Post Road Magazine #13

Fictional Essay: John Berryman, b.1914

Baron Wormser

Probably you’re thinking that I learned about John Berryman in college because where else would you learn about a guy like John Berryman? You’re not going to see his poems on billboards or in local newspapers next to ads for septic tanks cleaned and snow tires. No one is interrupting a TV show to do a John Berryman commercial. Et cetera. The fact is I did go to college for two years before I quit and I took a course that had some poetry in it. Our professor was a woman who told us we only were going to read women writers because the guys had gotten too much of a say already. It was ladies’ night, so to speak. I didn’t go to the class much. To tell you the truth, I didn’t go to many classes at all. When I was there I listened to her talk about the male hegemony. You can see that I’m educated because I used that word, “hegemony.” I can’t say I use it with the people I work with in the carnival because no one would know what the fuck-all I was talking about. Still, that’s what professors are paid for—to know words like that. I could dig it. Even if I was a guy, I didn’t begrudge her. I didn’t turn in any work and I didn’t pass either. And I didn’t read anything by John Berryman.

By that time I was thoroughly anti-social, to use a phrase my Aunt Marie, who liked to label people because it made her feel better than they were, was fond of. Not criminal, mind you. I’m not a violent man. I would go along, however, with her description of me as contrary. I’m sure you could get psychological and consider my “pathology” (a word that really excited Aunt Marie). Everyone is always explaining everything but it doesn’t change anything. I mean people go out and do what they do. Have you ever heard someone say, “Hey, I’m not going to do this because I know what’s causing me to behave this way?” That’s not any human being I ever knew. It sure as hell isn’t anyone who works with me running the Ferris wheel or selling cotton candy. They’d fall over laughing if someone said something like that. No one is going to, so they’re safe.

My old man was a drill sergeant in the army so we moved around a lot. I guess you could have said that he was contrary if you think that a son of a bitch is contrary. I never looked at it at that way. He was being what Uncle Sam wanted him to be. You’ve got a bunch of chowderheads and you’ve only got so much time to turn them into working, military units. The problem was he didn’t leave his job at the office. When he barked at me about picking up my stuff or not saying “Yes, sir” to him or putting my feet up on the couch or a hundred other dumbass things, I barked right back at him. I wasn’t much for sucking up. Those kinds of words never felt good in my mouth. If you aren’t going to speak your own words, I don’t see the point of being here.

We disagreed about everything you could disagree about. It drove my mom nuts. She would start screaming about why she ever had kids. She really meant me when she said that because my kid sister was Goody Two Shoes. She seemed to come out of the womb that way. That’s what I mean about looking for explanations. She was always on her best behavior; everyone cooed about her as if she were some kind of little minister. Life being life, she was a hypocrite who made fun of our parents behind their backs. Such are the ways of good people. They’ll praise God but hate their neighbors, give to some charity but sneer as they walk by a homeless woman on the sidewalk. I send a postcard to my mom every now and then but I’d never send my sister one. You can grow up in the same house as someone but you sure don’t have to like the person. Proximity can make the heart throw up.

The sugar got my old man, plus he had wicked high blood pressure from yelling at people all the time. He even barked in his sleep, telling those sheep to jump in double-time over those fences. The sugar runs in my family and it’ll probably get me, too. That’s why I might as well do what I want while I can. When he passed, my mom said, “Well, I guess you won.” That was a shitty thing to say. It was a game between me and my dad. We took it seriously and we didn’t much care for one another but we agreed to keep on playing. Even when I ran away (which I did a couple of times), I was playing a game with him. We were professional spoilers, he and I. We knew that about each other. Mom was an amateur. She was always harping about peace begins at home. How someone who wanted peace could live with someone who trained men to kill is beyond me, but most things between men and women who stay with each other for any period of time are beyond me. We assume that fornication is communication but it’s not true.

