Actual Air was the first book of poetry I read that felt contemporary. It was 2003 or so and the book had been published by Open City in 1999. I was new to poetry, and my poetry professor at the College of Charleston, Carol Ann Davis, had assigned us three recent books of poetry. This was the one that opened up my notion of what poetry could do.

Part of this feeling of possibility came from the poems' narrative quality: as Justin Taylor has noted in The Believer, the poems in Actual Air tend to be driven by settings and characters and specificity. I hadn't until that point read much contemporary work that wasn't characterized by a vague lyrical gravitas. And I hadn't yet encountered flarf and conceptual poetry, which emerged at roughly the same moment and which also evolved, in part, against the backdrop of dull attempts at abstract universalism in most mainstream publications.  

Taylor attributes this narrative tendency in Berman's work to John Ashbery and James Tate. This makes a lot of sense, but there was also something generationally specific about Berman's work, too, that comes into focus for me a bit more in the current post-2016 moment, when much of the more interesting work being published has an explicitly political bent. Actual Air has characters, and it also shows characters slipping by each other, registering isolation and a sort of melancholy and malaise. There's a mood of rebellion against something, dissatisfaction with the world-as-it-is, but no particular target; here life appears instead as a series of fleeting or missed intimacies, with the specter of death often in view as well.

I've realized recently that Actual Air has a certain political orientation, or rather disorientation, that runs through a lot of my favorite 1980s and 1990s cultural production. Think of Richard Linklater's Slacker (1990), for instance, or, a little earlier, Rick Schmidt's Morgan's Cake (1989). Slacker and Morgan's Cake have a lot in common with Actual Air: both bounce around telling the stories of different quirky characters; both show a sort of youthful ennui that is specifically unable to attach to an ideology. In Slacker, for example, we watch various characters describe their philosophies of lifeincluding conspiracy theories, enthusiasm about electoral politics, anarchismand none of these approaches are presented as anything you could seriously take up.

In Morgan's Cake, set in the late '80s, teenaged Morgan debates whether to sign up for the draft and what to do with his life; his deliberations are bifurcated by a lengthy monologue by Morgan's dad, who describes an elaborate scheme that he used to fake mental illness when he went before the draft board during the Vietnam War. Unable to orient his allegiances around a draft, Morgan later tries to figure out how to commit a crime, baking a cake depicting the White House in defiance of an obscure law banning, specifically, baked goods depicting the White House. Morgan is forced to call the cops on himself and explain the law and that he has just broken it a suggestion that if you want to rebel, it's somehow, in this moment, impossible to figure out how to actually do it, or what it is you would even push against.

The sense of there being no appropriate target or course of action in relation to life's problems is the backdrop for a gesture that Actual Air shares with Slacker and Morgan's Cake: a sense of possibility that results from a mixing up of or surreal slip between framing devices. Berman often brings the reader into the frame of the poem, using the slipperiness of the lyric "I" alongside narrative to create connection suddenly, where you didn't expect it; a gesture of possibility amidst what are otherwise bleak descriptions of life you, the reader, are suddenly in the poem and being addressed, or there is a narrator linking worlds who wasn't there before. Linklater and Schmidt incorporate handheld video cameras in the narrative of their films, then switch to those cameras' perspectives, in a similar gesture. The stakes feel a bit different in Berman's work Slacker and Morgan's Cake are both tonally light and even funny; ennui and slacking have a sort of giddiness to them. Berman's poems, though, circle back to death, and the aimlessness of the '90s is a melancholic aimlessness. The lack of clear political targets or teleologies places a heavy weight on specific moments of connection or beauty; the passage of time itself becomes weightier because those moments, Berman tells us, are forever receding into the distance.

Here is an example of the surreal shift in framing that Berman shares with Linklater and Schmidt, and that seems to me the key hopeful gesture in Actual Air:


A woman named Tina drinks gin at sunset
before a pair of drawn curtains that frame
the dry grasslands and tangerine hilltops
of her native county. An insurance bill
is pinned to the desk top by a calculator.
The curtains are purple.

The man she intends to marry is reserved
as a dark prairie pond. He paints radio storms
in the basement beside a globe of Mars,
his hair and shoes the color of ox blood.

The local graveyard is now run
by the management company he owns.
Stones are strewn on the even pathways
like the exploded bits of a larger rock.
Annually, starlings fill the trees
as if commanded by the book on Death.

And she, a manicurist who digs the intimacy
of her work, holds hands for a living.
Perfecting the extremities of oilmen and bankers.

