Enter the Ouroboric: A Review of Anselm Berrigan’s Come In Alone

Come In Alone, 
by Anselm Berrigan
Wave Books
1938 Fairview Ave. E., Suite 201
Seattle, WA 98102
ISBN# 9781940696294 
(7.5 x 10.5, 96pp, paperback)
ISBN# 9781940696249 
(7.5 x 10.5, 96pp, limited edition hardcover)
May 3, 2016

Upon first look, Anselm Berrigan’s latest collection of poems, Come In Alone, reminded me of that bit, “Is This Anything,” Letterman used to do on The Late Show. They’d open the curtain to reveal some random act — a guy riding a flaming unicycle while juggling chainsaws or suchlike. Afterward, Dave and Paul would discuss to determine whether or not what they’d just seen was anything.

The form (or formlessness) Berrigan employs in Come In Alone — one long line running around the perimeter of the page with no definitive beginning or end — has that now there’s something I’ve never seen before factor going for it, but that also raises the possibility that what we’re seeing may be mere gimmickry. The book has no page numbers and the text contains no periods, although there are many commas, some question marks and at least one exclamation point.

There’s a nice non-bossiness, a lack of hierarchy, to the poems that one begins to appreciate once one adapts to their nature: no top of the poem, no middle of the poem, no bottom of the poem; no definitive beginning, middle or end, no stanzas, nothing but one ouroboric, ever-looping line. The open-minded, adventurous reader will acclimate to the oddity of the format rather quickly and find oneself at home in the text, whereas the close-minded, unadventurous reader (assuming he/she ever even encounters such a peculiar book) will likely lose patience with it at once and toss it across the room.

Where to begin reading one of these ouroborics? Ouroborics? Yes, ouroborics. I, with the power vested in me as some random dude who read this interesting book, do hereby dub such poems ouroborics. The book’s title itself, Come In Alone, suggests as much, and the first page presents a sort of preamble poem consisting solely of the letter “I” repeated all the way around the perimeter of the page. As Jung writes in his essay on alchemy:

In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.

You may be tempted to start reading in the upper left hand corner of the page out of habit, but any of the four corners may be the upper left hand corner depending on how you hold the book, and more often than not the best starting point isn’t in any of the corners. Scan the poem in search of the snake’s mouth biting its tail. In some cases there is a most logical starting point, in others there are two or a few possible best starting points, but it doesn’t actually matter. Reader’s choice. Start reading wherever you will and read around and around a few times until you take the poem in as a whole.

The book is a snack plate of small bites, ouroboric loops one reads in the manner one watches GIFs online moving from one to another: the dog with the Roman candle in its mouth chasing the foolish teenagers around to a kitty riding a Roomba to a hawk attacking a drone to a squirrel stealing a GoPro camera and scampering up into a treetop to a skateboarding teenager who leaps onto a hand rail in the upper right corner of the frame, zooms down, wipes out, face plants on the sidewalk and staggers out of view in the lower left corner of the frame only to reappear a second later at the top to repeat the entire catastrophe again from the start.

The startling imagery, neologisms and crackling, staccato rattle and clank of certain passages in Come In Alone reminded me of the strange, random vibrancy found in sections of Jackson Mac Low’s Twenties poems — “self-defenestrating budgpocalypstick stacks…” and “on scrotum radiance alert, death’s dog food, necromancy’s survey brains…” and “make me a meanie, a production membrane of messianic society, flossy mythos of a clock-sick stucco exit frame…” Other passages such as, “used books anonymous” and “the pleasure of a luxurious sense of oppression” and file a fund raising campaign for honey basted cryptics who need your self-perceived perversions to unwind,” are more conversational in tone and display the wit familiar to readers of Berrigan’s previous volumes; Zero Star Hotel, Free Cell and Notes From Irrelevance.

Many effective old-time poems strive to hold on to you, to keep you with them, like the Ancient Mariner grabbing your lapels — don’t go anywhere kid, ya gotta hear this! As a lover of early-Twentieth Century American poetry, a part of me will always remain beside those snowy woods with Mr. Frost with,hours to go before I sleep.” As a lover of mid-Twentieth Century American poetry, a part of me will forever be, “leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT,” beside Frank O’Hara while Billie Holiday, “whispered a song along the keyboard.” Berrigan’s newfangled, Twenty-first Century ouroboric loop poems have a different effect. We are rarely grounded in a particular place in these poems. They do little in the way of scene-setting, which isn’t to say they’re abstract. Their locus is the voice of their creator itself, and the reader finds oneself at home in that voice similarly to how one finds oneself at home in the cadence of Gertrude Stein once one has become accustomed to it.

