Which’ll can tell who preceded whose?
What chicken walked out on what egg?
I can tell, which am which oblong.
Corroborate, Los Alamos.—We read you. Wrong.
—I put up my radar & beg:
Corroborate from Berkeley.—Wrong.—Corrob
O from Woods Hole.—No wish to bob
your cred’, but we knew that.
Yes. Confirmed, confirmed.
—Dance in my corridors, under the orange-grey moon,
stuff on your glory hat,
and potstill highland malt that whiskey out
swifter than missles to the side of the hill,
the side of the sweet hill,
where installations live forever, about.
Up Scotland! who only drunky sexy Burns
producing, which returns.
According to Mariani, B.’s biographer, the title means “Let them perish who used our words before us.” Written in 1963, the poem is about both the Cold War missile crisis and missile installations in Scotland—who provoked who—but also about the problem of who said what first in poetry. Hmmm… Insomniac Berryman wrote this in Boston at 1:00 in the morning, there for a reading. He came away from that trip feeling as if something was gravely wrong. He couldn’t think clearly and couldn’t write prose. He had some deadlines flying by. He was so broke he had to cancel a trip to Dublin. But the Dream Song poems were automatic, grooved, so that in the midst of the worst health, the darkest depression, the most humiliating embarrassments, the most opaque pea-soup brain-fogs, they just came and he wrote them out. “His head would suddenly fill ‘once, twice, thrice’ and he would be reaching for his pencil.” He had given up almost everything in his life but the writing of the Dream Songs.
Except this one seems as foggy as the sleepless pickled brain that produced it. Maybe it’s me: I’m sleepy and foggy today myself. I spent the night at my mom’s, after she and I and a couple friends drove out to the countryside to watch the Perseid meteor shower. We sat until after midnight in a big grassy field on folding chairs and blankets, talked, told mom stories about our days as kids and the trouble we got into, or avoided but should have been nailed for, and we saw a bunch of spectacular meteors—the sky was flashing and yearning. We stopped at a donut shop on the way home, blasting my brain and stomach with unaccustomed volumes of refined donut sugar. I could hear the cells in my brain clamoring for relief from that merciless onslaught of sucrose. I woke last night with as bad a case of heartburn as I’ve ever experienced. No remedies at Mom’s house, so I drove to an all-night drug store at 4:30 and bought the biggest bottle of Tums they had, which I munched like popcorn. The relief wasn’t quite total, but it was enough that I got back to sleep, deep enough for a kind of nightmare that jolted me awake again, involving ghosts who were quietly but constantly watching us in our home and drawing pastel pictures of us, our cats, our furniture, on the floor in the basement. It wasn’t a scary nightmare as much as a curious one—why on earth were those ghosts so fascinated? Who were they? Why the basement, and why was I looking down on the drawings from outside, through a low basement window? Four hours of sleep total, in two small, rudely terminated chunks. To top it off, Mom says in the morning, we’ll just have those nice donuts for breakfast, and she made a big pot of strong, decaffeinated coffee. What? Now my eyes are bleary, blurry, I can’t quite focus my thoughts, everything is grayish, I’m watching the world go by through the wrong end of the binoculars. I was out of breath walking up the stairs to the study where I write.
This fog is temporary. I know I’ll sleep well tonight—back in my own bed, no cursed donuts before bedtime—and tomorrow I’ll be back, fiery and productive, engaged, enthusiastic, and lucid. But, what if this were one’s condition every day? And you know that it’s not merely a sleepless consequence of temporary, normal heartburn, sugar overdose, and disruptive dreams? Madness or booze? It’s a question meant through its asking to obscure the obvious answer: Booze. What have I done to myself?
So you squeeze out a poem because being a poet is all you have left. Without that straw to cling to, you drown. Some Dream Songs are obscure, difficult, brilliant when unpuzzled. Wow! How did he do that? Occasional others, to be honest, are just foggy, misty emanations of fog and confusion, from a brain that is not working properly due to long-term addiction that has chemically eroded its biochemistry. But you safeguard what’s left of its poetic faculties because nothing is more critical, and through it all, you write poetry. One more drop of blood from that vinegar-turnip. It’s amazing it came into being at all. Fine. But this as a poem, and not some desperate replacement for a tormented life, is still not clear to me, and maybe it’s my mirror fugue-state, but I know that’s not all of it. Robert Burns probably had his bad days too, if he really was “drunky”—malt-scotchy. I’m experiencing some empathy today, and sadness, for a sharp head eroding, like the buildings in a war zone with stone corners pocked and rounded off by relentless sprays of machine gun fire.
But maybe it’s me. I’m taking a nap.