His gift receded. He could write no more. Be silent then, until the thing returns.John Berryman, Dream Song 310
Untitled published in Henry’s Fate
Henry scampered, young. Henry doddered old
Steps bother him. Packages in both hands
His figure altered not, he remained slim
but the memory loss. Persons from other lands
read him their poems bold,
demure, in Chinese, Bengali, Spanish, and chanted
in high Cambodian. Henry was enchanted
on an Iowa afternoon
but what did it have to do with his failing life,
his whiskey curse, his problems with his wife,
when ‘Let’s have a new tune’
said Hayden to somebody? He brought his trouble home
and they were grand, and foreign poetry
was foreign poetry;
valiant, but not as brilliant as a comb
to make him less dishevelled. Old Henry never wept
but then he never slept.
Paul Mariani’s biography contains a detailed accounting of the events leading up to Berryman’s death. It is a death spiral. After Hazeldon, Berryman’s care was largely overseen by Dr. Zosel at St. Mary’s Hospital. Berryman was admitted to St. Mary’s repeatedly, in ever worsening physical and mental states. Mariani attributes Dr. Zosel as stating in an interview, that Berryman was not fully committed to a higher power that Zosel believed was necessary for recovering addicts to be successful. Berryman was willing to share in other’s recovery, but increasingly felt suicide was his only solution to stop his own madness.
Berryman was deeply disturbed by world events and particularly what was happening with the United States role in Vietnam and Cambodia. He felt some kind of obligation for poets to bring a clarion call to sanity, but watched as many of his fellow poets (Schwartz, Pound, Jarrell, Plath, etc) had succumbed to declining mental health and feared he was on the same path. Berryman’s cycles of seeking help, detoxing, then getting out, then regressing and abusing alcohol in massive quantities in an attempt to sleep and write, were wildly out of control.
Berryman was in demand for readings and interviews coming off the attention and accolades of the Dream Songs, but he was not adept at managing his schedule. He bungled a request from Meredith to participate in a symposium and went to the wrong city on the wrong date in the fall of 1970, flying home in a stupor. As his disappearance stretched on for several days after his return flight had arrived, Kate became increasingly distressed and sought help. He finally sheepishly appeared on their doorstep, 3 days late. Its not surprising, Kate and his doctors immediately transported him to St. Mary’s for a week long stay in a locked ward to sober him up. Things were grim in the fall of 1970. Everyone, including Berryman, was at wit’s end. This is the context that leads up to Berryman writing his mother the letter I shared excerpts in the previous blog.
Remarkably, Berryman rallied. He pulled himself together, stopped drinking enough to resume life. He put together an impressive list of travels and readings throughout the year of 1971. He surrounded himself with support and did his best to stay sober. He received a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was working hard and writing. Kate got pregnant again. But Berryman’s wins, again, proved to be short lived. A fissure had opened with his lifelong friend Allen Tate, who was hurt by some of the material in Love and Fame, published in 1970. Berryman questioned himself and whether he was losing control of his literary focus, questioned Tate’s criticism, and generally questioned the state of the universe.
Berryman was attempting to remain productive, at least in the creation of drafts, and was telling his editor Giroux in June of 1971; “All’s well, better than well, everything plunging ahead, especially the novel…” Berryman’s mother moved to Minneapolis that same month and barely had she arrived when Kate went into labor and gave birth to their second daughter. Life was complicated in the Berryman household but had all of the reasons to embrace it.
By 1970, Berryman had published thirteen books. He had mapped out the objectives of nearly thirteen more, but realized he would have to stop drinking if he was to complete them. He had been working on more than one book on Shakespeare for the better part of 15 years and he was eager to see them through. Giroux was offering a $10,000 advance on the opening draft of the novel Berryman had sent him and sent a letter back it was “marvelous.” It’s estimated that Berryman’s income in 1971 amounted to around $46,000 in combined salary, speaking fees and royalties. A sum well beyond his previous earnings and sufficient to allow him to indulge in purchasing rare books again. But, as before, success rattled him. He felt like success built the expectations of more success, brilliance can only be followed by more brilliance. Berryman was having a tough time holding it all together. Berryman completed the fall semester in 1971, but only barely, his teaching suffered. He increasingly felt on edge as thoughts of suicide kept creeping in. In a letter of condolence not long before his death, he wrote to Adrienne Rich, whose husband had committed suicide the year before:
“I hope you are not feeling responsible, but I suppose…. you probably are….Suicide is a purely personal, & aggressive act…. and in our culture w. its taboo the actor is always deranged and out of control.”
One of the unique conditions of the human experience is our relationship with death. It’s not that other mammals don’t experience grief. I personally have watched a dog grieve the loss of a kitten, exactly the same as his human housemates. My partner watched a horse react to the death of a long time equine companion with the same explosive grief she was experiencing. There are lots of animals that are monogamous and mate for life and who experience loss of companionship if their mate is killed. But no species carries the death of loved ones and even hated ones into the future like humans. Death is messy, in lot of ways. Our own deaths or our loved ones deaths are forever intertwined with an element of judgement around was it a good death or another kind. Hardly anything else we experience as a natural consequence of being born is as complicated as our relationship to death. Yet for the vast majority of us, we have no control over how and when it occurs. And, if we do, there are consequences for the living.
What do whales think about when as a group, they ground themselves on a beach to die? What is that call to action sound like in whale song? I recognize there is no way to discuss suicide in a way that sheds any insight. It’s not a concept that as humans we want to understand. It’s too emotional, too complicated, too personal and beyond our ability to put into words when it happens within our inner sphere. But I believe that in some situations, death can be a prevention of more suffering.
