The Poetry Project

Something for Everybody by Anselm Berrigan (Wave Books, 2018)

Review by Nick Sturm

Citational and elegiac, full of bright and bent music, Anselm Berrigan’s Something for Everybody is a book-shaped experiment in the intersection of lineages and fraught daily attentions. It is totally in time, a shared composition that records his own looking as well as his love for others, both present and gone. In this sense, Something for Everybody is a kind of mixtape, a collected thing that you receive knowing it is built through care, but also a dissonant, lo-fi experiment that skips, repeats, and lifts you both toward and away from its sources. That the book’s title refracts off a book by his father, Ted Berrigan’s Nothing for You (Angle Hair Book, 1977), whose title actually came from a word game that Anselm and Edmund Berrigan played as children, is evidence of the histories these poems address.

This is the “twitchy eros” of the book, as Berrigan writes in “Self-Portrait with Lasers,” a kind of formal way of articulating love, playfulness, and loss as they’re disrupted by the world’s seemingly endless unraveling. An unsentimental bluntness about our contemporary moment pervades the book’s edges. As he writes in “Lengthening Arches,” “I can’t help think these / times infected by a deeper / meanness than savagery.” What keeps things together are the small disruptions we redirect at the world’s demand for continuity and legibility, like the intersection of reading John Ashbery while listening to Superchunk on the train in “Tilebreaker” or willing “Joan Mitchell’s oils [to] leap / Off their canvases & drown the neo-fangled supremacist / Cops advancing on the water protectors at DAPL.” At the same time though, “endless / war doesn’t quite / greet endless aesthetics,” Berrigan writes, “and ditching beauty / hasn’t exactly shortened / the gap, but ditching / irritation is no help / either.” This commitment to unsettling the stakes between aesthetics and resistance—to war, the precarity of labor, and general acquiescence—is an important part of the book’s background.

One of the most interesting formal choices in the book is organized around how these relationships play out in poems, among communities of artists, and in families. Something for Everybody opens with “What the Streets Look Like,” a poem addressed to Berrigan’s mother, Alice Notley, that describes how the streets around St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery have changed. “Second Ave / is giving up, slowly / its cheap depth store- / front by storefront,” Berrigan writes. However, “[t]he right / part of the y heading / west on tenth between / 2nd and 3rd is still / tree-lined and aristocratic.” “I loathe it, / amiably, when Sylvie / is asleep,” the poem ends. Not only does “What the Streets Look Like” set up the book’s intimate sub-narrative about family and literary history—Berrigan grew up on St. Mark’s Place less than a 10-minute walk from The Poetry Project and was the Project’s Director from 2003 to 2007—it also prefaces the book’s attention to personal and public loss, either through the death of a family member, such as Berrigan’s father, or the restructuring of a city that levels its idiosyncrasies, as on the Lower East Side.

These threads come full circle in the final poem in the book, “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?” which is dedicated to The Parish Hall at St. Mark’s and which indexes the crises and kindnesses that run through Something for Everybody. This poem does so, at least partly, by repeating the entirety of “What the Streets Look Like,” which is contextualized through a description of how the poem was written that is further couched in a poem that itself is being written about The Poetry Project for the occasion of an event at The Poetry Project. Describing the poem this way perhaps make it seem coterie, but the movement here is about intimacy and as Berrigan writes, care: “I come to things / here because this place has / been imperfectly available / to care & care for. That’s always run / through an interconnection / of mouths, that care.” In this poem, the Project is both the site of and an idea about what a shared life in poetry might look like that. “Is / there any metric,” Berrigan asks, “for how much / pain this room has absorbed / & had reconverted into music?” Of course, there’s no way to tangibly account for all of that loss and lineage other than in the poems themselves. That “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?” ends with Berrigan’s inclusion of a complete poem by Douglas Oliver, Berrigan’s stepfather, which is also the end of Something for Everybody, is a gesture that foregrounds the reciprocity between family and art that are so deeply localized around the Project.

The completion of the book with Oliver’s poem also emphasizes Berrigan’s refusal of a singularly legible voice. This plurality is especially present in the series of five poems all titled “Jim Brodey” that appear in the middle of Something for Everybody. As Berrigan asks, “what / The fuck was we saying”? These poems actually take their form from Jim Brodey’s so-called “name poems” in his series “Panda Heart” from the book Heart of the Breath and adapt Brodey’s lusciously off-kilter imagery and syntax, clearly an important influence within Berrigan’s own poetic lineage. “[A]ll the neoclassical mosaic // Brodey schmear,” Berrigan writes, “I’m laying down to help me get / Through via unfashionable noncurrency this / Absolute disaster of a current state.” Berrigan’s gestures toward his father, Oliver, and Brodey, as well as other poets like Ted Greenwald and Anselm Hollo are central to this resistance, but also part of the joy this book exudes as its unwinds language into “your best bent tonal escapes,” as he writes in “Jim Brodey.” “I need / things that don’t go together / to be put in time together,” Berrigan writes in “& What Does ‘Need’ Mean?” which a description just as much about how language works in Berrigan’s poems as about the confluence of lineages embedded in a physical space like The Poetry Project. As Ted Berrigan writes in “From The Art of the Sonnet” in Nothing for You, “I got all great books here to write poems from.” Outside of the time of the book, now Something for Everybody is right there, too.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020