I never got around to registering for the draft because my old man was gone by then and I didn’t want to get my ass shot off in some place I couldn’t even pronounce. Whenever I asked my old man about something political, he would say that was the way it had to be and I’d better learn to live with it. He was big on that way of thinking if you want to call it thinking. It seemed to me that if you were choking, you might want to spit the wad out but not to my father. He believed in swallowing it, whatever it was. He didn’t know squat anyway because the only things he read were the sports pages and the funnies. His favorite topic was how Negroes were getting paid too much. “Here I am busting my ass every day to keep this country from becoming a communist trough and these niggers are getting paid the big money to stand there and hit a ball.” He was a racist scum so I naturally became a liberal. I didn’t know any colored people because just when I was starting to get comfortable in whatever school I was in we got our asses hauled to another base—military gypsies. I used to shoot baskets with a couple of colored guys in Washington State and they seemed like human beings. I’d figured that one out already. There wasn’t much that my father wasn’t wrongheaded about.

It’s hairy sometimes with me being a liberal because we travel in the carnival through the South and the South is one crazy place. I’m talking about the Sixties when things started to change and the white people didn’t want those things to change. All these sorry ass characters you would have at the county fair who didn’t look like they had anything in the world beside some beat-up car and their prejudice. You could hear them babbling while they were waiting in line for ride tickets or hot dogs about four on the floor and fuel injection. You’d think there were cosmic differences among pieces of metal that got turned out on some freaking assembly line. Their poetical tee shirts spoke for them—“Heavy Chevy” or “Damn Dodge.” Talk about pathetic. Since I was a Bozo, one of those clowns who taunts people, I had a field day. “You don’t look like you have the money to buy a tricycle, buddy.” “You don’t look smart enough to put the key in the ignition.” I could go on for days. I did.

The racial stuff, though, was truly crazy. I thought plenty of times I was going to incite a riot. There’s a fence between me and the person throwing the ball to hit the target (which is out in the open) that drops me into the water—Drown the Clown. There were times when guys started to climb that fence. Sometimes their friends pulled them down but sometimes their friends started climbing, too. I knew the cops weren’t crazy about what I was saying but we had our own people around and they weren’t particular about how they treated someone who was trespassing on our property. You could always pay the police off if one of our guys got a little rugged. They were paid off already—it was part of doing business—but they acted as though their racial prejudice was a matter of conscience, that they couldn’t allow someone—“a nigger-loving Yankee”—to say such things in their county. What frauds they were.

The cool thing about the carnival is that as long as people are spending, I am free to shoot my mouth off. No swearing, of course, due to the youngsters and Methodists strolling around but I didn’t need to swear. I had more than enough words without swearing. “Hey, Darktown, what was your momma up to?” It was a rare sucker who didn’t bite for that one. At first, the guy that I had singled out would look around to see if I was talking about someone else. I’d nail him again: “You, buddy, the one who’s looking around like you don’t know who I’m talking about. Don’t be ashamed. There are some great colored people in this world. Look at Martin Luther King. He’s an inspiration.” Needless to say it was a segregated fair. God forbid that Negroes should be around eating the same cotton candy and squealing on the same rides. The world might have ended if that had happened. I noticed that when that world did end, the planet kept spinning.

“What the hell did you say, clown?” Not many people are good at thinking on their feet; a question gives them some time to compose themselves. If a girlfriend were there, the stakes were higher. She’d be hanging on the guy’s arm and you could see she wanted to see what sort of man he was. I figured she was probably a spiteful, racist bitch so sometimes I went after her, too. When the guy asked me a stalling question, I would come right back at him. “People don’t speak English down here but you understood me. You got those dark, Negro eyes.” It freaked them right out because I could pick the whitest of white guys and start in on his eyes. They never thought about their eyes. Why would they? I knew it was ridiculous but I knew their fear and prejudice were ridiculous, too. The worst thing about it for them was that I wasn’t all worked up or anything. I was doing my job; I just was stating the facts. It was personal what I was saying but it sounded impersonal. Didn’t they hate that?

