A Figure in the Distance Even to My Own Eye
I. “A child needs to know the point of the holiday.”
Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at the age of twenty-seven, in April of 1994. Later that year, the first Silver Jews album, Starlite Walker, was released and widely mistaken for a Stephen Malkmus side-project. This means that if the title of David Berman’s poem “Self-Portrait at 28” is accurate, then it was composed the following year, in 1995, because Berman, like Cobain, was born in 1967. The two men are the same age—or would be if Cobain had lived.
Actual Air, the volume of poems in which “Self-Portrait at 28” was collected, came out in 1999, a year after American Water, the album widely regarded as the Silver Jews’ superlative work, as well as generally understood to be one of the defining indie-rock albums of its era. At the time, Berman seemed to be splitting his energies about evenly between poetry and music—or maybe to prefer the former. After all, he had studied poetry (as a University of Virginia undergrad, and later as an MFA candidate at UMass-Amherst), and occasionally gave public readings, whereas the Silver Jews never played live. (Berman also banned Drag City from taking ads out for their records. These facts almost certainly helped foster the mistaken impression that the Silver Jews were a Malkmus venture.)
A new David Berman poem appears now and again (he was, briefly, this magazine’s poet in residence) but there is no indication that he will publish another book of poems. (A collection of his drawings, The Portable February, was published by Drag City in June.) Indeed, I suspect that you will see The Collected Lyrics of the Silver Jews long before you ever see a follow-up to Actual Air. In this regard, its likely status as a singular entry in the Berman catalog, Actual Air reminds me of nothing so strongly as it does Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, with the key distinction being that Actual Air is actually good.
Actual Air is a marvelous book: canny, powerful, engaging, wise, and fun. It’s highly re-readable (Harold Bloom’s first acid test for gauging potential canonicity) and would be no less vital or original if it were to be erased from the historical record and published for the first time tomorrow. In these ways, Actual Air is less an analog for Dylan’s Tarantula than it is for the Silver Jews’ own American Water. Both Berman’s album and his book designate high-water marks in their respective mediums.
If even today it is more than a little bit astounding to know that one mind produced both works—probably during the same period, which would have begun perhaps in the early ’90s but reached its sustained climax during the years of 1995 through 1997—it must have seemed downright ludicrous, in 1999, to think that the feat could be repeated, that the double-down could be double-downed upon. This couldn’t have been clearer to anyone than it must have been to David Berman himself.
In the ten years since Actual Air was published, David Berman has suffered a variety of personal trials and troubles. He got divorced. He struggled with addiction and depression, and even attempted suicide, in 2003. In the course of putting his life back together, he went through a lot of changes. He got sober. He got religion—Judaism, his by birth but never, until now, in practice. He got remarried. He let some guys make a movie about him and his band and a trip they took to Israel (Silver Jew, 2007), and was filmed sobbing in front of the Wailing Wall.
Somehow, during that same period, he put out three new Silver Jews albums: Bright Flight (2001), Tanglewood Numbers (2005), and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008)—all of them first-rate records, not a retread or a victory lap among them. He overcame his long-standing aversion to performing live, and toured the world. He still doesn’t advertise his records, but he started doing more press than he ever had before. (Disclosure: I interviewed Berman, via email, for the Brooklyn Rail in 2005.)
Coming up on the ten-year anniversary of Actual Air’s publication, Berman’s choice of music over poetry seemed eminently clear.
II. “… the marriage of Now and Then…”
I think it is no mistake that the two poems in Actual Air most directly concerned with anniversaries come one after the other. “April 13, 1865” relives the assassination of Lincoln from the perspective of a theatergoer, one “John Sleeper Clarke,” who “pictured stars through oak scaffolds / as the news traveled over / the chairscape like a stain.” It’s a small, quick-witted, and sharply observant poem, from the subtle cleverness of its first lines (“The shot came from the balcony, / as if the play had sprung an annex”) to the surreal clarity of its closing image: “the assassin was in mid-air / when the stagehands wheeled out clouds.”
