Two more (cups of coffee then I'll go)
Why do so many readers at poetry readings announce having two poems left to read? When I signed my contract to become a poet there was no clause as to this matter, and I have in fact made a point of simulating repulsion in mind whenever I hear the words “two more” uttered from stage or podium or wobbly body. Is it an ineffable urge to put the spotlight on that next-to-last work, the one packing all the subtlety your typical finale passes up in having complete attention from an audience that knows it will shortly no longer have to work so hard at listening? Or do some poets secretly flip the last and next-to-last poems in order to get the attention on what should be the epic concluder because they know in fact the last-poem-slot is often drowned out by waves of relief from that portion of the audience able to look like they listen (the way I know that eventually I’ll make a great Senator because I’ll look like shit and like I know how to listen simultaneously, a by-product of having hosted hundreds of poetry readings in my short existence)?
I guess looking like shit is a matter of opinion, or taste, or preference, or fixation, or habit. Senator Harry Reid, who is from Searchlight, Nevada, a town I’ve been through many times as it is the one stop on the 111-mile route between Las Vegas and Needles, CA, home of my grandmother Beulah, who will be 91 in February, may not look like shit – if televised press conferences and talking head style interviews (sans rhythmic fear of air) are any indication he seems to possess a vigorous sheen no doubt succored by the folksy austerity borne of communing with creosote bushes while speculating on the nature of dialect and avoiding the speed trap that is the other major feature of Searchlight (pop. 562) along with a few casinos and a little gas station/McDonald’s/convenience store triumvirate that wields a large portrait of the Senator himself in its connective tissue between businesses and the oddly over-mirrored restrooms. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that a political son of Searchlight (there’s a great song by the late band Mule called “Searchlight” / which might / if I recall with any accuracy / which I do not typically / when it comes to memory / be about being pulled over / in the existential manner) may stake claim to a wholly archaic relationship with the notion of dialect – regular trips to our nation’s capital notwithstanding; one’s professional life and one’s speculations on human speech patterns in solemn collectivity should be separated by a near-impenetrable magnetic shield, as any creative commenter will tell you -– given that one may go very long periods of time in Searchlight, decades even, in isolated contemplation. This can produce a personal diction of curious historical range and one no doubt difficult to contextualize rapidly, as would be required on a word-by-word or even syllable-by-syllable basis. Serious reframing. Who can know from one word to the next if passing terms are from last year, last decade, or last century?
At any rate, to solve the two-poems-left mystery I decided to turn to K. Silem Mohammad’s book Breathalyzer and read only the next to last lines in all of his poems. The book was kindly just sent to me by the publisher in the same box as many copies of old books of mine that I didn’t even have to pay for because our publisher is too broke to charge me for copies in the first place and there’s a great deal of generosity to be found in a situation that can’t afford the integrity of a large scale distribution apparatus, much less a staff to keep track of shit, which I will nonetheless look like eventually before I get elected Senator (“I’d be a terrific Senator / because I’d love it”). In looking through one of my books I came across a poem I wrote in 1999 with the title “The banana peel is an important part of the eco-system,” which is something my brother Edmund said to me and which I even attributed to him out of some momentary moral failure (or else I was sub-consciously predicting the next century’s waves of attribution). But what got my attention was the following stream of words: “In the Iceman’s days nicknames / Were prevalent: Annie Annie Oakley / Ansy Slem Arnold Anton Ralton Leston / Selmton Tonton Selmselm Fuckton Cuntton Asston Workton.”
Seeing all those monikers again lit within me a burning urge to identify their sources so they might not get misunderstood as operating within a type of white dialect that could prevent me from getting elected in the future. I used to get e-mails from the Harry Reid folks that were part of a “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” general campaign of political schlock and aww, and if I take that example and run with it I want people to understand just what “Give ‘Em Argh Asston” is all about. Anselm can be a difficult name for you Americans to pronounce, and the above “lines” are actually a list of nicknames conferred upon this body across a roughly twelve year period that began at the age of nine in fourth grade when a few classmates decided it would be easier to call me Annie than try and deal with the tongrobatics required to utter the lm combination in Anselm. Christian Ortiz discovered a little biography of Annie Oakley in a pile of books at the back of the classroom one day, having been ordered there to mull over his loquacious bouts of inattentiveness, and his punishment gave way to the realization that it would be far more entertaining for our class to refer to me as Annie Oakley than just Annie, and so that stuck for several years.
Ansy represents a sadder tale, if you can believe that, for it was the teasing nickname my wonderful half-sister Kate used to call me and which I pretended to detest but secretly didn’t mind hearing until her abrupt and tragic death in 1987. No one has been allowed to call me Ansy since, though no one else really knew about it so its circulation was a little easier to control as opposed to the viral spreading of Annie Oakley around the halls of P.S. 19. Pointing out that Ms. Oakley was a crack shot with a rifle did not advance the cause of my true name. Slem was a kindlier nickname in that one of my track coaches in high school, Mr. O’Neal, simply could not pronounce Anselm without swapping the e and l and decided to shorten Anslem to Slem, thereby making things easier for the whole team. This worked until I got to college in Buffalo and starting being called Arnold by my three horrifying roommates who heard me do an imitation of the Hans and Franz “pump you up” characters from late-eighties SNL and decided Arnold was more apt for my then-130-lb. geek frame than Anselm. Finally came the –ton years. A very drunk but generally genial bass-throated gentleman named Mac started loudly calling me Anton one day from a balcony in downtown Buffalo during a massively attended street festival and that stuck. Shortly thereafter a new housemate (one of seven) revealed that some friends in his hometown, three brothers as it were, went by the names of Anton, Ralton, and Leston. Suddenly I found myself with a modular nickname, thus begetting, depending on the nature of an evening’s activities, Selmton (for those who could do the lm combo), Tonton, Selmselm, Fuckton, Cuntton (never sure if that should have one t or two), and on and on. It also became situational: Workton was what I was called leaving home for any job; Schoolton when threatening to study; Foodton I remember as well as Peanutbutter Foldton (a Buffalo delicacy) during culinary moments. One guy refused to call me anything but Ralton, thinking it the funniest thing he’d ever heard. No day went by during which I wasn’t referred to by a half-dozen different nicknames, a condition which, as one might imagine, had cause to infect my humor with a brooding idiosyncrasy.
When I left Buffalo in 1994 for San Francisco I left behind that whole world of –tons as well, and the poem in question was written during a flashback on a return visit to SF after having left that cuckoo joint for New York some sequence of trips later. The names poured back onto me and would have drownded me with their peculiar histories had poetry not been my ally and filter. Speaking of poetry, the experiment with Mr. Mohammad’s next-to-last lines in regards to the two-more-poems phenomenon (I have even, myself, felt the phrase ready its frame in my larynx for articulation wholly unprovoked by my own intentions, such as they may be, as if the words were their own act…which is why I only read from single long poems at readings now) have led me to isolate the following line as potentially useful in the classic ambiguous-yet-vitally-internal fashion of replaceable reference as practiced by Mallarmé, early Polvo, and the old weird America: “in a way love is all there is.” In order to finish the experiment I will from this moment forward choose to hear “in a way love is all there is” at any instance a reader is forced by mysterious compulsion to state “two more poems” near the end of their reading (I already ignore the awful apology implied by the occasional inclusion of “just” ahead of “two more poems” or “two more”). If you do it too then we can get together some day, and we’ll have a good time, for I will not report the results of our experiment here.
The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...