The sucker would be sputtering, calling me names, fishing for money to put down to pay for balls to throw and put me in the water. I kept it up: “You probably don’t have two nickels to your worthless name. Borrow some money from your girlfriend.” Usually they threw wildly. I had a half-million phrases to describe what a dignified, old carnie I knew called “errant tosses.” That wasn’t a phrase I used. It was more like “You couldn’t hit the fat lady’s behind.” Not the most creative stuff but it worked.

Being a Bozo you learn that once you get under someone’s skin, you can set up shop there. As a drill sergeant my dad must have known that. I’m not giving orders but what I’m doing isn’t that different from what he did, not that he would be proud of someone who dodged the draft and taunts good old boys for their hateful ways. For all his bile, though, my old man wasn’t dumb. He knew how far to push the needle. You get a feeling for how much a person can take and when the person starts to lose interest. With the suckers on the midway you can tell pretty fast how many dollars they are willing to plunk down. You’re looking for a sign that they’ve reached their limit. Sometimes it couldn’t be more obvious. They hit the target, I fall into the water; they dismiss me with a taunt and split.

Sometimes it’s money that stops them. Money runs deep and someone has to be real upset to forget about money. I pride myself on making it happen. Sometimes it’s the person (usually a woman) who’s there with the sucker who is embarrassed or pissed off about what a spectacle the guy is making of himself and wants to get him the hell away. You can see her tugging on the guy’s sleeve, trying to get his attention and get him out of there. I go after that, too: “Don’t listen to her, Mister. You probably don’t anyway, right?” “She’s only taking pity on you, Mister. Don’t pay her any mind.” Sometimes I get a couple of extra bucks this way because any guy who listens to a woman telling him what to do in public is no guy. That’s one of the Ten Commandments of being a guy. When the guy starts scowling at his girlfriend as if she were his mother, I’ve made a sale.

Most guys don’t hit the target and leave with a muttered complaint or a dumb threat about what’s going to happen later in the parking lot. If not much is going on, I give them a parting shot but usually I’m on to the next mark. You have to keep searching the crowd, which is more work than the banter, which becomes second nature. I like that part of the job, though, because it keeps me lively. I already have the big picture about people, which is that they tend to be jerks (and I don’t exclude my Bozo self) but then you have to do the choosing. You can see a true loser five miles away though sometimes they are so lost they don’t even respond. That’s embarrassing, sort of like kicking a crippled dog. They stare at me with empty eyes. It’s pitiful.

What I like are the more confident guys who take it as a challenge, the guys with a few shreds of sanity and self-respect. If I can get them mumbling, it makes my day. At first, these guys will smile a little smile at me, like “Well, this guy is a doofus so I might as well prove it to him. This is what the carnival is all about.” He’s right. The carnival is about separating people from their money and making them feel more or less okay about it—though if you ask me the whole society is about that. So one of these guys gets the baseball and I start in on him about how he looks like he’sMister Cool but really he’s a wimp who can’t throw any better than his retarded sister. You have to understand that my line of work is not about human kindness. Once in a real long while, the guy turns out to have a retarded sister or something close to it and starts to foam. Whether he does or doesn’t, I keep pimping him on and that’s what intrigues me, whether the guy who keeps missing can put the balls down and walk away or whether the guy gets mad. You’d be surprised at how many guys who look pretty together lose it.

This all has to do with John Berryman, though being a famous poet he probably never worked in a carnival. You never know. Carnival people don’t fit the stereotype of the boozer who’s on the lam from the law. I’ve met one or two of those but I’ve met more reformed boozers who like what newspapers call the “lifestyle” of it, the freedom that goes with not being tied down. Roots are overrated. There’s a lot to be said for not waking up some morning and wondering what you ever saw in the town you’ve spent your life in and the person snoring next to you.

I’m not a travel agent, though. What you see traveling around America in terms of scenery is okay but not that fascinating. Probably there aren’t many people who make a point of visiting every county in South Carolina. As one of my mentors, Tex Thomas, told me, “The carnival is about geography, boy. You better start to learn it.” Tex was a lifer from New Hampshire who ran a food concession with his wife Doris and thought he was a sage. I’ve learned that you often have to indulge people to live with people.

