Dan Berrigan: The Risen Tin Can

Dan Berrigan portrait by Robert McGovern 1992 small
Dan Berrigan (wood engraving by Robert McGovern, 1992)

Since Dan’s death two months ago I have been haunted by the memory of his reading, soon after his release from Danbury prison, the following poem, “The Risen Tin Can.” I just tried to read it aloud to Nancy but — Dan’s voice so fresh and clear! — tears got in the way. So Nancy took over the reading. Let me share it with you, wishing only that it was Dan’s own voice you would be hearing.

30 June 2016


The Risen Tin Can

By Daniel Berrigan

Toward the rear end of the prison graveyard
stands a frantic caterwauling machine that flattens tin cans.
Its iron flail beats the air to death
even when no forage intervenes.
Let us consider as poets do, the rightful synecdoche of the

We prisoners are, so to speak, tin cans
emptied of surprise, color, seed, heartbeat, pity, pitch, frenzy
molasses, nails, ecstasy, etc., etc.
destined to be whiffed and tumbled into elements of flatland
recycled, dead men’s bones, dead souls—

Now the opposite of all this is the shudder and drumming feet
of the risen tin can over the hill, into the sunrise
The tin can contains, grows wings, he writes poetry!

This is the year of the RISEN TIN CAN, in the Vietnamese sense.
When I was a tin can I thought like a tin can I looked like a tin can
I spoke like a tin can

now that I am a man I have put away the things of a tin can
tin armaments tin hearts tin bells rin-tin-tin gross national tin
American tin

It is expedient that the glory of God be
not melted smelted milled rolled.
It is required that mere men
even though with hanging head and drooping codpiece
persuaded in contrariety to nature
of the intrinsic genetic inferiority
solar surfaced
and O so cheap definitive solution
of TIN—

It is expedient
that mere men and women prevail
in face of the Idol of Scissors Alley
that hundred pincered crustacean can-and-man opener.

But I digress.
The unforgivable sin against the unholy spirit
is the metamorphosis of tin
into manhood.
Of which one instance: the writing of a poem.
Shaking of foundations! It is not to be borne
that sounding and tinkling tin
unzipped, emptied of its regal redoutable guts brains gore
should arise to the phoenix form of the twice born.
Celebrate it! An ivory stick on the Ethiopian drumhead
the sweet tactile frenzy of B.B. King.
The puma’s maeeeooow of a steel band
catgut reborn! tin renascent! us resurrected!

E contra
the Neanderthal triumph of the century beyond reasonable doubt is Homo Danburiensis

On the one hand
the starched ars and starved brain of the cosseted correctionist barking violations of the penny ante whipping out his tape measure against the turds of the circus flea.
the raddled crook, unselfknowledgeable as an ass’s elbow, rounding the dice, squaring the roulette, night and day stuffing his kicked tail into his parched mouth. Prayer; O keep me from Chrissake awakening!

It is recounted in the old legends that a child came unannounced among the uncopacetic beasts who thereupon discovered unlikely good things in one another, and wrath laid aside, fed, slept, foraged, wandered together, claw to fleece, tooth to feather.

The moral by gentle implication; the great Braggart and Beast himself, in comparison with whose ravenings the bestiality of beasts is a rare and mystic dance, might one day make peace as he perennially has made war.

Meantime the claims of the kingdom of death are beyond doubt total. They totalize and mobilize Unman for their surrogate. Henceforth in tribute to the GREAT PRETENDER, one must walk on garbage, feed on ugliness, break stones by day and grind his molars by night.

His keepers march like articulated tin can sandwich men parading the First Command of the Lost Way; BE LIKE ME!
Let a blade of grass intervene, a vagrant lustful loving frenetic stammer arise in one; let him remember his lost friends, the cords of Adam, let a single bird cross his starved sight—
Let a single countervailing voice, color, feeling, sound—
All is undone
The sweet world is suddenly at hand, a NECESSARY ANGEL;

Dear friends,
the Great Amortizer is at the door, syringe in hand.
He parts his face like a dead sea
into: benevolence or murder.
When he looks benevolent he means murder
When he looks murderous he means business
Business is good; you or someone else; viz—
He freezes your rent, he is burning someone’s hut
He cures your cancer, he is filling his germ bottles
He worships on Sunday Buddhists die for it.
This is called Caesar’s karma. It says: when you’re a god, you got responsibilities to your constituents. Or
some eggs may hatch but kitchens are for omelets or if you can’t take the heat don’t lay an egg. Thus the GREAT EQUALIZER decrees that some be tranquilized and others freneticized, that there be generals and hoplites, winners and losers, Caesars (1 each) and slaves
And keepers (of course) and kept.

Now it is a matter of imperial indifference whether you and I, cits, dimwits, midges, near zeroes, non heroes, whether we exist or no. But one thing is clear; in our regard the myth of Genesis has been turned around. Henceforth to read:
In the beginning was Skinner’s labyrinth. The furry humanoids, deloused, decorticated, lobotomized, housed, fed, schooled by the state
totally environmentalized
a synthesis of formally partial structures (university, madhouse, prison, cinema, food trough, sex bed, church) these scamperers and scavengers by dint of expertise and electrode have learned
when to fear when to love when to piss when to feed when to praise when to—
What one might miss in their makeup (were he a backward looker, did he dare search for certain nearly submerged characteristics of the tribe)
is a certain
light in the eyes (‘like shining from shook foil’) a plumbless interiority, a tease and come on, something funky in youth, wrinkles as of laughter about aged brows, a sip in your eye look of fire and ice
OR at the least a glimpse of Edens lost a look of scarce contained grief, as for other shores horizons estuaries, ‘blue remembered hills’, yes — outraged love.

But no.
Bugged brainwashed buggered beggared besotted
Out of head and heart
or let us say, so nearly out of head and heart
as to make no whit difference to cast no grain of grit
in the armored almighty progress
of the warmongering worm

Well almost. Then again hardly.
Let us coolly, hardily
to fields away
make hay under the arc
that fans out, dawn
after hit and run dark.

No to their NO. Yes to all else.

It is Christmas
the pride of peacocks
the birth of a child
his many forms
rising swaying around him
like eyes in feathers
dances harvests brides
and underside
his shadowed
Pray; those eyes
touching our eyes
make us that man.

— from Prison Poems by Daniel Berrigan,
Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1973 , pp 32-37

The book contains poems Dan wrote while under lock-and-key at Danbury Federal Prison, August 1970-February 1972.

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