What do we make of the Mr. Bones voice, the minstrel voice, as employed in Berryman’s most successful work, much of it written during the high period of the civil rights movement? What do we make of Henry’s agonized dream life in our own times of crisis? And what of the author? And why is the Poetry Foundation assigning a review of Berryman’s letters, today, when they could instead review a new volume by an African American poet?
There is, it is fair to say, a stomach churning that goes with this assignment. Should I not properly imagine that I, a middle-aged white writer of privilege, am, however inadvertently, being conscripted into this review such that I might avoid rocking the boat on a now-contested figure of 20th-century confessional literature when some helping of opprobrium appears more than justifiable? Let me be plain. In the present context, it is impossible to read Berryman’s magnum opus without the keenest discontent about the use of dialect. Berryman’s conduct as a man, as a father, as a husband, as a professor, as indicated in his work and in his biography, is very often difficult to bear witness to, even at a 50-year remove. The tide has shifted so dramatically in 2020 that it is hard to know why it is a public service to review the volume at hand.
These are the third and fourth paragraphs of Rick Moody’s essay “Unspeakably Miserable For the Most Part,” published this week at the Poetry Foundation. Ostensibly a review of the new collection The Selected Letters of John Berryman (edited by Philip Coleman and Calista McRae), Moody’s essay continues for another dozen paragraphs.
“Dead people don’t like olives,”
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we fox-trotted, one-two, one-two.
The dead people I often consulted
nodded their skulls in unison
while I flung my black velvet cape
over my shoulders and glowered
from deep-set, burning eyes,
walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
crazy for cheerleaders and poems.
At Hamden High football games, girls
in short pleated skirts
pranced and kicked, and I longed
for their memorable thighs.
They were friendly—poets were mascots—
but never listened when I told them
that dead people didn’t like olives.
Instead the poet, wearing his cape,
continued to prowl in solitude
intoning inscrutable stanzas
as halfbacks and tackles
made out, Friday nights after football,
on sofas in dark-walled rec rooms
with magnanimous cheerleaders.
But, decades later, when the dead
have stopped blathering
about olives, obese halfbacks wheeze
upstairs to sleep beside cheerleaders
waiting for hip replacements,
while a lascivious, doddering poet,
his burning eyes deep-set
in wrinkles, cavorts with their daughters.
William Carlos Williams
in the shape of
a red brick chair
90 feet high
on the seat of which
sit the figures
of two metal
commanding an area
of squalid shacks
side by side–
from one of which
streams while under
a grey sky
the other remains
Classic Landscape, 1931 by Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
“Sather Tower Mystery”
Seems there was this Professor
a member of what should be called
The Good German Department
Must have signed his name to
5,000 petitions in front of
the Co-Op on Cedar
and bought two tons of benefit
Blames Texas for the sorry
state of the oceans
Rode a Greyhound bus “Civil
Rights,” Alabama, 1960
Found the long yellow war
Believes John “Duke” Wayne’s
values to be inferior to his
He said, “Ishmael, I’d
love to do the right thing
for as you know I’m all for
the right thing and against
the wrong thing, but
these plaster of paris busts
of deceased Europeans
Our secret ways
Our sacred fears
“These books, leather-bound ‘copyright 1789’
All of these things, precious
to me, gleaming like the
stainless steel coffee urn in
the faculty club, an original
“I’d stand up for Camelot
by golly, even if it meant
shooting all the infidels in
the world,” he said
reaching into his desk drawer
“Why, I might even have to
shoot you, Ishmael”
Staring down the cold
tunnel of a hard .38
Most people are to the right
when it comes to where they must
eat and lay their heads!
“Short Talk on Vicuñas”
A mythical animal, the vicuña fares well
in the volcanic regions of northern Peru.
Light thunders down on it, like Milton
at his daughters. Hear that?—they
are counting under their breath.
Think about style of life for a
moment. When you take up your
axe, listen. Hoofbeats. Wind.
It is they who make us at home
here, not the other way around.
Section 38 of Song of Myself
Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping,
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.
That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.
