David Berman reinvents the overlooked and seemingly ordinary details of everyday life--from the suitcase of a departing girlfriend to a baseboard electrical outlet. His poems chart a course through his own highly original American dreamscape in language that is fresh, accessible, and remarkably precise. This debut collection has received extraordinary acclaim from readers and reviewers alike and is quickly becoming a cult classic. As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate said, "These poems are beautiful, strange, intelligent, and funny. . . . It's a book for everyone."
David Berman was born in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1967. He graduated from the Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, the University of Virginia, and the University of Massachusetts. His band, the Silver Jews, has released four albums, The Natural Bridge, Starlite Walker, American Water, and Bright Flight, on Drag City Records (www.dragcity.com). He resides in Nashville, Tennessee.
*Brief update learning of the passing of David Berman and revisiting this collection all evening. 8/7/19* Hearing that David Berman is gone really stung today, not just because the way his poetry, music and lyrics have had a large impact on me throughout my life--particularly in hard times, but mostly because he was such a bright light while enduring his own personal struggles that eventually became too much for him. His recent album with Purple Mountains has been in massive rotation for me this summer, particularly the opening track "That's Just the Way I Feel" which has gotten me through many long days, but listening to it on the way home tonight I can't help but notice the cries for help in the lyrics. 2019 has been a dark year, and hearing lines like "I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion" can be a comfort when you finally feel understood. Something that always strikes me are artists who turn their personal struggles into something beautiful and while it may be there hand reaching out for help, it is also a hand that pulls those in need of some support and help up and says "i understand, I'm here, let's get through this together". It's also a good reminder to check in on those who always seem to understand and be a support, we can't forget they need support as well. Berman's songs were always a dear companion during the hardest parts of my life and I can't thank him enough for that, but we also can't glorify the notion of a tortured artist. These artists are suffering and I'd trade all the comfort of their music for them to have not been suffering. What Berman always pulled off exceptionally well is to place the dark lyrics into an upbeat song (listen to the first few tracks of Purple Mountains for a perfect example) and so often we find those who manage to appear upbeat are also hurting inside. In an elegy for David Foster Wallace, Johnathan Franzen talked about how Wallace would dive into the pits of sadness and return with a beautiful story that would serve to comfort those who heard it. In closing he wrote that 'He’d gone down into the well of infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story, and he didn’t make it out it. But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.' I thought about this while reading and listen to Berman tonight. As with DFW, it is hard to separate their early death from their work when you--in retrospect--can see it all so clearly, but what we should be more interested in is their lives and their ability to be such a lovely soul in all the darkness. We must stop the glorification of illness and tortured artists. I'm endlessly grateful that Berman's art was a hand to hold in dark times, a hand that will hold those in the future even now that he is gone, but I'm also very saddened that in order for that hand to be reaching out he was suffering himself. Thank you for the beauty, words and songs. Thanks for shining out in the wild kindness. Farewell.
**Original review--8/17/15** Each page was a new chance to understand the last.
A good friend of mine always tells me ‘David Berman is on our side.’ And how could he not be? If he wasn’t, I’d jump ship to whatever side he was. Actual Air by David Berman is a refreshing glass of reality, a chance to see the world like ‘ seeing rain / in it’s original uncut form.’ These poems are the sort of people you want to drink down the dregs of the day with around a campfire while laughing and singing your favorite songs; the kind of friend who always has your best interest at heart and surprises you with their endless wholesome friendship; the person you call first when you need to reach out into the void and hear a familiar voice, and don’t have to call when something great happens because they are already there with you. These are poems you hug tight in good times and in bad. Berman manages to drill to the core of life and fill you with all it’s glory, dredging up an understanding of the beauty in life that you didn’t realize you possessed, all written so seemingly effortlessly and engagingly accessible without sacrificing content, depth or style.