“Self-Portrait at 28” couldn’t be more unlike “April 13, 1865.” It’s a talky poem of personal reflection, grounded in (if not exactly concerned with) the minutiae of the everyday of the present, declaimed in six sections over the course of eight pages. “I know it’s a bad title,” Berman tells us at the outset, “but I’m giving it to myself as a gift.” The poem moves slowly, drifting like a motorboat with its engine cut, not aimless, exactly, but almost certainly not aimed, as he recalls feeling “a certain amount of pride at school / everytime they called it ‘our sun,’” and a couple pages later notices “that the same people / are dying over and over again, // for instance, Minnie Pearl / who died this year / for the fourth time in four years,” before moving on to other concerns.
Actual Air was the first book to be released by Open City magazine’s now-venerable book-publishing arm. An odd choice, perhaps, to debut with a collection of poems, but the gamble paid off. Joanna Yas, Berman’s editor at Open City, told me that Actual Air is in its ninth printing, and has sold about twenty thousand copies to date: about six thousand in its first year, and an average of more than a thousand a year since. This is the poetry-world equivalent, more or less, of going quadruple platinum. (And yes, it doesn’t hurt that the author also happens to be a highly revered musician, but let me ask you this: Can you remember the title of Billy Corgan’s poetry collection? Did you know that Jeff Tweedy even had one?) The book was greeted with uniformly rave reviews from venues as disparate—and, generally speaking, as poetry-indifferent—as GQ, Entertainment Weekly, and Spin, which in particular was thrilled to inform its readership that “Actual Air is actual poetry,” which sounds like a backhanded compliment only until you remember that Berman’s book was being published around the same time that Jewel’s 1998 poetry collection, A Night Without Armor, was making its transition from hardcover to paperback.
“Berman’s debut announces the discovery of a great American poetic storytelling voice by a new generation,” wrote Publishers Weekly on June 28, 1999, the day before my seventeenth birthday. By October, even the New Yorker was paying attention. “He comes on like a prankster,” said Briefly Noted, “restocking the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the byzantine monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural bric-a-brac of a new generation.”
I’d like to tell you that somebody I knew saw that PW piece, bought me a copy of Actual Air for my birthday, and that this was the Moment When Everything Changed. But the real story goes like this: I was a high-school student in south Florida, torn between competing loves for Less Than Jake and Phish, anguished daily by the decision of which part to dress for. I’d never heard of David Berman, the Silver Jews, or the New Yorker (much less Publishers Weekly), and though I read Spin, I sure wasn’t reading its book reviews.
I first discovered Actual Air as a sophomore at the University of Florida in Gainesville, living off-campus in a house with uneven floors and a keg on its porch. My roommate Peter—who had facilitated my freshman-year introduction to Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, et al.—was on our dial-up Internet connection, trying to find out when bands he liked had new albums coming out. I was in my room, working at my desk. We both had our bedroom doors open, Radiohead’s Kid A was on, and over the noise Peter shouted: “Hey, did anybody know that the guy from the Silver Jews has a poetry book?”
“Anybody” would have included me; our other roommate, Adam; Peter’s then-girlfriend, Avni; these guys Jason and Brian, who crashed intermittently in our living room; and whoever else might have been hanging out that afternoon. In any case, the answer was a unanimous “no.” So Peter ordered the book. It was the spring of 2002.
My copy of Actual Air is actually the one Peter bought that day. He loved it so much that he insisted I read it—both for my own edification and so he’d have someone to talk about it with. It was one of the finest book recommendations I’ve ever gotten in my life.
The book is in rough shape. The front cover is grooved and scratched. The corners curl. Lengths of spine have flaked away (“tual air” published simply by “OPE”). The white back cover is scuffed and smudged with who knows what. At least one coffee stain. Tooth marks. If you found it on a bench, you’d think twice before picking it up.
The poems themselves are shot through with lines of color, Peter’s original notations, and mine, plus all the ones I’ve added over the years. Peter underlined and bracketed, mostly, with either a blue or a black pen—whatever was close at hand. Of the two of us, I was the more prone toward ostentation, so it’s safe to assume that the purple-inked stars, as well as anything highlighted in neon orange, is the work of my own hand. A bright green streak beneath a line of “Community College in the Rain” (“Karen (whispers): We are ranking the great shipwrecks”) could be either of our work.
