A Pterodactyl Song

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“So…I haven’t read…in 5 and a half years.”

David Berman’s baritone voice drizzled out to the 8th floor auditorium at Columbia College in Chicago, sliding shyly over the beige carpet like a hand falling from a bed to the floor mid-nap. He stood there solemnly apologetic, de-bearded and with a fresh set of stubble in his wrangler jeans: he looked like a scarecrow who wanted to take you out for custard.

“And 45 minutes!” a female voice erupted. Berman was 45 minutes late. The tone of the audience
member was of genuine frustration, not good natured jibing.

The next fifteen seconds were a slow drip of Berman panning his eyes before the crowd in front of him: young, dressed in zombie cosplay (the theme for Printer’s Ball was: “IT’S ALIVE!”), half full of PBR, the other half Schlitz, fresh from smoking pot in the hallways of Columbia College; an odd assortment of fashion magnitude and life inexperience: ironic snapbacks, six figures of student loan debt for art school, shorts pulled belly button high on the girls, twenty somethings dressed like ballerina-princess cat ladies.

To Berman, we must have looked as bizarre as the denizens of his poetic universe: a place occupied by the Mirrornauts (the people who look like us that live inside mirrors, duh), armies of men named “Doug” at community colleges, and farmers shooting angels to make snow angels.

We could have looked beautiful.

Maybe, even, we looked perfect.

But Berman’s quiet face seemed to say I think I made a mistake. And for a short moment, his body language displayed nothing but the beginnings of a cartoonesque retreat: ready to windmill his legs before running off and away. Pensively arched over his microphone, he seemed to want nothing more than to roll into the auditorium-high curtains behind him and disappear in a feat of David Copperfield-like Vegas-shamanism.

Then he looked down and began to read an untitled poem that rounded out around 20 minutes. At the reading’s conclusion, in lieu of an ending, he would reveal he was finishing it in the car on the way here. It was an epistolary poem specifically written for us: a refreshing break from the pedantic wine and cheese poetry reading; something more akin in experience to a single man flash mob meeting James Dickey’s “barnstorming” poetry tours of the 60’s. It was wholly Berman in terms of the absurd rage in the poem.

“I want to write a pterodactyl song” Berman said in the poem.

Scientists, both laboratory and Hollywood, have conjectured for years at what noise a pterodactyl makes.

“I have always been quite surprised by the tenacity of the blimp industry”

Is this it?

To someone familiar with Berman’s work (in poetry, cartooning, and music), the poem was astonishingly telling: it was a true Apologia Pro Vita Sua (In Defense of One’s Life), a practice he has been engaged with since his book, Actual Air (Specifically in the poem “Self Portrait at 28”). For twenty minutes Berman plugged the absence of those 5 and a half years, telling us all about how he trolls internet message boards to incite arguments, how he crafts his responses in the car (in addition to endings of his poems), how he relishes the unadulterated anger on the internet. It seems that life has been hard on him: he lost his band, publicly disowned his Washington lobbyist father, rediscovered his roots in Judaism.

And Berman, himself, has been hard on himself.

There was no water to cut the tang of despair in his poem. Instead Berman paired humorous pain with more resonant and astounding pain: “I hurt myself with coffee sometimes” is a line that is more familiar and clever than painful, but when followed with “I don’t have anyone to call in a jam” the listener can either ignore it or accept the pain belying the absurd loneliness.

To compound the experience, Berman’s work elicits an odd phenomena from an audience. It’s something I like to call “Bill Murray Syndrome” or “The Sad Clown,” in honor of The Comedian’s joke in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s The Watchmen:

Heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But, doctor…I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains. Fade to black.

The audience laughs at things that are really not funny, but when presented in the harsh environment of fluorescent lights and a literary reading without preamble they seem comedic. I’ve only observed this once before in a poetry reading, with Billy Collins, who had read for 20 minutes or so before diving into poems about his brother’s death. People kept laughing, even when he wasn’t leading them to (It’s worth nothing that Billy Collins wrote the blurb to David Berman’s first collection, but this is not to say they are the only poets who experience it: William Matthews is another who must have felt the same).

Full of free beer, swag, and anticipating a full night of sleep-til-noon shenanigans, the audience had no trouble laughing at the unpretentious display of ennui. And who can blame them?

It made me wish Berman and Louis C.K. go on tour together, battling one another onstage in a fight for who can demean oneself greater at the expense of our laughter. The refreshingly humble opposite of a “yo mama” battle.

“I enjoy presenting my findings.” Findings is a good way to conceptualize the poem that was presented. It was a catalog of sorts. Berman’s gift for observational humor transcends the Seinfeld-like idiocy of “pointing things out” and saying “isn’t that funny/weird/who are these people?” It does not feel as if your hand is being held or your fingers are being sucked and it does not feel dated, mostly,well, because it’s poetry. As a comic poet, he’s much more Zach Galifianakis than Jerry Seinfeld. In fact, Berman’s poetry precedes the experimental comedy trend of the past 6-7 years. While he resonates the pain of Louis C.K., his work often feels more like the juvenile oddity of Tim Heidecker or Eric Wareheim.

This is not to say there is not a great deal of Tomas Transtromer or Wislaw Symborska in his work. And perhaps more accurately 20th century poet/performer Vachel Lindsay:

“Somehow I must get back to the dream/ to write a single volume for the general reader/ or a series of pamphlets.” Mr. Berman’s anti-elitism is one of his most endearing qualities as a poet. But this poem was not about setting forth the egalitarian agenda, it was an ode to provocation. His heckler seemed to understand this even before he uttered a word.

Upon finishing, de promised he would read again, he said it “felt good.” But before this promise he left us with a perfect ending to his poem, one that, as he previously stated, he felt did not have a true conclusion:

“I don’t want to capture what is human/ I find the whole business/ to be face-stabbingly boring.”

Everybody laughed.


Dave Landsberger is a poet living and working in Chicago, Illinois. His work can be found in the chapbooks "Whoa, Yeah, Baby" and "Ballerz2K10: Poems about the NBA" (University of Wynwood). More from this author →