Poet and singer-songwriter David Berman, who recorded music with the bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, died on Wednesday at the age of 52. In a review of Berman’s new album last month, Slate music critic Carl Wilson reflected on the wordsmith’s career, calling him “arguably one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, if you could scare up enough people who’d heard of him to have the argument.”
In the hours after the first reports of his death, many fans began sharing their favorite Berman poems and lyrics, so we asked Slate critics and contributors to pick some of his lines and write about what those poems and lyrics meant to them.
David Berman and I briefly crossed paths in Oakland, California, in the late 1990s. He had been a college friend (and sometime ego ideal) of my then-boyfriend, a musician a few years his junior who’d followed Berman’s band, Silver Jews, as it developed out of a collaboration between Berman and fellow University of Virginia grads Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, the future founders of Pavement. Sometime around the release of Silver Jews’ third album, American Water, David met us for dinner with another UVA alum and later came by my boyfriend’s apartment to listen to music (a process that then involved sifting through tabletop piles of CDs while singing the praises of the one you were about to put on, provided it was in its case) and talk.
So I encountered Berman as a person—tall, balding, soft-spoken, a bit ill at ease in his skin but in conversation fully present, with a sly sense of humor—before I had ever heard his music. This encounter has inflected my subsequent experience of listening to his songs and, after his poetry collection Actual Air came out in 1999, reading his words. When he opens his sparely perfect song “The Wild Kindness” on the line “I wrote a letter to a wildflower,” it sounds not like a poetic flight of fancy but like an activity that an odd, thoughtful man might plausibly have engaged in “on a classic nitrogen afternoon.”
Berman’s song lyrics tend toward a genial shagginess, the rhymes one phoneme off from perfection, their bumpy irregularity part of their charm: “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim,” he sings in “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” a song from the first (and now only) album from his second band, Purple Mountains, released last month after Berman’s disappearance from the music scene for a decade. But in the chorus of that same song, a mournful bit of wordplay hints at the lyrical virtuosity Berman could let fly when he wanted to: “And when I see her in the park/ It barely merits a remark/ How we stand the standard distance distant strangers stand apart.”
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By the time Actual Air was published—and almost immediately achieved the kind of cult status that a poetry collection, outside of very tiny circles, rarely does—I was living on the other side of the country from the boyfriend who had introduced us, so I could experience Berman’s words for myself. There are so many moments in that slender book’s pages that stay with me: the black asthma inhaler that the woman in “Imagining Defeat” brings to her lips, making the lover she’s about to leave think she’s biting into a plum. Or the way Berman breaks off in the middle of “Self-Portrait at 28” to address the reader directly, as if impatient with the opacity of language itself: “I am trying to get at something so simple/ that I have to talk plainly/ so the words don’t disfigure it.”
But the poem I’ll focus on here, “The Broken Mirror,” I chose because, read on the day after learning of Berman’s death by what appears to be suicide, it not only seems scarily prescient but also demonstrates that subterranean virtuosity he always had as a writer, the sheer compositional chops that underlay even his most deceptively simple lines. “The Broken Mirror,” which is about the elemental but terrifying experience of regarding one’s own face in a mirror while contemplating the passage of time, is made up entirely of the simple vernacular language Berman always deployed so well. But it’s also, low-key, a villanelle, a rhymed 19-line form with two lines that repeat identically in different places throughout the poem and come together to form its closing couplet. (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” probably the best-loved and most-quoted of all her poems, is a villanelle.) Berman’s devastating meditation on mortality, futility, and, now seen in retrospect, his own battles with depression, is delivered with such reserve that the complexity of its rhyme, meter, and syntax only sneaks up on you during a second reading. It’s Shakespearean in the scope of its theme, Macbeth’s “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy delivered with complete believability by a young man at the turn of the 21st century to his medicine-cabinet door.
—Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic
I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness
And hold the world to its word.
When the news of David Berman’s death reached me, from several directions simultaneously, on Wednesday evening, the first line of his that came to mind was the title phrase of “Like Like the the the Death.” The stuttering inarticulability of the sheer fact, the enormity, in the old sense of the word. But the first music that entered my head was the music of “The Wild Kindness,” a song that ends the most fertile and perfect Silver Jews album, 1998’s American Water, in a spirit almost like a religious processional, sending the listener back out into reality with Berman’s blessing. The verses are quizzically meditative, calibrated as finely as any Berman lines ever, but the chorus is one of the few where Berman is full-throatedly declarative, without too much tongue in cheek. The declarations vary from chorus to chorus: “I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence/ And spurn the sin of giving in”; “Instead of time, there will be lateness/ And let forever be delayed”; and finally, “I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness/ And hold the world to its word.” It’s a song about choosing to live, choosing to stay, putting one’s faith in something as fragile as kindness instead of the persuasive certainty of destruction. Having to make that deliberation too many times over, across too many years, must be exhausting, to keep finding ways to forestall forever. No one else can pass judgment on that. But in so much of Berman’s work there is so much to stay for—the nitrogen and the grass and the autumn and the icebox, as they go wandering through the lines of the verses in “Wild Kindness.” I don’t know if it’s possible to hold the world to its word. But I’ll go on holding those words up to the world.
