Saturday, September 26, 2009

Red Shift

I’m wrapping up the September series of personal favorites in the Weekly Poem series with a piece by a poet whose work I always find inspiring, moving, & “poetic” to its core—Ted Berrigan. I’ve posted a couple of Mr Berrigan’s poems previously on Robert Frost’s Banjo—you can read them here & here, & if you have the time, they are very much worth a read. If you’d like to find Berrigan’s work in book form (something I’d encourage) you can find his Collected Poems available thru the University of California Press, & his complete Sonnets (a tremendously important work of late 20th century poetry, at least in my opinion) thru Penguin. There are also some good selected poetry editions around—I believe they may be out-of-print, but available at a reasonable price if you look around.

Berrigan was a poet of great feeling & exuberance—his wife, Alice Notley has written about his openness to the reader (see her introduction to Penguin's Selected Poems)—a sort of conversational welcoming to the poem—even tho Berrigan’s poems can be in a sense “difficult,” there’s always a sense of direct communication, & if you consider that some of our most important communication lies in a realm past strict verbal meaning (in the sense, e.g., of “dictionary” meaning) it stands to reason that even difficult poetry in which literal meaning is elusive can communicate something direct if it’s written with that intent.

Enough from me—except to say you can hear Berrigan read this poem (& lots of others) at the Pennsound page here. Hope you enjoy this terrific poem by an electrifying poet.

Red Shift

Here I am at 8:08 p.m. indefinable ample rhythmic frame
The air is biting, February, fierce arabesques
                on the way to tree in winter streetscape
I drink some American poison liquid air which bubbles
                and smoke to have character and to lean
In. The streets look for Allen, Frank, or me, Allen
                is a movie, Frank disappearing in the air, it's
Heavy with that lightness, heavy on me, I heave
                through it, them, as
The Calvados is being sipped on Long island now
                twenty years almost ago, and the man smoking
Is looking at the smilingly attentive woman, & telling.
Who would have thought that I'd be here, nothing
                wrapped up, nothing buried, everything
Love, children, hundreds of them, money, marriage-
                ethics, a politics of grace,
Up in the air, swirling, burning even or still, now
                more than ever before?
Not that practically a boy, serious in corduroy car coat
                eyes penetrating the winter twilight at 6th
& Bowery in 1961. Not that pretty girl, nineteen, who was
                going to have to go, careening into middle-age so,
To burn, & to burn more fiercely than even she could imagine
                so to go. Not that painter who from very first meeting
I would never & never will leave alone until we both vanish
                into the thin air we signed up for & so demanded
To breathe & who will never leave me, not for sex, nor politics
                nor even for stupid permanent estrangement which is
Only our human lot & means nothing. No, not him.
There's a song, "California Dreaming", but no, I won't do that
I am 43. When will I die? I will never die, I will live
To be 110, & I will never go away, & you will never escape from me
                who am always & only a ghost, despite this frame, Spirit
Who lives only to nag.
I'm only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn't ask for this
                You did
I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing
                will ever change
That, and that's that.
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
                I slip softly into the air
The world's furious song flows through my costume.

Ted Berrigan


  1. Thank you for this John.
    This is amazing and I look forward to reading more..

    Peace - Rene

  2. Good morning Rene-- thanks! Amazing is a good word for Berrigan's poems.

  3. I listened as I prefer to listen than to read and I enjoyed it and as Gertrude Stein says if you enjoyed it you understood it!Great website there, John, so many people I've never heard of ,will go back to explore-thanks!

  4. Hey TFE: Glad you liked it! Gertrude Stein was a smart gal.

  5. I was brought up short in mid-poem by his referring to a car coat. Do people still have car coats? I had forgotten all about them.

    Oddly, it was after that that I really started enjoying the poem. Maybe I needed something concrete (or corduroy) to cling to.

    Thank you, John. The Pennsound link is great.

  6. Hi Sandra: Interesting--the poem does take a sort of turn at the car coat doesn't it. Hope you have fun with the Pennsound page!

  7. I found I needed to read the poem a couple of times before I got the rhythm which, I think, carries it along. Then I enjoyed it.

  8. There is something distinctive and compelling about Red Shift. I shall look him up. Thanks for the intro - I think I must have missed him previously. Shall not do so this time!

  9. Hi Alan & Dave

    Alan: Yes, the rhythm is crucial. Glad you could stick with it!

    Dave: Very compelling--I think you might be quite interested in his Sonnets. I think they are remarkable.

  10. For what it's worth, Gem Spa makes the best egg creams in NYC.

  11. Hey Lana: That might be very important info depending on the circumstances!


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