A Figure in the Distance Even to My Own Eye

I. It is essential for a child to understand the purpose of a holiday.

In April of 1994, Kurt Cobain, who was 27 years old at the time, took his own life with a shotgun. That same year, Starlite Walker, the debut album of the Silver Jews, was released and mistakenly believed to be the work of Stephen Malkmus.

Consequently, if the name of David Berman’s poem “Self-Portrait at 28” is accurate, it must have been written in 1995 because Berman, just like Cobain, was born in 1967. The two men would have been the same age if Cobain had survived.

In 1999, Actual Air was released, containing the poem “Self-Portrait at 28”. This was one year after the release of American Water, a highly acclaimed indie-rock album by the Silver Jews. At the time, Berman appeared to be devoting as much attention to poetry as he was to music.

He had studied poetry at the University of Virginia and UMass-Amherst, and even gave public readings, while the Silver Jews never performed live. Additionally, Berman refused to allow Drag City to take out ads for their records, likely resulting in false speculation that the band was a project of Malkmus.

From time to time, a poem of David Berman emerges, although he had a short stint as the poet of this magazine.

There is no suggestion that he will be releasing more volumes of poetry. In June, Drag City published The Portable February, a compilation of his drawings. It appears that it is more likely that we will get to see The Collected Lyrics of the Silver Jews than a follow-up to Actual Air.

Therefore, Actual Air, which is likely to remain a standalone in Berman’s portfolio, induces reminiscences of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, with the major difference being that Actual Air is actually great.

Actual Air is an outstanding work, showing intelligence, strength, fascination, insight and amusement.

Even if it was released today, it would still be as powerful and unique as it is. In this regard, it is not so much similar to Dylan’s Tarantula, but rather to the Silver Jews’ own American Water, both of which are landmarks in their own art forms.

At the turn of the century, it was rather surprising to consider that one person had been responsible for both pieces of work, likely created around the early 90s and reaching its peak in 1995-97. It must have been incredibly far-fetched in 1999 to consider that it could be done again, and no one would have been more aware of that than David Berman himself.

For the decade since Actual Air was released, David Berman has endured personal hardships. His divorce, addiction, depression, and 2003 suicide attempt all contributed to the changes he would later make.

He committed to sobriety, rediscovered his Jewish faith, remarried, and allowed a movie to be made about his band and their trip to Israel ( Silver Jew, 2007). This culminated in him being filmed crying at the Wailing Wall.

In the same time frame, Berman managed to release three Silver Jews albums–Bright Flight (2001), Tanglewood Numbers (2005), and Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008)–all of which were of excellent quality and not just a repetition of what had come before.

He conquered his dislike of performing live and went on tours around the world. He didn’t do any advertising for his records, but he began doing more interviews than ever before. (For the record, I conducted a correspondence interview with Berman for the Brooklyn Rail in 2005.)

In the lead-up to the tenth anniversary of the release of Actual Air, Berman’s preference for music over poetry became unmistakable.

II. “… the union of Present and Past…”

No mistake can be made in connecting the two poems in Actual Air that are most directly related to anniversaries as they come one after the other. In “April 13, 1865,” the assassination of Lincoln is recalled from the point of view of an audience member, known as “John Sleeper Clarke,” who “noticed stars amidst the wooden scaffolding / as the news spread through the seats like a blot.”

It is a concise, witty, and perceptive poem, beginning with the wry opening lines (“The shot came from the balcony, / as if the play had spawned an extension”) and ending on the surreal, lucid note: “the assassin was suspended in the air / when the stagehands brought out the clouds.”

Unlike the poem “April 13, 1865,” “Self-Portrait at 28” is an eight page reflection of the speaker’s current everyday life.

The poem begins with the speaker noting that the title is “bad” but that he is giving it to himself as a gift. It moves slowly, with the speaker feeling a sense of pride when he recalls school, and then noting that the same people keep dying over and over again. The poem eventually moves on to other topics.

The debut book from Open City magazine’s book-publishing arm was Actual Air, an unorthodox selection of poems.

The gamble paid off, and Joanna Yas, Berman’s editor at Open City, reported that the book has been reprinted nine times and sold about twenty thousand copies – about six thousand in its first year, and an average of more than a thousand a year since. This success is the equivalent of quadruple platinum in the poetry world.

While it is true that the author is a renowned musician, can you name Billy Corgan’s poetry collection? Or Jeff Tweedy’s? Actual Air was praised in magazines such as GQ, Entertainment Weekly and Spin, which declared that it was ‘actual poetry’, a statement that stands out when compared to Jewel’s 1998 poetry collection, A Night Without Armor, which was released in hardcover and paperback.

