“What Else Might Be Available”: Three Contemporary Lineages of the Poetry Project

How to imagine the intellectual and affective thicket of literary inheritance is one of the urgent densities of aesthetic life. This exploration of lineages and canonicity is also one of writing’s most complex pleasures. However, the joy of reading and writing in proximity to others’ work can be challenging to understand, especially when trying to parse the relationship between influence and originality. The late Harold Bloom famously describes literary inheritance in terms that are notably antagonistic, suggesting that a writer experiences an “anxiety of influence” based on “act[s] of strong misreading” of previous writers. Bloom argues that the concept of influence is itself “a metaphor, one that implies a matrix of relationships—imagistic, temporal, spiritual, psychological—all of them ultimately defensive in nature.” Bloom’s insistence that influence has “spiritual” and “psychological” properties suggests each writer’s work is prefaced by an internal battle with one’s predecessors. Every choice a writer makes, Bloom implies, is wrapped up in a profound struggle whereby both the history of aesthetic development and one’s own autonomy are at stake. It’s perhaps not surprising that this uneasy process of misappropriation and self-preservation, all organized by a desire for originality, would lead to a kind of anxiety. Under these terms, participating in an aesthetic lineage feels like an epic feat. 

As a teacher, I am interested in how to introduce creative-writing students to the concept of literary inheritance in ways that avoid the strain and abstraction of Bloom’s anxieties. In the last couple of years, I have been teaching a poetry workshop called “Other Lineages” that aims to reframe concepts of literary inheritance outside of the established canon. The class organizes reading and writing experiments not to erase the concept of canons altogether but to change the scale of how we imagine lineages. Instead of reading in terms of Bloom’s sweeping Eurocentric claims—“Shakespeare quite simply not only is the Western canon; he is also the world canon”—we read pairs of modern and contemporary poetry books that operate as what we call “micro-lineages.” These micro-lineages position those two books as evidence of a range of different kinds of correspondence between writers, including direct and indirect citations, as well as seemingly superficial references and associations. Even at the scale of the book, these tiny canons of citationality offer alternative views of writing in or against a tradition. We might read selections from Spanish modernist Federico García Lorca’s The Collected Poems (2002) followed by Jack Spicer’s After Lorca (1957) as a micro-lineage that shows Spicer writing into Lorca’s voice with both devotion and irreverence. Or we might pair Midwinter Day (1982) by Bernadette Mayer with My Life (1980) by Lyn Hejinian to ask how these two books employ formal experiments with dailiness and the mundane to construct a feminist poetics that bridges Mayer’s New York School lineage with Hejinian’s Language Poetry roots. Reading these pairings of books as micro-lineages is meant to create flexibility in our understanding of literary inheritance and to demystify writing, showing how poets make choices when encountering the writers that precede and surround them. This process also allows students to see how engagement with a tradition does not preclude a poet’s engagement with his or her contemporary influences as well as the cultural and political crises of the present.

The books addressed in this review—by Stacy Szymaszek, Simone White, and Edmund Berrigan—can be read together as a contemporary micro-lineage associated with the aesthetic and institutional legacies of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. As I mentioned in my review of What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983–2009), which appeared in these pages in Spring 2018, the Poetry Project is “an arts institution on the border of institutions, run by poets, that’s been home to fifty years of fierce, cherished conversational momentum.” Founded in 1966 on the Lower East Side in New York City and still thriving today, the Project has been the venue for generations of reading series, publications, and events central to the histories of innovative poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Szymaszek, White, and Berrigan’s lives and work have all been impacted by the Poetry Project, especially by the lineages of the New York School poets whose work is deeply associated with the Project. For these poets, “lineage” is not an abstract concept. As Szymaszek says in a 2018 interview with Cutbank, her affiliation with the Poetry Project made her “part of a lineage” of “active poets” who are “interested in the history of poetry, and what needs to be passed on.” As hallowed poetic ground rich with history that continues to host and support young poets, the Project is at the heart of this lineage-building. “I don’t really describe my own lineage in a particular way,” Szymaszek says, “though I will say I worship at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.” This devotion stretches throughout each of these three books.

