Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Edmund Berrigan, Can It!

[…] It brought to mind some lines I had found meaningful when I was in school from my dad’s cut-up cowboy novel Clear the Range:
            Suppose then, he had been a quarter of an inch
            greater, the little tiger! In that case, he’d shrink;
            he’d be pestered by a howling cloud of boy-wasps.
            He would have been drinking free of charge,
            in the bar. He’d lie in a corner, with a sack over
            his face, and a pool of red flies all around. For
            nothing was easier than to drive air through the
            heart of the enemy.
    Why were these the kinds of words I latched onto? At various stages of growing up I was also adapting to what it meant to do so without my dad. His writing was a lens I could use to gauge the situation. It was tangible. It represented his voice but also his absence. The intuitiveness of poetry (both in his and my own writing) was a vehicle I could use for continuing our relationship. Our interest was behind the words. This was not about education or aesthetic principles; this was about adaptation and survival.
    So I’ve been looking to make a book that can carry this kind of information, that works as both a whole and as parts, that might be visited from any point like a memory, that doesn’t rely on classification for definition, that feels infinite but remains brief, that tells a whole story by showing a fragmented record. A place where I could store intangible information while letting myself off the hook. For nothing is easier than to drive air through the heart of the enemy. (“Foreword”)

It would be hard to not be affected by the forward to New York poet Edmund Berrigan’s collection of short poems and prose, Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2013). I’m fascinated by the suggestion he brings forward that writing is a connection he has with his father (the late New York School poet Ted Berrigan), as it would most likely also be a language throughout his family (including brother Anselm Berrigan, their mother Alice Notley, and step-father Douglas Oliver, from whom Berrigan borrows a quote as epigram for the collection). What advantages or disadvantages might that allow for Berrigan as a writer, over any other writer? It’s a curious question.


Today is the fifteenth anniversary of Ted’s death, the same day Dave Righetti threw a no-hitter for the Yankees. “Yanks Bop Sox” was the Post headline. You see the flashbacks a lot if you follow the Yankees. The soccer World Cup games are in all the bars and conversation. Too bad I don’t care. I have to work at Spinelli’s this afternoon, another day of schlepping coffee for San Francisco’s hippie yuppies. I hope the creepy guy who hit on me then came in with his family the next day doesn’t show up. The Fourth of July. I drank a six-pack last night to celebrate and cut up an article about planets:

The Movements of Stars & Galaxies

    The sun tries each day, but
the moment is an illusion used by the
earth’s rotation. Yet the sun does long
with her stars in our galaxy. We do
not see the real motion, for it speeds
through space, the whole family
along with it. That includes us: where our
go, we follow
    We, the real motion of stars.
    The ancients believed that the stars
fastened the “dome” of the sky. This
“dome” thought the inside of a hollow
sphere revolved around the earth.
Thus the stars
explained: it was the “dome” of hat
not stars. The stars were fixed in
unchanging positions, as men
observed. But after men learned to serve
better, the stars gave way.
    Of my
of stars change. Astronomers call these
changes the rope motion of stars, even
for Barnard’s star, the test star. (“San Francisco Diary”)

The title of the collection comes from the entirety of a poem by Ted Berrigan, reproduced and explained towards the end of the collection:

It was an Alternative Press card from the 500 that Dad worked on in 1982, leading up to his last book A Certain Slant of Sunlight. The front had dad’s scrawl on it from a felt tip pen, signed Ted Berrigan and dated “24 Aug ’82.” There were blotches of white-out here and there. The title, in quotes with a thick blue-inked line outlined in black underneath, is “Song For The Unborn Second Baby.” The message is centered, in all caps and with an exclamation point[.]”

The collection of pieces that make up Can It! is a conversation with his father through their shared experience with and of writing—from journal/diary entries to interviews to a short play—and Berrigan the younger constructs a collage of twenty-five pieces around ideas of loss and being, memory, influence and family, and what remains. Berrigan’s book becomes homage to both his father and step-father through short passages. As Berrigan suggests in the opening passage, the best way to communicate directly to either and both of them is directly through the writing. Further in the collection, the pieces that explore the death of his step-father Douglas Oliver are especially poignant, as he writes in the last line of the piece “Paris Diary”: “Doug had come into our lives and filled in some of the empty space. Now he was leaving.” The strengths of the collection are multiple, from the emotional content to the narrative threads that ride deep throughout, and the breaks that exist between them through the collage-aspect of the final text. Can It! is a book of memory, comfort and being, and works through some difficult territory, from the loss of his father to the loss of his step-father. In the end, this is a conversation Berrigan is able to have through writing, and one that we should consider ourselves fortunate enough to have access to. 

