Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 5"

The most original poems among The Dream Songs invent, with enormous buoyancy, the Henry-dialect, of which more needs to be said. This is not therapy-language as such; rather it is a cartoonish poetic equivalent of the aggression and regression permitted in the analyst's office. It includes baby-talk, childish spite-talk, black talk, Indian talk, Scottish talk, lower-class talk, drunk-talk, archaism and anachronism, megalomaniacal self-aggrandizing images, hysteria and hallucination, spell-casting, superstition, paranoid suspiciousness, slang, and primitive syntactic structures of all sorts—sentence-fragments, incorrect grammar, babble, and so on. Many of these are present in the famous Dream Song # 5: . . .

Haffenden glosses the last image as deriving from Cervantes' 'Colloquy of the Dogs,' in which the witch Camacha of Montilla was able 'to cause the living or the dead to appear in a mirror or upon the fingernail of a newborn child.' The image is made more plausible when we know that in an unpublished poem of the fifties, Berryman writes of himself as 'a sort of Don Quixote trickt out as Lucifer.' Still, the role the unglossed fingernail-image plays in the poem is a surreal one, as though even the newborn John Smith proleptically bore on his own body the picture of his dead father, which as John Berryman (he punned on 'bury-man ') he continued to exhibit.

The elegant three-part comic strip of Dream Song #5— locating Henry first in the bar, then in the plane, and lastly in the hospital—gives the sort of emotional access to Berryman's extreme mood-swings that the gloomy psychiatric diagnoses quoted in Haffenden's biography cannot adequately convey: 'Cyclothymic personality . . . Habitual excessive drinking'; 'After admission he became severely grossly tremulous, insomniac, experiencing some frightening dreams, and was obviously on the verge of delerium tremens.' These late medical diagnoses merely record, in psychiatric terms, the disorienting experiences which formed the given of Berryman's adult life, and out of which he made, so vividly, the Dream Songs.


from The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Helen Vendler

Bonnie Costello: On "The Filling Station"

["Twelfth Morning" and "Filling Station"] record feelings and emotions in response to direct observation rather than detached reflection or description. They express strong perspectives and attitudes, yet remain open to deviating details and alternative views of reality. These do not lead to a third, integrated perspective, nor to ironic awareness, but rather to questions and uncertainties.

… The begonia is hairy, the crochet is gray, but they are not preposterous. The feminine, marked by differences of diction and image, becomes the extraneous element in this greasy world (whereas the filling station had suggested a brutal affront to the speaker’s propriety). The invisible mother is a kind of poet, who makes a shabby beauty in and from filth. The poet has begun to entertain this point of view. Doily, taboret, extraneous plant indicate a creative impulse, a "note of color" rather than a controlling or disguising impulse. The humble character of the ornaments and the sampler rhetoric they inspire in the speaker ("Somebody loves us all") do not undercut their value. These are not signs of mastery but of small attempts at aesthetic order which express affection.

To those who wish to read Bishop as a poet of terror and darkness, these comforts along the highways form a significant challenge. There is something redeeming about these naïve efforts at decoration. The poem’s final observation, "Somebody loves us all," may be sardonic (‘Only a mother …") but "somebody" might, in a broader sense, imply a divine perspective in which the filth and the ornament are reconciled. But this final assertion does not really answer the questions raised in the penultimate stanza: "Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily?" The observer tries to make sense of what she sees, revising her perspective. "Somebody" still leaves the question "who?"


from Bonnie Costello, "‘Active Displacements in Perspective,’" Chapter 1 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 37, 38-39.