Szymaszek’s A Year from Today is a journal-like record of living, reading, and administrating in New York City during her tenure as the second longest-serving director of the Poetry Project, which she led from 2007 to 2018. Alongside Szymaszek, White was program manager of the Project through 2017, and her Dear Angel of Death, tied to a tradition of creative-critical inquiry into black life, is a vivid enactment of the cross-genre experimental legacies of the Project. Berrigan is tied to the Poetry Project through a lineage of familial connections—his brother Anselm Berrigan was director from 2003 to 2007, and their parents, New York School poets Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, are iconic predecessors within the tradition. These intimate inheritances are playfully woven into Edmund Berrigan’s More Gone. The community-based, experimental, and eclectic ethos of the Poetry Project is embedded in each book. Via the Project’s organizational roots among poets like Anne Waldman and Joel Oppenheimer, they also share associations with the various afterlives of the New American Poetry—particularly the New York School and Black Arts Movement. Of course, reading these books under such a lens is somewhat arbitrary. As Anselm Berrigan describes in the introduction to What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know), there is no so-called “Poetry Project aesthetic,” and while the histories of twentieth-century American poetry echo through each collection, there are important differences in how these poets parse literary inheritance. Nevertheless, this niche frame allows recognition of Szymaszek, White, and Berrigan’s books as a constellation of experimental inquiries that variously preserve, disrupt, and restyle poetic traditions. These books also share a formal interest in time and its movements through literature, family, and community. The use of citations, the notebook, and an archival sensibility are the formal mechanisms that animate these books’ questions of inheritance and tradition.

Time as a formal substance is most prominently framed by A Year from Today, composed by Szymaszek under the durational constraint of a single year, from April 2014 to April 2015, and organized into four sections—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Accumulated within a city and career that perpetuate a “work till you drop ethos,” as Szymaszek writes, these poems become “daily reminders that progress     is not linear.” The third book in a trilogy of daybook experiments, A Year from Today contains poems that are formally dispersed across the page in open-field compositions dense with caesura and absent of accompanying dates. Szymaszek generates a bright record of resistance to dismal bureaucratic constructions such as work-life balance by unburdening, but not erasing, the dichotomy of public and private. The inside and outside, so to speak, of one’s life are not incompatible, these poems suggest. Rather, A Year from Today constructs labor as a practice of idiosyncratic preservation, through a cataloging of daily transits, uncertainties, collectivities, and desires drenched in time’s movement through the medium of a body. And in this poem-as-a-year, that body is everywhere under threat—from fiscal precarity, cancer, the state, and the ubiquitous “anti-pleasure system” that is late capitalism’s regime of productivity. Death, memorial, preservation, and pain haunt the book from its beginning, when “Simone and I split cost of quince branches / [for] Amiri Baraka Tribute,” a public celebration of the late poet’s anti-racist, anti-capitalist legacy—organized by Szymaszek and Simone White. This tribute echoes in White’s own book—a specific shared loss that amplifies into the trauma of Eric Garner’s death that summer. All of this pain is as vivid as it is common, pulsing through the book’s movements without being hierarchized. Instead, pain is metabolized through the writing’s ritualistic demand to formally archive the day. Of course, metabolizing trauma does not resolve that trauma’s causes or effects. Concerns about aging, a fracturing relationship, and the affective wear of career are spotted throughout the poem. The rush to constantly maintain the surface of a functioning life—through therapy, kindly worded responses to irate poets, and the poem itself—gathers into a foreboding about various finalities. “I looked out for death     and it dusted my mind / with cool powder” sounds like a chill Dickinsonian reconfiguration, but it also sounds like a balmed nightmare. “[W]hich crises,” Szymaszek asks, “will be a healing crisis?” The question is left unanswered.