Forms drop above a frieze drawer
On the Water Board
Matter is Butterfly form drops leaves
in front and rake them with fire
Once had in a mask permanence
One of questioning as being evolved from a sense
Butterfly forms drop leaves above a frieze drawer
When I was glorified questioning
Crossed the enemy on the Water Board
Chose Matter is eternal and still life Unproductive
Crossed the enemy front and raked it with fire
Once had glorified Once when I was Mask Permanent
Once of those as being evolved from a sense
A frieze drawer When I was on the Water Board
Matter is eternal and unproductive
Crossed the enemy front and raked it with fire
Once had glorified in eternal and rake
Unproductive and mask permanent
One of those questioning
As being evolved from a sense
a frieze drawer
forms drop (“Frieze Drawer”)

What is impressive is just what Berrigan is capable of in the form of short passages of prose and poetry, the accumulation of short, sharp pieces becoming far stronger than the sum of their parts, some of which can be read directly as short fiction, memoir and literary history. Through wrestling, also, with some of his own histories, it helps clarify some of his own distinctions, beyond any association with Ted Berrigan, Douglas Oliver or anyone else. It makes me very interested to see what Edmund Berrigan might come up with next.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Juliet Patterson, The Truant Lover


In the original, the sex of the person
at the next table is ambiguous.

The anonymous
speaker is not an imaginary

The first version

was written
with the title,

“Love It More.”
Loosely rhymed.

The speaker encumbered
by love. Threes, threes

& threes. Three roses
& three stems.

Red where in the whorls
petal lying in its glow,

her immaculate white bed
mounts a lonely street.

I’m just now going through Juliet Patterson’s first trade collection, The Truant Lover (Beacon NY: Nightboat Books, 2006), thanks to the author’s generous gift through the mail, after I recently reviewed her Albion Books chapbook [see my review of such here]. The Truant Lover is an absolutely magnificent and startling collection of poems. What appeals immediately is the silence and slowness that radiate from her lines, and her fragments each force a pause that strikes, deep into the heart. Patterson manages to compose poems that contain just about everything—from Lorine Niedecker, Francesca Woodman, origami, small splashes of blue—and the density of her language sends breathless chills down the spine. With her repeated poems referencing and working variations on portraiture—“Who is her Other a Figure in the Picture Attending,” “Self-Portraits (after Francesca Woodman),” and the two poems titled “Study for Self-Portraiture”—she highlights her use of the poem as explorations of the portrait, composing studies that explore a series of designations, and a series of studies on what portraiture allows. We might not know what a particular subject (whether the self or other) might look like, but we understand full well what the subject contains.


If it had no pencil, would it try mine—now dull & tender
& sweet. If it had no word, would it make the daisy
most as big as I was when it plucked me.
Would those eyes see even less than the tiny nostrils
Breathe. Would the penis be slighted, its tip flush
with the contour of thigh if the forearm left
the torso to swing into space, narrow in the grass.
If it came to rest just where you might expect
a signature, would steep rows of white seats swell
for a pencil, a drawing hand. Would the grass divide
as with a comb. Would the penis suggest the conceit of another
pun, for example, genitals = genius, penis = pen
or I’m nobody! Who are you? Would everything work
by repetition, telling each to each: you, you & you.
Would the eye then demand horizon, or more precisely,
would the eye knot & bite its thread. Would it lay an emphatic
thumb with the flutter of something really happening.
Would it be the funeral loose in my body so long it seemed
yesterday across the threshold on the next page.

How does such an open, fragmented poetic manage to be so damned precise? These poems, on the complexity of living and being, accomplish a remarkable precision, even as they display considerable emotional risk. Everyone should be reading this remarkable book: can I make that any clearer?


We are thinking of the tender mouth of the rabbit pulling
at blades of grass. A flower,
if you blink, from bowel to breast.
We want to be so beautiful.
If we wanted, we could remember
anything. The eyes of the rabbit
might be open or closed. There is Friday
& then Saturday. A season changes, years
Pass. The long grass lays itself down.
What may be better & what may be
worse & what may be lover
nobody knows. Yes, there is a rabbit on the lawn & the wish
comes true before you make it.
Do you know what you’ve seen?
Do you know what to do?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

"An informal talk on compiling McLennan/MacLennan genealogies in Stormont and Glengarry" at the Glengarry Highland Games, Saturday, August 3, 2013,

Given that I've been working on a genealogy of the McLennan, MacLennan and McLellan lines throughout Stormont and Glengarry Counties for the past twenty years, I've been invited to do "An informal talk on compiling McLennan/MacLennan genealogies in Stormont and Glengarry" at the Clan MacLennan tent at the Glengarry Highland Games in my own hometown of Maxville, Ontario. For those who don't know, the Glengarry Highland Games are the largest highland games outside of Scotland, and our little village of eight hundred people goes up to forty or fifty thousand people over the space of a matter of days.