Choice of writing instrument can be a red herring, however, since either of us might have borrowed the other’s pen, or we might have gone in together on a big box of pens. Let’s look, then, to the penmanship. Mine is much worse than Peter’s, so if the underline accidentally swoops upward and seems to be trying to cross the line out rather than underscore it—that’s probably me. A rare burst of scarlet in “Nervous Ashers” is only ambiguous until you remember that Peter is the bracket-maker, not I. (He liked: “Already gone were the golden days of e-z credit, the days of approaching squat south-central skylines from underneath… howling saran yaps and careening school chords.”)
Sometimes the best clue to who loved a given line lies not in the pen or in the penmanship, but in the content of the line itself. Peter was drawn to Berman’s ability to tease out the intimate urgency from the unremarkable, such as when “A woman whispers to her sugar bowl, / ‘Slowly, over time, you will be lent to the neighbors’” (“Of Things Found Where They Are Not Supposed to Be”). He liked Berman’s jokiness, and, moreover, his willingness to be jokey, to let us know that irony and humor are valid categories of observation and experience, and that letting these things into a poem didn’t negate its ability to also be high-minded, or smart. (Undergrad-me, who cultivated earnestness at the expense of everything else, found this proposition to be deeply problematic.) In “A Letter from Isaac Asimov to His Wife Janet, Written on His Deathbed,” Berman has the science-fiction writer imagine the jokes they’ll make about him at his publisher’s offices: “‘What were his last ten thousand words.…’” In “Now II,” he writes, “O I’ve lied to you so much I can no longer trust you.” Peter underlined both of these lines. I didn’t underline anything in the Asimov poem, but gave a blinding orange topcoat to a different line in “Now II,” one which asks,
“[A]ren’t we meant to crest in a fury more distinguished?”
My Bermans were the philosophical Berman (“brave because all dreams lack conclusions / and she is not enlisted to an ending”—“Serenade for a Wealthy Widow”), the theological Berman (“Now II” repeats the words God is not a secret), and Berman the eagle-eyed detailer:
For a long time I dreamed of moving to the outskirts of town
where you can still burn trash
and see the stars glitter like errors in the sky.
(“They Don’t Acknowledge the Letter C”)
III. “It was the light in things that made them last.”
In the “Preface and Prelude” to his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom writes that “literature is not merely language; it is also the will to figuration, the motive for metaphor that Nietzsche once defined as the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere. This partly means to be different from oneself, but primarily, I think, to be different from the metaphors and images of the contingent works that are one’s heritage: the desire to write greatly is the desire to be elsewhere, in a time and place of one’s own, in an originality that must compound with inheritance, with the anxiety of influence.”
There’s a stanza in Berman’s poem “Governors on Sominex” that speaks to this point. Berman writes, “There were no new ways to understand the world, / only new days to set our understandings against.”
Actual Air is hardly so much a revolt against or break from what has come before it as it is the necessary next link (always and only obvious in retrospect) in the unending, unbroken chain of great poetry in general. That New Yorker blurb I quoted earlier has it right: Berman does have a Stevens mode, and he has learned well Ashbery’s lessons: that pithy fragments in no way preclude the prospect of dreamy ambling, that there is such a thing as narrativity without narrative, of a story without a plot.
Like Ashbery—and like James Tate, who teaches at UMass—Berman enjoys writing scenes. His poems tend to be set in particular (if not always specific) places, and feature named (if not always fleshed-out) characters who communicate via direct dialogue. But having mastered these skills of Ashbery’s and Tate’s, Berman advances the art form by reversing the formula (as Beckett advanced Joyce’s project by reversing it, and as Barthelme in his turn did for Beckett). That is, Berman’s poems tend not to exploit the artifice of narrative, though their small stanzas and aphoristic phrases (“as if water was what we really wanted / when we asked for a glass of it”—“Virginia Mines: The Mascara Series”) may make them seem as if this is what they’re up to. These traits, combined with his wry sense of humor and easy-does-it tone (“This is meant to be in praise of the interval called hangover”—“Cassette County”),plus—probably—the whole Malkmus-side-project thing, have led to Berman’s work frequently being misidentified with a kind of “slacker” mentality, while in actual fact, his poems (and songs) tend to exploit the artifice of the non-narrative in the service of telling a story, or making a point. In “Piano and Scene,” Berman writes that
As advanced as we consider ourselves,
we still allow ad copy to pander to us.
