A brilliant and fiercely pitched sonnet cycle about love: at once passionate, forbidden, and doomed
John Berryman was an unconventional poet, but he must have surprised even himself when, in his thirties, he found he was suddenly compelled to write sonnets. It was an unusual choice—even an unpopular one—for a poet in a midcentury American literary scene that was less interested in forms. But it was the right choice, for Berryman found himself in a situation that called for the sonnet: after several years of a happy marriage, he had fallen helplessly, hopelessly in love with the young wife of a colleague.
"Passion sought; passion requited; passion delayed; and, finally, passion utterly thwarted": this is how the poet April Bernard, in her vivid, intimate introduction, characterizes the sonnet cycle, and it is the cycle that Berryman found himself caught up in. Of course the affair was doomed to end, and end badly. But in the meantime, on the page Berryman performs a spectacular dance of tender, obsessive, impossible love in his "characteristic tonal mixture of bravado and lacerating shame-facedness." Here is the poet as lover, genius, and also, in Bernard's words, as nutcase.
In Berryman's Sonnets, the poet draws on the models of Petrarch and Sidney to reanimate and reimagine the love-sonnet sequence. Complex, passionate, filled with verbal fireworks and the emotional strains of joy, terror, guilt, and longing, these poems are ripe for rediscovery by contemporary readers.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
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, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969.
Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London. His first book, Bomber County, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book award, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s.
Read an Excerpt
By John Berryman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2014 April Bernard
All rights reserved.
[ 1 ]
I wished, all the mild days of middle March
This special year, your blond good-nature might
(Lady) admit — kicking abruptly tight
With will and affection down your breast like starch —
Me to your story, in Spring, and stretch, and arch.
But who not flanks the wells of uncanny light
Sudden in bright sand towering? A bone sunned white.
Considering travellers bypass these and parch.
This came to less yes than an ice cream cone
Let stand .. though still my sense of it is brisk:
Blond silky cream, sweet cold, aches: a door shut.
Errors of order! Luck lies with the bone,
Who rushed (and rests) to meet your small mouth, risk
Your teeth irregular and passionate.
[ 2 ]
Your shining — where? — rays my wide room with gold;
Grey rooms all day, green streets I visited,
Blazed with you possible; other voices bred
Yours in my quick ear; when the rain was cold
Shiver it might make shoulders I behold
Sloping through kite-slipt hours, tingling. I said
A month since, 'I will see that cloud-gold head,
Those eyes lighten, and go by': then your thunder rolled.
Drowned all sound else, I come driven to learn
Fearful and happy, deafening rumours of
The complete conversations of the angels, now
As nude upon some warm lawn softly turn
Toward me the silences of your breasts .. My vow! ..
One knee unnerves the voyeur sky enough.
[ 3 ]
Who for those ages ever without some blood
Plumped for a rose and plucked it through its fence? ..
Till the canny florist, amorist of cents,
Unpawned the peppery apple, making it good
With boredom, back to its branch, as it seems he could, —
Vending the thornless rose. We think our rents
Paid, and we nod. O but ghosts crowd, dense,
Down in the dark shop bare stems with their Should
Not! Should Not sleepwalks where no clocks agree!
So I was not surprised, though I trembled, when
This morning groping your hand moaning your name
I heard distinctly drip .. somewhere .. and see
Coiled in our joys flicker a tongue again,
The fall of your hair a cascade of white flame.
[ 4 ]
Ah when you drift hover before you kiss
More my mouth yours now, lips grow more to mine
Teeth click, suddenly your tongue like a mulled wine
Slides fire, — I wonder what the point of life is.
Do, down this night when I adore you, Lise,
So I forsake the blest assistant shine
Of deep-laid maps I made for summits, swine-
enchanted lover, loafing in the abyss?
Loaf hardly, while my nerves dance, while the gale
Moans like your hair down here. But I lie still,
Strengthless and smiling under a maenad rule.
Whose limbs worked once, whose imagination's grail
Many or some would nourish, must now I fill
My strength with desire, my cup with your tongue,
no more Melpomene's, but Erato's fool? ..
[ 5 ]
The poet hunched, so, whom the worlds admire,
Rising as I came in; greeted me mildly,
Folded again, and our discourse was easy,
While he hid in his skin taut as a wire,
Considerate as grace, a candid pyre
Flaring some midday shore; he took more tea,
I lit his cigarette .. once I lit Yeats' as he
Muttered before an Athenaeum fire
The day Dylan had tried to slow me drunk
Down to the great man's club. But you laught just now
Letting me out, you bubbled 'Liar' and
Laught .. Well, but thén my breast was empty, monk
Of Yeatsian order: yesterday (truth now)
Flooding blurred Eliot's words sometimes,
face not your face, hair not you blonde but iron.
