from The Dream Songs*
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken pàprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
"You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed. Brilliance." I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.--Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
--Black hair, complexion latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . . the slob behind her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
--Mr. Bones: there is.
*"[The Dream Songs are] essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof" [Berryman's note]. These poems were written over a period of thirteen years. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth edition.
John Berryman 1964
If you have never had a chance to look over John Berryman's Dream Songs, I highly recommend it. They are a strange collection of despairing poems, often broaching the rascist, the heartbreaking, the worrisome, and even the psychotic. You can see a little of that in this one; Henry's friend talks to the blackface incarnation of Henry Mr. Bones out of nowhere, and Henry frets to himself over his ideal woman.
The first stanza captures Henry's literal appetite for this woman. He describes her with food words - the choice of chicken paprika is no coincidence, for that is a spicy food, and this woman is hot. Then, too, instead of fainting with hunger, he faints with interest. Hunger is so important in this stanza that it leaves its usual part-of-speech, becoming a verb. Then, too, the diction is tense and energized. Words like "compact" and "springing" tighten the diction, while the interesting &s and à add visual stimulus. The genius in this first section, though, is how Berryman dismantles any real sexual threat. The word hunger itself avoids a hyper-masculine sex-drive, for to be hungry is to be weak. The, too, "twice" stands alone, its lowercase first letter meekly nodding to the value of those two glances.
Henry reinforces this servility when he talks of "falling at her little feet." There is something askew in his imagined plea to her. To begin, he is hyper-detached from himself, speaking in the third person and giving his adoration to his eyes. Instead of enjoying things himself, "Henry's dazed eyes" relish the woman. Then, too, he lists time in "years of nights," alluding to the years and years of nights spent eating alone and, presumably, sleeping alone.
Despite this sad picture, Berryman creates a moment of hope for Henry by placing a line break between "I advanced upon" and "my spumoni." At the edge of line 10, we hope that Henry will really go talk to her. Instead, he despairs, turning from the hot woman to his cold ice cream. Henry's absent friend then enters, trying to console him by saying that, essentially, there are other fish in the sea. But the friend doesn't get it - he says that the world is full "wif feeding girls" as if the only special thing about this one is that she is eating.
Henry barely hears the weak comment though. He is too lost in thought about this fantastic, "jeweled" woman. We follow his thoughts as they trail off in ellipses, giving us space to imagine this Venus, to think of Henry hungering for her. Henry shows the innocence of his longing when he muses about her He ponders her genitals, thinking almost sweetly of their wonders. The next line, "the restaurant buzzes," signals the beginning of the end for this poem. The word "buzz's" sharpness acts like an alarm, begin to shake the image of this restaurant loose from Henry's dream.
As the place begins to disintegrate, so do Henry's hopes. He despairingly acknowledges the truth - that "she might as well be on Mars" for all that he will be able to speak with her. His final thought swivels inward, and he turns her unavailability into something that disintegrates his self-worth. The line "there ought to be a law against Henry"'s depressing tone contrasts with the matter-of-fact way in which Henry says it. It's almost a throwaway, and we get the sense that he has been repeating things like this for a long, long time.
The final line, Henry's friend's answer "there is," compresses the tragedy. Even Henry's friend dully acknowledges that, yes, Henry as a human is forbidden from the pleasures of this world. He is indeed barred from contact. Despite the rippling, engaging diction, Henry is insulated. He disassociates himself by using the third person, of course, but he fades out of being by the last line. He is so unimportant that he doesn't get the last say in his own experience.
I didn't mean to pick such a sad poem for today - I happen to love this one for its tightly wound images and slightly psychotic tone. Henry is a fascinating man, sad and lovely. I hope that you all will take a look at more of the Dream Songs - you can pick them up one by one or chip away at the work as a whole. Henry is worth spending some more time with, I think.