The scam exposed, it endures with our permission
as a parallel narrative running beside our lives
where we sit with an unbuttered baked potato
and a warm beer in multiple versions of Akron
leavened with foreclosure, heartburn and rain.
Their genius was to let us critcize them
until it became boring and obvious to do so.
Meanwhile they were up ahead, busily constructing a world
in which boring and obvious criticism
was about the worst thing you could do,
and when we reached them in time they were waiting
with their multiple Akrons,
always one link ahead in the chain of consent.
Berman’s speaker never so much as raises his voice (though perhaps he does raise an eyebrow), but the punchiness of the delivery in no way detracts from the relevance of the message, or the palpable melancholy of the person speaking. If this is ennui, it is ennui proper, a legitimate soul-weariness, singularly distinct from the lazy angst of the early ’90s.
One advantage that ’09-me has over undergrad-me is that he can actually identify all these elements of Berman’s work, and even discuss them. (’09-me has completed not only his BA in English but also an MFA in creative writing. In fact, Actual Air is one of the few books whose merit undergrad- and ’09-me still agree on.) These days I can catch the Whitman and Stevens references (poems entitled “Democratic Vistas” and “They Don’t Acknowledge the Letter C”), and can even intimate deeper allusions, such as how the ending of “The Night Nurse Essays” suggests “Prufrock,” while simultaneously mocking it a bit. (Who doesn’t want to mock Eliot, at least a little?)
It is yet another feather in Actual Air’s cap—which is looking awfully like an Indian headdress by now—that the actual experience of reading the poems may be enhanced or supplemented, but not supplanted or diminished, by a few rounds of academic/critical vivisection.
In “Governors on Sominex,” for example, the lines “The evening edition carried the magic death of a child / backlit by a construction site sunrise on its front page” (“Governors on Sominex”) seem to take up a theme from Dylan Thomas’s “Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
In the third stanza of Thomas’s poem, he writes of the “majesty and burning of the child’s death.”
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Thomas’s poem is defiant—he turns the horror of death into an emphatic affirmation of life and God’s glory in having bestowed it in the first place. By contrast, the newspaper in Berman’s poem is encouraging exactly the sort of easy-come-easy-go sentiment that Thomas is arguing against. The newspaper wants your pity, not your engagement. The shift from “majesty” in Thomas to “magic” in Berman is the key to the passage. The newspaper exploits the death of a child the way a magician exploits a puff of smoke. Both cause an instant “Oh, hey, wow” kind of reaction, and both have distraction as their true purpose. Behind the smoke, the magician is moving the marked card to the top of the deck, the newspaper vending machine has swallowed your seventy-five cents. The “death be not proud” sentiment of Thomas’s poem (handed down to him from Donne) at first seems to be entirely absent from Berman’s poem, but, if so, it’s a constitutive absence: the notion exists as an impossible presence, looming but unspoken, because none of the characters in the poem has the faith (or perhaps the courage) to speak it. Berman’s telling us something about the nature of the world we live in. Perhaps something we’ve heard before, but maybe never put quite this way. As the wife in the poem continues to read the paper aloud, the narrator fingers items on his mantle. The section concludes: “Souvenirs only reminded you of buying them.”
One way to summarize Berman’s achievement would be to say that he restores actual story—plot—to the post-Ashbery/Tate poetical landscape. Some of his most interesting work (especially in part three of the book) seems to strain against its line breaks to the point where you wish he’d just abandon them, as he does in the memoirish “Nervous Ashers” (the characters “Hazel” and “Bobby” are, respectively, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich appearing under the monikers they used in the liner notes to the first Silver Jews album), parts of “From Cantos for James Michener,” and “The Charm of 5:30.” For example, consider “The New Idea.” Arguably the weakest poem in the book, it is nonetheless a delightful and successful piece of writing. In this poem, a disaffected narrator muses on office life (an inspirational poster, the warmth of fresh Xeroxes, awkward small-talk in the men’s room), drifting between observation and memory:
I was in high school
when I realized that not doing anything
was categorically different from deciding to do nothing.
No mention of what he does for a living, much less the slightest intimation of its ever being done. The flatness builds and builds, until it is broken up by a beautiful, startling image. On a screen he sees the company CEO:
wearing a white robe, sleeping in a Chinese stream
with a single chrysanthemum tucked behind his ear.
