Accelerate softly my blood: Saenz on Berrigan

Note: Each year RHINO has a four month “down” period (from January to April) during which we do not read submissions, focusing instead on getting the issue to press, as well as various administrative and business matters.   In order to stay more closely connected to poetry during the “down time”, this year we are using part of each meeting to hone our skills as an editorial board, as well as to make ourselves more conscious of the assumptions and criteria we apply in assessing poems.   One aspect of this was to compile a list of “most frequently made comments” at the editorial board table.  More significantly, each editor was asked to choose a poet/poem from “Groundbreaking Books” listed on the American Academy of Poets’ website, and to present that poem for discussion as if it had been submitted.  Editors were encouraged to choose work with which they were not familiar. This post includes remarks by Jacob Saenz on his discussion of Ted Berrigan.

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When I first came across Ted Berrigan’s Sonnet XXXIV, I was immediately captivated by it. I feel it’s filled with great lines that speak to me on a personal level but also, simply, on a human level.  The poem deals with projections; how we, as human beings, project certain images of ourselves to each other.  And the speaker in the poem states how tired he/she is of constantly shifting projections of his/herself: “…I find my hand grows stale at the throttle / Of my many faceted and fake appearance”.

Beyond on the opening line and the image of the “great whale” (which I love!), I was more drawn to lines 3 and 4 because I can related to the idea of “fake appearance”; I think we all can. In certain situations in life, we have to project an image of ourselves that may or may not be our true self.  For example, at work I have to present myself in a certain manner/way that I don’t at, say, RHINO meetings.  I suppose I have to be a bit more “professional” at my job than at an editors meeting (which requires a different sort of professionalism).  Either way, I am presenting myself in manner that contain elements of my true self while still, on some level, “fake.”  I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a chameleon or anything like that… In comparison to other sonnets in the book “The Sonnets,” sonnet XXXIV is one of the more straightforward poems, more traditional to the sonnet form.

If you read Sonnet XV straight through, for example, it makes little sense, at least from a narrative standpoint.  The lines read as if they don’t match up well and that is on purpose.

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
he is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams.

Sonnet XV, like other sonnets in the book, is composed using old material, if you will.  Sonnet XV is actually Sonnet LIX (which I don’t have a link for) just with the lines rearranged. So, if you read sonnet XV in this line sequence (1, 14, 2, 13, 3, 12, etc) you will actually read it the way Sonnet LIX is laid out.

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
does not point to William Carlos Williams.
He is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.

Sonnet XV is not the only example of Berrigan using old or previously used material in a different context but it is, perhaps, one of the more famous examples.

But in keeping with the traditional manner of the sonnet, if we go back to Sonnet XXX!V, we see a deliberate turn in line 9: “But blood is still blood and tall as a mountain blood.”

I read this line to mean that beyond whatever projections we convey, there is a level of truth/realness that connects us, in this case “blood.”   But still, the speaker comes back to the theme of projections and how we, as people, rely on how others perceive us: “Padre, Father, or fat old man, as you will / I am afraid to succeed, afraid to fail / Tell me now, again, who I am”.

These last three lines are what really grabbed me about this poem.  It speaks to the contradictory nature we have as humans that, on the one hand, we tire of presenting ourselves as “fake” but, yet, rely on how others perceive us in order to make us who we are.

The speaker ends the poem with a plea asking God or some patriarchal figure to tell him who he/she is, perhaps because of his/her “many faceted and fake appearance” he/she somehow lost a true sense of who they are. And in this case, I can relate; I think we all can as human beings.

~Jacob Saenz, Associate Editor

2 Responses to “Accelerate softly my blood: Saenz on Berrigan”

  1. Marcia says:

    This taut review of Ted Berrigan manages to cover several important aspects of Ted’s complex poetry that winds through a worm hole tunnel. Jacob shows us the straight path. Thanks, Jacob!

  2. [...] me to this piece about difficult poetry collections, with The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan (one-two-three-four!) now joining The Cantos and The Dream Songs. The comments were even more helpful by [...]

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