I encountered the poetry of John Berryman when I encountered Ruthie Mae Rogers. She was one of those Southern, two-first-name girls and I have to say I liked that right off. It makes me feel I’m getting more woman than I bargained for which is how I like women. They come with two breasts so they might as well come with two first names. The carnival had a day when we had pulled down but didn’t have to take right off. Someone had screwed up something about the next fair. Or maybe some sheriff was unhappy about the Bozo he had heard about and wanted more money to keep law and order. It turned out that Doris had an aunt in the town we were in (it was in South Carolina) and that this woman wanted to meet some of the “carnival folk.” She promised some home cooking and that always sounds good. The carnival has its own cook but even a peasant like me gets tired of hamburgers.

Ruthie Mae had blue eyes with a lot of glittering green rays in them. You don’t see that color much. When you see eyes like that it’s not uncommonly a woman who has all the flames on the stove turned up full blast. That would have been Ruthie Mae. She came up to me and said that I didn’t look like a carnie. What was I doing traveling with the carnival if I didn’t look like a carnie? She said I looked like a hippie store clerk.

It wasn’t a great way to meet somebody but it got better. Actually I didn’t have to say much because Ruthie Mae liked to talk and seemed to have had no one who was semi-intelligent (which is how I would categorize myself) to talk to for months. She told me she had been to school for a while up north and that she was going to go there again and that she was just about dying with “boredom and frustration” (her words exactly) from staying with her aunt who was a decent woman but too much of a decent woman. “She’s always prayin’,” Ruthie Mae said as though she were talking about someone who went around shooting guns off or knocking doors down. It wasn’t a good thing all that praying which, of course, I agreed with when she paused for breath.

After I made sure I had enough of some real tasty fried chicken, I was invited up to her bedroom but it wasn’t for the purposes of sex. She was explicit about that. “Don’t think you are going to start ballin’ me here and now just because I am lonely.” She wanted to read me a poem by a “crazy, Yankee, lecher poet.” I was all ears. That very day an irate sucker had called me—and I’m as blond as it gets—“a rotten, little Dago.” Kind of sad when people can’t even get their slurs straight. So I could stand this, too. I sat on the edge of Ruthie Mae’s bed, a dented, metal thing that looked as though it had been thrown out of a third-story, college dormitory window, and she read to me in a tight, high voice as if she were sort of happily drowning one of the Dream Songs by John Berryman:

The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
—Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side. I smell your grief.
—I sent my grief away. I cannot care
forever. With them all again & again I died
and cried and I have to live.

—Now there you exaggerate, Sah. We hafta die.
That is our ‘pointed task. Love & die.
—Yes, that makes sense.
But what makes sense between, then? What if I
roiling & babbling & braining, brood on why and
just sat on the fence?
—I doubts you did or do. De choice is lost.

—It’s fool’s gold. But I go in for that.
The boy & the bear
looked at each other. Man all is tossed
& lost with groin-wounds by the grand bulls, cat.
William Faulkner’s where?

(Frost being still around.)

Ruthie Mae looked at me fiercely after finishing the poem. “Do you know who William Faulkner and Robert Frost are, carnival boy?” She tossed her head like a filly. She had a good head of curly, brunette hair.

I told her who those two writers were and she asked me how come I wasn’t “a dumb asshole.” I didn’t answer that question and after a short silence she started lecturing about the poem. Since my life in the carnival revolves around speaking, I’m fairly good at remembering what people say. In this case, Ruthie Mae told me that what she had read me was a real poem. A real poem didn’t have to be beautiful. That was foolishness and for high school girls. A real poem came from the soul. “Course,” she said, “it comes from a man’s sex and a lady’s sex, too.” She smiled sweetly for the first time since we had met. “But it’s not just that. It’s the words. You don’t have to worry about what the words mean exactly. It’s not like that. What you have to do is let the words carry you so you can feel their current. It’s like an electric current but it’s like an ocean current.” She paused as if pondering what she just had said.

