Dear Sandy, Hello
Ted Berrigan
Coffee House Books, 2010
Review by Celia White

Dear Sandy, Hello is the poet Ted Berrigan’s letters to his new young wife, Sandy Alpert, over the span of her time locked in a mental hospital in the Spring of 1962. Her incarceration was the result of her parents’ disapproval of her marriage, at age 19, after one week’s "courtship" to Ted Berrigan, 29 at the time.

TheTed in the letters, while quite recognizable to those who know his poems, lectures, and legacies, is not yet the fully-fledged Pepsi-swilling, Chesterfield-smoking, speed-ingesting walker talker (dare I say) mad man he will certainly become. It takes some time (page 49) before Pepsi is even mentioned, and many pages of correspondence are given to proving his "innocence"—a state which he himself knows to be lost. It is Sandy’s innocence (apart from youth), which Ted adores.

Sandy’s own "madness," if it can indeed even be called such, is never fully defined in this volume—rather, the goals of her parents (particularly her well-respected Miami doctor father) seem to be to keep under under lock and key until she is 21. (They won’t succeed—Sandy will use her pass to visit the public library as a chance to flee with Ted, and they will go on to have two children, and live together until their divorce some 8 years later.)

Ted’s letters (a handful of Sandy’s are included in their own section near the end of the book) give early versions of the great thoughts he will come to be known for, expositions of literary thought and his own goals as a poet. However, much of it is simply the sort of repetitive love letters one might write in a college-age long-distance romance, in this case fueled by the drama of the impending annulment of their marriage.

Perhaps most interesting is the "case" Ted seems to be trying to build for himself as a personality. He presents himself to his young wife (as well as the parents, psychiatrists and lawyers who likely read the letters at some point) as loving, intelligent, reasonable, caring, while only slowly admitting his use of speed, marijuana, his casual thievery (mostly of books), and his absolute refusal to take any sort of a job past writing papers for students at Columbia University.

Some evidence: "I don’t drink much, although I can and have drunk plenty. I don’t smoke but tried it a couple of times for various reasons. I don’t curse really, but I like words which have color, and hate sterile language. Shakespeare’s plays are full of 'cursing.' I’ve tried lots of drugs, and hope to try lots of others. I’m not addicted to anything except maybe Pepsi...I’ve been known to steal, if stealing means to do such things as take books and or food without paying."

One cannot read this book for its plot—we know Sandy will escape and rejoin Ted—but will thoroughly enjoy watching the early flow of Berrigan’s very personal mind, as he speaks of love, the rooms where he stays, making collage with Joe Brainard, writing collaborative pieces with poet friends, seeing exhibits of great art at the MoMA, meals of eggs and apples, what he is reading, whom he is getting to know. Read it to watch his entry and continued thrust into life, literature, and community in New York City.

© Celia White, 2010