It's simple: we all go home.

Apparently the Clan MacLennan is the featured clan at this year's games, and will be directly across from the Clan Building. My talk will be 10am on Saturday, August 3, 2013, a fifteen-minute talk on working genealogy for various McLennan lines throughout the two (plus) counties.

For some previous posts I've done on McLennan genealogy in Glengarry etc check out here and and here and here and here and here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Justin Taylor

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. His next collection, Flings, will be published in the summer of 2014. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and on the internet at .

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever came out it meant I had achieved something I’d been after since I was a little kid—to publish a book of fiction. It wasn’t exactly the book I’d expected to write—little kid-me wanted to write a Stephen King novel; college-age me wanted to write the great avant-whatever—but it was a book, all right. I don’t know if that counts as a “change” so much as a “fact”, but over the next year or so my daily life began to respond to that fact in a variety of ways. I don’t know what you mean by “compare” exactly, but my newer stories have been longer, and in some cases denser, than the stories in Everything Here. Plus there was my novel (The Gospel of Anarchy, 2011) but that was just kind of its own thing.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I didn’t. I mean unless you want to go back to like age 10 and the aforementioned Mr. King. But skipping over the early juvenilia (and ahead to the late juvenilia), I read and wrote poetry all throughout college and graduate school and even after; I was very committed to the idea of writing and publishing in both forms. Technically speaking, my “first book” was a collection of poems, kind of on the fence lengthwise between a chapbook and a full-length, called More Perfect Depictions of Noise, which came out in 2008. That was the high point of my poetry career. After that I stopped sending poems out, and eventually I stopped writing them. That creative energy goes elsewhere now: into my fiction mostly, but also into my teaching. Maybe once a year I’ll write a few lines or even a whole poem, but I never try to publish the result. The last thing the poetry world needs is one more mediocre poet trying to elbow his way into the journals. I figured out that there are other ways to be part of that community, as a consumer and a critic, for example, and by producing The Agriculture Reader, an arts annual I co-edit with my friend Jeremy Schmall.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Depends on the project. I usually write long early on and then whittle down. I don’t really do outlines—I just can’t, or maybe haven’t had to yet. I guess if I wrote something plot-heavy enough I’d need some way of keeping track, but there’s little enough risk of that happening.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Again it depends. The first collection was just everything I’d ever written in my life that was good enough to go in a book. The novel tried to be a short story but it had to be a novel. The new stories were just one-offs until one day I looked at them together and thought, “This is about half or two-thirds of a book right here,” so then I suddenly saw a shape for it and was able to write the rest of the stories to fit that plan.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like giving readings. I like talking, and I can get loud when I feel like it. I like reading works in progress (once they’re out of their infancy, of course, but well before they’re “finished”) and seeing what people react to, or what they think the whole is about based on the part they heard.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t know what *the* current questions are. I have some sense of what *my* current questions are, but I think these are articulated in the work itself, and if they don’t then they’re not worth stating baldly, though my novel occasionally breaks this rule, though that in turn is because the characters in the book are capital-q Questioners, so their “theoretical concerns”, as you put it, are legitimately their own.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Depends on the writer. Marilynne Robinson is the quiet but insistent voice of Christian conscience for a country that largely insists being a Christian means having no conscience to speak of. E.L. James, meanwhile, is up to something else.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I don’t mind being read, critiqued, or edited. It’s one of the reasons I think that, as a student, I never found workshops repressive or stultifying. It is a great gift to receive the careful attention of people who share your dedication to a given art form. But I also have no problem saying, “Thank you for your input but no, I’m doing it this way and that’s that.” Advice can only affect you if you actually follow it. The writer always has the option of staying true to his original vision, however good or bad it might be.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I've gotten lots of good advice and taken some of it. Nothing, however, is springing to mind just now.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (novels to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
Short stories come more naturally to me, which makes the prospect of a novel quite challenging. But challenge has its own appeal, as does counterinuition.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
None. I try to write more days than not, but not every day. If I’m working on a project it’s easier because there’s something to jump into. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading, some of it for “research” and some of it aimless, i.e. for pleasure. I consider these activities part of the writing process.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Once I’m off and running with something, I don’t usually get stalled. I mean it takes a while to work out certain problems that arise, but that’s different.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Oranges. The beach. That weird coppery smell after rain when it’s hot out. I’m from South Florida.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Sure. Music is a big one for me. It shows up in my work a lot so it’s pretty easy to find my sources, though sometimes I’ll try to pull a fast one by writing about music I love from the perspective of a character who doesn’t necessarily feel that way. The Grateful Dead have come in for this treatment, perhaps unfairly, more than once. But it really is coming from a place of love, and at a guess I’d say my body of work contains the highest percentage of references per capita to the Grateful Dead in contemporary literary fiction. Maybe that’s my “role” as a writer. One group I’ve never name-checked in my work but who have had a huge influence on me in the past few years is the band Low. I rarely write to music, but I will write to Low, or just blast them for a while to get into a certain kind of emotional space. I try to catch them every time they come to New York. I’m listening to them now actually, a bootleg of the show I saw the last time they were here. Plus yeah, nature and art and the golden ratio as it expressed in the curve of a sea shell. All that shit.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Barry Hannah’s a big one for me. He’s just so funny and wild and makes you feel like you can do or say anything on the page. Denis Johnson. I recently read Fiskadoro for the first time and it’s just amazing. Every page of it. Virginia Woolf’s big three: Lighthouse, Dalloway, Waves. A lot of Kierkegaard and other Christian writings when I was working on the novel. Since then some books about Jewish philosophy: A.J. Heschel, Gershom Scholem. I got this great book called Tales of the Hasidim that’s a collection of legends and parables from the early Hasidic communities—hundreds of them. I keep it on my desk and dip into it now and then. Oh and I’m finally getting around to Zadie Smith.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write another novel.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
My mom always said I’d have been a good cult leader. Instead I wrote a novel about a cult. My dad, I think, would have liked to see me try my hand at law. But my sister’s in law school now so I’m off the hook. Also, and not for nothing, I DO have another occupation. It is called “college teacher” and even though it is related to (and correlated with) my being a writer, it nonetheless requires its own distinct skills, approaches, and forms of attention.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
We didn’t have the space for the drum set I wanted, and the one guitar lesson I ever took went poorly. We had a piano but I wouldn’t touch it. In retrospect it turned out that I never had any rhythm or ear. I’ve got decent fine motor skills, but they’re better suited to a Nintendo controller than, say, drawing a straight line or my own name legibly. I learned to type very young.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith.

