Poems and Texts

And what does “need” mean? – Anselm Berrigan

Note from AB: this poem was written to be read at The Poetry Project’s “Redefining Downtown” event, was typed and finished under the influence of the election results on 11/08/16, and was a response to the following set of loose questions: “What’s it mean for The Poetry Project to be The Poetry Project right now, in the East Village, in 2016, which is or was considered “downtown” at points? Is “downtown” a sign, a sigh, a thing, an active nothing, or a something else? Can we have a retrospective season and dissolve nostalgia at the same time? Is there anyone out there listening at all? (If so, peace). Do poets in this town still need real physical centers to go experience the work out front? And what does “need” mean? And what does “real physical centers” mean? And what does “out front” mean?”

And what does “need” mean?

-for the Parish Hall
at St. Mark’s Church

Having written the some or none
questions to be addressed and
ignored and otherwise dissolved
behind us as prelude, I have to
note I should have said something
other than east village, which is
a real estate term designed –
& it did so successfully–
to subdivide the lower east side
& greenwich village simultaneously
back, oh, about thirty-plus years
ago & maybe it’s not inaccurate
to place the “what’s it mean” question
in a real estate context but the
term, east village, feels shittier &
shittier to me by the day & down-
town is another play on dislocation
anyway – do you feel as if form has
collapsed? If so, you can’t be a
pigeon, alas, as I imagine
for pigeons downtown is sign
sigh, thing, active nothing
& something else all at once – I
can imagine, can’t I? Adaptably?
Post-pragmatically? Wondering what
realism means to me? I don’t think
the Church roof leaks as much
as it used to/I can’t remember
if the clock tower’s every really
known what time it is since that
lightning bolt struck it some 17 yrs
ago/it’s possible Lamantia is still
reading somewhere on this very spot
with anyone out here, or is it in
there, listening at all? You do still
get to say, even the day after
election day, peace, if so, no? The
question of what need means gets
bound up with what care means
& that’s no way to do this. I
wondered for a long time & still
do inside & around my privacy
at times, whatever that isn’t, & it,
– highly overused and floating that it –
mostly isn’t. Most of what I do is
listen. Most of the time I’ve spent
in this space I’ve spent listening:
listening to poets, hundreds of
them, dancers, prose writers,
painters, comedians, eulogizers,
hearfelt jackoff poseurs, cab drivers
black-angel-wing-wearing anti-Giuliani
ranters in half/Japanese half/English,
gossipers at breaks, accusers, hecklers
Jimmy the sextant’s constant whistling
by day, anxious amused murmurers
among the among-the-fews who
accumulate into so many you
wonder how so much listening
gets done by so many micro-slants
on the wing. Back up, back to need
what that may be, because I’ve
listened long enough to know
I need to be doing it, to practice
listening, to get better at it and
get at getting it better in the fucked
up constellation that is your head
becoming poetry, & to be encouraged
by the mess & the many responses
of which hate, or let’s say, today
anger, fear, disconsolation, is just
one of many. Why be afraid of hate?
It is only there, I keep listening to
a man I never knew say. I want
lately to find out why in poems
space is not an illusion, why when
it’s working you’re put right there
immediately, unconditionally, and
then you have to move, however
bewildered, or maybe because you
are, because I know in the sudden
sharp jab of recognition (& what
I think when I think about sex –
it aint’ necessarily death) I mean
I know it quite precisely parallel
to doing it, that it only gets to be
happening when I’m listening
& I go to places where listening
is actually the point – and there
aren’t many places, there aren’t
that many that want more than
the show of listening, that don’t
let language get so disconnected
from reality all you’re stuck with
is definition as another emblem
of fear – I keep going and coming
back to this place for that & by
the way, you do get, right, how
truly fucking strange, if ordinary
it is, to be breathing, here, doing
this with a voice? But one might
need to do that, have it be given
that one can do all that & without
conventions: the old ones, the
currents, the ones placed in your
head by you or anyone else, the
theoretical, philsophical, political
behavioral conventions dressed
up in the costume of underpinning
the being-in-a-group con, the lonely
awful conventions of anonymity
(you ever wonder if your muse isn’t
a landlord?) Everything I’m pulling
from the register is a question ––––
I come here to listen without…
without convention, to listen
against, to listen for convention’s
lack, to hear it, the art, its off-
shoots, foils, companions &
highly troubled organs disappear
by doing, being in that – its easy
to do & gets harder as the shapes
get shapelier. You really think
language failed? How come it’s
language, not words? Because
words aren’t language?
Because maybe you cede so
much of what possibility is
to bubbles of discernment?
to representation? to instant
understanding? I think I need to
not know in order to listen (to
begin /it all pours in then)/ I need
things that don’t go together
to be put in time together. & I
do need that out front. I re-
member sitting in this room in
1987, not quite fifteen, sobbing
uncontrollably at my half-sister
Kate’s memorial – she’d been
hit and killed by a motorcycle
not a week earlier on Houston
St. coming over to take my brother
and me to a movie. I remember
wondering if I should get up
and say something – inside
all that crying what I felt was
the impulse to put some
words in the air. Then it was
as if I didn’t speak for another
year, & that’s a feeling, not
another fucking metaphor. Is
there any metric for how much
pain this room has absorbed
& had reconverted into music?
Into humor? Among other wild
kindnesses. Penniless Politics
always said music as shorthand
for prosody. You’d be right to
paint the word unobjective on
my face. I have often sometimes
wished there was something like
the reading channel & I could
turn that on and listen without
transporting via feets my personally
bent frame to the reading itself,
since I’m weirdly bad at listening
to recordings of poems, maybe
because I’m not present to let
my nerves – that’s right, I’m
nervous when other people read
their shit – get defeated by what
actually fucking happens, even
if its the lamest thing in the world
though sometimes lame is better
than boring & I’m not sorry to say
boredom is a bit of a professional
value, plus that whole fail better
thing, you feel good about that
right now, & you know, it’s kind
of cowardly to just stop, and, oh
duchamp, make an industry out
of supposedly stopping to swallow
as fact, what, you think I could be
especially coherent today? What’d
the self-composed monster maker
say? The world today doesn’t make
sense so why should I paint pictures
that do. Where was I? Busy being
told to decompose. I know I got
ten minutes but this sketchbook
which I bought for eight bucks
today, the day before the time
I get to say today and have it both
be and mean a now-machine has
kind of short pages, which is a
problem I’m counting on – Ted
Greenwald was the one who said
the Project’s about putting the
work out front, & if you want an
ecstatic and devastated or joyful
and perenially disturbed distressed
life – well, we get that anyway – I’m
hearing that sense of, it has to
be, the shit has to be, the mind,
of such nameless depths that
being serious’s just one of many
ordinary facts of commitment
& not some dolled-up badge
of complexity. That’s a tricky
difficult, old, inherited useless,
changed, rearranged, by me, no:
when did change just become
rearrangement? Which is really
richer, riskier? You leaning on
implied or unemployed meaning?
The web’s old enough to be another
version of aged thing. If I wanted
everything so flat I’d have done
better in my life by way of hopeless
addiction. I come to things
here because this place has
been imperfectly available
to care & care for. That’s always run
through an interconnection
of mouths, that care. Dangerous
reflex. You wonder who’s going
to challenge you to adapt. You
wonder if the adaptation proposed,
if so, ain’t as slow as your own
evolution. Are we supposed to
turn into birds? Again? Lives
go where there’s no forms. That
leaves us where to go? Another
kind of pain, the living question.
Here, like anywhere, that’s fought
however knowingly & unknowingly
for the right to be itself, on its own
terms, which only means letting
the folks who care enough to really
come through figure out how to
do that too, without much
interference, here has to be able to
freak out on itself out of loyalty
to itself, itself not being made
of any singular thingitation.
Here’s another kind of question:
my mom, being a poet who lived
in this city & this particular
neighborhood for parts of the
60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, who still
visits a few times a year, who
said she wrote things to be
read and listened to specifically
in this room, and who shared
a birthday yesterday with the
anxious horror of our planet-wreck
of an election, once said to me on
the phone, “I can’t find out what
the streets of New York look like
by reading anyone’s poems any-
more.” She didn’t mean what
they seem like, feel like, but
what they look like. You ever
try to describe a whole street?
I assumed I had to try, and
wound up sitting down on
one of the benches out here
on the corner of 10th and 2nd
and wrote the following,
which is no consolation, but
was never meant to be:

