Sad Sack Henry’s expecting something bad to happen every day gets silly after awhile, but that’s the point, the cartoonishness of Henry’s character. Berryman the real person also cultivated a sense of tragic comedy about his whole life, I think, but he was not a cartoon. Maybe it’ll pay to be more sensitive to the difference from here on. In this poem, like always, the slide from poet to character and back is seamless, so it’s easy enough to mix them up. Henry speaks first, then the second stanza abandons Henry for the poet, speaking directly. As for Henry and/or B. as bumbling Sad Sack, other, more positive things have arisen in The Dream Songs lately, so B.’s not inexorably portraying himself as a buffoon. Here, Henry’s confession, only hinted at, is that surprisingly his art has at least partially redeemed him. It’s that he’s undergoing a “modesty” of death, not a full one, a flirtation or engagement with it. It’s there at the end, too, in “I saw nobody coming, so I went instead” which has a couple meanings. One is that, no one is coming, especially the father he lost who is so directly and sadly mentioned in the second stanza. The details are autobiographical. “Agone” is not a misprint, it deliberately compresses several words together—gone, agony, ago. But since his father is not coming, and never will, Henry will go to join him. His art gets him part way as he lives his painful way through this “handkerchief sandwich.” But there’s something else too. Who exactly is the minstrel voice who speaks in a caricature Negro dialect and calls Henry “Mr. Bones” is unknown, except that Berryman hinted, when the collection was all written and published and over, that it might just be the voice of Death, that figure whose influence he courted all his life. If this is so, then there’s a pretty likely explanation for the dance in the third stanza:
I offers you this handkerchief, now setyour left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
Get ready, because here we go! We don’t actually need a hint from beyond the books to see that the voice is Death with whom Henry is being invited to dance. Death offers him a handkerchief, and if life is a handkerchief sandwich, in other words bracketed by tears, then this is an offer of comfort but also a symbol of the end. There is one more Dream Song in the collection, then Henry indeed slides into an easeful death—again—and the first 14 of the next volume are all titled “Opus Posthumous”—written from beyond, until, like Lazarus, he’s back for more mayhem. But there is something of comfort in the melancholy of this particular poem, a going home, a rest for a while. It’s the saddest Dream Song yet, I think, and I think also that there’s something beautiful about this one.