“What are you doing here in your aunt’s house in South Carolina?” I asked her.

“What are you doing in the carnival?” she asked back.

“Groin wounds,” I said matter-of-factly.

She looked at me in an interested way. “All men have groin wounds from what I can tell.”

“You ever meet this poet?”

“I heard him read his poetry last year. He’s got a sort of gruff voice and a beard. You can tell he drinks too much. He’s got way more feelings in him than he knows what to do with. Even with writing poems he’s got way more feelings.” She was keeping her eyes on me. “Probably, you’ve never been to something like a poetry reading.”

She had me there. “When you’re with the carnival, you do what the carnival does.”

She came over from the chair she was sitting on and sat beside me. “I don’t know if I want to go to bed with you but you are right nice looking. I like that long, blond hair. I was just kiddin’ when I told you that you looked like a hippie store clerk. You don’t mind if I touch that hair, do you?”

Ruthie Mae traveled with me for a few weeks. That’s the longest I had ever been with one woman. I wouldn’t say we got along especially well but she read me poems by John Berryman and I have to say I liked that. For Ruthie Mae, reading the poems seemed to be something powerful yet calming as if she were tapping into some signal that came from the center of the universe. I say that because a fair amount of the time she was like storm clouds gathering in the west. You could see it coming and it was going to rain down on you. Buying her an ice cream cone or telling her how beautiful her hair was didn’t make any difference. I was all right with that because I didn’t have any great expectations about us living together happily ever after. Our bodies liked each other; I was pleased enough with that. I got plenty of winks and smiles and slaps on the back from some of the older guys. I didn’t tell them she was reading poems to me. There are some places it’s best not to go with people. Poetry seemed one of those places.

I came back one day to the cubicle in the trailer where we were living and saw that she had cleared out. It made me sad, I had to admit. I liked being with a woman every day and smelling her womanly smells, the perfume and lotions and the fishy smells, too. I liked reaching over in bed and feeling a woman’s body there. I even liked her mess—bras and underwear and tee shirts wherever she dropped them. My dad and mom were neatness freaks so I’ve always been partial to people who are slobs. Ruthie Mae didn’t give two shits about being orderly. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. When she burped she seemed downright glad.

On the unmade bed was her copy of John Berryman’s book, 77 Dream Songs. I stared at it for a while. I wasn’t going to cry or anything but I wasn’t unmoved either. Just because you’re a guy who spends his days taunting other guys about their manhood doesn’t mean you’re a stone. I knew she treasured that book and she left it to me because she thought I deserved the book. It was something to remember her by but it was something that mattered in its own right. I pretty much read whatever came my way because a number of people in the carnival were big readers. A lot of what they passed on to me was crap—you wouldn’t believe how many different kinds of written crap there are—but some of it wasn’t. Needless to say, no one had ever passed on a book of poetry to me. There are limits to everything but Ruthie Mae had little use for limits. I admired her spirit and hoped it wouldn’t incinerate her.

I remember holding the book and feeling that it might start jumping up and down right in my hands. That’s not so foolish as it sounds because I already had gotten to feel that poetry wasn’t anything to treat lightly. Whatever you thought about this John Berryman—and a number of poems that Ruthie Mae read were Greek to me—he wasn’t fooling around. Even when he was fooling around in his clever, full-of-words way, you knew he wasn’t fooling around. He didn’t sit and write poems because some boss was telling him to turn out more poems for the poem production department. He was writing them because he had to write them. I liked that. Most people seem to me like they are just here for a vacation on earth. They’re looking around and making their remarks but they don’t really seem to be here. They’re just out on the midway gawking. They don’t seem to get that it’s a one-way ticket. It was real clear that John Berryman wasn’t here on vacation. Plus he was horny all the time and made no apologies about it.

