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Shoulder to Shoulder, All That Jazz

Sometimes you do something and you have no idea, at the time, why you did it. For example, back in 1986, in Sarasota, Florida, I memorized John Berryman’s Dream Song 14 — but it took until last week for me to understand the reason. I was standing on the upper level of Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge — standing more or less at the spot where Berryman jumped to his death in January of 1972 — and I thought to recite the poem. Which I did, sort of under my breath, as bicyclists rode past. Then I recited it again. Then I tried another: Dream Song 1. And another: Dream Song 77 (as much as I could remember, anyway). I tried to imagine Berryman — hesitating, waving — on that long-ago January morning. John Berryman, the poet who has meant so much to me, making ready to move on.

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Two days before his suicide, Berryman returned to his familiar Dream Song stanzas:

I didn’t. And I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade
to gash my throat after I’d climbed across
the high railing of the bridge
to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me shocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless

unless my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house,
unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus
up to the bridge
& clappt me in for observation, costing my job —

The poem was later discovered in a wastebasket, with a slash running through it. A suicide note was found, as well. On that final Friday morning, Berryman told his wife Kate, “You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” He jumped from a height of a hundred feet; his horn-rimmed glasses shattered on impact. The police identified him by the blank check in his pocket. From Dream Song 86: “The conclusion is growing . . . I feel sure, my lord, / this august court will entertain the plea / Not Guilty by reason of death.” From Dream Song 36: “We hafta die. / That is our ‘pointed task. Love & die.”

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My friend Katrina Vandenberg was teaching 77 Dream Songs last week to her M.F.A. students at Hamline University, and she invited me to visit the class. The students asked fabulous questions, zeroing in quickly on those serio-comic riffs and reversals, on what John Bayley calls the “Berrymanness of Berryman.” The next day Katrina drove me to Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights, where Berryman is buried. We arrived after the office had closed, meaning we had no real chance of finding his grave. (From Dream Song 384: “I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one / who cannot visit me, who tore his page / out.”) But we wandered around, hoping against hope, and took a few pictures of the cityscape. Finally, just as we were about to leave, I noticed this headstone:

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— which seemed right in almost every way. And now I’ve spent the last few hours searching for Berryman in the modern, late-night fashion. I’ve watched videos by The Hold Steady (“Stuck Between Stations”) and Okkervil River (“John Allyn Smith Sails”) — two indie bands that take Berryman (born Smith) as their subject. (Here’s a second version of “Stuck Between Stations” — louder, and on Letterman.) And I’ve watched this stunning excerpt from a 1967 interview that Al Alvarez did with Berryman — an excerpt that ends with that poem I memorized when I was nineteen, and when I was eager for examples, both bad and brilliant:

Driving home last Sunday from Minneapolis to Ann Arbor, I listened to the audio version of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One. I thought about connections between the two sometimes-Minnesotans: fodder, perhaps, for another post. As Adrienne Rich wrote, back in 1969: “The English (American) language. Who knows entirely what it is? Maybe two men in this decade: Bob Dylan, John Berryman.”