No critic is a sage, so David Berman revealed himself to me as a poet first. When I found his collection Actual Air for a buck in the reduced section of my satellite campus bookstore exactly a decade ago, I bought it on a condescending whim — “how good can a poetry collection by a rock guy be?” Then I read “Grace”:
As one who, reading late into the night,
When overcome by sleep, turns off the light
And yields whatever he can sense by sight
To what the gates of ivory or of horn
Will send him, sightless as a child unborn,
To goad, amuse, remind, reveal or warn,
So may I turn a light off and embrace
With resignation, better still with grace,
The dreamless sleep that all awake must face.
The toughness of these tercets — their understanding of art as a supreme fiction that makes sense of air, light, life — reminded me of Wallace Stevens, after whom Berman named the volume. Thanks to Berman’s laconic, self-effacing drawl, Berman under the Silver Jews moniker released a few albums that are the American equivalent of The Fall: an American vernacular accommodating itself to absurdity indistinguishable from tragedy.
Their masterpiece American Water (1998) is too well-named. The album’s first line — “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” — tipped the hat to an approach as attuned to the rhythms of the vernacular in American poetry and song as Cole Porter and John Ashbery. Collaborators and fellow travelers like Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich understood that Berman was the real thing: skeptical of the transcendental likes of Patti Smith and Allen Ginsburg, Berman drew upon wryness as a muse, as a way of moistening his confessions. Over the slow static progression of “Blue Arrangement,” Berman and Malkmus praise the “Protestant thighs” of a paramour who inspires a prolixity increasingly uncommon in Amerindie. Berman, unlike words-first guys, believed in melody. Perhaps the melody inspired the following verse:
Sometimes I feel like I’m watching the world
And the world isn’t watching me back
But when I see you, I’m in it too
The waves come in and the waves go back
Perhaps he sensed the high tide of those waves waiting to take him.