Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Eleven Addresses to the Lord

by John Berryman
from Love & Fame


Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
thank you for such as it is my gift.

I have made up a morning prayer to you
containing with precision everything that most matters.
'According to Thy will' the thing begins.
It took me off & on two days. It does not aim at eloquence.

You have come to my rescue again & again
in my impassable, sometimes despairing years.
You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves
and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.

Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs:
how can I 'love' you?
I only as far as gratitude & awe
confidently & absolutely go.

I have no idea whether we live again.
It doesn't seem likely
from either the scientific or philosophical point of view
but certainly all things are possible to you,

and I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter & to Paul
as I believe I sit this blue chair.
Only that may have been a special case
to establish their initiatory faith.

Whatever your end may be, accept my amazement.
May I stand until death forever at attention
for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
I even feel sure you will assist me again, Master of insight & beauty.

Lamp and Animal

I've been waiting for awhile now to know, to discover, a meaning for the series of poems I wrote late in 2006-- Dialogue with Animal. A single poem composed from a collection of ten fragments, Dialogue received the humiliation it deserved during workshop; it was sloppy, and didn't heed conventions or care for its audience. But I knew it was important-- I knew that what it had to say was beyond my understanding.
A note on that: I've long held this two-fold conception of my own consciousness, though I've only recently considered the "shadow" my observing eye may cast on its own consciousness, the perceptual distortion that this observation may cause; the difficulty of considering my own consideration. But this is what I've believed, how I've spoken of it to myself: that my mind has its music both in and under language-- that language brings thought into light, but that there is unlit thought happening out-of-view. Animal thought, perhaps. I recognize that there are all kinds of problems with this belief, yet I can't help but persist in it. And so I consider poetry a means of bringing the unlit into the light when I don't have the language to consciously do so-- bringing the thought my mind is making into language, into view, via images, figures, incantations. I don't mean to make this into a religious phenomenon-- I don't believe it is, at least not any more so than anything else. The belief is simply that there is thought under language, outside of communication. And the reason I believe this is because I feel as though I've observed it in myself.
Anyway, in Dialogue there are two characters-- a lamp and an animal. They live together in a coffin, which is a figure of a human body-- at least that's how I've interpreted it. I've held the lamp/animal division to be simple Cartesian dualism, for the most part: the lamp is the "soul" and the animal is the "flesh," though my view of it also carried a Pauline dichotomy-- flesh-as-sinfulness and spirit-as-godliness. I held this view of the poem, but knew that it wasn't entirely correct, not complete, especially considering how the poem ends (the lamp and animal devise a method of both "rising from the dead" by tying themselves together with a red cord, thereby tricking Death. Angry, he repays them by tying them so tightly together with the red cord that they become one. I wasn't sure what it might mean for the "soul" and "body" to be fused together by Death.)
But I've been reading Heidegger, and his problem with Cartesian dualism-- what he sees as its shortcoming. He argues that it uncritically assumes the thinking subject, the I; that "the question of the kind of Being which belongs to the knowing subject is left entirely unasked." Heidegger sees his task as one of destroying Descartes' dogmatic cogito Sum, and the conception of the ego as a non-extending soul-substance, thinking-substance, different than extended, earthy-substance. Heidegger wants to destroy the idea of man as a two-natured creature, res cogitans and res extensa, and the attending idea of man's subject/object relationship with the world, and he wants to replace it with what I am still having trouble comprehending: man as Being-in-the-world. Man's essence is in his existence, rather than in his knowing of an outside world. Knowing is a way of being.
Death too plays a role in Heidegger's philosophy. It is through a correct conception of one's own death, in Being-towards-death [death is one's "ownmost potentiality-for-being, non-relational, and not to be outstripped], that our individual self is cleared out, and we have angst in the face of finite Being-in-the-world. It is through this death-given individuation that Dasein is allowed to want to be its Self, and it is through this death-given individuation that Dasein can be open to discovering truth, and having a meaningful resoluteness of action.
And I begin to feel a foggy inkling of what the poem may have been striving to report.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Often the only books I can turn to in a tired evening, when my heads feels like a hot medicine ball, are Mr. Berryman's-- his diction, his rhythms, and the absurd theatricality of his speaker, somehow managing to communicate an acute sincerity, are vivid enough for my mind to track. Only his last few books of poetry-- Love & Fame; Delusions, Etc.; and Henry's Fate (a posthumous collection of unpublished work)-- are there. At times these poems read like desperate (or wildly bored) journal entries, and sometimes they read like the Dreamsongs, but always marked by the presence, immediate, of his very near-to-your-ear voice.

I've been thinking about next year, about where I'll go now that I've finished this Irvine stint, and happened upon this one, from Henry's Fate:


Young men (young women) ask about my 'roots,'
as if I were a plant. Yeats said to me,
with some preteniousness, I felt even then,
'London is useful, but I always go back

to Ireland, where my roots are.' Mr. Eliot
too, worried about his roots
whether beside the uncontrollable river
the Mississippi, or the Thames, or elsewhere.

I can't see it. Many are wanderers,
both Lawrences, Byron, & the better for it.
Many stay home forever: Hardy: fine.
Bother these bastards with their preconceptions.

