Edmund Berrigan, Can It!, Letter Machine Editions, 2013
Reviewed by Matt Sadler
In the town where I live, there is a museum of curiosities called Marvelous Marvin's Mechanical Museum. Inside, lights blink, buzzers buzz, bells ding, and a mélange of penny arcade pieces from every era are connected together into a single, odd organism.
Edmund Berrigan's new book, Can It!, is likewise a composite whole, filled with prose poems, short plays, diary entries, lineated poems, collage, interviews, transcripts, and short fictions. The voices range from reporter to nostalgic son; the language from silly, almost dadaist word- and idea-play to straight-laced personal narrative. The purposeful lack of consistent structure reminds me of Marvelous Marvin’s ephemera. Berrigan has created a place where the reader is both connected to and disconnected from the past, where contexts collide, and where, in the words of the author, "people are capable of travelling through space in less of a conscious, directed kind of way and more in the ethereal unconscious sense..."
The barrage begins almost immediately; the first piece is a short play starring a shoehorn, a cat named Wystan, several doomed cockroaches and the woman who murders them with bug spray. The play is a microcosm of the book, wherein each piece trumps the next with a sea change in voice or tone or form. At the end of the play, one of the roaches, an old hippy soul, espouses a psuedo-California-zen prescription for the meaning of life (as it dies), only to be one-upped by Wystan, the cat, who says to the empty stage (the roaches have died and been swept away), "we are made to depart for the Wystan of the craft, the long angular sub-shadow that nourishes our telefundity."
The roaches are ridiculous, preaching a cliché transcendence as they perish. But Wystan's comment is different. It's odd, self-referential, nonsensical, otherworldly. It's one of the tightropes that Berrigan walks in the book, between the absurdly stereotypical and the inimitably self-referential.
The shorter prose poems that use repetition/metamorphosis of the previous imagery as a driving formal factor. In Opening, the line, "We've been? hit hard as a family lately," repeats as, "We've been hit hard as a lately," then changes to, "To qualify for hit hard as a bystander," and finally becomes, "He'd been hit hard as a lately." It's hard to capture the effect by tracking a single image, because all of the images and lines morph, together and apart as the poem goes on. The "bystander" above originates in a different line, for example. As the piece progresses, the reader gets sucked into the repetition by the formal constraint, just as the subject matter of the poem becomes a puddle of formless poem-goo, to which the author responds at the end of the piece: "There was no end in sight. Having incomplete faith in every moment, the future was too exhausting. All our exhausted game in pretended driftwood." The ending brings reader and writer together in the thought/repetition game, into the experience of the dichotomy of form and meaning. These images/ideas change and morph because endless change is the driving force in the poem. The repetitions are like misfiring synapses searching, almost desperately, for meaning.
The playful elements in the book drive the interest of the reader. I never quite know what I'm going to get on the next page, in the next sentence, sometimes in the next word. And his eye and ear for language and imagery is . But something much, much deeper drives, and perhaps unlocks, this book. The author's memory of his father dying, and his subsequent struggles to deal with this event in his life, is the emotional nexus of Can It! After the silliness of the book's opening play, Berrigan places three narrative prose poems that chronicle his nostalgia for childhood and the death of his father at a young age. Nostalgia and deep personal pain coexist in the history that Berrigan will draw from for the rest of the book. It's as if, meandering through the book and all its forms and iterations and time periods, that major event remains stuck to the reader, muddling and clarifying all perceptions by exploding the context. With so much variety, so much change, it's hard to grasp at anything for too long. Berrigan's basic, narrative voice is often soft, quiet, forgiving. And the jumbled, experimental pieces betray the narrative clarity. The two together, because of the underlying sympathy the reader has for the author, evolve into a glimpse inside the jumbled mind, over many, many years, of a man who is both coping with loss in the past and searching for meaning in the present
One of the best examples of this is the piece entitled Texas Road Trip. The poem is a log of diary entries recording a road trip with friends and others to Texas. The diary reads like a tone-deaf report of the random experience of a road trip, and a recording of a kind of consumerist contemporary Americana. For example, "Just hit a 7-11 where chai latte and glazed donut have been consumed. We ran over a dead deer several hours ago, plowed right over it unexpectedly in the dark, then passed a billboard advertising Live Girls and a Christian Bookstore." Such details are peppered throughout the piece, and the author creates a surreal, panoptic view of an at turns hopeful and broken American landscape. The author and his friend(s) are looking for something to film on their throwback Super8 camera, a forced nostalgic viewfinder, and they find very little (staging "avalanche scenes with exploding rocks" on a hike), yet so much of the diary log reads like a film of the experience, at once nostalgic and absurd: "Richard searched for information about [rock] quarry buying possibilities. We stopped at a shop that sold gravestones..." The author even fails to stand up for what's right in the face of some of the idiocy, racism, misogyny, and homophobia he witnesses along the way his only response being, "I said nothing."). Such a lack of moral fortitude could easily turn the reader off, but on the periphery of this road trip we get glimpses of the death of his father. The father is only mentioned twice, both times indirectly. The first time is a passing mention of his father-in-law, which brings the issue into the background of the piece. Near the end, he writes of the movie Starman: "Movies where the male lead represents some kind of absence seem to resonate with me." It's all we get, but it resonates. The sympathy we felt for the author returns, casting a new light on the piece, and we can not only forgive the author his moral shortcomings, but it helps us experience the ambiguity of the road trip mentality from this particular context.
These plays are filled with surprises, which are at times maddening and delightful, but at others overwrought and even a bit forced. Some pieces to try to force the sense of an unfiltered mind, emulating that randomness by manufacturing the idiosyncrasies. For example, the short poem/play The Ball-Hallelujah Connection, seems overly clever. There are certainly great moments in the piece. I love lines like, "there are so many freaks around,/ you murder geniuses" and, "he was so full of energy,/ I thought he was going to plague." But the repeating motif of the weapons, the continual repurposing of the term "melt", and the clever character-names-turned-hipster-proper-nouns (Melty, Jaguar, Jet Black College Building, etc.) all seem without any larger meaning.
Overall, Berrigan's book is thoroughly enjoyable, so long as the reader is willing to let it play by its own (lack of) rules. In the foreword to the book, Berrigan does partially explain his project, wherein "seemingly disparate elements unite into a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole." His skill with imagery and phrasing, along with the emotional undercurrent of his experiences dealing with the death of his father, continually create and re-create a consistently difficult yet delightful perspective for the reader. The final pages offer keen insight on the power, danger, and joy in the ongoing project of nostalgia and discovery. As Berrigan explains in the foreword, Can It! is 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." While wandering in Marvelous Marvin’s strange museum you will find something so close to your life, some pinball machine you once played or a plastic elephant from your childhood stuck to the wall, that the whole place will become less silly and trivial and, in an instant, attach itself to you. In just such a way, the reader finds him/herself in the “fragmented record” here, and could just find something transformative in the experience.