VIRGINIA KONCHAN Reviews
Have a Good One by Anselm Berrigan
(Cy Press, 2008. Available directly from publisher)
Anselm Berrigan’s voice continues be one of the most refreshing in contemporary American poetry, for its singular welding of candor, political awareness, and humor that attempts, with a very high rate of success, to co-opt the commercial and political jargon of our times to return it to higher purposes (which here include but are not limited to free speech, dead-on paeans to and condemnations of contemporary life, and love).
Berrigan’s fifth chapbook (his fourth full-length collection Free Cell was published in September by City Lights, and pairs the work of Have a Good One with a second experimental suite, “To Hell with Sleep,” as connected by the central poem “Let Us Sample Protection Together”) is interspersed throughout by the oft-repeated refrain of “Have a Good One,” a catch-all phrase issued by shopkeeps and drinking buddies across the world. “Have a Good One,” in this context, accrues connotations that are slightly sinister, in a book rife with political disillusionment and the dialectic of resistance and surrender to forces that are not always as benign as they seem. Social and philosophic discourse amount to a danse macabre: “My mission tonight is/ to/ not get so drunk I can’t/ properly/ emcee. It’s surprisingly easy/ because I’m thinking about experience.”
The speaker’s unwillingness to play for an enemy team that represents such feel good principals as mutually assured destruction form the thematic standoff of Have a Good One, and the language Berrigan uses to address classical problems is wildly fun: (“the just purely/ not believable/ destruction of Troy”), (“Remember lava flowing/ freely all around us/ stains with warmth?/ I’ve had a great life./ But I ain’t going/ out like that.”).
The problem of free will, here, “is not that it does or does not/ exist, but that it’s pointless,” and the question of culpability, in Have a Good One, is complicated by complicity: “I let people let me/ hurt their feelings” and confusion over who armed who with what weapon abounds: “We’re still here/ and I’m handing you this gun/ you’re already holding.” Inordinately sensitive to the “consequences of refusal,” ecstasy here rides the coattails of resistance (or vice versa), and capitulation and loss of possibility form other odd bedfellows: “resolve is useful while/ surrendering potential.”
Several poem-stanzas in this collection stand alone as individual units of deep pathos (“So what/ that you’re/ independent./ Everyone here/ is independent./ That’s why we/ can be nukers. Call me down/ but don’t play/ it like you’re/ so free/ it doesn’t matter/ how thoroughly/ you’ve humiliated me”) and verse is here proven the ally of colloquial necessity: “Off the record/ he’s a piece of shit./ Time management/ I don’t buy./ Just tell me/ what’s happened./ Whatever it’s/ going to be/ is what/ I need/ to know.”
Have a Good One ends with an assertion of what the speaker can claim, despite the world’s opacity, to know (“What I know is/ the birds sing back”), and his answer to the Y/N question posed by the questioner of our inmost selves (with subjectivity figuring as the ultimate capital that a consumerist society threatens to destroy): “Let me/ swim in/ the grease/ I love . . . Have a Good One . . . Yes”
Virginia Konchan's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, The New Republic, Notre Dame Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is a contributing reviewer for The Rumpus and ForeWord Magazine.