“John Berryman Used to Sway” by Donna Spector

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


Donna Spector: “I’m a playwright as well as a poet, and even though I’ve been involved in theatre since the late ’60s when my improvisational troupe, Dementia, performed in Berkeley and San Francisco, my first love has always been poetry. I started writing poems in my adolescence, after my father, a poet, began to read Shakespeare to us at the dinner table. At U.C. Berkeley I was encouraged by John Berryman, and later, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman; Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds were my mentors at Squaw Valley; through them I understood that poetry demands my deepest and truest voice. Since 1988 my students and I have participated in the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, where we’ve been inspired by extraordinary poets from around the world.”

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