Aphasic Workshop: John Berryman & Things so Ghastly You Cannot Respond to Them Directly

“The More Sin Has Increast, the More Grace Has Been Caused to Abound”
John Berryman, the mysterious death of whose father haunted his fitful eruptions through faith, its loss, and the development of his poetic audacity preceded his ’72 suicide leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis with his birth in Oklahoma in 1914, a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and a National Book Award. He graduated from Columbia in ’36, garnered his graduate credentials from Cambridge and Princeton, and taught at Wayne State, Harvard, Princeton, Iowa, the University of Washington, and Cincinnatti before he settled into his long, wracked tenure in belles lettres in the employ of the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1954.

His 77 Dream Songs, published in ’64, was the volume that fetched the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the follow-up volume of poems in his dream song cycle, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest (’68) won for him the National Book Award.

Berryman’s Dream Songs were worked in a multiply lonely idiom of changing faces and voices whose true identities were at times fluid and difficult to pinpoint. Confounding in the face of the assumption of time’s linear passage, John Berryman’s poetry describes an open circuit of life as one endless dream. It is a dream wherein time is perforated by warrens of back-tracing corridors. Protagonist Huffy Henry House’s sullen solitude is suffused with somnolent feel as, committed to transforms and assumed roles, he cycles through many of the poems and new accidents of trouble having already died. Throughout his game of shapeshifting and suffering, taking leisure and forcing it (or mocking it), he is engaged in a conversation with an unnamed interlocutor referring to him as Mr. Bones, a conversation partner who may very well just be another figment of his own personality.

There is a thread running through the Dream Songs of learnéd criticism bound to be ignored. The poems are infused with the voice of a Lost Generation poet defeated before he makes his own glory, defeated by the legacy of poetic giants the likes of Eliot and Pound, and by the accelerating disingenuousness and misdirecting insanity of his century- his century that moved from one atrocity to the next in a blind panic to dispose of all unifying narratives, as though in the hope it could rid itself once and for all of the one narrative that fuels the gaining, encroaching accusing blame and recompense the 20th century will demand in unrelenting perpetuity.

Above it all, the Dream Songs are infused with the voice of a poet steeped in scholarship and technical capability bolstering a spectacularly daring talent.

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“2666: A Novel” (Roberto Bolano)

I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city’s imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

-Auxilio Lacouture, speaking in Bolaño’s Amulet

Bolaño’s really big last hurrah began to regale the retinas of English-reading humans the world over on the 7th, when 2666 was unveiled to the tune of free booze, party crashing, and the kind of literary elbow-rubbing that hasn’t been available to the salon set since Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. My 898-page copy of the volume sits ensconced in portent on my bookshelf as I try to get a few other in-progress volumes out of the way. The definitive article on this rare auteur who spent is life dancing in intimate proximity (close fighting) with the many faces of his only fellow combatant, life, remains here at The New York Review of Books.

However, for those who are in a hurry, the short version is thus: Bolaño was a Chilean who had moved to Mexico in his youth, returning to Chile right before Pinochet’s coup, where he was jailed for left-wing activities. He was recognized by a guard who had been boyhood schoolmate and released. Without that fortuitous intervention of fate, the writer would more than likely have met his end long before any of his books had been written.

2666 is a sprawling 5-volume work spanning the demarcations of geography, the echelons of culture, and the many-fathomed spaces composing the convoluted machinations of human cruelty. Bolaño, a sufferer from Hepatitis C, the result of a heroin addiction, and a poet who began writing fiction in earnest as a means to provide for his family, envisioned 2666 as a serial, the release of each volume spaced so as to afford his family the maximum benefit of the proceeds from sales in his definitively foretold absence. Following his death, his estate decided that the first printing of the book should be released in a single volume to preserve the coherence of the massive text.

I don’t want to commit more than a few words here to call attention to this writer who made a simply powerful entrance into my life in the last year or so. I haven’t read this newest book yet, but few authors have moved me like this one. A writer who was willing to admit that “literature is basically a dangerous calling” (check out the entirety of his Caracas Speech), he spoke straight and unflinching to the heart of human matters, be they boring, vile, obscenely beautiful, or entirely forgettable.