Throughout the poem "Red Shift" by Ted Berrigan, the speaker of the poem sends out the impression of a pensive and pessimistic person of middle age reminiscing; this impression one gets is from the first line’s exact setting of the present time, the changes of time and thoughts, and his lamentation on life in general.
This deep thinking seems evident in the fact that after the 9th line in the poem (I heave/ through it, them, as"), there is no more description of the present place he’s in, but of all the many places he’s been before, with people he’s been with before as well. The speaker’s comments about "twenty years almost ago" and his reminiscing about people of his past show that he’s thinking back to certain periods of time that have nothing to do with the present, as they are past dates.
In the beginning of the poem, at "8:08 p.m.", as the speaker walks down the street, seemingly to the reader almost at ease, he seems to travel with a walk that is "rhythmic". Yet as he goes along, he seems to get more and more frustrated and negative in his views, and almost violent in his thoughts. He wonders, " Who would have thought that I’d be here?", as though he can’t believe where he is in his middle age. The people in his memories seem to have had a profound effect on him, such as "that pretty girl" of "nineteen" who has now entered the time of "careening into middle-age". This is probably a lament for the time having gone by so fast as to have had himself and this girl of his enter their middle stage of life. Another person he recalls is "that practically a boy" whose eyes "penetrate the winter twilight at 6th & Bowery in 1961". He seems to be talking about himself here, or sees a parallel to his own self, as the narrator and this boy are both mentioned to be in the snow at night, only he sees himself as younger in this memory and laments about how he misses his youth. However, a painter seems to have had the most profound effect of all on the speaker. The speaker, from their "very first meeting" never will leave him alone until each "vanishes into thin air" they "signed up for". This painter will in turn "never leave" him, "not for sex, nor politics, nor even stupid permanent estrangement" of which is only the "human lot, and means nothing". This painter seems to have been a best friend of the speaker, who made these promises only to have them turn out untrue, and this seems to anger him by his excessive repeating of how they will never leave each other. The speaker seems to look back and feel naïve.
The speaker then goes on to mention the song "California Dreaming" from his subconscious. He states that he would not do what the song implies. The song is about how it is too cold in the winter and that the warmth of another place, such as California, would be better. There are parallels between the person in the song and the speaker of "Red Shift"; they are both walking on a winter’s day, and they are both daydreaming in their own ways. Yet while the song’s ultimate statement is sunshine and youth and happiness, the speaker of the poem seems against the warmth and happiness of dreams. He seems to be reveling in his coldness and depression. He feels too old at forty-three to daydream about bigger and better things, and takes in only the coldness of what he’s seen in the world.
The speaker even goes on to confirm his wallowing in misery. He states that he will never die, and that he is a "ghost" despite his frame, a "spirit/ Who lives only to nag". His explanation of a ghost seems to be someone who never dies, and never escapes his fate of nagging, or finding fault to complain constantly. Again, he is being haunted by his age, which is evident by how many times he talks about never dying. He sees himself as a ghost, trapped in his frame, while his spirit lives on hating everything and wanting to be set free. He seems immune to changing what he is, "and that’s that.//"
In the end, he sums up his life as "alone & crowded", with an "unhappy fate", as the "world’s furious song flows through" his "costume". With this depressing ending, you can clearly see how unhappy this speaker truly is. He’s lost in a world of middle age, reminiscing of sad memories that won’t go away, and seems to be trapped within himself, unable to escape. He is taking all the sadness of the world into himself and is suffering for it.
The speaker of this poem, walking down the street, is taking in all of the sadness of what’s around him and what’s viewed through his eyes. His memories, as he is indeed reminiscing, are upsetting him because it’s reminding him of the sadness that is in the world; the things he cannot change or stop from happening (like the "love, children hundreds of them, money, marriage ethics" that he feels or sees by day, "burning even or still" ). Being of middle age, these things have a profound effect on him as he finally takes an interest in them and realizes how naïve he has been in his younger years.