I am so wise I had my mouth sewn shut.John Berryman
Dream Song 28 (Snow Line)
by John Berryman
It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don’t know. It was dark and then
I wish the barker would come. There seems to be to eat
nothing. I am unusually tired.
I’m alone too.
If only the strange one with so few legs would come,
I’d say my prayers out of my mouth, as usual.
Where are his notes I loved?
There may be horribles; its hard to tell.
The barker nips me but somehow I feel
he too is on my side.
I’m too alone. I see no end. If we could all
run, even that would be better. I am hungry.
The sun is not hot.
It’s not a good position I am in.
If I had to do the whole thing over again
I have purposely not read much literary criticism on Berryman. I don’t want to be influenced by other’s far more educated take on things. I like to eat Berryman without whipped cream, even if that means I can’t always discern all the inside literary jokes contained within The Dream Songs. I feel like Berryman and Robert Lowell had a lifelong contest to see which one could out do the other with the most intelligent literary references in their writing. Lowell’s in my opinion is more cogent, while Berryman uses these references almost like adjectives or verbs.
When I read Berryman I hear a language that is distinctly male. By that I don’t mean that women don’t read and enjoy Berryman or that a woman couldn’t write in that style. I mean it sounds like how men talk to a greater extent than how women do. It particularly sounds like how men talk in bars, after they have had one too much. It’s a voice that becomes tad more arrogant, dismissive, more belligerent, but also more self-effacing, more humorous, as the liquor comes quicker. I am not suggesting that Berryman always wrote under the influence but given his lifetime as an alcoholic I can confidently assume he edited under the influence.
There is a thread of self-destructiveness that runs through Berryman’s writing and life that is painful to observe without judging. For those who believe they are above self-destruction, here’s a pro-tip – it can be a low in the emotional cycle that fuels productivity. I am not suggesting that he was bi-polar. I mean that by experience I know that by testing just how far down you can take yourself and recover, can result in a sense of relief like euphoria that Berryman refers to above. Taking your life, your physical, professional, personal life, right to the very brink and pulling it back, can be the reset button that some people need, for in that moment of relief, there is a calmness that propels them forward.
An early first example of this is when at 16, attending South Kent boarding school, although doing fine in his required essays and tests in literature, Berryman arrogantly admitted to the headmaster that he had not read all the required books. The school temporarily expelled him. Realizing the gravity of the situation that he had not expected, he not only promptly read all the required reading, but he set about to exceed the academic requirements at the school from that point forward, not wanting to ever jeopardize his standing again. Berryman’s tendency for touching the third rail and surviving happens at an astonishing rate throughout his lifetime. Whether it was picking fights with boys physically bigger than him to create a reputation that would protect him, only to be beaten even more savagely later by the gang the bully would eventually assemble to resume control or whether it was crossing lines of professional and personal boundaries that could only lead to trouble, Berryman was seemingly drawn to difficulties as if they were inevitable and satisfying.
I have debated how to explain the critical event that shaped Berryman’s entire adult life – namely his father’s death at age 11. In reading both Haffenden’s and Mariani’s biographies of Berryman, the vast majority of the information is nearly identical, coming from the same sources. However, only Haffenden suggests that John Allyn Smith’s death may not have been a suicide, that something more ominous may have occurred. A short trial by the coroner concluded swiftly that the evidence pointed to Smith taking his own life with a single gunshot to the chest, but the lack of powder burns raised no suspicions in anyone’s minds at the time, given how frequent suicides were during the boom/bust cycle of Florida real estate in which he was involved. However, the circumstances surrounding his death would certainly raise more pointed questions today than were raised then, given the physical evidence.
Berryman wrote several Dream Songs that deal with his father’s death – number 145 and 384 are specific examples. Berryman spent a lifetime trying to forgive and also exorcise his anger at his father. I fear he achieved neither, despite good intentions. The opening stanza of 145 reads;
Also, I love him; he’s done me no wrong
for going on forty years – forgiveness time –
I touch now his despair,
he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower
but he did not swim out with me or his brother
as he threatened –
Whether Berryman was always able to maintain this magnanimous view is questionable. There are some issues raised by those that have scrutinized the letters between Martha and Berryman, as well as other documents, as to the accuracy of sequence of events that Berryman’s mother provided authorities at the time and then her carefully crafted versions over the years to tell her sons. There is no question that she was having an affair with their landlord, and that this was more the cause of the failure of their marriage than John Smith’s own affair. There is a question of what came first, but regardless, the pending divorce and humiliation of being bested by a man much older than himself, was a major source of mental illness and depression for Berryman’s father. His wife’s affair that was quite out in the open at the time of his death with a man that she would marry just weeks following her husband’ death, a death that occurred on the day their divorce was to be finalized raised no suspicions at the time yet had a long echo for the rest of Berryman’s life. There is a cold bloodlessness with which Martha moved forward with her life following his death that suggests there were not much of an emotional bond that required grieving or that Martha was incapable of feelings toward him. She later claimed she married him only under duress after he raped her. That John Smith black mailed her into accepting his marriage proposal because her mother would only blame her for the rape. Whether that was true or not cannot be determined, but there are elements of truth in Martha’s recounting of events around her marriage to John Smith that it can’t be ruled out. There is no question that Martha did what she felt she needed to do to create the life she felt she deserved for her and her sons both before and after Berryman’s father’s death.
In reading the biographies I came away thinking that Martha may never have loved either of her husbands. However, there is no question, that the relationship between Berryman and his mother defined each of their lives from the moments leading up to his father’s death and forever onward in ways that were both supportive and dismally dysfunctional.
Dream Song 36
by John Berryman
The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
-Easy, easy, Mr. Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
-I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all again & again I died
and cried, and I have to live.
-Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.
That is our pointed task. Love & die.
-Yes, that makes sense.
But what make sense between, then? What if I
roiling and babbling & braining, brood on why and
just sat on the fence?
-I doubts you did or do. De choice is lost.
-It’s fools gold. But I go in for that.
The boy and the bear
looked at each other. Man is all tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Fulkner’s where?
(Frost still being around.)