In most jurisdictions, suicide is a criminal act. There is an investigation by law enforcement afterwards because death in the modern world carries with it all kinds of legal implications around life insurance, property and inheritance. A death certificate must be filled out with the cause of death. No one goes to jail, but there are serious repercussions. Any commentary around Berryman’s final moments alive is bound to be clumsy and misinformed. So I’ll make it brief.
John Berryman died, on January 7, 1972 about 9:15 am. His death was caused by a fall from a height of approximately 100 feet. It was the result of him jumping from the north side of the west side of the walk bridge over the Mississippi river connecting the west bank and the east bank of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He hit the ground near the bridge abutment and landed in the gravel parking lot or the grass adjacent, on the west side of the river that existed then. He had no identification on his body except for a blank check. His name was engraved on the inside of his glasses that shattered, but remarkably still sufficiently legible to identify his body as they remained on his face.
I have read several accounts of Berryman’s death. Nearly all of them have a clunky quality, without I believe intending to. There is a tinge of anger or judgement that finds its way in. I think its because we all want a happier ending. I think those qualities are difficult to evade when discussing suicide. The living have a hard time conceiving why someone would take their own life. Yet, for John Berryman, in that moment, on that day, it may have been the only way to address his pain. The question that no one can answer is why Berryman would continue the generational ambiguity of suicide, passing it along as his three children’s inheritance, knowing how much his own father’s death had cost him.
I walked across that bridge almost daily in the years from 1981 to 1986. I had no knowledge of John Berryman or his poetry at the time. The only thing I had ever seen fall from the exact place where Berryman died were stolen bowling balls from the Coffman Memorial Union bowling alley on the east side of the bridge. A bowling ball dropped from the height of the walk bridge could crush the hood or top of a car parked below. College students can be cruel.
I took a stroll on Thursday of this week all the way from the West bank to the East Bank on the north side and then back on the south side of the walk bridge in the open air. As you can see from the pictures, the bridge span is quite long. It has a quality of infinity when you begin on one side, especially in winter, which is why there is a covered portion in the center, for comfort to get out of the wind and elements when the view intimidates you. The bridge hasn’t changed much in the 40 years since I walked it daily and the more than 50 years since Berryman made his final traverse. It is the same structure, with a slightly newer coat of paint. However, the University on either side of the bridge has fundamentally changed. The spectacular architecture of The Weisman Art Museum now anchors the south side of the bridge on the East Bank, which didn’t exist when either of us walked the span. The west, south side of the bridge is the same group of buildings from 40 years ago, but nothing remains of the fine arts complex on the north side of the west side of the bridge. The funky bowels of that group of buildings that had the hot glass, ceramics and metal casting studios, have been replaced by a modern library, several lecture halls, along with an expansion of the complex supporting the Law Department. I think Berryman would be appalled. Out with art, in with more law, was not what he was about, even if they have named the complex after Vice President Mondale.
The picture below would likely be similar to Berryman’s last panorama alive. The parking lot immediately below has been replaced by a park, no errant bowling balls able to reach unsuspecting cars anymore. I am not even sure that I have the right side of the bridge figured out from the biographies, was his final moments on the north or south side? I suddenly have doubts as I write this. The north side makes the most sense in some ways, in terms of his state of mind. If he jumped from the north side, he was looking across to the buildings that housed the English department, and beyond the Humanities Department, where he spent his career lecturing on the East Bank. He would have been looking across the ice of the Mississippi to the place of where his greatest triumphs occurred. The south side of the bridge looks at a big sweeping bend in the Mississippi, with St. Mary’s hospital overlooking the sprawl. I don’t think that would have been his choice, despite it being the prettier view.
My experience in January, when I walked that bridge, is that not many people choose the open air portion of the bridge on the north side, because that’s where the wind tends to blow. You can see in the pictures from this Thursday, the pedestrians are sparse. In 1972, there were several people who witnessed Berryman’s final moments. No one was able to intervene. There is no doorway nearby that specific spot where someone could have rushed out from inside the enclosed walkway and pulled him to safety. Berryman was alone at the end.
On Thursday, I stood and reflected with my hand on the railing in about the same spot as Berryman’s. I read several Dream Songs in his honor out loud, but didn’t make a show of it. No one noticed. I then headed to have a celebratory drink in his honor at one of the many fine dive bars that existed in his day on the West Bank. All of them were closed, most of them permanently. The few that were still around were not yet open for the day at 11:30 am. I settled for a cup of coffee instead and asked the 20 something behind the counter if he had ever heard of John Berryman. He looked at me quizzically, thought for a second, like it was something he might have heard about in a lecture long ago, and said. “No.”
I can almost feel the strain of relief come through the computer, coming from those of you that read this blog regularly, glad that we are done with Berryman. I admit, this month and a half has been difficult for me too. We all have suffered for Berryman’s art. As I lay down the Berryman journey and skip to Valentines Day, remember that Berryman was a romantic at heart. I suggest that we collectively heal by indulging our own romantic nature next week; with valentines, champagne, sweets, and sweet nothings, the works. And whether you toast Berryman or eschew him, be sure to toast yourself as a survivor in this increasingly crazy world. And if you are of the mind, toast Henry too.
Dream Song 360
by John Berryman
The universe has gifted me with friends,
was special of it, whom I not deserve
save for my own love back
imperfectly manifested with amends
which Henry had need of, graded on a curve
by certain, Henry on the track
strapped, awaited the train. Instead came a cable
from the most beautiful woman in the United States,
devout & lovely: ‘Why do you honor me?’
she weirdly askt. Henry relaxed & stable
but busy busy made reply: ‘We awaits
a lady even more worthy of honor:
until then suffer us to make do with you,
which is forever? Gulls here beside the sea
approve poor Henry’s choice.
Allow then in our end that we make do
with the mysteries of you which are one mystery’
half-enhanced by Henry’s voice.