Amid waking up to emails about ominous blood test results and “learn[ing] through the machinery     my friends are lonely,” Szymaszek returns to the other question that her project seems to be always on the verge of answering: “When is my / Mystical Experience?” This is a serious question. In the process of “authoring my own suffering     in the manner of families / lineages / namesakes,” in other words—adhering to the oppressive continuity of daily life that organizes love into discrete and potentially limiting spaces—the potential eruption of the mystical might be a necessary occasion for ontological noncompliance, a way to temporarily shatter the conditions of being. Mystical disruptions are textured into the ephemeral movements of A Year from Today—a found scarf, a line read from a poem suddenly enacted in the Poetry Project’s Parish Hall—and jut up against Szymaszek’s frustrations with time’s ordered obligations. Time, situated around money rather than a life in writing, is particularly obfuscating: “struggling with the 3 year / budget     thinking about years / in threes.” “I wish I could admin     pain / away,” Szymaszek writes, but there are other methods for addressing these diminishments—mainly, through aesthetic transformation: “I say outrageous things / dress up my speech every day     in overstatement     is when I feel closest / to my gods.” This work in language is a devotional site where hyperbole is a refusal of the acceptance of mediocrity. Speech puts on a good outfit and walks out into the art of the day.

The gods that Szymaszek writes toward are poets and artists that populate A Year from Today. References to Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Philip Whalen, and other New York School–associated artists act as events in the text, a kind of cumulative mystical gathering of moments of Szymaszek’s reading practice. These citational events mirror the public, collective events—poetry readings and encounters with writers—that occur throughout the book. “[F]ound a Whalen book     in the office / Michael Goldberg’s copy,” she writes, a moment of archival discovery in the office of the Poetry Project. The friendship and history embedded in the association copy of Whalen’s book refract into the environment of Szymaszek’s poem, in which artists and artworks think together. This association across time is in the air throughout the book, common, funny, and rich. She writes, “I took     ‘your psyche is a Philip Guston painting’     as a compliment.” These are the references of an intellectual-aesthetic life within dense sites of tradition. One suddenly sees it as part of the architecture.

                                                         last week’s poet     David Antin     began

“I can see Paul Blackburn laying on the floor with his tape recorder”

                 visions of Paul making an archive     beneath the floor

                                                                                        is inwood

                                                                                       marble   pompton

                                                                                                      soil

                                             I read it as

                                during this time of incarceration

                     tonight    Rankine’s Citizen    Jarnot’s “Every Body’s Bacon”

  a poet walking up the steps turned and said          “thank you

               for the space        and I mean not just the room”

Rather than an overbearing influx of tradition, scenes like these in Szymaszek’s poem show the capaciousness of working in and through a lineage. There is a somatic clarity, both to the physical room and the collective space. Importantly, as these lines suggest, this richness of aesthetic spirit is not a respite from present crises such as ecological catastrophe, police violence, economic precarity, or the cultural malaise of a constantly digitally mediated social world. Rather, “the space” allows for the tools, community, and shared imagination that might begin to work through the crisis. For Szymaszek, one of those aesthetic tools is carrying forward Blackburn’s devotion to archiving what it looks like (and reads like) to live among these tensions. Whalen and Mayer also echo strongly in A Year from Today as precursors for her documentary poetics. Echoing Blackburn, Szymaszek mimes the archival surge that gathers around events. 

        it’s true     you have to become the historian of your people

is there someone here to record this?      will there be a recording?

                           somebody should get this down    otherwise no one    will believe it!

The need to record and archive is about documenting events, but it is also about survival. A Year from Today documents how a life might be generously constructed in the parallel architecture of a poem that admits time’s indeterminacy as its most vital substance. “[O]ur elders were not silly,” she writes, “to think of scope / the power to     include     means say yes till you can’t.” Szymaszek is part of this lineage of self-affirmation, and A Year from Today is a part of the courageous anti-monumental archive that helps us remember our shared, living belief.