[ 6 ]
Rackman and victim grind: sounds all these weeks
Of seconds and hours and days not once are dumb,
And has your footfall really not come
Still? O interminable strength that leaks
All day away alert .. I am who seeks
As tautly now, whom the vague creakings strum
Jangled this instant, as when the monstrous hum
Your note began! — since when old silence spéaks.
Deep down this building do I sometimes hear
Below the sighs and flex of the travelling world
Pyromaniacal whispers? .. Not to be
They say would do us good .. easy .. the mere
Lick and a promise of a sweet flame curled
Fast on its wooden love: silence our plea.
[ 7 ]
I've found out why, that day, that suicide
From the Empire State falling on someone's car
Troubled you so; and why we quarrelled. War,
Illness, an accident, I can see (you cried)
But not this: what a bastard, not spring wide! ..
I said a man, life in his teeth, could care
Not much just whom he spat it on .. and far
Beyond my laugh we argued either side.
'One has a right not to be fallen on! ..'
(Our second meeting .. yellow you were wearing.)
Voices of our resistance and desire!
Did I divine then I must shortly run
Crazy with need to fall on you, despairing?
Did you bolt so, before it caught, our fire?
[ 8 ]
College of flunkeys, and a few gentlemen,
Of whippersnappers and certain serious boys,
Who better discriminates than I your noise
From the lemon song and black light assertion
Of the academies of eternity? .. Your fen —
Yet it's your fen yields this perfume I poise
Full against Helen, and Isotta: toys
To time's late action in this girl. Again
As first when I sat down amongst your trees
I respect you and am moved by you! Hér you
Taught not, nor could, but comrades of hers you have,
She sleeps, she rouses, near you, near she frees
Each morning her strange eyes, eyes that grey blue
Not blue .. for your incurable sins some salve.
[ 9 ]
Great citadels whereon the gold sun falls
Miss you O Lise sequestered to the West
Which wears you Mayday lily at its breast,
Part and not part, proper to balls and brawls,
Plains, cities, or the yellow shore, not false
Anywhere, free, native and Danishest
Profane and elegant flower, — whom suggest
Frail and not frail, blond rocks and madrigals.
Once in the car (cave of our radical love)
Your darker hair I saw than golden hair
Above your thighs whiter than white-gold hair,
And where the dashboard lit faintly your least
Enlarged scene, O the midnight bloomed .. the East
Less gorgeous, wearing you like a long white glove!
[ 10 ]
You in your stone home where the sycamore
More than I see you sees you, where luck's grass
Smoothes your bare feet more often, even your glass
Touches your hand and tips to your lips to pour
Whatever is in it into you, through which door
O moving softness do you just now pass —
Your slippers' prows curled, red and old — alas
With what soft thought for me, at sea, and sore?
Stone of our situation, iron and stone,
Younger as days to years than the house, yet might
Wé stare as little haggard with time's roil ..
Who in each other's arms have lain — lie — one
Bite like an animal, both do, pause, and bite,
Shudder with joy, kiss .. the broad waters boil!
[ 11 ]
I expect you from the North. The path winds in
Between the honeysuckle and the pines, among
Poison ivy and small flowerless shrubs,
Across the red-brown needle-bed. I sit
Or smoking pace. A moment since, at six,
Mist wrapped the knoll, but now birds like a gong
Beat, greet the white-gold level shine. Wide-flung
On a thousand greens the late slight rain is gleaming.
A rabbit jumps a shrub. O my quick darling,
Lie torpid so? Cars from the highway whine,
Dawn's trunks against the sun are black. I shiver.
Your hair this fresh wind would — but I am starting.
To what end does this easy and crystal light
Dream on the flat leaves, emerald, and shimmer? ..
[ 12 ]
Mutinous armed & suicidal grind
Fears on desires, a clutter humps a track,
The body of expectation hangs down slack
Untidy black; my love sweats like a rind;
Parrots are yattering up the cagy mind,
Jerking their circles .. you stood, a week back,
By, I saw your foot with half my eye, I lack
You .. the damned female's yellow head swings blind.
Cageless they'd grapple. O where, whose Martini
Grows sweeter with my torment, wrung on toward
The insomnia of eternity, loud graves!
Hölderlin on his tower sang like the sea
More you adored that day than your harpsichord,
Troubled and drumming, tempting and empty waves.
