This October marks John Berryman’s centenary, and to honor the hundredth anniversary of this inventive, transformative poet’s birth, we’re republishing a number of his works. In addition to The Heart is Strange, a new volume of selected poems edited by Daniel Swift, we’re also reissuing Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, and the complete Dream Songs. Here, John Darnielle—Mountain Goats frontman, avowed Berryman fanatic, and author of the novel Wolf in White Van, also coming from FSG this fall—takes us beyond the Dream Songs and into the pleasures of “Tampa Stomp” (which is included in The Heart is Strange). – Editors
The first signs of the death of the boom came in the summer,
early, and everything went like snow in the sun.
Out of their office windows. There was miasma,
a weight beyond enduring, the city reeked of failure.
The eerie, faraway scream of a Florida panther,
gu-roomp of a bull-frog. One broker we knew
drunk-driving down from Tarpon Springs flew free
when it spiralled over & was dead without one mark on him.
The Lord fled that forlorn peninsula
of fine sunlight and millions of fishes & moccasins
& Spanish moss & the Cuban bit my father
bedded & would abandon Mother for.
Ah, an antiquity, a chatter of ghosts.
Half the fish now in half the time
since those blue days died. We’re running out
of time & fathers, sore, artless about it.
– “Tampa Stomp” (John Berryman, The Heart is Strange)
It’s middle Berryman that gets most of the attention, The Dream Songs being pretty plainly his overture to the historical record; the more exacting critics I’ve known will vouch for Mistress Bradstreet but little else, finding in Berryman’s quest for a poetic language wholly his own more obscurity than character.
Berryman’s one of my favorite poets, and part of how I learned to write was by studying his poems to the point of transcribing them into notebooks to see how it felt to write down lines like these. But my love of The Dream Songs has always been mitigated by two factors: an inability to really stomach the minstrelsy conceit, and frustration when the action within a poem gets too hard to parse. I don’t mind being adrift for a while, but I don’t read poetry strictly for the experience of becoming unmoored.
So I’ve always connected with Berryman’s later poems—the ones listing yearningly toward the confessional, that seem either resigned to, or perhaps thirsty for, some clarity—and to those of The Dream Songs where feeling erupts through the form, as in #384, in which Berryman imagines exhuming his father’s corpse with an axe, or #145, where, with unimaginable tenderness, he gives voice both to the profound abandonment felt by a child whose father has killed himself and to the father himself, too sick to envision the future he creates for his son with his final, irrevocable gesture:
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong
& so undone. I’ve always tried. I—I’m
trying to forgive
whose frantic passage, when he could not live
an instant longer, in the summer dawn
left Henry to live on.
This tenderness, these depths; this empathy for a father who, early one morning, shot himself in the yard of his house right outside his 12-year-old son John’s window. Into some of his final poems, Berryman carries, under palpable strain, this complex mood that seems to come from the other side of a gulf few can cross.
In “Tampa Stomp,” his clarity is almost unbearably sharp. Putting aside the sprung-rhythm tricks that goad the reader into slowing down while reading The Dream Songs, Berryman seeds anapestic substitutions to pull the lines narcotically along (“The first signs of the death of the boom came in the summer”) through desperate death scenes imagined as liberation (“One broker we knew / drunk-driving down from Tarpon Springs flew free /when it spiralled over & was dead without one mark on him”).
The scene set—post-crash, early thirties, bankers in exile down south, their good years fading into memory while their children try to make sense of what’s happened —Berryman burrows suddenly inward in the third stanza’s final line. Having listed four general things God has left to fend for themselves in Florida—fish, snakes, sunlight, moss—he names the fifth: “the Cuban bit my Father / bedded and would abandon Mother for.”
The anger almost leaps from the page (“the Cuban bit”; “bedded”; “abandon”). But the poet has lived with it long enough now to know better than to let it hold him by the scruff of his neck. And so the closing stanza begins with a line whose resignation, whose need to reconcile righteous anger with mercy, is familiar to anyone who “has suffered an irreversible loss,” i.e., to all of us: “Ah, an antiquity, a chatter of ghosts.”
An antiquity, a chatter of ghosts: inescapable formative years. The things that made us who we are, as distant as ancient Rome and the people who lived there. “Tampa Stomp” returns then to its theme, nearer and broader vistas with little hope in them, but in this terrible, magnificent line suggests the one life-raft that might still have had some air in it. All this is past. It was all rather a long time ago, this ugly business. It can’t really hurt us any more, unless, of course, as it often turns out, it does.
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. His novel, Wolf in White Van, will be published in the United States in September by FSG.
John Berryman (1914–1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest in 1969.