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John Berryman

Berryman’s Dream Song 66

Though I find myself much more drawn to Berryman’s writing style than to his vision of life, it’s impossible to ignore his insights into life (even if he seemed totally unable to apply any of those insights to himself).

Poem 66 seems to be trying to make a statement about the relationship between fame and virture, as suggested by the lines “How feel a fellow then when he arrive/ in fame but lost?”

66

‘All virtues enter into this world:’)
A Buddhist, doused in the street, serenely burned.
The Secretary of State for War,
winking it over, screwed a redhaired whore.
Monsignor Capovilla mourned. What a week.
A journalism doggy took a leak

against absconding coon (‘but take one virtue,
without which a man can hardly hold his own’)
the sun in the willow
shivers itself & shakes itself green-yellow
(Abba Pimen groaned, over the telephone,
when asked what that was:)

How feel a fellow then when he arrive
in fame but lost? but affable, top-shelf.
Quelle sad semaine.
He hardly know his selving. (‘that a man’)
Henry grew hot, got laid, felt bad, survived
(‘should always reproach himself’.

Lines two through four offer an interesting contrast between two “famous” people, the Buddhist priest who made headlines all over the world when he burned himself to death to protest the Vietnam War. The equally famous “Secretary of State for War” (would that be McNamara?) winked at the monk’s act while making love to a redhaired whore. It’s pretty clear who has the moral high ground here, but I’m betting given those choices most people would choose not to be the monk. I know the only matches I was lighting about then were igniting the cigarettes I used to calm my nerves and stay awake while on guard duty.

Part of what haunts the narrator, and all of us, is the moral ambiguity of life. This ambiguity pervades the poem but is suggested strongly by this quotation from St. Pimen the Great:

A brother asked Abba Pimen: “What constitutes repentance of sin?” The elder replied: “Never to commit this sin again. The sinless and the righteous are so called because they have rejected their sins and have become righteous.”

Abba Pimen said: “Man has constant need of humility, spiritual wisdom and the fear of God, just as he needs the air that he breathes through his nostrils.”
Abba Pimen said: “If man reaches the state of which the Apostle said: for the pure one everything is pure, he will see himself the worst of all creation.” A brother said to him: “How can I consider myself to be worse than murderers?” The elder replied: “If a man reaches the spiritual state indicated by the Apostle, and sees another man who had committed murder, he will say to himself: that man committed the sin only once, while I kill myself and others with my sins daily!”

I would assume that the narrator himself had come under criticism for “absconding,” or for his lack of virtue. He goes so far as to suggest that he handled that criticism by getting laid — and feeling bad. Though, of course, the tone of these poems seem to indicate that he didn’t get off quite that easily.