Like the spinning playground ride my friends and I spun one another dizzy on for cheap thrills as junior high kids when we couldn’t scrape together some cash and find someone to buy us beer, they swirl you around and around and spit you out with a warped state of mind into some strange corner of reality you wouldn’t have gotten to any other way. I read “permanent derail breeding affect & where it goes I follow, I follow, I follow an unlit fetid massageway,” and found myself humming the 1963 Little Peggy March hit, “I Will Follow Him,” and remembering the motorcycles revving and racing in Kenneth Anger’s insane, hallucinatory, classic short film, Scorpio Rising, in which it featured. Then David Byrne’s voice echoed in my mind asking, “how did I get here?” This is writing that gets the synapses firing, long-dormant memories bubbling, new associations connecting.

In the collection’s final ouroboric, Berrigan provides an explanation of how he came to write these poems without lines or stanzas: “I put it in the center/of the space ghost because there was no reason to put it a bit on the side, I got to/the anatomy & I feel myself almost getting flustered I really could never get hold of it since I have no preference or so/called sense of it did one thing for me: eliminate composition, arrangements, relationships/time, all this silly talk about line, voice and form because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of….” I love the way that one “it” does double duty, ending, “…so called sense of it,” while simultaneously beginning, “it did one thing for me….” And I can relate to that, “all this silly talk about line, voice and form,” complaint. So true. I know what a bore poetry’s decades-long debates about line, voice and form get to be even for someone such as myself hovering on the farthest outer reaches of the poetry world. For a guy like Berrigan, who has spent his entire life right in the red-hot center of it — child of two legendary poets, St. Mark’s Poetry Project mainstay, college professor, it must get unimaginably tiresome to hear the same old arguments over and over. How fun and freeing it must have felt to write poetry in a new way that makes all the old arguments irrelevant.

The bratty charm of Come In Alone carries on the family tradition from Berrigan’s formally experimental father, Ted Berrigan, who extended the possibilities of the sonnet in the Sixties by giving more weight to each of the fourteen individual lines and eliminating the traditional emphasis on stanzas of quatrains and couplets. In “Sonnet XV” Berrigan’s father deformalized the top down hierarchy so that to read the poem in what might be considered its “proper order” one needs to read the first line, then the last line, then the second line, then the second to last line and so on ending in the middle of the poem. By questioning the traditional parameters of the sonnet, he thereby tested and extended the possibilities of the form and found out how far one could stretch it before breaking.

Come In Alone got me thinking. I thought about Robert Creeley’s famous statement that, “content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content.” I thought about assumptions we may have internalized due to the way that we read, the hierarchical nature of the act: top to bottom, the directedness of it: left to right. Has the way we’ve been taught to process language influenced our assumptions about the nature of social and political reality? Start on the left and move right, like the red arrow (later changed to blue, too late, the truth was revealed, the future leaked out) which constituted the center line of the H in the Clinton Campaign’s Hillary 2016 signs. Would a populace that grew up reading in a circle (okay, rectangle) have been as easily fooled into believing the trickle down economics con as one which learned to read texts from top to bottom? Is that a bit of a stretch? Maybe. Probably. Regardless, a text presented in a manner that gets one thinking about such questions is a valuable one.

Anselm Berrigan has taken poetry to the point of formlessness. He’s written poems without definitive starting and stopping points by eliminating the old formalities of line and stanza. Complete sentences are optional and of little consequence here, meanings accrue through the pile up of phrases. We’ve gone from formal verse poetry to free-verse poetry to to non-verse poetry. We have the poem as continuous loop that the reader may enter at any point, read around a few times and exit when she sees fit, like a trolley ride. Are these even poems? If not, so what? They’re something, alive and swirling on the page kicking off sparks of possibility for anyone who’ll read around and spend some time in them.

“So, Paul, what do you think? Is this anything?”

“Yes, Dave. Come In Alone is definitely something.”