What really got to me when I started reading the poems was that Berryman had these characters in the poems. One is a guy named Henry and then there is this other guy who is never named who refers to Henry as “Bones.” What’s going on between Henry and the straight man who calls him “Bones” is quite a bit of weird, Negro-and-white-man stuff, that back and forth kind of patter that minstrel shows used to do—except they are talking about what we are doing with our lives on earth, more or less, or more specifically how fucked up the Henry guy is. Some of the old timers in the carnival remember minstrel shows real well. One guy told me he really misses it, how funny the whole thing was, these white guys putting on blackface and talking like Negroes. To me it seems like more crazy, American, racist shit. It kind of makes my skin crawl to think about it. It really makes my skin crawl to think about an audience of thoughtless white people sitting there and laughing at it. I see those people every day and I know who they are. I know how easygoing evil can be.

What impressed me a bunch was how Berryman was willing to step into the sea of hurt that divides white people and colored people. He went right after that weird, deranged patter and made it his own. You knew he was saying that this is crazy but it’s a kick in its way and I’m going to play both sides of the street. It’s a real uncomfortable feeling but then you wonder about how people used to listen to stuff like that and think nothing of it. That kind of took my breath away because I knew that while I could have my fun on the midway making money for the carnival, I’d otherwise better keep my opinions about segregation to myself. Some of the carnies made no bones about how they would never work with Negroes. Even the thought of it seemed to agitate them. One guy named Ripple Red who could have picked me up and broken me in half used to go off about how Negroes weren’t fit to shine his shoes. That was funny because I never saw Ripple Red in anything but these beat up clodhoppers no self-respecting shoeshine would get near but that’s how it usually goes. People pump themselves up with bad wind.

I liked the language that Berryman sort of invented for what went down between Henry and Bones. It wasn’t like a language anyone really spoke but it still sounded like a language someone could speak, someone real smart, real wired and real unhappy. I thought about it because I was out there every day spieling to people. He was spieling, too. There’s one poem in the book where Berryman is talking about how not much has happened in the South since things supposedly got integrated. He writes the poem in Negro dialect but he’s not writing in that dialect to show you how stupid Negroes are. He’s writing in that dialect to show you how full of shit white people are that they want to hold on to their racist grief. The last three lines of the poem are the real deal:

But I do guess mos peoples gonna lose.
I never saw no pinkie wifout no hand.
O my, without no hand.

When you hang around poems for a while you start to see that every little thing matters. You see that he uses the dialect in the next to the last line—“wifout”—but then in the last line he uses the regular word because he’s going to a different place in that line. He’s thinking that there’s more hell to pay and that it’s no joke. It makes you think about a phrase like “long hand of the law,” for instance. Poetry shakes your head up about words. I liked that.

Though the carnie people would never give Berryman the time of day, they would probably get along with him, at least the old-timers who weren’t stewed in racism. That’s because Berryman writes the way these guys talk, kind of staccato-like but also old-fashioned. When I first got taken into the carnival, I didn’t know half of what the older guys were saying. What was a “clem” or the “tip” and how come they didn’t say “barker” but “spieler” or “talker?” As a spieler myself, I caught on fast and I could see that the carnie language protected us from the straight world, the clover kickers and the hoosiers. I think that was some of what Berryman was looking for. He wanted words to protect him from people in the straight world so they couldn’t boil him down the way my Aunt Marie boiled everyone down. “Oh, John Berryman, he’s one of those poet types,” she’d say in her fruity, nasty voice as if he were some phony who wore a trench coat to bed. At the same time—and being a Bozo I could get with it—he was telling people to bring it on. As the old-timers liked to say, he was “screwed, blewed, and tattooed.” It was what my poetry professor would have called a “paradox.”

It’s not like I lack for courage; every day I heckle guys who are a whole lot bigger than I am, to say nothing of being angry and bitter. What the poems have done is amp me up. I don’t want to get bored out there and some days it feels like that because when you get down to it people are pretty predictable. What I’ve started doing is some of the patter that Berryman does, some of that blackface shit. The craziness of America is much bigger than I am. I might as well start swimming.

