When God was young
He made the wind and the sun
And since then
It’s been a slow education
And you got that one idea again
The one about dying
This was the first I heard from David Berman. Kingston, Ontario, 2006. I was full of middle, making occasional eyes at that one idea from across the kiddie pool of a protracted undergrad. Berman’s dry vocals, slurring down the sidewalk of a nasal, almost monotone register. The opening chords, undaunted as goose eggs. The aesthetic of ordinary incompetence was revelatory, like trading down for a slower horse on the wrong road. Something important was happening. Something worth the reallocation of a few minutes of my hour. Something not unlike the promise of wet paint.
I had discovered Bright Flight, the fourth studio album from Silver Jews. Being unfashionably late, I had to backtrack. In a sense, beginnings are impossible. Nobody knows whose party this is, when it started, or who will be the next one to act like they invented wearing a lampshade as a hat. All the time before you were born is a rumor. Next up was American Water, released in 1998 and, at the time of discovery by yours truly, still hailed by many as the pivot, hoist point, talisman of the Joos discography.
I can assure you that guitar adeptness and Al Purdy fandom does not automatically lead one to a life of making. In March 2008, I finally admitted to myself the absurdity of having never taken a stab at writing a poem or song. That week I wrote six songs, half a dozen pieces of shit, but complete pieces of shit. Of course that would be the week I would also discover that Berman had published a book of poems called Actual Air. The book was already pushing its tenth anniversary, but never is never better.
A decade after my first encounter with Actual Air, I am still metabolizing its lines, coming to terms with the poems. I pass a flower shop and think: I refuse to be the middleman in a relationship between you and the florist. At the hospital, listening to a resident nurse explain to me the results of my EKG, The nurses are so beautiful, he thought./ Try to remember that they are covered in germs. Lying in bed on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, As a way of getting in touch with my origins/ every night I set the alarm clock/ for the time I was born so that waking up/ becomes a historical reenactment.
It seems the most memorable things in life—songs, poems, quotations, experiences—are those which we are forever working out. History happens because people keep the things they love. Love being a word that everyone misspells one way and another. Jan Zwicky writes that ontological attention is a form of love. The quality of attention in Berman’s best lines is unrivaled: If Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways/ or wear little golden hallways around our necks. Even in his lesser work I find myself more than willing to watch the paint dry.
Thrillingly, bafflingly, Berman and I have become occasional correspondents in recent years. We have commiserated about our corporate mercenary fathers. His, an infamous Washington lobbyist who, in Berman’s words, ‘props up fast food, soda, factory farming, childhood obesity and diabetes, drunk driving and secondhand smoke,’ and is ‘a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch.’ Mine, the recently retired president of Monsanto Canada. The common denominator: music, poetry and patriarchal shitstorms of personal and corporate feeling.
Souvenirs only remind you of buying them, Berman writes. I look through my own work and see souvenirs from my stays with Silver Jews and Actual Air. Not lifted lines, but states of being and feeling. Dark humor, cowboy handstands, endless translation, the focused gaze of free association, craters of mammalian lust, a constant striving for the nowness of new shoes, the back rooms and bars and public parks of imagination so far beyond cry o’clock that everyone stops restaging photos of the last supper.
A Virginian Jew living in Nashville, Berman is most definitely not Canadian, but his songs and poetry have influenced many friends and colleagues working in Canadian words and music. What could be more Canadian than looking to our southerly neighbour in celebration of Canadian music and literature? The Canada of my country contains a certain amount of elsewhere. Sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name. Perfect is not the point, the presence of the new is where you find your footprints. Go forth and polish imperfections. No rush, David Berman has saved a seat for you.
To learn more about David Berman, please visit the Academy of American Poets website, this essay by the co-founder of Open City magazine and this article “River of Berman” in Tablet magazine.
Andy McGuire is a musician and poet. He recently published his first collection, Country Club (Coach House Books). His poems have appeared in Hazlitt, The Walrus, and Eleven Eleven. McGuire is currently working on his fifth album.