If you have ever quit a job over an imaginary paycut,
mistakenly taken your house’s thermostat for a dial with which to focus the window,
written a play about the special relationship that blooms when a withdrawn honor student is assigned to tutor the school’s basketball star,
fallen in love with the woman who plays the part of your character’s wife and bears you a child who can communicate with rust,
been deafened by a panoply of voices in the classifieds,
tied up every private detective in town with false leads,
taken photos of people saying “shut up,”
or know a place where you can get married at midnight,
then you know what I’m talking about.
I came to this collection shamefully late, especially considering the more than a decade under the influence of his music in Silver Jews, of which David Berman is the frontman along with members of the band Pavement (including the always amazing Stephen Malkmus and on a few Bonnie 'Prince' Billy tracks). Don’t know them? Do yourself a massive favor and introduce yourself to them, they always give a kind, firm handshake and smile to your soul. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sang and strummed to an audience of stars and moon the song Random Rules, or took years off my eardrums to The Wild Kindness or Punks in the Beerlight. Berman’s lyrics are impeccable. ‘I asked a painter why the roads are colored black. He said ‘Steve, it’s because people leave and no highway can bring them back.’ However, despite his musical genius, Berman considers himself first and foremost a poet, as he should. Yet the two are eternally wedded together in the way they both scratch those terrible existential itches of life, and the way both maintain a youthful fondness for existence that hasn’t lessened with age. It is a chance to be sentimental without twee sentimentality, ‘souvenirs only remind you of buying them.’ It is what you need.
‘The night we got so high we convinced ourselves that the road was a hologram projected by the headlight beams.’
This collection is bursting with unforgettable, beautiful little moments. For example, Berman has a poem titled ‘The Moon’ which consists of these fascinating and powerful images of people finding their way through life and its absurdities then ends with the line ‘and the moon, I forgot to mention the moon.’ Or talking about signing his name on the lower corner of a window so the world becomes his art through his perception of it. Or just great lines like 'all water is classic water, or 'The nurses are so beautiful, he thought / Try to remember they are covered in germs.’ It is playful yet heartfelt at all times and embodies a modern generation by etching a detailed portrait out of prose alone. There is a touch of James Tate and Charles Simic brewing in the poetry, and it is a shame that I came to this so later. In the ideal world, or the world as written by a first-time novelist romanticizing their coming-of-age as if it meant anything to anyone other than them, I would have bought this at 16 and at 21 bought James Tate because of the blurb from him on the back, then cried at 29 when Tate passed. At least one of these things happened. Don’t let time pass you by without Berman in your life, in any form. Berman is a joy to read, and is certainly on our side.
New York, New York
A second New York is being built a little west of the old one. Why another, no one asks, just built it, and they do.
The city is still closed off to all but the work crews who claim it’s a perfect mirror image.
Truthfully, each man works on the replica of the apartment building lives in, adding new touches, like cologne dispensers, rock gardens, and doorknobs marked for the grand hotels.
Improvements here and there, done secretly and off the books. None of the supervisors notice or mind. Everyone’s in a wonderful mood, joking, taking walks through the still streets that the single reporter allowed inside has describes as
“unleavened with reminders of the old city’s complicated past, but giving off some blue perfume from the early years on earth.”
The men grow to love the peaceful town. It becomes more difficult to return home at night,
which sets the wives to worrying. The yellow soups are cold, the sunsets quick.
The men take long breaks on the fire escapes, waving across the quiet spaces to other workers meditating on the perches.
Until one day…
The sky filled with charred clouds. Toolbelts rattle in the rising wind.
Something is wrong.
A foreman stands in the avenue pointing binoculars at a massive gray mark moving towards us in the eastern sky.
Several voices, What, What is it?
Pigeons, he yells through the wind.
Walking through a field with my little brother Seth
I pointed to a place where kids had made angels in the snow. For some reason, I told him that a troop of angels had been shot and dissolved when they hit the ground.
He asked who had shot them and I said a farmer.
Then we were on the roof of the lake. The ice looked like a photograph of water.
Why he asked. Why did he shoot them.
