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Lean as a snake
he staked his claim upon obscurity:
a prayer to be left alone
escaped him sometime or for a middle zone
where he could be & become both unknown & known
listening & not.
Still in the insane asylum? I think so. Any recognition he might be receiving is for the old Henry, not the present hospitalized/incarcerated one, so he has no interest in that because it’s not about him now. At least not from the Nurse Ratched characters stalking his floor, and the wider general population of Irish people who didn’t know him and perhaps only got occasional wind of his fame: “Say, d’ye see that gentleman there? He’s said to be a mad American poet with a great reputation.” He was no Yeats in Dublin for sure. The present Henry incarnation craves a measure of obscurity, perhaps to heal under, like the shade of a parasol. But a cable comes, “an unexpecting & triumphing cable / when he least hoped for, & most needed it, / making him feel at home.” Word from someone he respects changes the day. Home is where the heart is, which is an awfully sap-headed thought to throw at a dying alcoholic committed to a mental hospital, I know, but even Berryman’s poetic ghost might perhaps take what empathy he can get and be grateful for it. Not sure in the end he really wants it, though. This is a time for Henry to curl up in a ball and endure, living for random cables from American colleagues and trying to not let the regimentation enforced by starched pale nurses and clanging bells drive him over the edge.
This is a poem I wrote about 1984. It’s amateur and undergraduate, but I’m fond of it. I was pushing in all sorts of directions, discovering new vistas almost daily. I dug it up because I think it captures Henry’s pre-cable mental state fairly well. My poem came purely from imagination then, although, like Henry, I had been forced to look at myself, at what I had done or not done, and decide what that meant. I was young; I grew and moved on. Henry’s situation is serious and much, much more grave. But in my neophyte way, I believe I spent a writer’s evening in Henry’s place, needing to shrink away so I could complete a metamorphosis in peace.
I can play you a peaceful note
Here, removed from an angry world.
Glaucous blue, the musical reverie
Quiets a jangled nerve. With
A twilight fugue close to sleep,
Drowsy pucks linger in your
Ear, and powder your head with dust,
And silence for the night the rusty
Strings that rang in red-lit halls, at dusk
When dreamers in beryl pallets slept,
And pushed their pillows in their ears,
Dreading the scarlet dawn.