But this man, this man she intends to marry,
is strange. She wonders, What's the deal with
quiet people, can they read minds? Just then

a junebug flies in and lands on a curtain.
The purple curtain on her right.
My left, her right.1

Like many of Berman's poems, this one begins not with an "I" but with characters, Tina and her fiancé, pulling us out of the expectations of lyric poetry. We're going to get a discrete story, rather than a grandiose valuation of the world. And, also characteristically, we get a world with insurance bills and management companies, signals of the unpleasant bureaucracies that comprise much of life, alongside radio storms, globes, starlings. As we move through the poem, "intends to marry" leaves open the possibility of something else happening and amps up an anxious feeling of contingency and change across time. Then Berman gives us a graveyard, but one associated with a management company the sort of vaguely bad bureaucracy that Berman invokes frequently, here juxtaposed with "exploded bits of a larger rock," a phrase that evokes the Big Bang, or Earth i.e., we're in the realm of the sublime. And then a "book on Death."

Berman weaves intimacy the word "intimacy" in the poem, the casualness of "digs," the image of holding hands with a stranger tightly together with oilmen, bankers, and making a living: that is, with the vaguely bad aspect of the world again. And then, once Berman has constellated specificity, contingency, the passage of time, death, intimacy, and a sort of bad and loose business-y-ness we're presented with the ending, which comes as a shock. At the top of the poem, we first hear about Tina and her fiancé in general terms, their lives narrated to us in the aggregate, and then abruptly in the penultimate stanza there's a "just then" we recalibrate because we realize we're located in a specific scene. And just after that, "My left, her right." We didn't know there was a lyric speaker here, but here he is, suddenly present, sitting with Tina, knitting the world described within the frame of the poem to the diegesis of it the world built within the frame of the poem now slipping into the telling of the poem, and, therefore, into our own world.

I realize, as I reread this book, that I've tried to imitate this gesture over and over. Which is probably okay; it's a really great gesture. If writing can give the reader a sense of unexpected possibility as an antidote to melancholy, death, doom, we should take advantage of that as much as we can. It's all over Actual Air: in "Classic Water," the "I" tells the story of his crush on Kitty, and then ends the poem with a direct address apologizing to Kitty's boyfriends, who are located in some world that's sort-of-within, sort-of-outside the poem:

and I remember how I would always refer to her boyfriends
as what's-his-face, which was wrong of me and I'd like
to apologize to those guys right now, wherever they are:

No one deserves to be called what's-his-face.2

Or mid-way through "Self-Portrait at 28":

Do you remember the way the girls
would call out "love you!"
conveniently leaving out the "I"
as if they didn't want to commit
to their own declaration

I agree that the "I" is a pretty heavy concept
and hope you won't get uncomfortable
If I should go into some deeper stuff here.3

Here it's not the "I" but the sudden address to the reader with "you" but the effect is similar; we're suddenly thrown out of an established diegetic world into another layer of diegesis, and the shift suggests a possibility of slipping worlds, characters, layers, lives that is normally precluded in literature and life both. These gestures operate alongside Berman's references to death and the sense of lost history and possibility. In "The Homeowner's Prayer," the gestures are overlaid:

He remembered a morning when the carpool
had been discussing how they'd like to die.
The best way to go. 

He said, why are you talking about this.
Just because everyone has died so far,
doesn't mean that we're going to die.

But he had waited too long to ask.
They were already at the parking garage.

And now two of them had passed away.4

"But he had waited too long" breaks the established tense just as the deaths occur, creating, as in "Tulsa," a heightened feeling of contingency (on top of the glorious suggestion that things really are so radically contingent that we may not die). Or, my favorite,

"Imagining Defeat"

She woke me up at dawn,
her suitcase like a little brown dog at her heels.

I sat up and looked out the window
at the snow falling in the stand of blackjack trees.

A bus ticket in her hand.

Then she brought something black up to her mouth,
a plum I thought, but it was an asthma inhaler.

I reached under the bed for my menthols
and she asked if I ever thought of cancer.

Yes, I said, but always as a tree way up ahead
in the distance where it doesn't matter,

and I suppose a dead soul must look back at that tree,
so far behind his wagon where it also doesn't matter

Except as a memory of rest or water.

Though to believe any of that, I thought
you have to accept the premise

that she woke me up at all.5

This undoing of the premise of the poem at the end, and the identification of it as a premise, seems to split the timeline: now there are multiple realities in the poem, and the poem itself becomes one among many realities. I like these instances where this gesture is placed in proximity to talk of death it seems to give us a way out of death, for ourselves, or a place to locate Berman now that he is gone: little afterlives located in the poems; a sense of surreal possibility on top of the melancholy. If the woman in the poem doesn't wake the speaker up at all, she leaves without saying goodbye. The image of the plum evokes William Carlos Williams's sweet and cold plums in "This Is Just to Say," a poem about a minor betrayal that is also about pleasure, only to replace the image of the plum with an asthma inhaler, an object that is just there to keep the body going, and that appears as she asks the speaker about cancer. That is: the speaker describes a series of sad and morose things the leaving, the inhaler in lieu of a plum, the conversation about death, the imagining of having already died, rest or water as the only pleasantness rather than the sweetness of the plum and then the speaker undercuts all this by suggesting that instead of the conversation, you just have someone leaving without saying goodbye. It's gutting but embedded in the gutting gesture is also a sense of possibility, the speaker's ability to weave multiple stories, to determine what happens.