I didn't know where I was going with this.
They were on his property, I said.
When it's snowing, the outdoors seem like a room.
Today I traded hellos with my neighbor. Our voices hung close in the new acoustics. A room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling.
We returned to our shoveling, working side by side in silence.
I was supposed to be seeing Purple Mountains play tomorrow night. Instead, I guess I'll be at home, having dinner with my wife, watching my cats laze around and play, watching the late-summer sunlight fade out of the sky through the red maple in my front yard, trying to appreciate again the way the dark leaves change color as the light of the day changes, from a kind of amber to something more inky as evening comes, maybe I'll also listen to some records by the man I was going to be seeing play his music live for the second time in my life. I saw Silver Jews play back in 2005, a lifetime ago, and I feel fortunate to have seen Berman perform his music at least once, music which has been some of my very favorite since I was a teenager, music and lyrics that really meant the world to me, and created a very specific world for me and many people I know. It was a thread of connection for a number of my close friends and loved ones, Berman's art.
It was a constant presence and reference in my every day life. His loss seems huge. An enormous thing. Especially since his return with Purple Mountains, a truly great record on par with anything he produced. And all the interviews and articles that emerged about the intervening "lost" years since Silver Jews ended. He was once again a very present presence in our times. David Berman had returned, it felt like just when we needed him more than ever.
I read that he lived in Washington DC for a time, in those lost years, and I wondered if I happened to pass him, unknowingly, when I was off on some stupid excursion, one of my heroes, a stranger in the street, that I didn't recognize him because I never would have thought to be looking for him.
And then an abyss opened up like they tend to do daily now. I felt like a friend had died, but I never knew him. I did live with his voice and words though. I lived with them all of my adult life. Over and over again his music and poetry made meaning for me and comforted me and made me laugh and made me sad and made me look at the objects and people and situations of this world in a new light.
He accomplished what any writer sets out to do, but many never achieve - create new meanings. New correspondences. New avenues of thought. New relations and emotions.
To list or quote favorite lines would be pointless, because I see now it was indeed his body of work that meant so much and was so special to me. And like any great body of work, if you break it down to the miniscule, line by line, word by word, at a molecular level, it shines just as brightly, radiates just as much, on a macro or micro scale.
He died in Park Slope, I was there just a few days before, visiting friends, wandering around, soaking in the beauty of a part of America I have come to really love in my later years. I think of the sky above the Italian restaurant I ate at in that neighborhood, shading into hues of blue and red, contoured with the paint strokes of clouds, the wine that was poured for us, the laughter between friends and the unconscious wonder at new experiences that might always be around the corner, when you are a visitor and traveler in a place that is not your home. I wonder if I passed him on the street, one of my heroes, and didn't recognize him because I didn't think to look for him.
I know I have never felt pain like those who take their own lives, because I am still here. I am so sorry he felt so much pain.
I don't know much in this life, but I know that my life, and the lives of so many people I know, were made happier, and deeper, and stranger, and more beautiful, because David Berman lived and wrote.
Avoided this for a long time because I assumed these were gussied up variations of David Berman's lyrics for The Silver Jews. Stupid me. These are the excellent poems that far outstrip what he does for his band. He should write more.
"All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and spilt in two"
So there is a David Foster Wallace station on Last.fm, and guess what just came on that's right "Send in The Clowns" by Sliver Jews, before that Mountian Goats and a Marcal Proust reading! and now "Range Life" by Pavement is Playing, so fans of good indie rock like good books too, I'm not the only one, you mean people actually read books!
in times of crisis i carry around books of poetry the way that some people carry around religious texts, reading and re-reading familiar poems like prayers. this is my crisis-tome of the moment. there is a beautiful artlessness to david berman's poetry that belies the breadth of his content and vision. "self-portrait at 28" is a work of particular brilliance; each time i read it i am piqued and comforted, loving it anew. this is slim little book packed with vast, surprising greatness.