His arms are like slackened chain
in the puttering current.
What makes the image work—aside from its intrinsic strangeness and allure—is that it comes after all that office-life flatness. It is, in fine, a narrative payoff, the moment toward which the story has been building (albeit in secret) from the beginning.
A zealous reader of David Berman’s entire catalog—all his poems and lyrics, the nonfiction film in which he stars, interviews he’s given, pictures he’s drawn, and the occasional stray quote—might come to believe that he sees Berman charting a clear (albeit winding and arduous) path from obfuscation and evasion to directness and clarity. In artistic terms, this always necessarily means a shift toward straightforward storytelling. And of course narrative and anti-narrative, complexity and simplicity, are binary concepts whose meanings derive from the mutual exclusivity of their constitutive halves. Which is simply to say: they complete each other.
IV. “On a Monday morning when the universe felt finished”
Anniversaries are beautiful paradoxes, designating moments of incarnation. The things they commemorate (births, deaths, acts of heroism, the beginnings or endings of wars) could have happened on any day—but they didn’t. They happened on this day, or in that year. This is why we ask each other: where were you when it happened? This is why we go to school reunions, celebrate four hundred years of Milton, give each other birthday presents. Yes, we could express our feelings any old time, but we don’t. Dates are chosen for us by fate, that happy high roller, and we can either rise to those occasions or not.
Two days after Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency of the United States of America, David Berman announced a change none of us wanted to believe in: the breakup of the Silver Jews. In a message posted to the official Drag City Silver Jews message board, Berman wrote—among other things—that “I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People.’” He expressed an interest in pursuing “screenwriting or muckraking.”
These were bizarre assertions by any account, but especially since the Silver Jews’ 2008 record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, had received almost uniformly glowing reviews (another disclosure: I wrote one of them, for FLAUNT magazine) and their shows had been well attended (final disclosure: I’ve seen the Silver Jews three times, once compliments of Drag City and twice on my own dime).
Then things got really weird. A separate post, entitled “My Father, My Attack Dog,” was added to the board about an hour after the first one. In it, Berman wrote:
Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father. You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons. My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molester. An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma) You can read about him here. www.bermanexposed.org… A couple of years ago I demanded he stop his work. Close down his company or I would sever our relationship. He refused. He has just gotten worse. More evil. More powerful. We’ve been “estranged” for over three years. […] I went off to hide in art and academia. I fled through this art portal for twenty years. […] As I studied Judaism over the years, the shame and the shanda, grew almost too much. [M]y heart was constantly on fire for justice. I could find no relief. This winter I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. […]
Shock and heartbreak soon gave way to pragmatic fretting: how could I argue in this essay—which by January was well under way—that Berman had “chosen” music over poetry in the immediate wake of his renouncing music?
I finally decided that, if anything, Berman’s announcement lent weight to the original thesis, that Berman made a choice ten years ago to pursue music over poetry. As well as Actual Air has done—and as great a book as I think it is—the fact of the matter is that more people will probably buy Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea this year than will ever own copies of Actual Air. As Berman’s political and religious convictions compel him to tell stories of increasing personal importance (as well as, potentially, of genuine newsworthiness, assuming he has access to anything of real substance to use against his father), it only makes sense for him to seek a proportionally larger and more mainstream audience for his message. Musicians and poets, after all, may gain hipster cred by staying lo-fi and low profile, playing coy with their fans and the general public, but muckrakers and reformers peg their currency to a different standard. It may be that Berman’s interpretation of Judaic morality as a call to fight for socioeconomic justice means a move away from music, or the arts altogether, toward some less-diluted strain of politics: documentary journalism, community activism. (Perhaps his real fear is less of becoming R.E.M. than of becoming Phil Ochs.)
Here’s what it comes down to: The prospect of never hearing a new Silver Jews record saddens me deeply, almost as much as the prospect of never reading another book of David Berman’s poems does. But I refuse to let my sadness for what’s over drown out my excitement for whatever is yet to come. What would a David Berman–directed film look like? Or a memoir? Self-Portrait at Forty-eight, on shelves or in a theater near you in 2015. ✯