word implies, Berrigan doesn’t make any overt or descriptive references to the work he saw in the show, particularly the recurring motif of a man sitting on a bed, head turned away. As he states in his “Note,” “it seem[ed] to imply or propose a tonal space from which to begin generating and/or arranging material.” Berrigan’s sonic approach differs from what Johns did with the reproduction of the Deakin photograph, which is caress a damaged, visual thing into being again and again, even as the artist acknowledges that he cannot recover what is lost to him: time.

In Pregrets, Berrigan collapses a diaristic space with a tonal one, while rejecting the well-known model for ekphrastic poetry, which is the use of image and description to get inside the work:

minimum wake: fuck the organic exactitude
of the model! Unless, too, Rhyme is made from
oil, fabric, paper, enamel, pencil & synthetic
polymer paint with necktie, fuck it as well!

By collapsing these two divergent possibilities together, Berrigan manages to navigate his way through the Scylla and Charybdis of the poetry made prominent by the New York School, the “I do this, I do that” poems of Frank O’Hara and the disjunctive indirection of John Ashbery, both of whom have exerted an enormous influence on younger poets. In Berrigan’s case, the situation is even more complicated because his parents, Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, are highly celebrated and distinctive poets, as was his stepfather, the English poet Doug Oliver. In the book-length series, Have a Good One (Cy Press, 2008), he writes shortly and succinctly about this legacy: “I didn’t come writing/out of the womb/you know.”

Rather than citing any of this autobiography or working in a way that his innovative parents made readily available to succeeding generations, or — to put it another way – living off the fruits of others, Berrigan focused on finding his own open-ended path, which is inflected by his ambivalence about words as carriers of meaning. Moreover, he hasn’t hardened his ambivalence into a signature style or form. He hasn’t branded himself.

The lines in Pregrets hover between sense and nonsense, transparency and opacity, most often closer to the former than the latter, without staying very long in one mode or the other. In addition to the portmanteau used in the book’s title, one encounters “degrets,” “duosity,” “deet” and “hypno-vizio-green.” “Duosity” sounds like academic jargon, a cousin to “reification.”

There are evocative, irreducible lines instilling excitement into every poem (“she’s a potential/tank injection of stubborn wonder into/the knowy gloom”). Often simultaneously representational and abstract, the dissonant phrasing, the cuts and jumps, all add up to a percussive music that doesn’t sound or read like anyone else’s. It’s a remarkable achievement if you think about it.

Anselm Berrigan’s Pregrets is available from Vagabond Press.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...