When I picked up "Actual Air", I thought the author, David Berman, was unknown to me. However, the first poem in this collection, "Snow", I had read before; it may be a "greatest hit" of sorts for him, as there seem to be a lot of online references and commentary about it.
Some of what works about "Snow" --Berman's playfulness and seeming endless supply of fresh, spot-on images/metaphors, --thankfully show up throughout the collection, keeping the reader amused, awakened, and impressed. Other effective elements of "Snow"-- its clear sense of unity and direction-- seem lacking in many of the other poems, often leaving me floundering and annoyed.
Let's start with the positive - playfulness and spot-on imagery. In "Snow" for example, the speaker teases a younger sibling, telling him that some snow angels they find "...had been shot and dissolved when they hit the ground". Throughout the short poem, the youngster dwells on the subject of the allegedly murdered angels. The older brother, meantime, has gone on to thinking about other things, but prompted by his brother's queries, he elaborates on the story even more. It's very cute and funny and nicely observed, with images/observations like, "Then we were on the roof of the lake./The ice looked like a photograph of water" (5).
But, whereas "Snow" has a sense of unity and direction (the relationship between the brothers and the on-going, growing story of the angels), many of the other poems seem to lack these. Case in point: "Cantos for James Michener: Part I", XXV. Berman writes, "We were braiding birdsongs into white noise,/asleep in our horse-drawn beds/(And it feels good to get arrested/To sleep in the thickets of wild aspirin/Duchess of Night Soccer)" (65). Certainly one could make up a story to connect these disparate images/phrases, but shouldn't it be the poet's job to help out in this process? Often as I read his poetry, I was struck by the idea that Berman used one of those word/phrase generators that push out unexpected combinations of words. And while these can be funny and entertaining individually, whole poems composed of them quickly become old: "The evening train is a literary device./God surfaces in a crossword puzzle./Momma died at the Food Lion" (65). What is one supposed to do with that? with poems that you could rearrange most lines in pretty much any order and it wouldn't affect the meaning at all?
The unique and startling images, though often scattershot, are frequent and arresting, and there are, thankfully, some other poems besides "Snow" that are more accessible and pointed, including the reflective six-part "Self-Portrait at 28"and the collection's final, enigmatically-titled poem, "The Double Bell of Heat" with its fanciful take on the appearance of a "Slow Deaf Child" sign on a block and how it affects various people.
These poems are like Berman's songs in most ways: some are killers, some are sleepers, some are neither here nor there. The ones that are neither here nor there are flooded by the stop/start fuckbrilliance of the others. Sometimes Berman so singularly wrangles English into uncanny, dream-logic revelation it gives me goddamn chills.
Giving a rating for this--or nearly any--collection of poetry would be easier if you could rate individual poems. There were some really good poems here, some not-so-good poems, and some pretty OK poems. But whatever...it's all pretty subjective.
My favorite poem in this collection was also one one of the longest: "Self-Portait at 28". Some sample lines...
Do you remember the way the girls would call out "love you!" conveniently leaving out the "I" as if they didn't want to commit to their own declaration.
I agree that the "I" is a pretty heavy concept and hope you won't get uncomfortable if I should go into some deeper stuff here.
I totally remember that. And Berman does get into some deeper stuff, but he's also often very funny. A little humor in poetry goes a long way with me.
These poems fascinate me; they superficially resemble a whole host of Dylanesque "throw together a bunch of unrelated images and see what sticks" poetry that does nothing at all for me, but somehow there's something different here. A deeper resonance, a more vulnerable soul, a craving to be understood rather than admired? Maybe all those - I can't quite put my finger on it. I do know that many lines here are etched deeply in my soul, and I've given away at least three copies of this book. My favorite poems: "Cassette County," "New York, New York," "Community College in the Rain," and the first four in the book.
Both solemn and inventively whimsical. I don't think I've read a poetry as nuanced and deliberate as this in a while. I wish another David Berman poetry book had been published. These poems are over twenty years old now. I'm glad Drag City is keeping it in print in this beautiful hardcover.
