Some Notes on Peter Anastas'
Broken Trip

Review By Robert Buckeye



"The concept of progress should be based on the idea of catastrophe. That things 'just keep on going' is the catastrophe." — Walter Benjamin

In Book four of Paterson, William Carlos Williams reprints a letter of Allen Ginsberg's drawing Williams' attention to a Paterson he does not know. "I have been walking the streets and discovering the bars — especially around the great Mill and River Streets," Ginsberg writes. "Do you know this part of Paterson? I have seen so many things — Negroes, gypsies, an incoherent bartender...I wonder if you have seen River Street most of all because that is really at the heart of what is known." Earlier Ginsberg had written Williams of his Paterson: "It is misery I see. . .but mainly the splendor I carry within me."

Gloucester is Anastas' subject as much as it is Charles Olson's, and if the fishing industry is a fulcrum around which their writing turns, they turn from it down different streets. Every writer has one story to tell, one which moves him most fiercely, and to which he always returns. Books may determine lives, but lives also determine books.

"The way in which the writer brings his own instincts into conversations with the shape of his experience." — Donald Phelps

The defining issue for the Gloucester Anastas writes about is class. He chooses to bear witness, or, as Phelps characterizes it, cover ground. Anastas must live on the streets he writes about. It changes how he writes.

"The question of the people is a question about representation."—T. J. Clark

Broken Trip is a series of interlocking stories held together by Tony Russo, a social worker, whose job is to advise, help and represent those the dying fishing industry has spit out, those who fall back on alcohol, drugs, sex, and, out of even greater desperation, crime, to make their lives bearable. Most of them go down, agate type in police logs. "My people made this town," one of them tells Russo, "and I can't even get help." "Your people were the bedrock," he replies.

The price of a society that does not provide a life is disruption and unrest, and any society must find ways to cap or control that which threatens it if it is to survive. Welfare, schools, courts, police and hospitals are as necessary to the well-being of the system as well as, if not more than, to those in it.

"Governments as modes of administration that subject social life to the authority of an institutional scientific expertise." Alan Sekula

If Broken Trip is at once an implicit critique of a capitalism that prevents once productive citizens from working as well as an indictment of the practices of social control and domination, Anastas chooses instead to emphasize those society has rejected rather than the underlying causes of their circumstances. Those who triumph against odds. Those who help those who cannot help themselves. Those who struggle to get along, barely. There is misery here in Gloucester but also splendor. Even in those who go down.

Russo is the voice of the book, the voice the author speaks through. His father had been a Gloucester fisherman, and he had worked on the boats before he left to study for his doctorate in English literature. He is the native who has learned to "speak White" (a Quebecois term used to characterize accommodation to the English ruling class). Russo once told Rochelle (one of his social work clients) that he'd "learned to dress in college, but as the son of a fisherman he still felt out of place."

That Russo is born and bred from Gloucester and grew up with those whose stories he tells permits Anastas to understand them as more than statistics. That he works within the system that controls them as much as it helps them limits him. To some extent he may subvert it, but he does not discard it. Compassion is the underlying aesthetic of Broken Trip.

The storyteller depends on voice, the novelist on the book. The story is oral and depends on memory. The novel is print and can be located on the shelf. The storyteller takes his tale from experience, his or others'. The novelist is the solitary individual who speaks out of the wilderness. The storyteller recites the stories of his people to pass them down. The novelist writes his books to reach home. The storyteller counsels others. The novelist remains uncounseled.

"Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death."—Walter Benjamin

Anastas at work at the antipoverty agency in Gloucester:

" each of us manages to make more evident his own resistance. For that is the way a man comes to core. By way of, the discovery of, his own resistance. (It is also, mark you, the way a poet — at least — makes himself of USE to society." — Charles Olson.

(House Organ, 48. Fall 2004)

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