John Berryman Used to Sway

by Donna Spector



or lean into a corner when he read Yeats

and Cummings. He still suffered

from malaria, he said, but he could dissect our dreams

like a surgeon looking for the heart

of the matter, which was always sex. I was just

eighteen and easily offended. When he took me

to the Steppenwolf, our student bar,

I tried to argue lust into some other universe,

but I was pretty and silly in my fake

Oxford accent, and he said, Be quiet.

And, studying my poems as though they were

worth his attention, Remove all articles

and conjunctions. I remember a line:

where the fires fall.


Blue fires, he said. You understand?

I didn’t, but I loved him, memorized haiku

in Japanese for him, Dante in Italian.

On New Year’s Eve I drank wine with him in his

tiny Berkeley apartment. He gave me

a handwritten Henry poem and asked me

for a dream. I can’t, I said, holding my inner

life away. All I need is one word,

he said. Just one word.



From Rattle #29, Summer 2009.