In the poem “Red Shift”, Ted Berrigan emulates the shifts in his life in 42 lines. Nothing is what it seems, everything changes, and nothing is stable. Friends vanish into thin air, no matter how much fame has made them seem invincible. America’s kryptonite has none the less been America itself.
Great authors and poets of berrigans time vanished “The streets look for Allen, Frank, or me, Allen is a movie, Frank disappearing in the air, it’s heavy with that lightness, heavy on me,”(lines 6-8). Berrigan shifts into his mind, into his memories, his fondest and heaviest memories that affect him. Being younger than Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, Berrigan is especially vulnerable to the fate of these men. Berrigan is crushed, O’Hara’s death and the inevitability of Ginsberg’s death has shifted Berrigan’s perspective on life and love.
Eleven lines into the poem, Berrigan shifts his tone as his emotion builds. Like his friend Frank O’Hara, Berrigan’s work is very personal. Lines 11-18 express his loss of a family, love, and woman “Twenty years almost ago, and the man smoking is looking at the smilingly attentive woman, and telling. Who would have thought that I’d be here, nothing wrapped up, nothing buried, everything love, children, hundreds of them, money, marriage ethics, a politics of grace, up in the air, swirling, burning even or still, now more than ever before?”. The shift is from twenty years ago when he met this woman to now when he is 43 years old and lonely with no kids, and no wife. Berrigan speaks of marriage ethics, the shift from your wedding day to your attorney’s office for a divorce. Before he could make a family and build a foundation life changed for the worse and his tone increasingly seems angry as he emulates his feelings. A politics of grace which made America seem like the superman of the world when the politics that made this country turned out to be the kryptonite that turned it into a frenzy of fear. The shift from comfort to chaos affects men like Berrigan who thought life was so simple and stable when it rained on his love life, it poured on his country.
By line 19, Berrigan’s tone gets more intense and the lines get longer. Berrigan writes “not that pretty girl, nineteen, who was going to have to go, careening into idle age so, to burn and to burn more fiercely than even she could imagine so to go” (lines 21-24). This is a message, a warning to the young nineteen year old girl who doesn’t know what she is going to experience or even what she is going to miss out on. Berrigan emulates Americas growing disrespect for love “to breathe and who will never leave me, not for sex, nor politics nor even for stupid permanent estrangement which is only our human lot and means nothing” (lines 27-29). A woman has hurt Berrigan, she left him and most likely without giving him reason so he blames human nature. Maybe it was for better sex or maybe she was in the opposite favor Berrigan’s political preference; whatever the “stupid permanent estrangement”, Berrigan’s tone has shifted and he begins to contradict himself because he doesn’t know whether he wants to live or die. Inevetibly he will die, but like O’Hara and Ginsberg his work will exist to have an impact on people “I will never go away, and you will never escape from me who am always and only a ghost, despite this frame, spirit who lives only to nag. I’m only pronouns, and I am all of them, and I didn’t ask for this you did I came into your life to change it and it did so and now nothing will ever change that , and that’s that”(lines 32-34).
Nothing will change; human nature will be human nature. Love will always be unpredictable and politicians will tell Americans whatever they have to in order to be voted into office. Berrigan is dead, and all of Mr.Gallagher’s students’ lives have changed and Berrigan is right; nothing will ever change.