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John Berryman

Berryman’s Testament

The experience of reading Berryman’s The Dream Songs reminds me of the time after my marriage began to fail when I moved in with a friend who had just gotten divorced . I learned a lot from the few months I lived with him, mostly how NOT to live my life after my divorce. He would come home from work at midnight with a 6-pack of beer and want to TALK. Forever. And those were the least of his problems. I suspect both I and my kids benefited from the lessons I learned there, but I was never happier than when I bought my own home and was able to move out.

It’s probably no accident that these two poems appear at the end of the book, giving us a perspective on what we’ve just read:

366

Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves
well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,
seven or so in number,
I forgive my enemies, especially two,
races his heart, at so much magnanimity,
can it at all be true?

-Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.
Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,
a testament & such.
Is you going? -Oh, I suffer from a strike
& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,
Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,
I took it in my stride & out I struck,
lonesome Henry.
These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.
They are only meant to terrify & comfort.
Lilac was found in his hand.

I don’t think any number of poems would really allow us to “understand” the pain Henry, or Berryman, felt in his life. Neither can we comprehend why he felt driven to commit suicide. We have experienced some of the chaos and terror in his life, though it don’t give Loren much comfort, in fact, hardly none at all, realizing the pain some people have to get through.

The best we can hope for is that the poems bring Awareness

370

Henry saw with Tolstoyan clarity
his muffled purpose. He described the folds-
not a symbol in the place.
Naked the man came forth in his mask, to be.
Illnesses from encephalitis to colds
shook his depths & his surface.

When he dressed up & up, his costumes varied
with the southeast wind, but he remained aware.
Awareness was most of what he had.
The terrible chagrin to which he was married-
derelict Henry’s siege mentality-
stability, I will stay

in my monastery until my death
& the fate my actions have so hardly earned.
The horizon is all cloud.
Leaves on leaves on leaves of books I’ve turned
and I know nothing, Henry said aloud,
with his ultimate breath.

though apparently awareness, by itself, will not save us, or surely Henry would have been saved.

The Dream Songs has certainly made me aware just how devastating someone’s suicide can be on those who love them. You can only wonder how Berryman, knowing this better than anyone else, could commit suicide, leaving behind a son and two daughters. Awe Full.