Anselm Berrigan’s poem is sixty five pages long. It ambles, it shrugs, it generally has an only stoic relationship to meaning. Like meaning might be someone he has a working relationship with. They always nod when they see one other. Yet I wouldn’t describe Notes from Irrelevancy as a poem that is opposed to meaning. No it’s just a complicated thing that prefers to act simply. You know like a long skinny loft, a railroad apartment that never stops to make a room, it’s a city poem with thoughts of being someplace else back and forth more than anything being lodged in the history of his head. Which is and isn’t poetry. It’s “the room” but it’s not the subject. Maybe it’s “a tone.” Whatever it is, it’s not a formalist thing. What I think in the most kindly way is that Notes from Irrelevance is a poem that stands firmly against authority. And he’s doing this not as a young man, since he refers in passing to someone’s middle aged balls and I suspect those balls are his. He doesn’t consider himself young. He’s actually a little bit older than Auden when he wrote his famous war poems. There’s reasons for that comparison which I’ll return to but mostly I want to look back. To a flurry of indeterminate gestures: “ a transcription of a stain,” “little curvy bends in the air,” “I cannot be your cannot be,” “sketch of a neglected cinema,” and “to give my child a chance to unfix all she’s told.” The inventory goes on and on. They’re the building blocks of the poem. He’s engaged in a multi-directional kind of way in an act of poignant erasure. Maybe only John Ashbery has written this much poetry really not going forward at all, but wider, deeper, maintaining the idea. There’s a male femininity to it. In Three poems, my favorite John Ashbery, his own bold reticent stroke was to suggest that we didn’t need the poetic act for it to be a poem. The poet was all in his precondition expressed in the present condition of writing.  There’s something like that going on here in Notes from Irrelevance but to a different end. Whereas Ashbery’s flow was all art, Anselm’s and I keep not wanting to spit it out is doing something else. And helplessly and that’s what the poem’s worth. It’s a moral gesture.


Desire strikes me

as routinely out of

sync with time in most

sentences, as if a creeping

desire, one that refuses

to lean on what it means,

has been abandoned

by sentence and image,

consigned to quiet

behaviour that eats at

the self’s duration despite

giving it flecks of purpose

to decorate the larger

aims of mind, whatever

those might be according

to one’s ability to resist

being told how to think.


I was going to say it’s not so much a long poem as a long bible, but really it’s lots of short bibles. In the midst of what feels like a poem driven by sensational and compulsory doubt he tears open or devolves to passages like the above which feel strangely brave, as if a journal of a self exists or needs to be imagined which must speak. More than little bibles, it’s little books, libretti. Could we be American so much, for so long that we have to become something else to make the truth. I think Anselm is a great poet like Sofia Coppola is great filmmaker. It’s so boring. And it’s absolutely what we know and it’s informed by heart. How is that moral.  Because of a kind of mustness. The sadness, the animal must come through and the act of writing is a moral one because it’s a song of survival. Not about it but because of it, because of the abundance of dangers to our very thoughts:


. . . So the

task is to find a new way

to speak, to tell of being,

tell being to fuck off and

come back with a steelier

measure of lack, a kinder

spirit for company,

distance, pain, fortitude

in the empathetic grist

rephrasing caught rides

half the time, or so a

speaker badly sung

with snarling hook




Originally Published: October 25th, 2011

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she...