Wednesday, September 10, 2008


--John Berryman (1814-1972)

Nothin’ very bad happen to me lately.
How you explain that? -I explain that, Mr. Bones,
terms o' your bafflin’ odd sobriety.
Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,
what could happen bad to Mr. Bones?
-If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father
who dared so long ago to leave me.
A bullet on a concrete stoop
close by a smothering southern sea
spread-eagled on an island, by my knee.
-You is from hunger, Mr. Bones,

I offers you this handkerchief, now set
your left foot by my right foot,
shoulder to shoulder, all that jazz,
arm in arm, by the beautiful sea,
hum a little, Mr Bones.
-I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.

"Mr. Bones" was a character in early 19th century minstrel shows that was a straight man for an "interlocutor," a performer that asked questions and engaged the other actors in conversation. The minstrel-show twist in this poem is that Henry, the interlocutor, Mr. Bones, the straight man, and John Berryman are one in the same.

Henry tells his story in the words of Mr. Bones (a.k.a John Berryman) whose father shot himself on the front porch of his home when John was twelve years old. The poet now longs for someone to "set your left foot by my right foot, shoulder to shoulder...arm in arm." Someone to offer him a handkerchief "sandwich"[1] to smother his sobs, someone to give him a reassuring hug.

But he sees no one coming, indeed expects no one to come. Hence the bitter "all that jazz." So Berryman comforts himself instead: "Hum a little, Mr. Bones."

This is the next-to-last of Berryman's 77 Dream Songs and perhaps the strangest and saddest of them all, reflecting more than any his tragic and lonely existence. In 1972, Berryman's life-long depression led him to follow the example of his father and to kill himself by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In a "modesty of death" he joined his father who "dared so long ago" to leave him.

I can't help but wonder: Would it have made a difference to Mr. Bones if someone had put a hand on his shoulder--someone whose heart was filled with God's love?

It would have been difficult to love Mr. Berryman: He was a unpleasant man, known for his angry tirades, his inclination to bully students, and humiliate his colleagues and would-be friends. Who would have believed that underneath his terrible spite lay bottomless loneliness and longing--that he was "from hunger"?

My teacher and friend Ray Stedman once mused in an off-hand way that, "threatened people are often threatening," thus uttering one of those profound simplicities that help to explain life's perplexities. Why are some folks determined to drive us away? Can it be that tragedy, sorrow and bitter disappointment lie at the root of their anger and aggression? Can we look away from the effect-the dry, hard rage they convey-and look to the cause? Can we bring the love of Christ to bear on our understanding of the sad process that turned them into hostile, unattractive people? Can we offer loving kindness in exchange for spitefulness and hate?

Several years ago I came across a Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine depicting a sour-faced curmudgeon, garbed in rumpled pajamas and robe, standing at his apartment door. He had just secured the door for the night with not one, but four locks. He had shut two deadbolts and had secured the chain latch. Only after the last lock was fastened did he notice a small white envelope stuck beneath the door. On the envelope was a large sticker in the shape of a heart. His security system had been breached. Someone finally got in--with a valentine!

Love always looks for a way!


[1] There's a note of irony here--as though a handkerchief sandwich could satisfy anyone.

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