David Berman, songwriter and poet (and cartoonist), died yesterday at the age of 52. Though he never reached the widespread acclaim of Stephen Malkmus, his collaborator in the band Silver Jews, Berman was beloved to a generation of music fans for his sly lo-fi truth-telling and his preternatural gift for metaphor and rhyme (think Cole Porter and Leonard Cohen in a codeine-addled rap battle).
If you head to Twitter right now, you’ll see what I mean, as hundreds of his fans are sharing lyrics and poems by way of tribute (Berman published a collection in 1999, Actual Air). The way people mourn the newly dead online—the art they’ve made, the art they would’ve made—always makes me think of these lines from Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats:
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
The person I love the most in the world just sang to me the following lines, over the phone, from Berman’s latest project, Purple Mountains (as you can see, he was not just the poet laureate of his own sadness):
Snow is falling in Manhattan
If it looks like it might be a bad one
The good caretaker springs to action
Salts the stoop and scoops the cat in
Tests an icy patch for traction.
And here are more fragments of Berman’s art showing up across the Internet, as we modify his genius to help us get through what remains of our living:
I wrote a letter to a wildflower
On a classic nitrogen afternoon
Some power that hardly looked like power
Said I’m perfect in an empty room
I believe the stars are the headlights of angels
Driving from heaven to save us
To save us
Look in the sky
They’re driving from heaven into our eyes
And though final words are so hard to devise
I promise that I’ll always remember your pretty eyes
Your pretty eyes
When it’s snowing, the outdoors seem like a room.
Today I traded hellos with my neighbor.
Our voices hung close in the new acoustics.
A room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling.
We returned to our shoveling, working side by side in silence.
When I go downtown, I always wear a corduroy suit,
’cause it’s made of a hundred gutters,
that the rain can run right through.
Four dogs in the distance each stands for a silence.
Bluebirds lodged in an evergreen altar…
I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness
and hold the world to its word.
We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun.
I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don’t disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one
My friends, don’t you know
that I never want this minute to end?
And then it ends.
Final words are so hard to devise.
Vale David Berman.