—Carl Wilson, Slate’s music critic
Besides the great and immediately comprehensible neologism beerlight, “Punks in the Beerlight” is, in some ways, a conventional song: an ode to self-destructive “burnouts in love.” A lesser songwriter would either paint the couple in a false glow of romance or wallow in the tawdry abasement. But Berman captures the fractured junkie consciousness—self-justification alternating with decadence—by switching registers almost line by line, zooming out from the gutter (“Where’s the paper bag that holds the liquor?/ Just in case I feel the need to puke”) to the pseudo-philosophical (“If we’d known what it’d take to get here/ Would we have chosen to?”). Where a Springsteen might have lingered on the gauzy romance of “build an altar on a summer night,” Berman sucks back to the specificity of smoking the gel off a fentanyl patch.
A female voice (Berman’s ex-wife Cassie) hedges a future exigency: “If it ever gets really, really bad … ” The narrator cuts her off: “Let’s not kid ourselves—it gets really, really bad.” Better to focus on one unmistakable truth: “I always loved you to the max.”
—Franz Nicolay, occasional Slate contributor, musician, and author of The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar
He bought a little land with the money from the settlement,
And even bought the truck that had hit him that day.
He touched the part where the metal was bent
And if you were there, you wouldn’t hear him say:
I remember her
And I remember him.
I remember them,
I remember then.
I’m just remembering.
“I Remember Me” isn’t as surreal or opaque as other David Berman songs. It’s a country-music tragedy that starts with a couple falling in love. Then the man gets hit by a truck, the woman reluctantly abandons him, and the man recovers alone with his memories. The specifics provide the real pathos—and make it a Silver Jews song: a Chattanooga waterslide, a black hawk “nailed to the sky,” a banker in Oklahoma, a boombox in the sea. This album, Bright Flight, came out when I was first dating my now-husband, and it’s impossibly entangled with my own sense memories of that time: the crunch of snow at night in Rogers Park in Chicago, drinking Miller Lite on a back balcony, the feeling of being 21 and in love. The world seemed suddenly full of images and stories and emotions that resisted precise analysis but were beautiful anyway. I remember them; I remember then.
—Ruth Graham, Slate staff writer
You’re not supposed to love poems for the lessons they teach you, but I’m pretty sure “Now II” from Actual Air has been stuck in my head since college, not just because it’s beautiful but because it functions as a cautionary tale. “O I’ve lied to you so much I can no longer trust you,” Berman writes. “O Don’t people wear out from the inside.” He’s talking to God, I guess, but I hear it as a warning that applies just as well to our interactions with our fellow mortals. Be careful not being your true self, Berman seems to be saying. Keep yourself hidden long enough, let your insides get warped beyond recognition, and you’ll end up alone even if you succeed at getting someone to love you. The plea at the end of this poem—“Dear Lord, whom I love so much/ I don’t think I can change anymore”—is the sound of a person dropping his act and hoping, desperately, that something good remains.
—Leon Neyfakh, host of the podcast Fiasco and co-creator of Slate’s Slow Burn
Sin and gravity
Drag me down to sleep
To dream of trains across the sea
Trains across the sea
Half-hours on Earth
What are they worth?
I don’t know
In 27 years
I’ve drunk 50,000 beers
And they just wash against me
Like the sea into a pier.
“Trains Across the Sea” is the melancholy track that kicks off the first Silver Jews album and happens to include some of the most evocative poetry Berman ever wrote. It’s a song I’ve loved deeply since high school, especially the last lines. A beaten-down young guy dreams this beautiful, almost Victorian fantasy of escape—of a train crossing the sea. But once he’s awake, it’s right back to wondering what life is worth when you’ve spent most of it getting trashed. “In 27 years/ I’ve drunk 50,000 beers/ And they just wash against me/ Like the sea into a pier.” Instead of crossing the sea, he’s stuck in it. It’s a pretty heartbreaking note of resignation, of doubting that you can really get past your own demons. And I think that if we’re being honest, most of us have been there.
—Jordan Weissmann, Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent
Like Berman and just about any human being on earth, I love the magic hour, when the sun is beginning to set, the sky is beautiful, and everyone looks good in the light. “You know what I’m talking about.” I’ve read this poem a number of times, at different moments in my life, and it’s always resonated in new ways. These days, when Berman observes the melancholy surrounding him before the twilight, it just feels too eerily and sadly familiar.
But he’s right: At 5:30, there’s nothing to do but get along. All we’ve got is each other—and some cold beer.
—Chau Tu, associate editor at Slate Plus