What the streets look like

Mom: the sweet rotted
summer stench still
taps the nasal cavity
inside breezes several
times per block. I have
a greater empathy for
pigeons after two months
at work in the unnatural
country, & find it
instinctively nerve-
wracking to remove my
wallet from its pocket
here in town despite
the general lack of threat.
The streets look grey,
non-plussed, post-
pubescent relative to
ancient times but
nonetheless grid-wizened
in the face of an ever-
changing lineup of
banks, bars, and speciality
shops with their weak
signs and distant tones
(“lighting”). Second Ave
is giving up, slowly
it’s cheap depth store-
front by storefront.
One feels less than
nostalgic for the like-
lihood of being mugged
but likelihood itself
feels less than evident
unless one is unstable
and unspoken coming
to dreaming pushing
a stroller over variously
cracked slabs of concrete
each block yet greets the
wheels with. The right
part of the y heading
west on tenth between
2nd and 3rd is still tree-
lined and aristocratic
as feint, though its
sidewalk looks like
late Auden’s smoked
cheeks. I loathe it,
amiably, when Sylvie
is asleep.

I can’t end this with that.
I don’t want to end with
loathing. So I’ll read this
poem by my stepfather
Douglas Oliver, who lived
here in nyc in the late 80s
and early 90s, when death
seemed everywhere, & to
walk down the street, our
street, was to daily take on
a gauntlet of harrassment
and possible violence, &
the politics so often felt
hopeless. This, written
here, I believe, is called

For Kind

Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,
leads you into fear. Act in kind.
Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.
Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;
for it’s the birth darkness, vertical twist
of opening lips in the night: life that follows
belongs to you in kind. Don’t be frightened
of darkness of origin: it is this darkness,
similar tints of our flesh in the night
of kind. The kind you are, with slim
mammalian chest, and, walking to the bathroom,
hip-swag: how naturally your walk sways
in kind. You are humankind,
my kind, kind to me, born well and gentle.
We believe in kind:
birth, origin, descent, nature,
sex, upbringing, race, our natural property,
so many things we naturally have
and have no need to struggle for
merely out of kindness to each other, or,
worse, to struggle for unnaturally


Anselm Berrigan

Anselm Berrigan‘s books of poetry include Something for Everybody, recently published by Wave Books, Primitive State, a long, demented fortune cookie list published by Edge Books, and Come In Alone, a book of rectangles also from Wave. He edited What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from The Poetry Project Newsletter 1983-2009 (Wave, 2017). He’s also the poetry editor for The Brooklyn Rail, a three-headed adjunct writing teacher, a former Artistic Director of The Poetry Project, and a person who likes to lean on the radiator by the lights in back of the parish hall.