[ 13 ]
I lift — lift you five States away your glass,
Wide of this bar you never graced, where none
Ever I know came, where what work is done
Even by these men I know not, where a brass
Police-car sign peers in, wet strange cars pass,
Soiled hangs the rag of day out over this town,
A juke-box brains air where I drink alone,
The spruce barkeep sports a toupee alas —
My glass I lift at six o'clock, my darling,
As you plotted .. Chinese couples shift in bed,
We shared today not even filthy weather,
Beasts in the hills their tigerish love are snarling,
Suddenly they clash, I blow my short ash red,
Grey eyes light! and we have our drink together.
[ 14 ]
Moths white as ghosts among these hundreds cling
Small in the porchlight .. I am one of yours,
Doomed to a German song's stale metaphors,
The breasty thimble-rigger hums my wring.
I am your ghost, this pale ridiculous thing
Walks while you slump asleep; ouija than morse
Reaches me better; wide on Denmark's moors
I loiter, and when you slide your eyes I swing.
The billiard ball slammed in the kibitzer's mouth
Doctor nor dentist could relieve him of,
Injecting, chipping .. too he clampt it harder ..
Squalor and leech of curiosity's truth
Fork me this diamond meal to gag on love,
Grinning with passion, your astonished martyr.
[ 15 ]
What was Ashore, then? .. Cargoed with Forget,
My ship runs down a midnight winter storm
Between whirlpool and rock, and my white love's form
Gleams at the wheel, her hair streams. When we met
Seaward, Thought frank & guilty to each oar set
Hands careless of port as of the waters' harm.
Endless a wet wind wears my sail, dark swarm
Endless of sighs and veering hopes, love's fret.
Rain of tears, real, mist of imagined scorn,
No rest accords the fraying shrouds, all thwart
Already with mistakes, foresight so short.
Muffled in capes of waves my clear sighs, torn,
Hitherto most clear, — Loyalty and Art.
And I begin now to despair of port.
(AFTER PETRARCH & WYATT)
[ 16 ]
Thrice, or I moved to sack, I saw you: how
Without siege laid I can as simply tell
As whether below the dreams of Astrophel
Lurks local truth some scholars would allow
And others will deny in ours! O now
The punishing girl met after Toynbee's bell
Tolled for us all I see too bloody well
To say why then I cheapened a blind bow.
Paid at the shore eyes, ears, a shaking hand,
A pull of blood; behind you coming back,
Already holding, began to be borne away ..
Held. After Mozart, saw you bend and stand
Beside my seat .. held. I recovered.. . Rack
The consumer! I rushed out Rockwell Street one day.
[ 17 ]
The Old Boys' blazers like a Mardi-Gras
Burn orange, border black, their dominoes
Stagger the green day down the tulip rows
Of the holiday town. Ever I passioned, ah
Ten years, to go where by her golden bra
Some sultry girl is caught, to dip my nose
Or dance where jorums clash and King Rex' hose
Slip as he rules the tantrum's orchestra,
Liriodendron, and the Mystick Krewe!
Those images of Mardi-Gras' sweet weather
Beckoned — but how has their invitation ceased?
.. The bells brawl, calling (I cannot find you
With me there) back us who were not together.
Our forward Lent set in before our feast.
[ 18 ]
You, Lise, contrite I never thought to see,
Whom nothing fazes, no crise can disconcert,
Who calm cross crises all year, flouting, alert,
A reckless lady, in whom alone agree
Of bristling states your war and peace; only
Your knuckle broke with smashing objects, curt
Classic dislike, your flowing love, expert
Flat stillness on hot sand, display you wholly.
.. And can you do what you are sorry for? ..
'I'll pin you down and put a biscuit on you'
Your childhood hissed: you didn't: just this side
Idolatry, I cannot see you sor-
ry, darling, no! what other women do
And lie or weep for, flash in your white stride.
[ 19 ]
You sailed in sky-high, with your speech askew
But marvellous, and talked like mad for hours,
Slamming and blessing; you transported us,
I'd never heard you talk so, and I knew —
Humbler and more proud — you each time undo
My kitcat but to cram it with these powers
You bare and bury; suddenly, late then, as
Your best 'burnt offering' took me back with you.
No jest but jostles truth! .. I burn .. am led
Burning to slaughter, passion like a sieve
Disbands my circling blood the priestess slights.
— 'Remorse does not suit you at all' he said,
Rightly; but what he ragged, and might forgive,
I shook for, lawless, empty, without rights.
Excerpted from Berryman's Sonnets by John Berryman. Copyright © 2014 April Bernard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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