My poetry shelf is slim but holds the most thumbed book I own: John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and, until recently, I would read several songs a week, rereading my favorites as if they held some kind of clue. I read them to cheer myself or wallow. I read them aloud, alone and to other people. Some nights after having wine, I’d read the meanest, strangest ones aloud. When I found a copy in a bookstore, I’d open to a favorite and hand it to someone. Even his darkest, most dire, most hopeless songs soothe me. Lines worm in me for weeks.
It’s not that I think Berryman is the most talented writer or that he has written the most important poems or that his work has reached some aesthetic pinnacle or that I have nothing better to read. All of those things are untrue, and yet I am compelled to read his work in a way I am not often compelled by anyone else’s work. I am still trying to understand why.
Nearly a decade ago, I almost made myself sick on them during a New Orleans summer. While hurricanes spun toward us from the gulf, dire conversations at the grocery store blended into my Dream Song summer like milk poured into milk.
A note signed J.B. at the front of the book:
The poem then … is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age … who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.
Berryman was, also, a white American in early middle age who had suffered an irreversible loss, one that rippled toward other irreversible losses: loves lost, friends lost, sobriety lost, himself finally lost to the Mississippi River. His father, John Smith, moved the family from Oklahoma to Florida when Berryman was just twelve, and, soon after, he took his own life with a gun, his body falling outside the poet’s bedroom window. His mother quickly married another John, also a banker, and the poet took this new father’s last name: Berryman.
John Berryman, the poet, found faith in a transcendent Christian God in 1970 and went to meet that God two years later by jumping from a bridge into the Mississippi. He was fifty-seven.
When I returned to New Orleans after the storm I found a new home in a neighborhood where neighbors were few. Streetlights never lit. Refrigerators lined street medians, an army ready to fight nothing. I rode my bike to work through wet, navy mornings and spoke his lines to keep myself company. “I don’t see how Henry, pried / open for all the world to see, survived.”
Many years later, videos of Berryman’s gnarled, drunken readings appeared on the Internet, his ghost now animated. But by late 2011, I’d listened to or watched each reading, interview, and speech multiple times—digitized Berryman had become inadequate: I wanted to hold paper he’d held, be closer to his years, see his signature, in ink, as he wrote it. I considered a trip to the full archives in Minneapolis, but settled for Columbia’s smaller collection, a short subway trip from my apartment.
There I found a photograph of young Berryman, mid-twenties, clean shaven, white suit, boyish smile. I took a picture with my phone and used it as my background. (“Who’s that?” someone later asked. “I don’t know,” I said.)
I found a handwritten draft of Saul Bellow’s foreword to Berryman’s incomplete novel, Recovery.
Bellow: “Once as we were discussing Rilke I interrupted to ask him whether he had, the other night … pushed a lady down a flight of stairs…”>
And Berryman asks, “Whom?”
And Bellow says, “Catherine.”
And I think, Oh.
Berryman says, “Did I do that? I wonder why.”
And Bellow: “‘Because she wouldn’t let you into the apartment.’ He took polite interest in this information. He said, ‘That I was in the City at all is news to me.’ We went back to Rilke. There was only one important topic. We had no small talk.”
Catherine’s blood and busted nose, the ambulance singing toward her: small talk for these giants.
I had known that Berryman and Bellow were colleagues, maybe friendly, but Bellow’s cruelty and narrow-mindedness has always narrowed his appeal to me: as beautifully as he wrote, his pessimistic misogyny leaks greater puddles than I can attribute to his generation, his time. So I resented, somewhat, the idea of Bellow and Berryman as friends. But then I saw a drunk John Berryman pushing some poor woman, some Catherine in New York, down the stairs. And isn’t that what you say has happened when that hasn’t happened at all?
I got a black eye the day I moved in with a boyfriend-at-the-time, but it was entirely my own doing—I somehow dropped the heavy base of a lamp onto my cheekbone. How hilariously implausible it sounded: Oh, that? She dropped a lamp on her face. But the way I got eyed in line at the grocery store was less hilarious. Not every black eye has a funny story. Not everyone can shrug it off, go back to talking Rilke.
