I’m back in your inbox after a mostly unintentional hiatus, during which I was not making enough time myself for poetry, and also not taking the time to share poetry with friends.
That had to change this week, because I’m actually dying for company now that I have to share the news that David Berman, erstwhile Silver Jews singer/songwriter, is dead. He had just released a new album under the moniker Purple Mountains, and was preparing to tour. The news, alas, was a shock but no surprise; all his written work is testament to his depression and other emotional struggles. He’d attempted suicide before, in the early 2000s, and apparently succeeded this time, by hanging.
You could call his view of life "slanted and enchanted," to go with an album title he came up with for an affiliated band. There’s no real novelty in finding the sublime in the mundane, but for me David had A knack for doing that in contemporary terms that match any poet out there. And he was a published poet, too, having completed an MFA at UMass Amherst and publishing the well-received Actual Air in 1999. Take a look back at 5/4/2015’s MV for his "Self-Portrait at 28," which clicked with many of us.
I find a little bit of Wallace Stevens in this title, and I’ve sniffed hints of Stevens around other of his work. If your tastes run to dark-comedy-slacker indie rock, by all means check out any of the SJ records; he certainly knew his way around a 3-chord song, a one-liner, a rhyming couplet, and indelible images (feel free to share your own here — "the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues?").
Those of us close to his music are pretty crushed by this news. Although he would have had a lot more pain to live through, I feel like he still had a lot more joy to bring me. I hope you get some out of the below poem, which I think emblematizes much of what I’ve written above. No line is more David Berman than "You know what I’m talking about," in the middle. He was ironic and wry, but he always let you in on the joke if you were listening. -ed.
THE CHARM OF 5:30
It’s too nice a day to read a novel set in England.
We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.
Even the headstones in the graveyard
Seem to stand up and say “Hello! My name is…”
It’s enough to be sitting here on my porch,
thinking about Kermit Roosevelt,
following the course of an ant,
or walking out into the yard with a cordless phone
to find out she is going to be there tonight
On a day like today, what looks like bad news in the distance
turns out to be something on my contact, carports and white
courtesy phones are spontaneously reappreciated
and random “okay”s ring through the backyards.
This morning I discovered the red tints in cola
when I held a glass of it up to the light
and found an expensive flashlight in the pocket of a winter coat
I was packing away for summer.
It all reminds me of that moment when you take off your sunglasses
after a long drive and realize it’s earlier
and lighter out than you had accounted for.
You know what I’m talking about,
and that’s the kind of fellowship that’s taking place in town, out in
the public spaces. You won’t overhear anyone using the words
“dramaturgy” or “state inspection" today. We’re too busy getting along.
It occurs to me that the laws are in the regions and the regions are
in the laws, and it feels good to say this, something that I’m almost
sure is true, outside under the sun.
Then to say it again, around friends, in the resonant voice of a
nineteenth-century senator, just for a lark.
There’s a shy looking fellow on the courthouse steps, holding up a
placard that says “But, I kinda liked Reagan.” His head turns slowly
as a beautiful girl walks by, holding a refrigerated bottle up against
her flushed cheek.
She smiles at me and I allow myself to imagine her walking into
town to buy lotion at a brick pharmacy.
When she gets home she’ll apply it with great lingering care before
moving into her parlor to play 78 records and drink gin-and-tonics
beside her homemade altar to James Madison.
In a town of this size, it’s certainly possible that I’ll be invited over
In fact I’ll bet you something.
Somewhere in the future I am remembering today. I’ll bet you
I’m remembering how I walked into the park at five thirty,
my favorite time of day, and how I found two cold pitchers
of just poured beer, sitting there on the bench.
I am remembering how my friend Chip showed up
with a catcher’s mask hanging from his belt and how I said
great to see you, sit down, have a beer, how are you,
and how he turned to me with the sunset reflecting off his contacts
and said, wonderful, how are you.