I remember now,
I resume the overstaid fraction,
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.
I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average unending procession,
Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines,
Our swift ordinances on their way over the whole earth,
The blossoms we wear in our hats the growth of thousands of years.
Eleves, I salute you! come forward!
Continue your annotations, continue your questionings.
“Cool gales shall fan the glades”
But how choose the appropriate sticking point to start at?
Who wants to write a poem without the letter e,
Especially for Thee, where the flourished vowel lends such panache to your carnet de bal
(OK, peons: pizzazz to your dance card)? The alphabet’s such a horn
Of plenty, why cork up its treasure? It hurts to think of “you” reduced to u
In stingy text messages, as if ideally expression should be limited to formulas like x ≠ y,
Where the respectable truth of tautology leaves ambiguous beauty standing by
Waiting to take off her clothes, if, that is, her percentage of body fat
Permits it (a statement implicitly unfair, as if beauty, to remain sublime, had to keep up
Lineaments already shaped by uninhibited divinity); implying, as well, fixated onlookers, i.e.,
Men and women kidding themselves that full-front-and-back nudity is the north
Star of delight rather than imagined nakedness, shudderingly draped like a fully rigged, fully laden ship without a drop to bail,
Its hidden cargoes guessed at — perhaps Samian wine (mad-
making!) — or fresh basil
Gently crushed by its own slight weight, reviving memories of delights once stumbled on as a boy,
Delights often wreathed with necessary pain, like the stout unforgiving thorns
That tear shirt and skin as we stretch for ripe blackberries, to be gulped down fast,
Sweeter than butter and marmalade, quenching our thirst better than sucked ice,
Making us almost drunk as we shriek with false contempt at each benighted ump
Who decides against our teams. What happened to those blissful fruits, honeydew, purple plum,
White raspberry, for stealing which from Mrs. Grossman’s stand I invented ingenious alibis
That she never believed (insulting, or what?)? Where are childhood’s innocent sweetnesses, like homemade rice
Pudding and mince pie? Or the delicious resistances of various foods — bony
Lobsters, chops with their succulent tiny interstices, corn sticking to the cob, or the grilled feast
Of brook trout I caught without too much fuss after kicking a resentful hornets’
Nest? And when carnality replaced appetite, I was communally pronounced the horniest
Ten-year-old around; and I hadn’t even seen you. But when I did, you became the plume
In the horse’s hat of my lust. I was thirteen when we first danced together. There weren’t many afters
But I cherish my plume. There weren’t any afters, nothing, just a gentle abseil I
Could not climb back up. I still wave my plume, or my horse does, as he canters nobly
Into next year, my eighty-fifth. I hasten to add that “this coyness, lady, were no crime”
If I didn’t, in spite of all, feel so grateful to you. All manner of mercis
Fill my throat, along with immortal memories, of which I must acknowledge the thorniest
To be your disappearance, whether you tanked in river water or were scorched by Zeus’s proximity (or some such baloney);
But your firm breasts, taut nipples, and bent thighs? No thorns. All you wanted was a loosened peplum,
So I still bear your plume, and your name will not die: not to be written here or read, but my voice shall sibilate
It so shrilly that unseeded babies hear me, and every hidden woodworm wake from its dream to fall forever from the rafters.
Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.
Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge.
His terror had to blow itself quite out
To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him
Past the Cape Horn of sensible success
Which cries: “This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.”
But deafened him with thunder and confused with lightning:
–The maniac hero hunting like a jewel
The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex,
The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare–
All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple.
Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day,
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
He has a name like Billy and is almost perfect,
But wears a stammer like a decoration:
And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.
For now he was awake and knew
No one is ever spared except in dreams;
But there was something else the nightmare had distorted–
Even the punishment was human and a form of love:
The howling storm had been his father’s presence
And all the time he had been carried on his father’s breast.
Who now had set him gently down and left him.
He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened:
And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood
“All, all is vanity,” but it was not the same;
For now the words descended like the calm of mountains–
–Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish–
Reborn, he cried in exultation and surrender
“The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces.”
And sat down at his desk and wrote a story.