David Berman's "Classic Water"
Thoughts on memory and care.
I remember Kitty saying we shared a deep longing for the consolation prize, laughing as we rinsed the stagecoach. I remember the night we camped out and I heard her whisper “think of me as a place” from her sleeping bag with the centaur print. I remember being in her father’s basement workshop when we picked up an unknown man sobbing over the shortwave radio and the night we got so high we convinced ourselves that the road was a hologram projected by the headlight beams. I remember how she would always get everyone to vote on what we should do next and the time she said “all water is classic water” and shyly turned her face away. At volleyball games her parents sat in the bleachers like ambassadors from Indiana in all their midwestern schmaltz. She was destroyed when they were busted for operating a private judicial system within U.S. borders. Sometimes I’m awakened in the middle of the night by the clatter of a room service cart and I think back on Kitty. Those summer evenings by the government lake, talking about the paradox of multiple Santas or how it felt to have your heart broken. I still get a hollow feeling on Labor Day when the summer ends and I remember how I would always refer to her boyfriends as what’s-his-face, which was wrong of me and I’d like to apologize to those guys right now, wherever they are: No one deserves to be called what’s-his-face.
from Actual Air (Drag City, 1999)
I am writing this in the midst of a slightly groggy (though I like to say froggy) haze in the aftermath of a Covid booster, so I apologize if nothing I say makes sense. But I am a latecomer to David Berman’s poetry. When he passed a few years ago, I was not an avid listener of Silver Jews, and I had not really heard of Actual Air — his only published book of poems. But a latecomer — sometimes, and often gratefully — still arrives. And now, my copy of Actual Air sits on this strange pedestal of books I keep on top of a bookshelf, sandwiched between Thomas Lux’s collected and another James Tate’s The Government Lake. And this poem — “Classic Water” — is my most turned-to poem in Berman’s book.
And if I could, I’d like to talk a bit about that turning-to. Not necessarily about this poem in the specific, but about what makes a poem something that one turns to. Maybe you have poems like this, maybe sometimes? A poem dog-eared so frequently that the triangle on the top corner of the page has lopped itself off, and left the page fragmented, missing one small corner of itself?
The first poem that did this for me was “The Double,” by Larry Levis, which fit the entirety of all-the-feeling-I-could-muster into one stanza that read:
A man can give up smoking and the movies, and live for years hearing the wind tick over roofs but never looking up from his one page, or the tiny life he keeps carving over and over upon it. And when everyone around him dies, he can move a grand piano into his house, and sit down alone, and finally play, certain that no one will overhear him, though he plays as loud as he can, so that when the dead come and take his hands off the keys they are invisible, the way air and music are not.
I was maybe 24 or 25 when I first read that stanza, and I thought of the whole thing like a short story. I returned to it again and again. I felt a life inside of it. A heartbeat. I wondered what it meant when Levis wrote that someone might “finally play.” I wanted to know what it might be like to play a piano in that way. I wondered if I knew already. I wondered if I might ever know. I read the poem again and again. I kept The Selected Levis in a stack on my desk, and whenever I felt anything — literally anything — I turned to the page where that stanza was, and I read it, once again, to feel.
There have been others. The entirety of Jamaal May’s Hum, or Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, or Linda Gregg’s All of It Singing, or anything by Steve Scafidi. Or I think about Louise Gluck’s “Telemachus’ Detachment,” which reads, in its entirety:
When I was a child looking at my parents' lives, you know what I thought? I thought heartbreaking. Now I think heartbreaking, but also insane. Also very funny.
When I first read this poem, I went hah. A little chuckle out of the deepness of my lungs. And then I read it again and when ah. And then oh. And then silence. And now I know the poem by heart, and it sometimes returns to me in the seemingly oddest of moments. When I am teaching or when I am hauling pounds of laundry down the stairs of my apartment building to the laundromat a block away. Very funny, I think. Sometimes to my despair. Sometimes to my own depreciation. Sometimes to satisfy my little, consistent, ever-present humor that deserves to be satisfied time and time again.