_____

I have been teaching Simone White’s book Of Being Dispersed (Futurepoem, 2016) in each iteration of my “Other Lineages” class, pairing it with the title that White’s book cites, Of Being Numerous (1968) by George Oppen. These books are always the first micro-lineage I offer to students, because the titular variation is so generative to slide across. Oppen’s serial poems tend to both confirm and resist students’ expectations about what poetry looks and sounds like. They see the sociopolitical fabric in the book, linger in Oppen’s soft reflective paradoxes—the material of his poems’ thinking—and get a sense of how a network of images and associations accumulates across a book rather than being contained, so to speak, in a single discrete poem. White’s poems are a revelation of contemporary sounds and energies, tracking multiple narratives of dispersal—of a relationship, a self, and a family, all while working, writing, and mothering as a black woman. White’s work comes from a “roughhousing perspective,” as she writes. This phrase speaks to the work the poems do on the language and on the reader. One of my students, Afia, described White’s poetics as “laidback,” by which she was recognizing the powerful tonal mixture of calmness and refusal that define White’s no-nonsense urgency and richness. 

Dear Angel of Death is a revelatory extension of White’s interest in how the hard, sonic edges of a lyric sensibility can enact what it means to be, to think, and to write under the pressures guaranteed by contemporary aesthetic-intellectual life within the pleasures and crises of motherhood. The book is composed of two series of poems, “Dollbaby” and “Endings,” followed by the essay “Dear Angel of Death,” a critical unraveling and coming-together of Black Music, which White dismantles en route to new thinking on lineage, the male histories of black aesthetic theory, trap music, and what she calls the “surround” of being. Written contemporaneously, the poems and essay should be read together as the book’s form suggests, an interlocking ride in Dear Angel’s poetics where “[t]he ocular and intellectual stress induced by attempting to read more than one text at a time . . . intensifies textual interplay.” In (and against) the tradition of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, White’s critical-creative inquiry is a spacious jostling of positions, and refusal of positions (“Take that space. Not position,” she writes), that incites a swarm of unexpected, refreshing allegiances from Emily Dickinson to the rapper Vince Staples.

The poems in Dear Angel are anti-patriarchal lyrics that clear a sonic space—equal parts declarative and dissonant—where “[t]his is no one’s fault; / not my pussy’s fault, nor yours.” “Dollbaby” tracks this negation through the multiplicities and physical demands of motherhood that reconfigure autonomy—specifically, the immediacy of nursing and pumping breastmilk. “First, secure the milk,” the book’s opening poem begins, “then quick I must show you / my body’s inventing itself / that my body should make herself.” From body’s separation from the intellect to the critical variation of “itself” to “herself,” White evokes a series of overlapping distances between objecthood and subjecthood. There are echoes of Notley’s early poems about motherhood here, such as the shuffling of pronouns in “Dear Dark Continent,” in lines such as “Secure the milk / and I’ll tell you / grammatical properties / of the pronoun / motherfucker.” The double directionality of “motherfucker,” whether it is itself a pronoun or the subject of an address, is one of the great pleasures of reading White’s poems. These poems’ lyric folds and edges constantly knot and slip, fall out and collide. Here is a progression from a few pages into “Dollbaby”:

Trash musicality, folklore of the heard,

remnant of the flightlessly flapped wing,

I forbid. I forbid pathos.

And contrast. Forbid that, too.

Me in the primary position.

Stripped of the sentimental signs of easily exchangeable feeling, the intricate turns and reversals in these poems are the material of writing as thinking, a lyric subjectivity that theorizes itself by sounding itself out. For White, motherhood is at the center of this vision, and what she describes as “milk thought,” or later as “udderance,” a pun that laces body and speech into a new configuration of production that rejects masculinist delimitations of what is considered legitimate labor for the body. The poems continually open and sway, courting magic, critical engagement, friendship, and desire. Intimacies pulse across Dear Angel, as when White describes “the crystal Stacy [Szymaszek] has promised me / the mind grows light and visible ice” or declares, “I think it’s important to record relaxin’s long term distortions.” 

This attention to pleasure’s complexity is at the center of the book. White is quick, brilliant, and uncompromising. Sometimes in the form of a corrective voice of understatement and wit, as in “Two Things Were Happening at Once,” in which she writes, “sometimes I am like / your assessment of this thing’s causation is faulty,” or it takes on a sonic pleasure, as in the incredible “Stingray”: “her haunch whip a think acquired as a gorgeous capital.” These lines as soundscapes produce entire environments in which a reader can think, feel, and move. “This is the hour,” she writes, “for thinking hydrangea. Let no man look at me.” A luscious freedom is declared again and again.

