The Last Poem I Loved: “Dream Song 29” by John Berryman


The Dream Songs are, at their best, incantations, syllables given to the unspeakable. And yet, here’s the really unsettling thing: They’re fun. “Dream Song 29,” and the others in 77 Dream Songs, read quickly and lightly. Their rhythms catch in your mind and stay like pop music. The impossible project of unravelling the coded references and cryptic figures is a fantastic game. Reading the entirety of 77 Dream Songs in one go feels like spending a long, awful, legendary night crashing toward dawn on a bender with a highly self-destructive lover. You shouldn’t be having the time of your life, but you are. It’s awful and it’s horrible and you need to stop doing it right now and you never want to be doing anything else. Even their stories about their dead friends are so much more exciting than the things a saner companion would choose for conversation.

The strangely addictive and unsettlingly playful rhythms mimic half the experience of alcoholism. The cryptic fumbling for words and incomplete images close up the other half of that picture. The poems read, and echo in the mind, in the same way that memories from such nights persist like ghosts in one’s less conscious thoughts. Most of us have experienced a moment when our memory suddenly shows us, weeks or months later, a snatch of conversation or piece of action that had until then been drowned–perhaps mercifully–in a blackout. In the unanticipated memory we wonder just how much of our life is there, unremembered, undocumented, but–terrifyingly–just as real. Perhaps we do not remember it, but most likely someone else does. Incomplete recollection is is a dispossessed kind of nightmare.

But never did Henry as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found. he knows
he’s counted them, and no one’s missing.
often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
nobody is ever missing.

This final stanza is the attempt to combat such lost memory, to wrestle the blackout back to clarity. “Dream Song 29” is a recitation, the kind of thing that gets you through the night to the morning. Henry, the cryptic everyman figure of the Dream Songs who may be Berryman’s father, or Berryman himself, or neither of them or both or someone else entirely, can’t remember whether or not he has horribly murdered any of the people he knows. He thinks he has, but realizes what he mistakes for memory could as easily be a fantasy or a hallucination. He can only determine he hasn’t hacked anyone to pieces by counting up his acquaintances to make sure they’re still alive. It’s a hungover morning’s accounting: Unable to remember the events, to separate recalled fact from dreamed fiction, one counts the bottles to enumerate the damage, calls friends to learn the story, to discover what reparations are necessary or possible.

The Dream Songs themselves are this same kind of desperate math. Like memory, sanity, and the promise of better choices next time, the accounting often fails. The clear goes spinning into the cryptic. Henry and the narrator conflate and dissolve into each other, take on and shake off unknown personas, retreat to their corners and refuse to explain themselves. New hopes fall into quick desolation. Memory of what was transforms too fast into mourning for what can’t be again. Nothing stays what it is. Even signification abandons the brain, unloving and disloyal. The final line, nobody is ever missing, is instantly and hauntingly recognizable to any of us who have ever whispered “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right” to ourselves under our breath when it was not in fact at all all right.

Helena Fitzgerald is a featured contributor with, and former editor of, The New Inquiry. In addition, she has published fiction and non-fiction with Vice, The Rumpus, Bookslut, Brooklyn Based, The Brooklyn Rail, the Notre Dame Review, and Soon Quarterly, among other places. Find her on twitter @helenavonsalome. More from this author →