It upsets the men folk of whatever-the-hell-county pretty strenuously. Last week I was out there on my perch above the tank and I saw this tall, swaggering guy with one of those cut-off tee shirts so he can show off his muscles and I knew he was my man. On his arm was this little, honey blonde who looked like she stepped out of a sorority house. Sometimes I can just feel my antisocial juices flowing. Sometimes I almost get excited when I see such a good, miserable thing coming my way.

“Mistuh Clown, you see dat big, red-faced man ova dere?”

“How could you miss somefin dat ugly, Mr. Bones?”

“Well, dat fella thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.”

“Dat right? Dat hunk o’ blubber?”

“He thinks he can hit dis target in one pitch and drop me in de drink.”

“He couldn’t hit his nose wid his right hand.”

The guy sidled over and gave me a look that was supposed to wither me like defoliant. “Clown,” he said in a voice that was meant to show who the boss was, “you are going to die.” I like that when they escalate the whole thing. Falling into some water when you have a wet suit on underneath isn’t exactly death but you let them say what they want to say. It’s their language, too.

“Mistuh Clown, you ready to die?”

“Bones, if it takes me outta dis town I am. I heard all de Negroes moved away because dis town was so low-down.”

I could hear a murmur in the tip. One second I was just going after Mr. Fraternity, but the next second I was going after all of them. They started sparking on the guy and telling him to make sure that he hit that Yankee clown. Who the hell did that clown think he was?

The guy wasn’t a bad pitcher but he kept missing about three inches to the left. I could have pointed this out to him and counseled him to change his stance and point of delivery but people were pressing dollar bills on him like they were going out of style. No use ruining a good thing.

“Dis white boy just won’t give up will he, Bones?”

“De Souf is gonna rise again, Mistuh Clown, and when it does dis man gonna still be throwin’ baseballs.”

He never hit me and walked away frowning a big-time frown. The sorority sister was frowning, too. I had the feeling she might be rethinking her choice of boyfriends. White Hunk wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. Everyone was pretty sullen which gave me a boost but I was busy lining up the next clem. You never want a lull. I picked a little guy in a natty, sport coat. He looked as though he couldn’t throw a baseball five feet.

“See dat genleman ova dere in de lovely coat, Bones.”

“Dat lil genleman? De one who looks like if he drank too much water he might disappear?”

“One and de same. Well, he can hit dat target, can’t you suh?”

The carnival teaches you a lot of things, one of which is to take life as it comes. Some days it’s going to rain and no one is going to show up. Some days the sun is going to shine but the tip is full of Baptists who wouldn’t dream of paying their God blessed, American money to drop a clown into a tank of water. And some days are golden—one clem after another steps up to the counter. I don’t think John Berryman was very good at taking life as it comes. If the poems I’ve read are any indication, he was pretty bad at it. I think he and Ruthie Mae shared some of the same stormy weather. He made something of it though and you have to respect that. It wasn’t one-way. He made his own lightning.

I’ve met other Bozos from other carnivals and they are some real bent characters. If you tell it like it is, you probably are bent. If you do it in public, there’s no question about it. If you go after the worst darkness in people like their twisted, vicious hatred, you are signing on for trouble. I imagine I shouldn’t extrapolate—to use another college word—from John Berryman to talk about all poets past and present. Still, if you asked me what a poet is I’d say it’s someone who believes words can draw blood. Any Sunday idiot can make nice. Somewhere in the warm, Carolina night the spirit of Mr. Bones is alive and well—“roiling & babbling & braining”—and pissing off the hegemony.

Dream Song #36 "The high ones die" and excerpt from Dream Song #60 “Afters eight years” from THE DREAM SONGS by John Berryman. Copyright © 1969 by John Berryman. Copyright renewed 1997 by Kate Donahue Berryman. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.  

Baron Wormser is the author of seven books of poetry and the co-author of two books about teaching poetry. His memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring, is due from University Press of New England in October.

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