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Books Column: Thirty minutes on the lam with the poet David Berman


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams retrieves a book from his past, and remembers a moment of literary promise that didn’t pan out.

This is the tale of a book of poetry that I had such a convoluted relationship with that, after triumphantly purchasing the slim volume in Chicago at the end of the last century, I placed it carefully in a box and stored it in a half-constructed cabin deep in the forest of the Rocky Mountains for twenty-two years, thinking about it weekly; and then, when I had the chance to retrieve the book last month, homed in on its dusty repository like a hunting dog, and found the collection inside exactly as I’d left it, brand new and unblemished, as cool and trembling with secret brilliance as when I first held it up to the light in that Chicago bookshop all those years ago.

A book in a box in a forest, living in my mind for decades like a lost beloved. Books furnish a room, the saying goes, but they also furnish memory. In hindsight, I should have been more surprised to have found the book so unerringly after such a long time, but for some reason, that’s how books work. You remember where you last held them, where you last placed them. If a book is not where you expect it to be when you return to it, the disorientation at the hollow space it’s left behind can be like a heartache. I certainly would have been heartbroken if I’d opened the box in the pine-fragranced Colorado altitude and found my book just — not there.

The book in the box in question? A signed copy of Actual Air, by the writer-musician David Berman, who led a band called Silver Jews for many years. The Jews’ cult following included yours truly. Come meander with me for a moment over Berman’s tragic story.

I won’t lead you willy-nilly into the far reaches of the debating hall that, to this day, echoes with loud opinion on ‘90s American indie music, but safe to say there’s quiet consensus that Berman was the most innovative rock lyricist of his generation (which also happens to be my generation). His Silver Jews brought out three studio albums before he published his book of poems, and each album has the feel of a dreamy short novel to it: there’s heft, there’s a battle between the sardonic and the sentimental, there are lines that make you rewind, so you can savour them again and again. Berman touches the sublime in his music – and did so, too, in his poetry, which was published by the writer and newspaper scion Robert Bingham, who created an entire imprint, Open City Books, just to do the job.

Around the time Actual Air appeared, though, things went bad for Berman. Bingham died of a heroin overdose, Berman spiralled into drug addiction and depression, the Silver Jews struggled on, making more great music, but eventually petering out. Berman never quite escaped the spiral. He left music and writing seemingly for good, until, in 2019, he brought out a new album so melancholy it sounded like an exquisitely-wrought suicide note. Turns out, that’s what it was. Berman hanged himself in New York the same year. 

And all this while, as Berman was being lashed by waves of unhappy circumstance, Actual Air beamed its faint signal to me from inside its box in the woods. No less a literary heavyweight than Billy Collins had blurbed it. “When I first read [Berman],” Collins wrote, “I thought: so this is the voice I have been waiting so long to hear.” He spoke for many of us.

Why do we buy books only to squirrel them away? When I acquired Actual Air, the moment seemed like an apotheosis: I held in my hands a shard of the future that I wanted to live in, one marked by the lightness of being that literary grace such as Berman possessed could bestow upon all of us who lived, by dint of the reach of his music, in his magic circle. One way to bottle this feeling of embarkation into a new era was to entomb the sacred text so that it, and the point in time where its trajectory intersected with mine, would remain pristine. Actual Air would be a place I could always go back to.

Of course, it didn’t pan out like that.

In one of his best-known songs, “Trains Across the Sea,” Berman poses a question. “Half hours on Earth,” he sings in his low drone, “What are they worth? I don’t know.” For a long time, I interpreted these words as an expression of self-doubt, Berman amusedly flagellating himself for killing yet another thirty minutes drinking a beer or getting high. 

But since reuniting with his lonely volume of poems I’ve revisited his discography and discovered that almost all of his albums run to that very length of time. The question he was asking, then, perhaps, was rather one about the value of artistic effort. Here is my music, I’ve put everything into it, and what I’ve got to show for the work will take up just a half hour of your time. Perhaps, for Berman, the mark he made on the world, via seven or eight half hours of music, was too slight.

Actual Air now sits on my shelf a relic of failed promise, not an artefact of a new literary dawn. I still cherish it. Like the music, the book, too, runs to about thirty minutes. It’s the author’s bonus album. There’s no way to return to the dazzling moment of its debut, but reading his poems again, it’s like I’m on the lam with Berman, sneaking an extra half hour of the 20th century, and our youth. What is it worth, David? A lot. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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