These poems explore what happens when one’s autonomy—as a black woman, as a mother, as a lover, as a writer—is constantly compromised. “[W]hat if / my own being / broken / is the new law,” White asks in “We Are Here to Slow Time,” an unresolved potentiality that carries over into the analysis in “Dear Angel of Death” of trap music’s construction of “narcotized” personhood, as well as the potentialities and failures embedded in the music’s schematics for living and feeling differently. White’s line from “Stingray,” “raucous to suspend life outside of life,” gestures toward the simultaneous distance and desire in trap, this black music that, she suggests, is not the same black music writers like Nathaniel Mackey or Fred Moten mean when they discuss Black Music. And White is asking—why not? “Dear Angel of Death” interrogates a history of aesthetic thinking via citation that constructs Black Music as the ground for aesthetic theory. White is suspicious of the critical discourses that have made Black Music synonymous with black poetics when Black Music only seems to mean the blues or jazz. After all, as she writes, “jazz is dead,” with no updated sensibility that accounts, for instance, for R&B and hip hop. Her thinking through the construction of Black Music as a foundation for black poetics, and her asking for alternatives to antiquated definitions of Black Music, is a radical critique of citationality and lineage as givens of intellectual inheritance. Rather, lineage for White is a flexible substance that one is not “digging” into, per Amiri Baraka’s phrase, but listening for, reading obsessively across, getting intimately close to in order to stay close though never bound. “I just want to know what else might be available” is the thesis of “Dear Angel of Death,” which, prompted by Baraka’s tribute event at the Poetry Project in April 2014, becomes an “exploded dissertation,” as she describes elsewhere, into the problematics and (male) love of the lineage from Baraka to Mackey to Moten. “Fuck my thinking it is so undisciplined!” White writes earlier in the book. This “undisciplined” thinking, with its potential for swerve, simultaneity, and contradiction, is what makes “Dear Angel of Death” a new kind of radical territory in American poetry.

_____

Edmund Berrigan’s More Gone follows his book Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2013) in the creation of a poetic universe of sonic fizz and existential vulnerability. These poems are raucous artifacts of whimsy, pain, and the intricate joy of carrying an interior world into language. Berrigan’s range of formal idiosyncrasies and lines—including “Stems,” “The Agonists,” “North,” and “Foil in the Wires,” the four longer poems, which anchor the collection—contribute to a feeling that More Gone is as much a song book and set of collages as it is a book of poems. Berrigan describes the influence of music and painting on his work in a recent series of essays for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriett blog. About visual art, Berrigan writes:

I began earnestly reading my dad’s poems in this same time period [Edmund Berrigan’s mid-teens], and made a connection, though not one I could articulate, between Dad’s book, The Sonnets, Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, and a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, where I saw several cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque. It was a breakthrough for me to recognize that similar kinds of maneuvers can be achieved across different mediums. It happened very fast. Mom and I had only been in the museum for a short amount of time, but it was so startling that I instantly needed to leave in order to process it. 

And about listening to Blind Willie McTell in college, Berrigan recalls,

I related more to ambiguity at this point than to pristine moments of isolated understanding. When it came to more well known, traditional material like “I’ve Got to Cross the River Jordan,” McTell would often drop lyrics and replace them with a slide riff. The effect of the dropped lyrics reminded me of the poetic disjunction in The Sonnets, and also somehow of the strange partial images of cubist paintings, that left just enough of the overall structure. 

