A FIGURE IN THE DISTANCE EVEN TO MY OWN EYE
CELEBRATING TEN YEARS OF DAVID BERMAN’S ACTUAL AIR
I. “A CHILD NEEDS TO KNOW
THE POINT OF THE HOLIDAY.”
Kurt Cobain killed himself with a shotgun at the age of twenty-seven, in April of 1994. Later that year, the first Silver Jews album, Starlite Walker, was released and widely mistaken for a Stephen Malkmus side-project. This means that if the title of David Berman’s poem “Self-Portrait at 28” is accurate, then it was composed the following year, in 1995, because Berman, like Cobain, was born in 1967. The two men are the same age—or would be if Cobain had lived.
Actual Air, the volume of poems in which “Self-Portrait at 28” was collected, came out in 1999, a year after American Water, the album widely regarded as the Silver Jews’ superlative work, as well as generally understood to be one of the defining indie-rock albums of its era. At the time, Berman seemed to be splitting his energies about evenly between poetry and music—or maybe to prefer the former. After all, he had studied poetry (as a University of Virginia undergrad, and later as an MFA candidate at UMass-Amherst), and occasionally gave public readings, whereas the Silver Jews never played live. (Berman also banned Drag City from taking ads out for their records. These facts almost certainly helped foster the mistaken impression that the Silver Jews were a Malkmus venture.)
A new David Berman poem appears now and again (he was, briefly, this magazine’s poet in residence) but there is no indication that he will publish another book of poems. (A collection of his drawings, The Portable February, was published by Drag City in June.) Indeed, I suspect that you will see The Collected Lyrics of the Silver Jews long before you ever see a follow-up to Actual Air. In this regard, its likely status as a singular entry in the Berman catalog, Actual Air reminds me of nothing so strongly as it does Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, with the key distinction being that Actual Air is actually good.
Actual Air is a marvelous book: canny, powerful, engaging, wise, and fun. It’s highly re-readable (Harold Bloom’s first acid test for gauging potential canonicity) and would be no less vital or original if it were to be erased from the historical record and published for the first time tomorrow. In these ways, Actual Air is less an analog for Dylan’s Tarantula than it is for the Silver Jews’ own American Water. Both Berman’s album and his book designate high-water marks in their respective mediums.
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