Most people will likely know him from his music, but Berman is also an able poet, if inconsistent. He has a firm control of much of his material; a good sense of balance between narrative passages and more free-association types of passages; and a sense of what will be evocative, what will seem like some sort of subtle twist. The poetry has “music”; when read aloud, one gets more from it than when one reads it on the page in many spots. He also, unlike many who perhaps have slightly had certain habits beaten out of them over years of workshopping poetry, is willing to have a mix of forms side by side; poems with consistent stanza lengths followed by poems with a six-line stanza, then one line, then three lines, etc, all of inconsistent length. So, if you’re a pragmatic reader and not a poet, you’re probably going to ask: OK, but what is all this stuff about? These kinds of questions about poetry often get someone into trouble. I think Berman is quite evocative in that he places you somewhere, and things that evoke memories you have had (many of them being memories of music… others, of not quite being in the right place at the right time, or perhaps not even known what the right place is); but that’s different from being “about” something. Focusing on this, I’ll refer to one of my favorite poems of the collection, “Cassette Country”. First, the title itself evokes the concept of what “Cassette country” would be… it made me think of things like mix tapes, old radios, and the row of cassettes one would have on their own cassette shelf. College days, I believe, introduce it: “This is meant to be in praise of the interval called hangover, a sadness not co-terminous with hopelessness” is probably something many with a sensitive bent would get right away. But he doesn’t stay there, but rather goes into one of the more effective associative set of lines in the work: “and the North American doubling cascade/that (keep going) “this diamond lake is a photo lab”/and if predicates really do propel the plot/then you might see Jerusalem in a soap bubble/or the appliance failure on Olive Street/across these great instances,/because “the complex Italian versus the basic Italians/because what does a mirror look like (when it’s not working)…” Several phrases arrest one as being evocative, yet potentially without personal meaning in and of themselves. Different readings would yield different things. I think there’s a sort of (potentially stereotype-like, though not to me) concept of what the working-class life might seem like in terms of day-to-day details at home with “appliance failures on Olive Street” and “the complex Italians versus the basic Italians”. Imagine a hangover, you then step outside your house and there’s a discussion on the street about something related to an appliance store up the street… the used appliance store, the kind of place you can get a used refrigerator for $150 but it’s not clear whether it will refrigerate, and different people on said street feel differently about it. The lines themselves draw up memories, or memories of false memories depending on your background. It veers back towards the description of depression with the very sharp line “and there is a new benzodiazepine called Distance” and then, later, “Hello to the era of going to the store to buy more ice/because we are running out./Hello to feelings that arrive unintroduced./Hello to the nonfunctional sprig of parsley…”… those who have struggled with depression will see the sort of uncontrolled randomness of mundane activities that provokes anxiety in times of duress, and escape through reading, and then there’s the reference that I think makes the title make sense: “Because there is a second mind in the margins of the used book/Because Judas Priest (source: Firestone Library)/sang a song called ‘Stained Class’”). Here, one might accuse Berman of trafficking in overused tropes: the depressed artist scribbling in the margins of books, thinking of some sort of music or anchor in the arts to ballast themselves with. But, it wouldn’t be overused if it wasn’t true… something isn’t automatically somehow mendacious, or trite, is overused. How do you use it? It should be said that he has a subtle sense of humor, one that paradoxically can lead to laughing out loud subtle though it may be. Another favorite poem of mine from the collection, titled “From Guide to the Graves of British Actors”, mixes preconceived notions about the Brits that Berman attributes, presumably, to those “state-side” with some semi-authentic sounding “slang” to come up with something quite amusing, the “emergency” at the end of the poem presumably referring back to the mundane “long life lived in that pause where a guest studies his ice cubes”: “If you have … built plot and theme/and finally setting sun/onto the flat earth of chessboards,/then to die on contemporary furniture/with John Webster’s antique jive on your lips,/after a long life lived in that pause/where a guest studies