Tag Archives: Poetry

David Berman — RIP

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.

‘Summer, do your worst!’

Dorothy Parker is overesteemed as personality and writer, but her desiccated wit often produced gems like the poem below.

When my eyes are weeds,
And my lips are petals, spinning
Down the wind that has beginning
Where the crumpled beeches start
In a fringe of salty reeds;
When my arms are elder-bushes,
And the rangy lilac pushes
Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on
Your performing stars to fall on
Headlong through your paper sky;
Nevermore shall I be cursed
By a flushed and amorous slattern,
With her dusty laces’ pattern
Trailing, as she straggles by.

Happy August.

‘I must get a new bird/and a new immortality box’

Thanks to Peter Gabriel, I discovered Anne Sexton; thanks to Harold Bloom, I practiced a received contempt. Sexton and Sylvia Plath, he said, “are not poets, merely case histories and hysterics. They could not write poetry that should matter to any serious reader.” Proposing that W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, and above all James Merrill are superior shouldn’t detract from Sexton’s achievement . I’m not sure if she listened to rock ‘n’ roll, but her concision and affinity for the folktale give her strongest lyrics a performative power that her contemporaries lacked; you can read “The Ambition Bird” aloud and produce a helluva response. Continue reading

‘Here is a queenship no mother can contest…’

Her gifts quashed by her reputation, Sylvia Plath aspired to write great poetry and occasionally did. Often her poems consist of glittering phrases, as abrasive as bleach, in search of a sympathetic structure. “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” doesn’t cohere, but when you reach the end you know you’ve read something powerful — without knowing what the “something” is. Continue reading

What fools these mortals be: ‘All is True’

“If only Shakespeare had lived in the era of therapy,” I thought halfway through All is True. He could afford it. In Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized depiction of the playwright’s exile, occasioned by a malfunctioning cannon causing The Globe to burn down in 1613, Shakespeare returns to Straford-on-Avon so that his wife Anne Hathaway and daughters can torment him about being a lousy husband and father. Not even Macbeth and Petruchio were so henpecked. There isn’t much to All is True beyond remembering the greatest hits of the Bard’s life treated as expository dialogue and the chuckles of Branagh and Judi Dench bedeviled by the sorriest old age makeup in recent memory. Continue reading

‘And, beyond the cove, the channel bells’

I know little about Rosanna Warren, but I’ve loved “The Cormorant” since reading it in The Best of the Best American Poetry twenty years ago.

Up through the buttercup meadow the children lead
their father. Behind them, gloom
of spruce and fir, thicket through which they pried
into the golden ruckus of the field, toward home:

this rented house where I wait for their return
and believe the scene eternal. They have been out
studying the economy of the sea. They trudged to earn
sand-dollars, crab claws, whelk shells, the huge debt

repaid in smithereens along the shore:
ocean, old blowhard, wheezing in the give
and take, gulls grieving the shattered store.
It is your death I can’t believe,

last night, inland, away from us, beyond
these drawling compensations of the moon.
If there’s an exchange for you, some kind of bond,
it’s past negotiation. You died alone.

Across my desk wash memories of ways
I’ve tried to hold you: that poem of years ago
starring you in your mater dolorosa phase;
or my Sunday picnic sketch in which the show
is stolen by your poised, patrician foot
above whose nakedness the party floats.
No one can hold you now. The point is moot.
I see you standing, marshalling your boats

of gravy, chutney, cranberry, at your vast
harboring Thanksgiving table, fork held aloft
while you survey the victualling of your coast.
We children surged around you, and you laughed.

Downstairs, the screen door slams, and slams me back
into the present, which you do not share.
Our children tumble in, they shake the pack
of sea-treasures out on table, floor, and chair.

But now we tune our clamor to your quiet.
The deacon spruces keep the darkest note
though hawkweed tease us with its saffron riot.
There are some wrecks from which no loose planks float,

nothing the sea gives back. I walked alone
on the beach this morning, watching a cormorant
skid, thudding, into water. It dove down
into that shuddering darkness where we can’t

breathe. Impossibly long. Nothing to see.
Nothing but troughs and swell
over and over hollowing out the sea.
And, beyond the cove, the channel bells.

It’s gonna be May!

‘Turn and look once more/And smite a rock” — a Good Friday poem

In eighth grade relatives could measure my devotion by the clack of rosary beads. I lived close enough to St. Brendan to walk. The rest of Holy Week — undeveloped, I thought. What about Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday? Thus the intensity of my devotion during what I call my Stephen Dedalus period. The sacrifice of Christ I felt in my corpuscles, a Method acting so thorough that when the belief vaporized I blinked like a man who has stepped out of a smoke-filled room.

Yet, to rewrite one of Wallace Stevens’ profoundest lines, the absence of faith had itself to be imagined. I cling to memories of the ritual. To get wistful about the contours of a devotion I no longer feel is bizarre, I’ll wager. Christina Rossetti’s “Good Friday” limns this peculiarity.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Uh, happy Good Friday?