Publishers Weekly heralded the emergence of an impressive American poetic storyteller on June 28, 1999, one day before my seventeenth birthday.

Soon after, the New Yorker weighed in, describing Berman’s work as a prankster-like endeavor, “replenishing the imperial orations of Wallace Stevens and the meandering monologues of John Ashbery with the pop-cultural knick-knacks of a new generation.”

At my birthday, someone I had known gifted me a copy of Actual Air and I thought it signified a momentous change. In reality, though, I was a high-school student in south Florida in a quandary over which subculture I wanted to be a part of: Less Than Jake or Phish. I had never heard of David Berman, the Silver Jews, the New Yorker, or Publishers Weekly and I was not reading its book reviews in Spin either.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Florida in Gainesville, living in an off-campus house with an uneven floor and a keg on the porch, I was first introduced to Actual Air. My roommate Peter, who was the one to introduce me to Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel during my freshman year, was surfing the web on the dial-up connection, trying to find out when the albums of his favorite bands were coming out.

As I worked at my desk in my room, with my door open, Radiohead’s Kid A was playing in the background, and Peter yelled out: “Hey, did anyone know that the guy from the Silver Jews has a poetry book?”

I, along with our other roommate Adam, Peter’s significant other Avni, and even the occasional visitors Jason and Brian, formed a unanimous consensus that the answer was “no”. It was the spring of 2002, but that didn’t stop Peter from going ahead and ordering the book anyway.

The copy of Actual Air that I own was purchased by Peter on that day. He was so passionate about it that he pressed me to read it, for the purpose of bettering myself and for having someone to share his enthusiasm with. It was one of the best literary tips I’ve ever received.

The book is in terrible condition. Its front cover is full of grooves and scratches. It’s curled in the corners. Sections of the spine are missing (“tual air” published by “OPE”), and the back cover is smudged with a mysterious substance. There’s at least one coffee stain, and there are even tooth marks. If one were to chance upon it on a park bench, they’d be hesitant to pick it up.

Throughout the poems, one can observe Peter’s and my own annotations, as well as all the extra ones I’ve included afterwards. Most of Peter’s notes were underlined and encased in brackets, written in either blue or black.

Whereas I was more likely to be more bold in my mark-making, it’s safe to say that the stars marked in purple ink and the neon orange highlights were done by me. A streak of green under the line for “Community College in the Rain” (“Karen (whispers): We are ranking the great shipwrecks”) could have been the work of either of us.

The instrument used for writing does not necessarily determine who wrote the text, as either of us could have used the other’s pen or bought a box together. Thus, it is important to examine the penmanship. My handwriting is inferior to Peter’s, therefore if the underline appears to be trying to cross the line instead of underscoring it, it is probably mine. A sudden streak of scarlet in “Nervous Ashers” is only uncertain until you remember that Peter is the one who puts brackets, not me. (He liked the phrase: “Already gone were the golden days of e-z credit, the days of approaching squat south-central skylines from underneath… howling saran yaps and careening school chords.”)

The best indicator of who was fond of a specific line can be found in the content itself, not in the particular pen or handwriting.

Peter was fascinated by Berman’s aptitude to showcase the intense fervour of the mundane, such as in “A woman whispers to her sugar bowl, / ‘Slowly, over time, you will be lent to the neighbors'” (“Of Things Found Where They Are Not Supposed To Be”). He enjoyed Berman’s humour and also his acceptance of irony and humour as legitimate aspects of life which do not take away from the higher level of thought within the poem. (Younger me, who valued earnestness over all else, had trouble accepting this.) In the poem “A Letter from Isaac Asimov to His Wife Janet, Written on His Deathbed,” Berman imagines the laughs and jokes they’d have at his publisher’s office: “‘What were his last ten thousand words.…'” In “Now II,” Berman wrote, “O I’ve lied to you so much I can no longer trust you.” Peter put a line through both of these. I highlighted an alternate line in “Now II,” which reads, “[A]ren’t we meant to crest in a fury more distinguished?”

The Bermans I knew embodied philosophy (“all dreams lack conclusions, with no aim to reach an end”–“Serenade for a Wealthy Widow”), theology (“Now II” offering the phrase God is not a secret) and the meticulous eye of an eagle:

I have been wanting to relocate to a rural area for a long time,

where it’s permissible to start fires to discard waste

and where I can observe the stars twinkle like misspellings in the heavens.

