“Red Shift” by Tim Berrigan
While reading “Red Shift” by Tim Berrigan, I feel confused and lost. It is difficult to understand. It is hard to dissect the underlying meaning. The speaker’s language is very ambiguous and loose. I do not know why Berrigan chose to say certain things in “Red Shift”. Berrigan’s writing is autobiographical and represents a lot of what can be found in his life. What does “Red Shift” mean? Why does he jump all over in his poem? Why does he go from being specific with dates, times, and settings to vagueness and having to use one’s imagination to get a picture in one’s mind? Tim Berrigan’s “Red Shift” is an addictive poem because I listen to it and want to hear it again and again.
The title “Red Shift” may have been chosen because of the United States involvement in the Cold War. The poem is written in the early 1970’s and a lot of important events occur with regard to the nonviolent conflict. There is Fidel Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets have there iron curtain in Eastern Europe. The North Vietnamese are gaining the upper hand in the war against the South and the Red is slowly covering the Earth. Red is communism. It is blood, war, love, and death. “Red Shift” means a shift in Tim Berrigan’s life. He is no longer loved and has lost a love one. It means a shift in the mind of the people in society because there are communists out there and it is shameful to be one. Life is no longer the same as what is used to be which explains the shift.
Tim Berrigan says “I am 43. When will I die?” If you put an emphasis on the I in that sentence, it sounds like he is saying “When will I die?” When is it my turn to become red? Tim Berrigan is going through a mid-life crisis where he does not know where to go. He is shifting from being young to old. That is why shift is chosen.
Who is he speaking to? He mentions a nineteen year old girl who is his lover. She died before the poem was written because according to these lines:
“ Not that pretty girl, nineteen, who was going to have to go [everyone dies sooner or later], careening into middle-age so, To burn & to burn more fiercely than even she could imagine so to go.” (Tim Berrigan)
She probably died in a fire and she is Tim Berrigan’s first love. Again, the Red is a symbol of the fire that takes her and her death that results from it. She is gone from him and now he is alone and does not know where to begin again. He wants his red (death) to come so that he may join her again and never leave her side. He wants to marry her and grow old with her and die with her as noticed in these lines:
“I would never & never will leave alone until we both vanish into the thin air we signed up for & so demanded To breath & who will never leave me, not for sex, nor politics, nor even for stupid permanent estrangement which is Only our human lot & means nothing.” (Tim Berrigan)
He mentions that he will never leave her side and they will turn to dust together but that never happens. She is gone and he grows old all by himself.
Why won’t he die? Tim Berrigan says “I will never die.” Everyone dies. Will he become the first immortal or will he live on in the hearts and minds of anyone who reads this poem? Will his spirit accompany this poem and all of the copies that are made of it? “Red Shift” is hard not to think about after hearing because the audio makes you want to hear it again. The Speaker brings the poem alive. Tim says in the poem “I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing will ever change That, and that’s that.” This statement is easy to agree with because his voice enters the head and will stay forever.
Still this poem is enigmatic in its language. Reading it for the first time will throw you off as it did to me. Maybe the people that Tim mentions are his family; maybe there are close to him. His spirit does live on to nag. It nags through the poem that is so hard to understand and comprehend. Tim Berrigan has a message and it can be interpreted in many different ways as there are people with the ability to interpret it.