Or I think about Galway Kinnell’s short, gorgeous “Prayer”:
Whatever happens. Whatever what is is is what I want. Only that. But that.
Or Merwin’s short, gorgeous “Wish”:
Please one more kiss in the kitchen before we turn the lights off
I recited the latter poem to my fiancee the other night, as we were getting ready for bed and turning each light off. I said the poem in its entirety, almost out of reflex. The lights were turning off; it was dark. I caught myself just as the last few words slipped out. Oh, I said in the back of my mind — that’s Merwin.
And so I’ve been turning to today’s poem so frequently lately, and I don’t know why. I find the book at the top of one of my bookshelves, and I flip to a dogeared page, and I read this poem, and I laugh a little to myself, and I moan some long moan of sorrow, and I wonder and I grow curious, and I finish the poem, and then I do it all again.
And I think I’m reading this poem over and over again because, in part, I’m rethinking how to approach my own act of writing poetry, and reading Berman feels almost exhilarating. Today’s poem inspires what I think is one of the best feelings that a poem can inspire — that almost-aha moment when you say oh, a poem can do this! And that moment for me comes not from some immense amount of trickery or subtle craft — though I’ve read that Berman was a meticulous crafter and reviser of his poems. It instead comes from something that might’ve been brought out in revision but feels so natural: the poem’s ongoing repetition, which is not repetition of symbol or language or anything other than the phrase:
It’s that phrase that introduces today’s poem, and furthers it, and dwells in where the poem goes, and then ends it. And it’s that phrase that offers such a precise, specific litany of details that feel, to me, a little magical in their specificity. Like here:
I remember the night we camped out and I heard her whisper “think of me as a place” from her sleeping bag with the centaur print.
For some reason, this stanza made me cry — literally cry — actual tears the first time I read it. It was some combination of the innocence of childhood and the surprise of language and the idea of thinking of someone as a place and then, finally, the centaur print. All of that — the innocent romance of growing up, the surreal and spot-on specificity of a precise and actual moment remembered, the poetry of whispered phrases — is contained in these four lines, which break my heart and fill it at the same time.
Berman does it again here:
I remember how she would always get everyone to vote on what we should do next and the time she said “all water is classic water” and shyly turned her face away.
And it’s hard for me to write about these lines without my eyes welling up a bit, and I don’t know why other than the fact that Berman’s poetry inspires that welling-up — that part of me I thought I had aged out of but that really we never do. That tiny romantic, that little lonely child, that wannabe academic, that person who would stop, sometimes, to watch the light crawl diagonally up the rust-red brick of a building. It’s there in that remembrance of that phrase — all water is classic water — because that’s how people talk when they are full of love and life and trust and a wide eyed gaze of the world. It’s how we talk when we’re a little unabashed and a little full of it — it being everything, which is a beautiful thing to be full of. I don’t know what all water is classic water means, but I also do. It means more than I have words to say. Because it is at once keen observation — that all water is always itself, I guess, that it cannot be more or less than it is, and is therefore, perpetually classic — and a bit of nonsense. Mostly, it makes me smile. And it makes me miss myself a little bit. It makes me want to remember.
And it also makes me sad, the way a few stanzas from Berman’s “Self-Portrait at 28” make me sad:
It’s just that our advances are irrepressible. Nowadays little kids can’t even set up lemonade stands. It makes people too self-conscious about the past, though try explaining that to a kid. I’m not saying it should be this way. All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two.
There’s so much longing in these lines, coupled with remarkable observation and criticism. But it’s the longing I think of the most, and the care. It’s the kid in these lines, and how the sadness centers around the child.
I was talking about these ideas of observation, specificity, and care with some of my students this week. We are reading Toni Morrison, who is one of the great writers of specific, unrelenting details that pinpoint, simultaneously, the love and pain at the heart of our individual and collective existence. We were studying a passage from The Bluest Eye which reads:
If my mother was in a singing mood, it wasn’t so bad. She would sing about hard times, bad times, and somebody-done-gone-and-left-me times. But her voice was so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty I found myself longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without “a thin di-I-ime to my name.” I looked forward to the delicious time when “my man” would leave me, when I would “hate to see that evening sun go down . . .” ‘cause then I would know “my man has left this town.” Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother’s voice took all of the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet.
