I Am She. I Am He

The only people that are happy are those that don’t write long poems.

John Berryman

Dream Song 29

by John Berryman

sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.


I do not believe in fate, but the concept of fate is popular among poets. Particularly poets who believe that to discover one’s poetic voice you must experience suffering so that you can express it and balance it with joy in a genuine way.  I do believe in genetics.   I believe that depression, mania and a tendency towards mental illness are in part hard wired as a gift in our DNA.   Whether you want to interpret that as fate is up to you.

John Berryman was borne John Allyn Smith, Jr.   Having Junior hung around your neck is difficult for many men.  I can’t imagine what it would be like given how in one instant, your entire childhood and identity were erased or at least shrouded in a permanent fog from violence.  Berryman would spend the rest of his life pursuing therapy,  dream analysis, drugs, what we would call today sex addiction, work addiction, alcohol and sobriety, yet nothing balanced his serotonin levels to the point that he didn’t crave the next high or his next low.   Berryman was an incredible intellect, who also worked as hard as any poet in the 20th century to become a poet. The published work of Berryman is a small percentage of his output over his lifetime.  The Dream Songs may read like they are rickety in their construction, slap dash if you pick at them one at a time.  But if you sit down and read the entirety of them, including the one’s published after his death, there is a stealthy, mindful consistency that does not come by chance, it comes from incredibly hard work as a writer. 

Addiction is a disease, not a failing of morale character, nor an inclination towards laziness.   Addiction in of itself, is hard work.  It carries none of the idolatry or support that defines our societies focus on cancer. John Berryman carried his addictions successfully in forging a career as a professor and poet.  Success and addiction are not mutually exclusive realities for many.  It all depends on how one defines success.   

Before I explore the primary relationship in Berryman’s life,  the relationship with his mother, I think a bit more context around his father’s life is warranted. John Allyn Smith was borne into a middle class family in Stillwater, Minnesota.  Born on March 21, 1887, the last of 10 children, born in 2 year intervals to Jefferson and Mary Smith.  There is no record of John Smith’s childhood.  The first written record of his life is in 1905 when he attended business courses at Globe College of Business in St. Paul, an institution that still survives today.   John Smith would as a young man work in the lumber industry in Stillwater, Minnesota.   Ready to make a stake for himself after working blue collar jobs, he decided to follow an older brother to Oklahoma during the oil boom. His much older brother had been financially successful and owned a small bank, but died shortly before Smith arrived.  However, Smith was able to follow in his brother’s footsteps and became branch manager of a small bank in Sasakwa, Oklahoma.  Sasakwa is about 100 miles southeast of Oklahoma city, a small town that has only gotten smaller in the past 100 years ,with 150 residents as of the last census.  There was not much to do in Sasakwa.   He took a room in a boarding house owned by Martha Little’s mother and with it an interest in Martha. However it came to pass, the two were married in July of 1912, John Allyn Smith was 25 and Martha was 18.  

After a short honeymoon, the newlyweds settled in McAlester, a city about 60 miles due east, where John Smith continued his banking career.  John Allyn Smith Junior was born in October of 1914. Sufficient time had elapsed from the wedding that Martha feared she might not have children. 

Martha shaped the narrative of her first husband after his death, and little of it was positive.   However, records suggest something else.  Accounts of friends and colleagues suggest he was honest, trustworthy, amicable.   He could play a good hand of bridge, like to fish and hunt, play baseball and was a regular Joe and contributing citizen in the towns he lived and worked.  He handled difficult issues like foreclosures and bankruptcies with professionalism and care for the people involved while weighing the interests of the banks that he was employed.  From 1912 until 1920, John Smith provided a stable middle class life for his family and had a solid if unremarkable banking career.  Smith worked for several banks during this period and left all of them on good terms and parlayed his experience into better positions.  The couple had a second son, Robert Jefferson Smith in September of 1919.   

Berryman had few memories of this time in his life, but he did not have unhappy memories of this time in his life either.  In 1920 the family, moved to Andarko, a much smaller city than McAlester, where Smith became Vice President and loan officer for the First State Bank.   The move proved prosperous, finances and the Smith family moved into a bigger house and retained the services of a maid.   Smith was in complete control of the bank and under his leadership the bank floated along for the next several years.  However, John Smith Sr was restless, he was bored.  He stepped down from his position at the bank in March of 1924 in search of a new beginning.  Martha would later shape the accounting that he was fired, but a written endorsement by one of the trustees suggests he left on good terms, praising him for his 15 years of service in the banking industry.   It looks more like John Sr simply wanted to try something new.  Within days of resigning from the bank he was appointed to a position of assistant game and fish warden for the State of Oklahoma, a position that aligned with his personal interests of hunting and fishing.  The speed with which it occurred suggests he had lined up the position before he left the bank. Smith would join the Oklahoma National Guard that summer.   The change in positions provided temporary relief from his mid-life crisis and a diversion from his stale marriage, but the career change was not as financially lucrative.  As savings began to dwindle, and Martha began to complain that her grasp on the brass ring that she desperately wanted to climb in society was at risk, fractures began to be more evident in their marriage.  Smith began to rapidly try and figure out the next stage in his career. His mother-in-law had purchased some land in Florida from years before.  The model T had suddenly made the beaches of Florida accessible and the Florida land boom was on.  Smith schemed with Martha’s mother to throw their lot in together in business and see if he could turn his knowledge of banking into a successful real estate and insurance business in Florida, using her land as collateral to get started.   John, his mother-in-law and Martha set out in the fall of 1925 for Florida to scout out the possibilities.  John Jr (age 11) and his brother (age 6) were placed in a boarding school, where both were severely bullied and both were miserable.   Word made its way to their mother and she promptly returned to Oklahoma, removed them from the school and drove them back to Florida to enroll them in public school. 

Although the family unit was restored, the change of scenery did not improve the families circumstances.  The Smith’s arrived too late in the Florida real estate boom and despite all of John Sr’s best attempts his businesses floundered.  The three had purchased a restaurant in the Tampa area.  All three worked in some fashion at the venture, while John Smith also tried his hand at real estate.  Neither worked out and as it became apparent that the restaurant business was not for them, selling it just months later for less than half what they purchased it, the already strained relationship between he and his wife and his mother-in-law became combative emotionally and by her accounts after his death, physically as well.   By early 1926, their financial resources declining fast, the family were forced to move into a boarding house, owned by John Angus Berryman.   By late June 26 of that year John Allyn Smith would lay dead, on the back stairs of the boarding house, a single gun shot to the heart.  In less than 6 months the entire course of John Berryman’s life would be forever altered and with it, any vestige of  happiness in John Jr’s childhood was obliterated. 


Diving Into The Wreck (An Excerpt)

by Adrienne Rich

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.