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River of Berman

A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life

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(Marcos Roda, based on photo)
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This reading was at yet another art gallery. Berman was guest of honor. Berman stood there in the back in a blue Oxford shirt, a bit solemn, nonchalant about our attentions. He was stroking his beard. I was impressed with the beard and told him so. “It’s for my girlfriend,” he said in his sonorous, deadpan drawl. “It’s my way of saying that I’m the boss of me.”

We talked for a while, and he told me he had stayed up all night reading Seduction Theory, my first book. There are compliments and there are compliments. Like Bingham, he had a “let’s be friends but we are always going to be on our own” energy around him, a powerful force that could at any moment be turned on itself. His reading was sonoric, focused, droll. He made it clear from his posture that he took the form seriously—the poetic form and also the formality of a reading. His music and his poetry seemed an extension of each other, of course, but different. He seemed both rough and also like a delicate book whose binding was imperiled; you might want to take it to some kind of book fixer to set it straight. A specialist was needed. But then who fixes such books? No one, you think, no one fixes such things. One of my favorite Berman lyrics: “In the end the boy raises himself.”


From what did Berman’s charisma on that first night derive? He had published a few poems I admired in The Baffler. Open City had published a few more. Toward those poems I felt admiration verging on awe. They worked as poems and they also stood up in the larger world, somehow. They seemed cool. An unsophisticated response, I know, but they were exciting in part for their novelty and freshness of voice. They merged a kind of biblical authority with a contemporary sense of the ironic and droll. They were in many ways innocent, or about a childish innocence, but they were not amazed and wondrous.

He was the apple of my friend and co-editor Rob Bingham’s eye. Bingham’s eye beheld many shiny apples. Nevertheless Berman held a special place, it was clear. Rob’s excitement at having managed to get Berman’s poems, and then his presence, into the orbit of the magazine seemed boyish, verging on childish. Yet this sort of excitement was also the whole point of doing a literary magazine. That night Berman was a mystic, a degenerate, a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a genius, a poet, a rock star. He had a voice that seemed genuinely new and utterly entertaining. Bingham’s great coup was to convince Berman to let Open City publish his book-length poetry manuscript. It would be Open City Books’ first title.


At a recent reading by Sharon Olds, at Tulane, where I teach, the sound system was excellent and Olds’ every little inhaled breath crashed over the packed audience, as did the soft, sing-song mellifluous sound of her voice reading her wonderful, inventive poems. She read a poem called “Ode to a Hyman.” Another called “Ode to the Second U In Vacuum.” Terrific poems.

But I also noted a childishness she projected. Also its corollary, which is the old coot’s amazement at the modern world. The wondering way she said, “YouTube!” as though she had discovered fire and what would they come up with next? To be a poet is to be amazed, her manner suggested, even at the simplest things, which is a useful stance for a creative mind but also seems disingenuous to the point of being dishonest, because it allows for no bitterness.

I have encountered this bitter-free wondrousness among many other well-known poets. It’s almost a house style. I am not sure how I feel about these celestial beings. Robert Hass also gave a wonderful reading at Tulane; he had a bandage on his nose that made me think of Jake from Chinatown. Such an association is both inevitable but also a little hostile—because then you have to imagine a shitty little Roman Polanski figure putting a blade in Robert Hass’ blameless nostril and cutting it open. I thought, “Why would I be hostile to this nice man who is reading a moving poem about his dead brother?”

The answer lies, I think, in that childish wonder, that gentleness that poets seem so often to project. A softness and receptivity that feels frustratingly pacific and also remote. I am sensitive to this, I think, because I am complicit. In my personal essays, at least, there is a Mr. Magoo kind of levity and wonder, a feeling that all will be well. It’s almost like I am singing little lullabies to myself in those pieces. (Fiction is another story, so to speak.) But childish wonder excludes an important truth, which is I am also bitter. Bitter about so many things! And I have made it a kind of rallying cry to myself, recently—embrace the bitterness! Don’t hide the bitterness! When I cook food on a grill, isn’t the burnt bit the tastiest?

This is what Berman is kind of brilliant at synthesizing. His poems, and his songs, contain childish wonder but also real bitterness, the bitterness of knowledge. In his earlier days he was an angry young man but his delivery was not frantic. It was controlled, grounded, even soulful. But it was not childish and ethereal. Berman’s aura was that of someone who lives in the real world, among men and even football fans, and is not afraid to bring the nasty. He seems a bit dangerous, even if the person he seems most likely to harm is himself.


Actual Air was published in the fall of 1999. The book party, at Robert Bingham’s loft, was in late October. Within a month Robert Bingham had died of a heroin overdose (there I said it). Daniel went off the deep end around then. I have not spoken to him in 10 years now. This isn’t the place to anatomize that moment except to say that it was awful. Nevertheless the magazine existed and now there was also a publishing imprint, Open City Books. Berman’s book was the flagship title. That it was a huge success—by our standards, by the standards of poetry collections—added to a certain weightless feeling at the time. That it was the cusp of the millennium didn’t help. Looking back it was part—just part, but still—of what made going forward seem like a necessity. Daniel eventually left the magazine. Joanna Yas became my co-editor. We published the magazine and put out books for 10 more years.


Sometime around 2004 we were attacked by a maniac from Detroit who had long been a fan, even a friend. His name was Karl “King” Wenclas. He had reviewed Open City’s very first issue—negatively, but still, with energy and attention. I was so impressed that his byline appeared in issue #3, though I had misspelled his first name. (Ken. He wrote me a postcard that began, “Dear Tim.”)

Then Wenclas changed titles and tactics. The hostility to Open City (among many others) moved from the page, where it was welcome, to disruptions at readings and so forth, where it was not. Wenclas and his gang were throwing out taunts and dares, calling us (to be defined as everyone other than them) a bunch of pampered wusses who were marginalizing literature. All the people being thus insulted or harassed metabolized this in their own way. Most people ignored it. I tried to engage, at least for a while, as did George Plimpton, who memorably joined the group on stage at one of their events—a press conference held at the opera house next to CBGB.

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There have been a number of excellent longform pieces on Tablet recently, but this is surely the best.

grigor says:

This person is such a bad writer.

that was fantastic. thanks!


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River of Berman

A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life