(“They Don’t Acknowledge the Letter C”)

III. The brightness of objects was the factor that contributed to their longevity.

In the “Preface and Prelude” of The Western Canon, Harold Bloom states that literature is not just language, but also a need for metaphor. Nietzsche once defined this as the aspiration to be distinct, mainly from the customary works that form one’s heritage. As such, the wish to write profoundly is the urge to be elsewhere, in a place and time of one’s own, while merging one’s individual creative ideas with the pressure of predecessors.

In Berman’s poem “Governors on Sominex”, there is a line that encapsulates this sentiment. The poet states, “Our comprehension of the world will not alter, only the days in which we challenge our preconceptions.”

The poetry of Actual Air is not a break from the past, but rather a logical extension of the powerful poetry that has come before it. The New Yorker comment that was mentioned earlier is correct in that Berman has a style akin to Stevens, and has taken on Ashbery’s teachings, using pithy fragments while still maintaining a dreamy ambling, and having a story without a plot.

John Ashbery and James Tate both write scenes in their poetry and Berman follows in their footsteps. He, however, takes it a step further by reversing the formula and avoiding the artificiality of narrative, though his short stanzas and aphorisms may lead readers to think otherwise. His wry sense of humor and relaxed delivery have caused his work to be misconstrued as “slacker” when, in actuality, his poems and songs are designed to convey a story or make a point without relying on a traditional narrative. Berman’s poem, “Piano and Scene,” states that

No matter how advanced we think we are,

we still let ad copy manipulate us.

This deception still carries on, with our agreement,

as a double-sided story that runs parallel to our lives,

where we find ourselves in multiple versions of Akron,

filled with foreclosure, heartburn, and rain,

eating a plain baked potato and drinking a lukewarm beer.

The cleverness of this is that we are given the chance to criticize them,

until it becomes repetitive and expected to do so.

Meanwhile, they had already gone ahead and created a world

where commonplace criticism was the most awful thing you could do.

By the time we caught up, they were already there

with their several iterations of Akron,

a step ahead of us in the sequence of approval.

Though Berman’s speaker refrains from speaking loudly, the power of his words remains undiminished. His words convey a palpable sadness that is completely distinct from the shallow disaffection of the early 1990s. This is a genuine weariness of the soul, not mere ennui.

In comparison to my undergraduate self, ’09-me has the advantage of being able to recognise and discuss the various aspects of Berman’s work – something that I had only attained with my BA in English and MFA in creative writing. Even now, “Actual Air” is one of the few books that both undergrad- and ’09-me can agree upon.

Currently, I am able to pick up on the references to Whitman and Stevens (poems labelled “Democratic Vistas” and “They Don’t Acknowledge the Letter C”), as well as being able to get a grasp on more profound allusions, such as the conclusion of “The Night Nurse Essays” which implies “Prufrock,” while also simutaneously poking fun at Eliot. (Who doesn’t love to tease Eliot, right?)

Actual Air has built up a strong reputation and this is strengthened with the knowledge that analysing their poetry through academic and critical perspectives can bring more depth to the reading experience, but will not overshadow or reduce its original intended meaning.

In “Governors on Sominex,” the poem includes the lines “The evening edition carried the magic death of a child / backlit by a construction site sunrise on its front page” that draw upon the same idea in Dylan Thomas’s poem “Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”

In the poem by Thomas, the third stanza speaks of the “grandeur and fiery end of the infant’s life.”

Under no circumstances will I take a life

Nor speak ill of those who leave us

Nor do I have the right to

Further lament the loss of innocence and youth.

In Thomas’s poem, he refuses to accept death, instead transforming it into a celebration of life and God’s blessings. By contrast, Berman’s poem has a newspaper that encourages a careless outlook on life.

The key difference between the two is the switch from “majesty” to “magic”. The newspaper is likened to a magician, manipulating people by creating a sudden, but fleeting, reaction.

The “death be not proud” message isn’t explicitly stated in Berman’s poem, however, it is an implied presence, as no one has the conviction to articulate it.

Berman is conveying to the reader the state of the world we live in, and providing a unique perspective on it. The poem ends with the narrator reflecting on his souvenirs, realizing that they only helped him remember the buying of them.

Berman’s accomplishment could be described as a re-introduction of narrative–plot–into the post-Ashbery/Tate poetic realm.