Badlands by Terence Malick. My favorite movie, probably; I showed it to my fiction class at the end of the semester and basically told them it was more “literary” than 90% of what passes for novels.

20 - What are you currently working on?
In research mode for a novel that may or may not ever get beyond research mode.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Friday, July 26, 2013

Paul Legault, The Other Poems


After the first first late antiquity,
things are a little –ish.

THE BREAKERS: They are not soldiers.
THE SOLDIERS: You see I cannot see.
EMILY: They were a part of it.
THE SOLDIERS: They were not Emily.

Go through a hole to the nook,
little sister, send all your messages by mice.

Hurrying, there was a green light.
SYMBOL: I am a symbol.

THE LION AT THE LIBRARY: Listen up, Marilyn.
MARILYN: Bronze turns that dark color.

I took the trains out. I just wanted
to see the boats in the snow.

Ottawa-born American poet Paul Legault’s second trade collection, The Other Poems (Albany NY: Fence Books, 2011) is a collection of seventy-five sonnets, bringing something new and refreshing to the form. On the whole, the sonnet is an entirely overused, and yet, under-utilized form, too often little to nothing brought new to the form, with the rare exceptions of works such as Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets (Lorenz and Ellen Gude, 1964), or Camille Martin’s Sonnets (Shearsman Books, 2010). As Marjorie Perloff’s back cover quote on the collection explains: “Each of Paul Legault’s seventy-five taut and dazzling sonnets begins with a cryptic couplet, follows with a four-line dialogue, whose voices (animal, vegetable, mineral, or disembodied like the date) engage in debate, as ardent as it is inconsequential, and then puts four more couplets to work, analyzing what we have just heard or spinning variations on its tense, absurdist drama.” Legault’s poems in this collection are small scenes performed by a variety of voices, centred around a narrator, and including multiple others, in a sequence of surreal stories. My name is Legion, the poems tell us, for we are many.


Then they made another garden
but differently.

FRAGRANCE: There’s always something in color.
TEXTURE: There are always bird walks.
SOUND: There are turkeys on these grounds
      and José the Beaver
      far off in the forest without thoughts.
AUDIO TOUR GUIDE: There is almost always

an irregular ball
      about two feet high
described on this phone-line.

In the future, or in three months, the plants will chance,
      or else they will be about to have to.
THE FUTURE: Who senses me when I’m not there?

LAVENDER: The bed is knee-high
      an lined with a single wall.
WANT: You want to grow your own food,

annihilating all that’s made,
and live in Paradise alone.

Legault’s poems are a sequence of collage that leave an almost magical residue. The pieces in The Other Poems suspend believe for a moment or two longer than one might think is possible, and manage to weave perfectly a number of threads coming together from multiple directions, crafting oddly-surreal (even dreamily-so) poems that are bulletproof-precise. They might appear strange, and even confusing at first, but once they sink in, it might be impossible to remove them.