These gestures of possibility exist alongside Berman's interest in mundane processes, bureaucracy, the day-to-day as interspliced with a vague but bad entity: "Narrated By a Committee" as a title; the "government lake" in "Classic Water"; the "Highway Commissioner" who "dreams of us" in "From His Bed in the Capital City," along with other various civil servants; Xerox copies as the thing one might press to one's face in "The New Idea."6 The intrusive element that recurs throughout the poems is vaguely governmental, vaguely corporate, vaguely Homeowner's Association-esque, definitely not quite clear. It's never capital exactly, and when it's the government it's likelier an innocuous civil servant than, say, a cop; the poems suggest a sort of muddy evil that is vaguely but not quite political. 

Morgan's Cake and Slacker, separated by ten years from Actual Air, occupy a similar political-aesthetic terrain: there's a hostility toward and suspicion of the government, of corporations, of all existing political ideologies. There's an inability to engage with much earnestness. And instead of a positivist ideology, we're given hopefulness only in a certain manipulation of form. In Morgan's Cake, Morgan encounters a surfer with a camera, and the surfer winds up lending Morgan the camera. In some moments, we see through this small home movie camera footage of the waves, footage of the characters talking and walking around. And, similarly, Slacker closes with a shift to a home movie camera. After following a parade of various characters and hopping from one to another, we follow a vitriolic conspiracy theorist who passes a group of teenagers, and the teenagers shoot footage of him with a home camera. We then shift to following the teenagers, who drive up to a spot in the mountains, where they run around, jubilant and care-free. Then, one of them throws the home camera off the mountain and the perspective shifts so that we now see via the home camera as it tumbles through the air. That's the close of the film.

The shifts to different cameras, cameras that also exist within the world of the film, feels reminiscent of Berman's inclusion of narrators in Actual Air as if Berman, Linklater, and Schmidt want to at least leave you with a sort of semi-hopeful sense of possibility about what is and is not real and what is and is not contingent. If the world looks sort of bleak, at least we don't know what's going to happen next. At least none of this is fixed, they suggest. Multiple worlds and timelines exist alongside one another, with porous boundaries. In these movies and in Actual Air, there's an intense nebulousness and nervousness around where to put one's political anger, which makes sense for 1989-1999. Instead of putting hope into any concrete ideology, Berman, Schmidt, and Linklater seem to muster all the hope they can simply by suggesting proliferations of other worlds via self-reflexive gestures around narration.  

I still have my copy of Actual Air from the early aughts. One year I met Berman at the AWP conference, and, while I was too shy to say much, my professor told him that I was headed to UMass, to the same MFA program that he had attended. And so my copy of Actual Air is inscribed with "Don't let the witches in Mass. get you down" and Berman's signature: a little time capsule of my own life, my life at different moments existing alongside the shifting timelines that Berman renders. The book also has my notes in it, notes that I took as an undergrad in the early aughts. They are, surprisingly, somewhat in keeping with my current reading: "corporate/consumerist?", "disconnected." The poem "Tableau Through Shattered Monocle" ends with one of my favorite instances of the type of gesture I've described here: the last line of the poem is "these words are meant to mark this day on earth."7 The younger version of me left a very faint vertical pen line here, so that "mark" is struck through vertically with its own light mark, Berman marking that day on earth with those words and then me in 2003 marking some other day, so that I could then come back and read this in 2023, Berman's 1999 and my 2003 marked out in front of me, reminding me that however bleak things are, we don't yet know what's to come, and the past still sits here, keeping watch with us. 

Marie Buck is the author of several collections of poetry, including Unsolved Mysteries (Roof 2020) and Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya 2015), and a dissertation about literary devices in newspapers, pamphlets, and other texts of the social movements of the late 1960s. They are the managing editor at the journal Social Text and teach writing part-time at New York University as a member of UAW Local 7902. Some of their other writing about poetry and poetics can be found at the Poetry Foundation and the Hythe.


  1. David Berman, Actual Air (Chicago, IL: Open City Books, 1999), 22. []
  2. Berman, Actual Air, 7. []
  3. Berman, Actual Air, 57-58.[]
  4. Berman, Actual Air, 48.[]
  5. Berman, Actual Air, 13.[]
  6. Berman, Actual Air, 18, 50, 72.[]
  7. Berman, Actual Air, 15.[]