In both cases, these encounters with other media allow Berrigan to parse his relationship with his family, particularly by way of the work of his father, Ted Berrigan, who passed away when Edmund was eight years old. In a sense, More Gone is a large-scale sifting-through of the effects of living, both bewilderingly and comfortably, as part of a poetry family (along with Alice Notley and Anselm Berrigan) and within a wider tradition of New York School poetics. Poems like “Mom and Dad in a Photo” and “Beulah Is Flying,” the latter a reference to his late maternal grandmother, generate a verbal environment around the idea of family, care, and loss. The word “home” is especially prominent in the opening of the book, including in the poem where “Home is a place of permanent work / an element of contagion pausing the gift / picking up fragments to move.” Home, that return to and being with those we love, is a shared vocabulary, a transformative physical exchange—“contagion”—of linguistic pieces. Berrigan’s father appears in appropriated lines and references to his poems, and Berrigan’s mother’s voice is the substance of “Poem,” a collaged series of statements that seems to be made entirely from things Notley has said in interviews. 

These textual presences are a process of collaged self-portrait in More Gone. Time is oozy in these poems as various presents merge, autobiographical statements collide with bright fragments of language, and echoes of deaths and the self-consciousness of growing older cycle into the book. As a white cisgendered man, Berrigan’s autonomy is not challenged in these poems the ways that Szymaszek and White’s are. There are moments in the book that suggest the entitlement of this subject position, as in “Wednesday Special” when Berrigan recalls “a period in which / I struggled with empathy—not a lack of / but it was over wrought and a little / self-congratulatory.” At the same time, More Gone is deeply reflective, recording the haunting ways that the past deaths of loved ones continue to organize the present as well as the uncertainties and discontinuities of living in an economic and political moment eager to commodify or erase anyone. Berrigan’s attention to aging, the process of getting increasingly “more gone,” allows for these poetic and intimate presences to become thicker, more poignant. As he writes in “The Agonist,” “I ’d read my dad’s / books looking to find out who he was / or what he felt. I ’d look for / my sister in an empty suitcase.” This autobiographical clarity also juts up against the humorous and absurd. “I was born in England,” Berrigan writes in “Chirp Heart Innuendos”; “I’ve been coveting / a homemade pasta maker.”

These lines suggest how being “more gone” for Berrigan is also a privileged state of increasing irreverence for lineage and aesthetic productivity. Berrigan’s attention to fragmentation and displacement via blues lyrics is riotously at work everywhere in the book: “I was a gentleman moth / cured in the molten” (from “North”); “mooring in a felt stream / pardoned in ridicule / a volt milieu” (from “The Agonists”); and “Not a could in the sky” (from “More Gone”). “[T]his grammar is / not something I will pretend to / control or master,” he writes in “Little Pieces Continue as Pieces,” favoring the spontaneity of sonic association and disruption over a fictional mastery of language’s power. In the fantastic “Foil in the Wires,” Berrigan writes,

          I’m holding on

to my sense of opacity as

   long as I can because

I’m pretty sure that once

      I figure it (why the

    world so fucked) I’m

   gonna totally, tonally

   regret knowing

Opacity becomes a bulwark against a contemporary world that is also alarmingly “more gone” each day and allows Berrigan to remain playfully interested in sound as a test of what constitutes clear thinking. While the above lines are packed with first-person pronouns, there is a humorous, resonant refusal throughout More Gone to embody any certain kind of position, either as a poet or person. Rather, the book accumulates into an aesthetic celebration of gentleness. The beautiful poem “The Agonists” is at the center of this poetics of care, a long poem that acts as a collaged coming-of-age narrative among a series of profound personal losses and uncertainties. Here Berrigan is the “Kid empty spackling eternity,” an impossible task driven by a genuine need to account for loss. “After all,” he writes, “I don’t want / to spend my whole life grieving.” At the end of that poem, the struggle to account for what’s gone transforms into acceptance: “it’s ok to be fragile, sort of standing / held idle by law or language. I think of luck / as lying on this ray of light.” 

More Gone addresses another breed of loss by tracking the ways that subjectivity is demeaned by capitalism’s unceasing demand for one’s identity to be determined by allegiance to labor and productivity. The poem “35” is a time-dense portrait of a writer buoyantly rejecting the alignment of work and success:

          but I’m happy to be an unemployed

Poet again—moving through the streets

At odd hours for odd jobs—rereading the

Works I twittered around 15 years ago while

Waiting to be what I am now: unimpressed

And anxious, patient and sentient but perplexed,

With a goofy smile and hoping never to work again,

Even as I work now to secure a future job,

And lay back on an old man’s couch

Dreaming of reaching for that ball of gold

So I can chuck it out the window.