Particularly remarkable is his work in part three of the book, which seems to push against its line breaks to a point where one wishes he would forgo them, as he does in the memoir-like “Nervous Ashers” (Malkmus and Nastanovich appear under pseudonyms they used in the first Silver Jews album).

An example of this is “The New Idea”, a piece of writing which is arguably the least impressive poem in the book, yet still delightful and successful. In this poem, a disaffected narrator contemplates the drudgery of the office (an inspirational poster, the comfort of freshly made photocopies, and uncomfortable chit-chat in the lavatory), moving between memories and perceptions.

During my high school years,

I understood that it was a completely different concept

to not do anything and to choose not to do something.

No indication of the type of job he has or that any work is being done at all. This plainness continues to increase until it is disrupted by an arresting vision on a screen; the company CEO appears.

The Chairman,

garbed in a white garment and slumbering in a Chinese river,

had a single chrysanthemum tucked behind one ear.

His arms were limp like a slackened chain

in the babbling current.

The image is effective as it offers a stark contrast to the mundane office-life it follows. It is a narrative climax, which has been subtly developing since the start of the story.

The careful examination of all of David Berman’s works–poems, lyrics, movies, interviews, drawings, and miscellaneous quotes–could lead one to the conclusion that Berman is moving from a place of confusion and dodging to frankness and lucidity. In artistic language, this always translates to a move towards straightforward narrative. It is justifiable to state that the two concepts of narrative and anti-narrative, intricacy and simplicity, are binary, meaning that each relies upon the other for definition. In other words, they make each other.

IV. On the start of a new week, the world seemed to have come to an end.

Beautiful paradoxes, anniversaries, mark moments of incarnation. We ponder on what could have happened on any given day that was chosen for us by fate, but didn’t. We ask each other where we were when it happened, attend reunions and give each other presents. These instances may evoke feelings that could be expressed any time, but we choose to elevate them with the dates fate has selected.

Just 48 hours after Barack Obama clinched the presidency of the United States, David Berman announced a disheartening alteration: the dissolution of the Silver Jews. On the Drag City Silver Jews message board, Berman wrote that he always wanted to avoid creating music that was not up to par. He went on to say that if he kept recording, he might end up writing a song in response to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” Berman also mentioned his intention to explore screenwriting and investigative journalism.

The Silver Jews’ 2008 album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, was met with almost exclusively positive reviews (I had the honor of writing one of them for FLAUNT magazine) and their live shows saw much success (I’ve attended the band’s shows three times, once at Drag City’s invitation and twice out of my own pocket). These claims were strange, to say the least.

Roughly an hour after the initial post, an additional note titled “My Father, My Attack Dog” appeared, and it contained the following words from Berman:

Then the situation became quite peculiar.

Now that the Joos are gone, I can reveal my deepest and darkest secret – my father. His name is notorious for all the wrong reasons. He is a truly awful person – a human trafficker, an exploiter, and a total scoundrel. You can read more about him if you visit www.bermanexposed.org. A few years ago, I asked him to end his business and warned him that if he refused, I would cut off our relationship. However, he chose to remain in his ways and become even more evil. Since then, I’ve been away from him, studying Judaism and art while desperately seeking justice. Nonetheless, I came to a realization that the SJs are too weak to ever make a dent in all the damage he’s caused.

The initial emotion of shock and sadness was soon replaced by practical concern; how could I make the case in the essay I was writing, by the beginning of the year, that Berman had prioritized music over poetry shortly after he had renounced it?

In the end, I believed that Berman’s announcement only verified my initial hypothesis that he had chosen music over poetry a decade ago. As amazing as Actual Air has done and as much as I think of it, it is certain more people will buy Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea this year than will have a copy of Actual Air. It appears that Berman’s spiritual and political beliefs are pushing him to take stories of greater personal meaning and potential newsworthiness – if he has access to anything of real importance to use against his father – and going for a larger and more popular crowd for his message. Although it might get some attention to stay low-key and low-profile, those advocating for reform and justice need to meet a different standard. It might be that Berman’s understanding of the Judaic moral code demands him to move away from music and the arts to a more direct kind of politics, such as documentary journalism or community activism. It could be that his real worry is not to become like R.E.M., but rather to become like Phil Ochs.

I am saddened by the thought of never hearing a Silver Jews album again and never reading another collection of David Berman’s poetry. Nevertheless, I am determined not to let my sorrow for what has passed overwhelm my enthusiasm for what lies ahead. What would a movie directed by Berman look like? Or how about a memoir of his life? Self-Portrait at Forty-eight might be ready for our viewing pleasure in 2015. ✯


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