The hell with it. Whether to go or stay
be Fate's, or mine, or matter.
Exile is in our time like blood. Depend on
interior journeys taken anywhere.

I'd rather live in Venice or Kyoto,
except for the languages, but
O really I don't care where I live or have lived.
Wherever I am, young Sir, my wits about me,

memory blazing, I'll cope & make do.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Day's Poem, Good Friday

This is the penultimate poem in Berryman's "Delusions, Etc.", a collection he completed just before he jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. The poem reminds me, in its passion, in its unhinged-ness, of Pascal's "Memorial." It's not great poetry, though the diction & rhythm are still active in that trademark Berryman way, with surprising turns and explosive uses of colloquial language-- but even if it isn't great poetry, the intensity of emotion, the all-soul-bared Confessional style in which it is written, uncovers in me a powerful feeling, appropriate to this day.

The Facts & The Issues
by John Berryman

I really believe He's here all over this room
in a motor hotel in Wallace Stevens' town.
I admit it's weird; and could--or could it?--not be so;
but frankly I don't think there's a molecular chance of that.
It doesn't seem hypothesis. Thank heavens
millions agree with me, or mostly do,
and have done ages of our human time,
among whom were & still are some very sharp cookies.
I don't exactly feel missionary about it,
though it's very true I wonder if I should.
I regard the boys who don't buy this as deluded.
Of course they regard me no doubt as deluded.
Okay with me! And not the hell with them
at all--no!--I feel dubious on Hell--
it's here, all right, but elsewhere, after? Screw that,
I feel pretty sure that evil simply ends
for the doer (having wiped him out,
but the way, usually) where good does on,
or good may drop dead too: I don't think so:
I can't say I have hopes in that department
myself, I lack ambition just just there,
I know that Presence says it's mild, and it's mild,
but being what I am I wouldn't care
to dare go nearer. Happy to be here
and to have been here, with such lovely ones
so infinitely better, but to me
even in their suffering infinitely kind
& blessing. I am a greedy man, of course,
but I wouldn't want that kind of luck continued,--
or even increased (for Christ's sake), & forever?
Let me be clear about this. It is plain to me
Christ underwent man & treachery & socks
& lashes, thirst, exhaustion, the bit, for my pathetic &
disgusting vices,

to make this filthy fact of paticular, long-after,
faraway, five-foot-ten & moribund
human being happy. Well, he has!
I am so happy I could scream!
It's enough! I can't BEAR ANY MORE.
Let this be it. I've had it. I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Day's Poem, Day 21

You and I Saw Hawks Exchanging the Prey
by James Wright

They did the deed of darkness
In their own mid-light.

He plucked a gray field-mouse
Suddenly in the wind.

The small dead fly alive
Helplessly in his beak,

His cold pride, helpless.
All she receives is life.

They are terrified. They touch.
Life is too much.

She flies away sorrowing.
Sorrowing, she goes alone.

Then her small falcon, gone,
Will not rise here again.

Smaller than she, he goes
Claw beneath claw beneath
Needles and leaning boughs,

While she, the lovelier
Of these brief differing two,
Floats away sorrowing,

Tall as my love for you,

And almost lonelier.

Delighted in the delighting,
I love you in mid-air,
I love myself to the ground.

The great wings sing nothing.
Lightly. Lightly fall.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Day's Poem, 20

(in response to Frost's "The Draft Horse"-- posted below)
Lines to Mr. Frost
by John Berryman

Felled in my tracks by your tremendous horse
slain in its tracks by the angel of good God,
I wonder toward your marvellous tall art
warning away maybe in that same morning

you squandered afternoon of your great age
on my good gravid wife & me, with tales
gay of your cunning & colossal fame
& awful character, and--Christ--I see

I know & can do nothing, and don't mind--
you're talking about American power and how
somehow we've got to be got to give it up--
so help me, in my poverty-stricken way

I said the same goddamn thing yesterday
to my thirty kids, so I was almost ready
to hear you from the grave with these passionate grave
last words, and frankly Sir you fill me with joy.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Day's Poem, 19

If only we'd have listened to the likes of Hopkins and Wordsworth over whether we ought to think of urban growth as "progress" or not. Here is Hopkin's lesser known indictment (lesser known, that is, than Wordsworth's famous sonnets that mourn the expansion of urban life).



ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skein├Ęd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.

Come Round Again, Day's Poem, 18

Sometimes a turn on the cycle of life takes longer than you might expect-- it feels like lingering in a zero-gravity moment, the way you do on a roller-coaster coming down its steepest slope, or grinding its sharpest corner. You hang there, timelessly, pressed against the back or side of the seat, no breath in your mouth. No word.

Anamnesis-- remembering what you've forgotten. Like passing through a dim valley only to surface again, and feel the light fall warm against your face, fill up the empty cistern inside.

After reading Hopkins last night (a good friend called his name to mind), I feel this way, and I thought I'd post some of his lyrics instead of the promised Berryman, which will still come.

This one is in honor of Spring, and in honor of the Mockingbirds that are filling the trees around here with laser-fire.



Nothing is so beautiful as Spring --
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber dpes so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him and sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have their fair fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. -- Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.