his ice cubes/and listens to the room tick,/would rinse the larger stillness with whole moments lost in yawns”. To take this stanza, there are many choices he’s made that I love. First, not using the commas in “finally setting sun”, so that it means the sun is finally setting, rather than one that has built the plot that involves the setting sun… a subtle thing but one that changes the meaning for the best; “flat earth of chessboards” evokes both the reality that in a sense “chessboards” were, in game form, the depiction of war, but at the same time the idea that the upper classes perhaps played this game, among others, during their salons; “John Webster’s antique jive” then breaks the spell. Webster was known for being sort of the “lunatic” of the playwrights of the era, in that his plays were more likely to depict erratic and semi-insane characters versus, for instance, Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare et al. But “jive” is a thoroughly modern term that by the time he’s set us up, we’re completely stricken by, only to ultimately be placed in the shoes of the guest who yawns and studies a glass. Seems it all could have been pulled by any sort of “provincial novel of British life” (to paraphrase the description appended to “Middlemarch’s” title). Weaknesses? The longer poems don’t tend to hold together (the centerpiece of the collection, “Michener’s Cantos [selections],” seems to focus around the concept of the “Polish joke”, and is probably in most of its sections a bit thin to justify its length). There’s also a feeling that with some of the poems, one could interchange stanzas among them and it wouldn’t make an overly large difference (a common issue with the sort of free associative poetry that draws from the same bank of associations), though as a writer I’d have to try that exercise and see how it worked. However, overall, I’d recommend it for its strengths, and it does seem to fit certain kinds of moods and inspirations.
a lot of these poems made me smile and sometimes laugh, and wish that I could inhabit the little world of feelings they create. miss u forever David.
favorite lines: “the rose bushes look like Latin homework on the pond’s reflective skin” “No one seems to call the advertising world “Madison Avenue” anymore. Have they moved? I need an update on this.” “And the moon, I forgot to mention the moon.“ “Somewhere in the future I’m remembering today. I’ll bet you I’m remembering how I walked into the park at five thirty, my favorite time of day.” “I knew that the best things were hidden, and all of this was said in a private voice, a cousin to the one I used to speak to pets.” “as if water was what we really wanted when we asked for a glass of it” “It was the light in things that made them last.”
I have spent the past year of my life looking for this book. Unsurprisingly, I found it in an indie bookstore in Williamsburg.
David Berman's poems obviously share a lot of resemblance to his lyrics—and a few of them even feel like they were written as songs—but his poems speak to me in a way that even my favorite Silver Jews songs do not.
His poetry paints a beautiful picture of a mundane and unremarkable America. It's whatever the opposite of Kafkaesque would be: instead of dwelling on the horrors of bureaucracy and its totalitarian overgrowth, Berman describes the evils of American society with beautiful imagery. It leaves me feeling a bizarre sort of nostalgic melancholy for a folksy place from long ago that never was, but currently is.
Something about reading his poetry really forced me to come to terms with the fact that he's gone. I guess it's a lot harder to forget when you don't hear his voice.
Thank you, David Cloud Berman, for everything you gave to the world.
This was an absolutely wonderful and enriching read, and I implore everyone to spend some time with Berman's work. Instead of a long and ultimately not satisfactory review, I'll simply quote just a few of my favorite lines from this collection (if the pages with dog ears give me any idea of how many quotes I wanted to remember, it looks like I enjoyed one from at least each page). Rest in peace David:
"There were no new ways to understand the world, only new days to set our understandings against"
"And the pressure to simulate coolness means not asking when you don't know, which is why kids grow ever more stupid"
"All this new technology will eventually give us feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two"
I read this online through the UVA Library. I ordered it a couple months ago from bookstore and when I called them they told me it wasn't in print at the moment. I didn't know they would let you order a book they didn't have and couldn't get. They asked me if I wanted to cancel my order which in hindsight I probably should have, but sometimes you get stressed out on the phone and say no because it seems easier. Anyway, I guess it is nice to know that if I ever need 20 dollars I can call them and get a refund.