Bellow also told the story of discovering a deeply hungover Berryman facedown and motionless on his bed. “These efforts are wasted. We are unregenerate,” Berryman said, speaking of how his poems could never redeem him. That notion was a rock tied to his foot, but to Bellow it was anecdote.
I left the library and felt at odds with the sunlight. I thought about how Berryman signed his name with a backward J. He must have always felt backward. I wondered who Catherine was.
A few days later I baffled my therapist by sobbing, for too long, about how unfair it was that I enjoy the work this man suffered so heavily for. It was as if I had been pushed down the stairs but sympathized, mainly, with him.
From an interview:
BERRYMAN: Well, being a poet is a funny kind of jazz. It doesn’t get you anything. It doesn’t get you any money, or not much, and it doesn’t get you any prestige, or not much. It’s just something you do.
BERRYMAN: That’s a tough question. I’ll tell you a real answer, I’m taking your question seriously, This comes from Hamann, quoted by Kierkegaard. There are two voices, and the first voice says, “Write!” and the second voice says, “For whom?” I think that’s marvelous; he doesn’t question the imperative, you see that. And the first voice says, “For the dead whom thou didst love”; again the second voice doesn’t question it; instead it says, “Will they read me?” And the first voice says, “Aye, for they return as posterity.” Isn’t that good?
In an interview with The Paris Review, Berryman was asked how he responds to the label of “confessional” that was regularly put upon him.: “With rage and contempt! Next question.” He added, “The word doesn’t mean anything. I understand the confessional to be a place where you go and talk with a priest. I personally haven’t been to confession since I was twelve years old.”
From Dream Song 145:
rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window
and did what was needed
From Dream Song 384:
I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn.
(not the poet, not me)
I am obsessed with Berryman and The Dream Songs because his work and life scare the shit out of me, because I’ve romanticized Berryman so fully he’s a just a story I tell myself, because I am fulfilling this self-generated narrative of my obsession with The Dream Songs, because I am the reincarnated spirit of someone he once loved, because his work pushes me close to life and all its grit and decay.
The last one seems the most accurate, though I still don’t know why.
From an interview:
Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.
The few times I’ve published work about personal things, people say, Oh, it must have been cathartic to write that. But writing is not cathartic. Real catharsis needs a witness or a catalyst—not just a page, not just a mind alone. Writing is a compulsive cocoon, and its only real benefit are the moments when you can produce something that brings you closer to other people. The act of me sitting here and writing right now does not, in itself, satisfy. A good day’s work leaves me with nothing more than that loopy lull of an addict’s addiction met—finishing something that makes my reality clearer to other realities is the only real point and even that is beside the point.
All work moves inevitably toward other people.
But the relationship between a writer and reader is inherently incomplete. It exists in a vacuum where one fills the space and the other receives and projects their own stories onto it. The patient is the writer. The reader is the therapist, searching, turning pages.
I wonder what Berryman would say about catharsis. As far as I can tell, he never mentioned it.
And I wonder if Berryman would have been as good a poet if he’d had a therapist. I wonder if he would have killed himself if he’d admitted that Henry was a kind of reflection of himself. I wonder if he believed he would become regenerate as he hit the river on January 7, 1972.
On January 7, 1972, 104 people died in a plane crash in Ibiza and the LA Lakers won their thirty-third game in a row and eight time bombs hidden in banks across America were defused by policemen and Berryman’s body traveled seventy feet from the bridge to the water.
It wasn’t until recently that I knew how that kind of suicide works; it’s the impact, they say: it rips up organs, can shatter a skull, make blood flow backward, jolt skin off the bone, and sometimes after I’ve read Dream Song, I feel guilty for how much pleasure it gives me—that I shouldn’t enjoy that darkness, the untended emotions he left before the river shredded his body.
Or maybe all this is an attempt to become immune, to stop myself from turning the way he turned, ever inward, from the young man in the white linen suit to the face behind a wild beard, voice gin-thickened, eyes elsewhere, shouting poems that were no longer a bridge between himself and others, but a wall.
To a crowd in 1968:
If I were you I would reserve my applause until the end. And then withhold it.
Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is forthcoming. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Believer, and Brooklyn Magazine, among others, and earned her a 2012 NYFA fellowship for fiction. She is a founding owner of 3B, a cooperatively run bed-and-breakfast.