We used this passage as a way to get used to Morrison’s style before diving into Sula, which we are reading next. We talked about the way Morrison uses specificity so well, how she insists on weaving the mother’s voice through the passage, which is also a testament to the power of memory, since the passage is being told from the voice of the daughter. She doesn’t just remember the mother’s pain, or the act of singing. She remembers the words. And it’s that — the real and actual words threading through this passage — that shows us how much she feels.
And it’s funny, because almost immediately afterwards, we read the opening of Sula together, and encountered this:
Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it.
And then this:
The black people watching her would laugh and rub their knees, and it would be easy for the valley man to hear the laughter and not notice the adult pain that rested somewhere under the eyelids, somewhere under their head rags and soft felt hats, somewhere in the palm of the hand, somewhere behind the frayed lapels, somewhere in the sinew’s curve. He’d have to stand in the back of Greater Saint Matthew’s and let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk, or touch the hands of the spoon carvers (who had not worked in eight years) and let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin. Otherwise the pain would escape him even though the laughter was part of the pain.
We talked about the sharpness of Morrison’s observations. The “Nu Nile” in the women’s hair, the detail about the owner who “cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it,” which is so precise and wonderful and absurd that it has to be true, it has to be human. And we talked about the “spoon carvers” and the way that you had to be able to see and feel such things in order to know “the laughter was part of the pain.” And we talked about how the illumination of the contradictory, the way pain and laughter can exist in the same sentence — the way so much of the world is this way. And we talked a lot about care. That, seemingly above all, it takes care to write like this. Because it takes care to see like this, and care to treat the world you create like this. It takes so much care — care above all else.
After this, we paused, and I asked students to share some of their most vivid memories — the ones that present as almost pure sensation, full of scent and sight and observation and detail. What followed was really beautiful, students sharing such seemingly small and ordinary and mundane moments of life that, for them, were enriched because of care or love or loss. I shared about my mother, and how, for the few years I remember her living with my family, mornings were entirely different. The smell of batter rising up from the kitchen, and the slippers she wore, and the little ceramic cow she kept on top of the counter that we sometimes filled with cookies, and the black spots of the cow matching the black and white of the kitchen tiles that now, when I come back to my childhood home and see it, need to be replaced. And it’s funny, because that was such a small and imperfect and fleeting time of my life, but I held onto something, and still hold onto it, and I can never unsee or unsense it. Nor would I want to.
And, well, it’s funny, I think, that I mentioned Larry Levis’ poem “The Double” at the start of this. Because, in reading these lines from Berman’s “Self-Portrait at 28,” I am reminded of Levis:
I am trying to get at something so simple that I have to talk plainly so the words don’t disfigure it, and if it turns out that what I say is untrue, then at least let it be harmless like a leaky boat in the reeds that is bothering no one.
There’s care here, too, right? And uncertainty. And longing. And the simple but filling-up-the-body feeling of trying — plainly — to say something of meaning. Even though it’s hard. And even though some golden light never seems to appear above wherever you think you are done writing to say that you did it. That you got at something. That you said it. It’s like when Levis writes about the tiny life he keeps carving over and over upon it. Writing is like that, I think. Like the page, even when it changes, doesn’t change. It takes care to return to something like that. Just like it takes care, each day, to wake up and return to our lives.
And it’s funny, too, because when I read those lines above by Berman, I can’t help but think of one more thing. A little poem by Thomas Lux called “A Boat in the Forest.” I’ll leave you with it in full:
Sixty miles from a lake, no river or pond within forty-eight, no ocean near, and this rowboat, crisply painted, oarlocks oiled, oars set and cocked, in a small—mossy, pine needles—clearing of sparse gray and yellow forest grass. The light here: like joy, pain, like glass. On its bow, in red paint, beside the anchor rope, its name: A Joy To Be Hidden But a Disaster Not To Be Found. An odd place, a long name, for a boat.
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