To Bhain Campbell (1911 – 1940)
by John Berryman
I told a lie once in a verse. I said
I said, I said, I said, “The heart will mend
Body will break and mend, the foam replace
For even the unconsolable, his taken friend.”
This is a lie. I had not been there then.
Dream Song 156
by John Berryman
I give in. I must not leave the scene of this same death
as most of me strains to.
There all the problems to be sorted out,
the fate of the soul, what it was all about
during it’s being, and whether he was drunk
at 4 a.m. on the wrong floor too
fighting for air, tearing his sorry clothes
with his visions dying O and O I mourn
again this complex death
Almost my oldest friend should never have been born
to this terrible end, out which what grows
but an unshaven, dissheveled corpse?
The spirit & the joy, in memory
live of him on, the young will read his young verse
for as long as such things go:
why then do I despair, miserable Henry
who knew him all so long, for better & worse
and nearly would follow him below.
Berryman debarked from Cambridge in fall of 1938 in debt, largely in part to having acquired a considerable library of rare books during his stay. These had become collateral for credit for living expenses and travel, but as his finances dwindled he was ultimately forced to leave them behind. It would be years before he was able to pay off the debt and retrieve them. He headed by ship for New York City and moved in with his mother and step father. Although the apartment was generous, with ample space for him to work, he felt restless and pinned in by the emotional tension of being under his mother’s roof once again. Ultimately, his living there, did not sit well with either of them and was one more cause of his constant mental fatigue.
He immediately reconnected with Delmore Schwartz, Alan Tate, Mark Van Doren and other friends while in New York. He was frustrated by his both limited successes at publishing and limited employment options. He was able to line up a modest teaching position with the help of Mark Van Doren at Colombia for that fall, but it was not a sufficient stipend to pay off his debts and prepare to assist his fiance to join him from England. This lack of ability to become self sufficient to his wants and needs was taxing. He began a phase that would continue throughout his life, where a combination of poor eating habits, insomnia, excessive work habits and heavy drinking would result in cycles of ever worsening states of mind and physical exhaustion to the point of nervous breakdown. His demeanor would vacillate from self incrimination to indignation at everyone and everything around him. He was anti-social and at the same time desperately lonely. He was a living contradiction. He was focused on writing, trying to craft material worthy of publishing and yet indifferent to the real opportunities that existed. He was oblivious to the fact that his writing was not going to generate sufficient income to live or marry. He believed in his talent but also was mired in mediocrity. In general he was a mess. Beatrice (his fiance) came for a five month long visit and lived with him and his mother in New York. Though they expressed their love for each other, she could see that he was in no way capable of being a life long partner. She returned to England and though the charade of their future marriage endured for a while, Berryman’s physical and mental health went only downward as did their relationship.
During the summer, his friend Bhain Campbell wrote to him that he had obtained a far better paying position at Wayne State University in Detroit for that fall. He encouraged Berryman to reconsider his teaching position at Colombia and to come join him in Michigan. Berryman got the job, in part because of a glowing recommendation from Mark Van Doren, and promptly departed for Detroit. His rejection of Columbia’s offer however, did not sit well with the administration. As would be often in his life, Berryman burned his bridges behind him.
Things started out wonderfully at Wayne State. Bhain and Berryman’s friendship flourished for a bit. They balanced and supported each other in work habits, demeanor and interests. Bhain, his wife Florence and Berryman would all move in together into a 1 bedroom apartment to save money. Berryman contrived to hide his attraction to Florence behind feigned contempt or indifference. But this threesome living arrangement did not age well as the fall semester continued.
Berryman was a good if not great teacher, but he had a tendency to overwork himself throughout his lifetime. He would follow maniac periods of working excessively with periods where he was nearly catatonic and unable to do anything. Things progressed to the point where both his physical and mental state so alarmed the Campbell’s that Bhain forced Berryman to see a doctor for a consultation. He would be diagnosed with epilepsy, a way to explain his fainting spells and sometimes catatonic state. In reading his biography there are a myriad of references to him falling down a flight of stairs or other physical accidents, some of which would result in minor fractures. But whether he truly had epilepsy or whether this was a polite way of covering up excessive drinking is impossible to determine.
By the end of the first semester, Berryman’s relationship with Bhain and Florence had worsened to the point that they had no choice but to move out. Berryman was forced to take a forced leave of absence from his teaching position as physically he couldn’t continue. He was “proscribed” by his doctor reading before bed, a meal plan for better nutrition and mental therapy. Within a month he had improved to the point he could resume teaching. He mended his friendship with Bhain, in part because Bhain’s cancer was moving quickly. Despite multiple surgeries, Bhain’s health deteriorated rapidly. Bhain and Florence moved to a cottage for the summer and following the end of the spring semester, Berryman provided a week of care-giving to his friend so that Florence could take a much needed break for herself. He would leave shortly after for New York to figure out the next step in his life. Berryman would see Bhain one more time in November, when he returned to visit his friend briefly, but by December, Bhain would fall into a coma and die.
The importance of this year and his friendship with Bhain would have far reaching consequences in the success that Berryman would have later in his career. Bhain was a committed communist who encouraged Berryman to identify the purpose behind his writing. He pushed Berryman to wrestle with not just structure but meaning. Up until this point, Berryman’s writing was overly metrical and rhymed in ways that veneered the fact there was not much depth to his poetry, beyond a pleasant postcard imagery. Although Berryman had learned the academic rigor and dedication to be a writer, he was not yet a “poet” and that vast difference pained him. But it was this very awareness of that gap that Bhain helped instill, combined with the confidence he bestowed on his friend’s abilities, that kept Berryman moving forward into the next chapter of his life.
Dream Song 168
The Old Poor
by John Berryman
and God has many other surprises, like
when the man you fear most in the world marries your mother
and chilling other.
men from far tribes armed in the dark, the dike-
hole, the sudden gash of an old friend’s betrayal,
words out that leave one pale,
milk & honey in the old house, mouth gone bad,
the caress that felt for all the world like a blow,
screams of fear eyeless, wide-eyed loss,
hellish vaudeville turns, promises had
& promises forgotten here below,
the final wound of the Cross.
I have a story to tell you which is the worst
story to tell that ever once I heard.
What thickens my tongue?
and has me by the throat? I gasp accursed
even for the though of uttering that word.
I pass to the next Song: