Wednesday, October 22, 2014

John Berryman's 100th Birthday


The poet John Berryman would have been 100 years old this Saturday. Here’s a poem I wrote about visiting the site of his suicide. 



Washington Avenue Bridge

to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless”
—John Berryman

Here, we stand
facing north
and leaning forward—
the railing halving us
and preventing us
from tilting out
as Berryman did,
shocked and fainting
falling through
that January cold
to the bank below
frozen hard as stone
that early into the new year.

Now, it’s June
and we have made our way
from Arthur Avenue
from the house he left that morning,
from that last meal,
that last drink,
that last written word
on that last X’ed-out sheet of paper—
to this place,
following his short via crucis,
keeping and pausing at each station
where he stumbled
or wavered
or looked back the way he came
to this two-tiered goal,
to this place
where whatever martyrdom
he planned for himself awaited him—
a throat not cut after all,
no gush of blood
to bring on the final resolve to tip out
into the air
and attempt flight.

Here are the foot spaces,
where he last touched ground
before the fall,
where he grasped the rail,
swaying out.
We kneel and touch the pavement
and grasp what he grasped
and gaze at what he gazed at last
through those frosted-over lenses.

We do it the way pilgrims do
in Chimayó or Široki Brijeg,
touching whatever has been made holy
by the violent witness
the saint made in blood.

We are pilgrims
because he was who he was
to us and to all that we
have carried with us all this way—
to this ledge, to this railing,
to this sweep of earth and river
beneath us
that makes us dizzy
and faint and unwilling
to attempt
like him
to fly.


From Crow, copyright (c) 2012 by Jamie Parsley.


John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet who, on January 7, 1972, jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At the time of his death, he was living at 33 Arthur Avenue in southeast Minneapolis. Chimayó is a popular pilgrimage site in northern New Mexico. Šokori Brijeg is the site in the former Yugoslavia where forty-three Roman Catholic Franciscan priests and brothers were murdered by Communist Partisans on February 18, 1945

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