there are some nice poems about nice afternoons. some are pretty funny. some I didn't really get. as ineffective as a statue of the fastest man alive is pretty ineffective. wandering the earth like a dark uncle cutting brake lines. snow, imagining defeat, classic water, 5:30, new idea, isaac asimov, are some of the poems
De enige dichtbundel van de geweldige David Berman, frontman van The Silver Jews en Purple Mountains (als je het nu hoort donderen ergens in de buurt van Keulen, luister naar zijn muziek, echt wereldtop). Duistere verzen, vol zwarte humor, mooie ritmes en krachtige beelden.
Gone too soon, David would have been 55 today. Portait at 28 is one of my all time favorite poems. Others I loved in this collection are Now II, Of Things Found Where They Are Not Supposed To Be, Community College in the Rain, The Charm of 5:30, Cantos for James Michener: Part Ii, and Classic Water.
David Berman is an excellent crafter of feeling. He points at a lot things that you know, but have never really thought about. It makes everything seem so absurd and darkly humorous. His poetry is very similar to his songwriting but less contained. This is also very much a cold weather read. “Self-Portrait at 28” is a must read.
bought my copy after a vigil held for david berman, the night that was intended to be his purple mountains show in toronto. picked it up months after hearing some of his poems performed, while in covid-induced quarantine. it's funny how certain lines strike you on two vastly separate, yet in their own way still and solemn, occasions. this second reading of self-portrait at 28 got me to write poetry again for the first time in a year.
You might find an interview with Berman somewhere on the web, as I did, in which he states that in assembling Actual Air he collected all his interesting ones and frontloaded the thing with all his best work.
This is pretty much true, except for...you know, some exceptions. There's some reaching for a taste of real greatness in those few beginning poems - stately lines that oscillate between two emotions. Wry, sad, funny.
Berman has a beautiful feel for characters down on their luck, characters you and I can identify with, characters who shyly turn their face away. He's lyrical about the beauty of the South and heavy metal and divorcees and the nightmarescapes of back pain.
And then there are his weaker moments, which is why I can't quite give Berman five stars: he's got a fatal penchant for mixing inscrutable political theory into an otherwise fine poem - words like "municipal" and "judiciary" slide like a film over the lucidity. Well whatever, you say, and move on to the next line. And then later on you realize, Oh, that must have been about disillusionment.
I bought this book at a Silver Jews show, signed by the author. A lot of stars align with this book - Berman gives thanks to Charles Wright, a favorite poet of mine, author of "Black Zodiac" and "The Appalachian Book of the Dead", and UVa professor. There are also hints of John Ashbery's surrealism here, and echoes of Silver Jews lyrics ("a cold black maple hanger"). Berman is a great poet only in the sense that he has an idiosyncratic voice that leads him along to make twisty observations. Berman's concern with the nature of faith and religion is prevalent, deconstructing the symbolism:
If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways or wear little golden hallways around our necks
We, as a nation, must support artists like Berman who are taking risks with their writing and music; its not all brilliant, it doesn't all make sense, but he has survived poverty, drug addiction and academia to deliver us something real.
I actually purchased this book on a whim, not really sure of its contents or of who David Berman is; it would be years until I ended up falling in love with his band (Silver Jews), and another couple until I realized his involvement in Pavement.
2011: This still mesmerizes me; Berman's ability to control poetry is both astounding and haphazard--while sometimes he veers into near-narrative, clean and clear, sometimes it's hard to get a jist of what's going on in the works. Sometimes whole poems came down to me as single lines, so clever they hurt, and I had to reread them several times to find the key to them; poetry isn't hard, and Berman knows that. He just wants you to feel as if you're rediscovering the world with each line, and he makes you do so finely and perfectly.
There are whole poems here that illustrate exactly what poetry should be now. There are also poems that show you what they should not.
Still one of my favorite books of poetry in the world.