Relieved of the burden of achievement on others’ terms, Berrigan’s poems revel in the joyfully esoteric and charmingly wild linguistic renderings that—like the poems of New York School poet Steve Carey—make his work so tonally idiosyncratic and surprising. 

This barrage of tones, sonic shifts, unsettled phrases, and cubist syllabic juxtapositions is one of the great joys of More Gone. The poem “Troubadour Frieze,” for example, is a swampy comic soundscape of near-rational reverb that refuses to settle into any expected moment of recognition. Instead, we get this:

no separated glisten; no clip clop on the condition; O elemental

                 peptide ventriloquist bop won’t you

modify my subordinary postulant my astronomy bi-nebulant my

                 solemnness

opulent ultimately and trouble free my lexicon shaved in trouba-

                 dour frieze 

This poem is a celebration. Berrigan’s constructions are linguistic science fiction, a rejoinder to English grammar rules’ limiting view of what is possible. These experiments in sound are forming new worlds. In “Insecurity Blanket,” one of the most parodic and sustained critical gestures in the book, Berrigan spoofs the logic of capitalism with bent images of neoliberal propriety and need: 

                                                          Let’s infect our

   Clients with fuck activism and bone-crushing

Tackles. That’s when we will deepen our bullpen

   One roster spot at a time. That’s when I will 

Punch you with a fist of roaches.

Compared to “Troubadour Frieze,” the descriptions in “Insecurity Blanket” are stable, but they are still resiliently strange. Even the slight turn from the more expected “fist full of roaches” to “fist of roaches” shows Berrigan’s idiosyncratic imagination at work, washing the language in a William Burroughs–like cocktail of otherworldly Americana. More Gone is a home for all of these wayward sounds and sudden clarities, though it thankfully never settles. And within all this funkiness, there is always a strong sense of heart. “[H]ow did the feeling feel to you,” the poem “Stems” asks, the question going unanswered but left sitting there to attract all its possible connections. Berrigan’s poems are generous, open machines, as playful as they are imprinted with the losses that accumulate in the book’s background. 

The generousness of More Gone is the shared lineage that echoes back through Szymaszek’s A Year from Today and White’s Dear Angel of Death. This ethos of care, collectivity, eclecticism, and critique is at the core of the tradition of artists, including these three poets, associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The Project as an aesthetic and historic site of cross-generational gathering and innovation is mapped across each book, projecting the collaborative spirit and selfless labor that Szymaszek, White, and Berrigan have all nurtured and, as all traditions require, reconstructed through their own poetry. Much of the most exciting contemporary poetry continues to be written and performed in proximity to the Project. Recognizing the social, material, and aesthetic lineages that connect these books shows how traditions might be simultaneously more diffuse and more local, more unconventional and more intimate, than concepts of canons might suggest. The over-half-century of artists speaking and working together in and around the Poetry Project, a collectivity that is becoming increasingly more diverse and radical, constitutes one response to “what else might be available” as young writers look to the work that precedes them in order to create what’s next in American poetry.

 

_____
*An essay-review of:

A Year from Today. By Stacy Szymaszek. Brooklyn, NY: Nightboat Books, 2018. 136 pp. $16.95, paper. 

Dear Angel of Death. By Simone White. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. 160 pp. $18.00, paper. 

More Gone. By Edmund Berrigan. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2019. 112 pp. $15.95, paper.

 

Nick Sturm’s poems, collaborations, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn RailASAP/JBlack Warrior Review, the websites of the Poetry Foundation and PEN America, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. His first book of poems is How We Light (H_NGM_N BKS, 2013). His scholarly and archival work can be traced at his blog, Crystal Set. He is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches courses on poetry, visual art, and multimodal composition.