All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long
wonder the world can bear & be.
Once in a sycamore I was glad
all at the top, and I sang.
Hard on the land wears the strong sea
and empty grows every bed.
- Dream Song 1
I confess, I first learned of John Berryman from Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails”. I didn’t even realize he was a poet at the time. Later I heard him referenced in The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”. Still, I didn’t seek him out because I’m not really into poetry, so there’s that. Long story short, I finally picked up The Dream Songs when I saw the gorgeous recent edition. It turned out to be two separate volumes, 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. This is a review of 77 Dream Songs.
Not being a poetry reader at all, I really have no idea how to approach reviewing a collection of poems. 77 Dream Songs isn’t the easiest introduction either. Even the more lucid poems are full of obscure arcane and the less accessible are almost completely impenetrable without some sort of reference material. That said, just read the poem at the top of this review. If the use of language does nothing for you, maybe Berryman isn’t your poet. I was completely blown away, like, I felt like my head was screwed on backward.
Saying many of the poems are impossible to interpret might make 77 Dream Songs sound like a slog, but it isn’t. Much like abstract lyrics can make a perfect sort of personal sense, or abstract painting can evoke a mood rather than a concrete image, so are the Dream Songs. They form a sort of panoramic tone poem, a fictional biography (that may or may not be autobiography, in spite of Berryman’s denial in his introduction) of Henry, a mysterious man who appears in most of the poems here. The only other recurring character, besides the omnipotent narrator, is a man, unnamed, who always refers to Henry as Mr. Bones and speaks in an exaggerated turn-of-the-century black patois.
We don’t get much in the way of linear narrative. Virtually everything we learn about Henry is couched in Berryman’s complicated, sometimes intentionally garbled, language. There are murmurs of dissatisfaction, bubbling lust (“What wonders is she sitting on over there?”), bleak humor, and an overall view of the world that looks back nostalgically while simultaneously recognizing that nostalgia is essentially unreliable.
Henry, as revealed here, is reclusive, not wanting to reveal himself to the world. Even the narrator recognizes this (“I don’t know how Henry, pried, open for the all the world to see, survived.”), and many of the poems seem to revolve around the paradox of Henry wanting to be part of the world and take what he wants, and his crippling fear that he’ll always be an outsider.
Of course, Henry himself, intentionally or not, does parallel the life of his creator. Berryman sought to be a great poet, like his idol Keats, and he may have succeeded. Unfortunately, his great talent couldn’t overcome his great vices and, like his poetic avatar, he self-destructed for reasons both concrete and abstract.
I cannot remember. I am going away.
There was something in my dream about a Cat,
which fought and sang.
Something about a lyre, an island. Unstrung.
Linked to the land at low tide. Cables fray.
Thank you for everything.