David Berman is a singer, songwriter, poet, and cartoonist. He also loves dogs. This is the first installment of Dog Person, a column about interesting people and their dogs. The dogs may or not be interesting, too.
I learned about David Berman when, late last year, a friend played me his song Random Rules. Berman recorded it with one of Berman’s bands, the Silver Jews. The song starts out, “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” I was only four in ’84 and my perfection needs no medical attention, but still, the song spoke spoke to me in an unusual way. Something that was beyond pressing “like.” The lyrics felt right and true and custom made for me. I cried the first time I heard it.
I don’t know much about lyrics or poetry, but I was immediately struck by Berman’s crisp and sometimes abstract language, and the direct way he describes all that is mundane and true and absurd in everyday life. I later dipped into a book of his poems, Actual Air, and I thought “this is the voice I have been waiting so long to hear, a voice, I wish in some poems, were my own.” Actually, that’s what Billy Collins writes on the back of Actual Air. But that’s what I think, too.
Dogs have frequent cameos in Berman’s work, but never sentimentally. Rather, it’s more that he frequently acknowledges that particular dog thing that falls in between usefulness and soulfulness. A repeated refrain in one Silver Jews song: Send us your coordinates, I’ll send a Saint Bernard. My favorite poem in Actual Air, Self Portrait at 28, ends with walking on a hill with a young dog:
and he was running through the tall grass like running through the tall grass is all of life together, until a bird calls or he finds a beer can and that thing fills all the space in his head. You see, his mind can only hold one thought at a time and when he finally hears me call his name he looks up and cocks his head. For a single moment my voice is everything: Self portrait at 28.
It’s a poem about a recall cue! It also so succinctly captures much about dog-ness: the one-track-mind, the ability to live in the moment, the joy of exploration.
Berman lives with his wife, fellow Silver Jew-er Cassie Berman, in Nashville, TN. Suspecting that he might also have some furry friends in his life, I contacted him and asked if he’d appear in the inaugural Dog Person column.
How would you describe their personalities?
How would they describe you?
What is your earliest memory of being fascinated by a dog?
Have you ever cried because of a dog?
Do you think that dogs affect your writing process?
Do you have a favorite poem about dogs?
Two Dogs Have I
For years we’ve had a little dog,
Last year we acquired a big dog;
He wasn’t big when we got him,
He was littler than the dog we had.
We thought our little dog would love him,
Would help him to become a big dog,
But the new little dog got bigger,
And the old little dog got mad.
Now the big dog loves the little dog,
But the little dog hates the big dog,
The little dog is eleven years old,
And the big dog only one;
The little dog calls him Schweinhund,
The little dog calls him Pig-dog,
She grumbles broken curses
As she dreams in the August sun.
The big dog’s teeth are terrible,
But he wouldn’t bite the little dog;
The little dog wants to grind his bones,
But the little dog has no teeth;
The big dog is acrobatic,
The little dog is a brittle dog;
She leaps to grip his jugular,
And passes underneath.
The big dog clings to the little dog
Like glue and cement and mortar;
The little dog is his own true love;
But the big dog is to her
Like a scarlet rag to a Longhorn,
Or a suitcase to a porter;
The day he sat on the hornet
I distinctly heard her purr.
Well, how can you blame the little dog,
Who was once the household darling?
He romps like a young Adonis,
She droops like an old mustache;
No wonder she steals his corner,
No wonder she comes out snarling,
No wonder she calls him Cochon
And even Espèce de vache.
Yet once I wanted a sandwich,
Either caviar or cucumber,
When the sun had not yet risen
And the moon had not yet sank;
As I tiptoed through the hallway
The big dog lay in slumber,
And the little dog slept by the big dog,
And her head was on his flank.
David Berman’s blog is MentholMountains.