This poem is quite accessible as The Dream Songs go. “He thought they was old friends.” Don’t most of us think we’re friends with some personification of ruin? Tests or trials ignominiously flunked, maybe a weekend in jail for something ridiculous (the schmuck’s rite of passage), that moment before the final abject surrender to nausea and vomiting when your feverish imagination extrapolates with great dramatic flair toward one of well-being’s myriad disasters. Or things worse like losing a job, divorce, death of a loved one. We are—or, let’s be honest, I am—kind of emotional sometimes, and that can cast a gruesome gray light on the normal fender benders caused by the potholes life strews our roads with. This poem has its own list of B.’s particular stand-out moments, including nights in India drunk into utter oblivion, and possibly an electro-shock treatment? Ouch.
Turns out they were all imposters. Here’s the real deal, now. Ruin of a character not yet encountered. “Henry nodded, un-.” It’s another ending, like is so in striking for DS 14, signifying the narrator’s diminishment and disappearance. In this case, on the negative prefix from which nothing follows.
That’s a difference between him and me. In my deepest potholes—and trust me, most of my friends have no idea—the swirl of emotions never admitted effacement. There were all sorts of things—rage (self-directed and outwardly directed), sadness, confusion, shame, and almost always, a renewed determination. But always the sense that this is the bottom, and now it’s time to make it better. Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” was a teenage theme song, and perhaps the very first instance in my life where I took on a verse lyric and opened it up. I didn’t get it at first. My first real experience with poetry. That song comes out of a bottomed-out moment where the speaker decides “I’ll be what I want to be.” It’s a lovely song, and it taught me a lot when I was younger. I hope it doesn’t sound too silly, but I experienced several serious Deacon Blues moments.
B. faces something very different, that I sympathize with, but can only take his word for. He could not overcome that one thing that preordained his ruin. It’s appalling and very sad. It drove the many alcoholic and emotional disasters that kept him a twisted and embarrassed wreck. It also drove his great accomplishments, his brilliance as a teacher, and the literary prizes and fame, that have me still talking about him now. I had an inkling when this project started, but I wasn’t really paying that close attention to what I should have known was coming: The record of what facing real ruin means. I’m convinced it wasn’t just a pose, not mere narcissistic drama. But John Berryman will always, I’m afraid, remain something other to me, alien in fact.
Incipient ruin can be turned to creativity, and amazing things can come of it. But I’m also learning that there are other sources. The great jazz artists didn’t need heroin after all, but they learned that too late. I’ve already written more poems in the past six weeks than I have in the previous three years, and I’ve tapped into the artistic energy that B.’s desperation engendered to do it. I am grateful for that. It’s not stealing. Every poem is a way of transforming my trivial discomforts and frustrations, in engagement with an echo of the ruinous ones of Berryman, into something affirming. But I am not tending toward diminishment. Quite the opposite. But what I didn’t realize, what I was too shallow to imagine, is that a deep relationship would be in the process of forming, with the poet’s art and probably with his ghost. Whether I wanted it or not, and whether I still want it or not, it’s happening. And I’m clear about this: It’s not stealing. It’s an offering. I can see clearly how the source of these poems, from the life that wrought them, tends unendingly toward suicide. That will never be me, but maybe I can take that whole process, in my inconsequential way, and transform it just a little through whatever grace it or something else in my life has offered to me.