David Berman

Edited by David Hering and Sarah Osment


David Hering and Sarah Osment

David Berman, Ambivalent Aphorist

Andrew Epstein

Bridge Ethics

Michael Collins

Slipping Between Worlds in Actual Air

Marie Buck

Think of Me as a Place: David Berman’s Rooms in Time

David Hering

David Berman’s Edge Cities: Poetry, Commercial Real Estate, Municipal Feeling

Harris Feinsod

From Vault to Humbling Void: David Berman’s Attention Ecosystem

Ellen Dillon


Bob Nastanovich

Pod45 Episode 10: David Berman

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team


David Berman musician, poet, accidental comedian, non-accidental philosopher released seven albums, one book of poetry, a collection of cartoons and a handful of EPs. He didn't tour his band Silver Jews for the first fifteen years of their existence, and after two years of touring he disappeared largely from public life for a full decade, excepting occasional postings on his blog mentholmountains, before returning in 2019 with the album Purple Mountains and announcing a tour which would never take place1. Other musicians and artists of his era have been more prolific, and most of them have been more consistently in the public eye. Despite his attempts to avoid the spotlight, though, Berman gained a reputation among his peers for being the finest lyricist of his generation: after the news broke of Berman's death, The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle tweeted that "He had no competition. He was the competition."2

It's not hard to see what Darnielle meant. Consider, for instance, these lines from the second verse of "People," the fifth track on American Water (1998): "I love to see a rainbow from a garden hose / Lit up like the blood of a centerfold / I love the city and the city rain / Suburban kids with biblical names." Simple declarations of love are undercut with bathos and images of crude eroticism ("hose" / "fold"; "fold" / "blood"); the beautiful and biblical sit uneasily alongside the crass and commercial. Which is to say, Berman often found sublimity in the mundane his work offers the kind of cracked sincerity that marks contemporary art at its best. Coupling gnomic lyrics with shaggy guitar and reedy harmonies, Berman's oeuvre conjures a world in disrepair: here there are duct-taped shoes and mustaches caked with glue. There are dead hookers and drunk, disapproving fathers. There are dragging mufflers, motel voids, wounded snow angels, and iceboxes overtaken by grass. The world of Berman's work is unmistakably American, limned with images of ruin and solitude and yet somehow, and not at all by intuition, it offers a creaky kind of consolation. As Hanif Abdurraqib put it, "David Berman was so unafraid of wrestling with his own sadness, and so unafraid of being honest about what it is to sometimes lose that match. There are so many ways to feel small while tumbling through the world. Berman made a few seem comforting."3

In the days following his passing in 2019, fans memorialized Berman online, and in surveying the volume of eulogies it became overwhelmingly clear that his songs, poems, cartoons and blogposts reached people far beyond the too-often cloistered circles of US indie rock and MFA poetry. It is surprising, considering this popularity, that there has not yet been a collection of essays dedicated to Berman's art. In putting together this cluster for Contemporaries at Post45, we wanted to address his entire body of work, from music to poetry to cartoons to blogging; often, this work gets separated categorically in discussion, and these essays make clear that these different forms are in fact all part of a lifelong project that both imagines and critiques an idiosyncratic historical vision of the United States.

Virginia born, with periods of residency in Texas, Tennessee, New York and Chicago, Berman straddled northern and southern cultures with affection, irony and disquiet. As these essays attest, he's often a poet of landscape, but the world he describes is entirely his own vision. A few of the pieces here consider to various ends the spectre of postindustrial capitalism in Berman's work: namely, his fractious relationship with his father Richard, the right-wing corporate lobbyist once nicknamed "Dr. Evil," his ongoing sense of how economic logic imbues American topography with a particular lapsarian character, and how the idioms of advertising and corporate-speak have metastasized into the fabric of daily communication, an abiding concern for anyone who works with words.

In the spirit of Berman's own wide-ranging work, this cluster brings into dialogue contributions from thinkers, readers, listeners and collaborators spanning a variety of investments and registers. Nevertheless, we were unsurprised to see some throughlines across them, around questions of paradox, architecture, landscape, sociality, messy feeling and political imagination.

Andrew Epstein takes up the question of reified language as he examines Berman's ambivalent use of the aphorism, a condensed form that can reveal advice or wisdom, but which can also fall prey to the hollowed-out logic of capital. Eminently portable and unforgettable, his "miracles of compression" reveal the thorniness involved in reducing life to pithy statements. Marie Buck historicizes Berman's poetic and political vision, bringing it into dialogue with the idioms and formal gestures of the 1990s via Richard Linklater and Rick Schmidt, along with their own experience as an MFA in the early aughts. Through their account of a handful of poems and films, Marie explains how slight slippages in narrative and  perspective formalize the desire for political possibility.

Michael Collins insists on the importance of the bridge in both musical and metaphorical registers, demonstrating how these places of transition might afford us a better understanding of his overall artistic project. Harris Feinsod examines the architectural underpinnings of Berman's work: beginning with a reading of the buildings on the cover of Actual Air, Harris offers a sweeping analysis of how songs and poems index increasing privatization and waning municipal feeling. David Hering attends to the spatial dimensions of Berman's poetics, but as an antidote to the wearying demands of capitalism: for him, the room is a site of solidarity, offering readers and listeners a palpable place of "temporary shelter."

Echoing David, Ellen Dillon observes how "in so many of [Berman's] songs, the listener finds themselves in a living house," before turning to the question of attention. Ellen finds in Berman's music, cartoons, and poems a plea for the interpersonal and the numerous: in the place of a lyric "I," we get parallax vision and reciprocal care.

A deeply moving piece rounds out our cluster: Bob Nastanovich reflects on his friend and bandmate, giving us a window into Berman's poetic process. We are enormously grateful to Bob for his generosity, and to you for reading. 

David Hering (@hering_david) is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. His writing has appeared in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The London Magazine, 3:AM, The Quietus, and others. He is author of David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form (Bloomsbury, 2016). In 2019 he was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize and in 2020 the Northern Book Prize. He is currently working on two novels and a short story collection, as well as a scholarly book on a new theory of haunting in contemporary culture.

Sarah Osment (@sm_osment) is an editor who teaches writing at the University of Chicago.


  1. David Berman, mentholmountains: arc of a boulder (blog).[]
  2. The Mountain Goats (@mountain_goats), "I could sit here all day and quote memorable David Berman couplets," Twitter, August 8, 2019. []
  3. Hanif Abdurraqib (@nifmuhammad), "David Berman was so unafraid of publicly wrestling with his own sadness," Twitter, August 8, 2019. []

Past clusters