Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jay Martin / Berryman´s last student writes a letter

Jay Martin, JOHN BERRYMAN, original woodcut



by Jay Martin

Dear Dr. Martin, you, I see, have caught
the Berryman bug.  Many another one
has come to me with questions.  Most pretend
some scholarly purpose, but I waive
pretense aside and ask directly:
‘Which Berryman do you want to know?’
I’m like a food machine.  You press
a button and I’ll deliver your selection—
John’s psychic stresses?  His abuse of drugs?
The thousand litres of alcohol he drank?
His violence toward himself and others?
His constant travels and his restlessness?
His yet more constant dream of death?
His breakdowns, deep depressions, manic flights?
His wild religious visions and revisions?
His love of women and his hate toward them?
His conquests and his losses?—All of these
were Berryman.  Which would you have?
Which of these sweet confections will you eat?
I could serve any of these dishes up to you.
But … if you asked me, if you asked me
what I think was at the center of John’s heart. . .
I’d tell you this: he was a dancer at his core.
He swayed with rhythms, and the dance steps came.
This elf, this druid, this grand roustabout
knew all the moves, the rhumba, tango,
waltz, cha-cha, samba, East Coast swing,
the Tiger Rag, Black Bottom, even the Beguine,
but best of all the lazy foxtrot
danced so slow that you could “hold a girl real tight.”
That’s the advice he always gave his pals.
At afternoon tea dances, late nights at Roseland,
in all the hip Mocambos of the world,
he always held them tight,  but not so tight
his dread of loss would ever dance away.
He could have been a Harvest Moon Ball champ,
and that way might have danced through life,
except he fell from dance to poetry.
He had a paltry fifty women in his bed,
but on the dance floor, countless thousands.
Oh, his poems were fine, his Shakespeare studies too,
but there he never could be No. 1.
That’s what he always yearned for, to reach the heights
of undisputed fame.  But there were
Frost and Lowell, Jarrell, and Schwartz, still living.
He always feared he might be No. 5.
Damn that Van Doren who made him turn to verse.
That did him in.  He should have stuck to dancing.
He had the moves, he had the rhythm there
and could have shown Astaire and Valentino steps
worth fortunes.  Only by jumping off a Minnesota bridge
in Winter could he free himself from poetry
inviting himself to dance.
On iron-cold Minnesota nights,
when the moon hangs like a spangled globe
above a ballroom floor, dispensing diamonds,
I think I see John dance across the moon
in endless marathon, holding a girl there, tight,
so tight.  The Duke and Count and Bix were swell
but now he hears the band play “Goodnight Sweetheart”
to the music of the spheres.
Goodnight sweetheart.  Dying to verse,
rising to dance, he knows, I hope, he’s
JAY MARTIN is the author, among other books, of Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914, and Who Am I This Time?: Uncovering the Fictive Personality.  He is Professor of Government and Edward S. Gould Professor of Humanities at Claremont-McKenna College.  He is also a practicing psychoanalyst.  See: 

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