Skull Talk: Not Lost or Forgotten

Moths white as ghosts among these hundred cling/ Small in the porchlight . .    I am one of yours

—John Berryman, “Sonnet 14”


On April 10, 2015, I entered Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights, Minnesota in search of the grave site of poet John Berryman. This stop was the last on my journey. I was attending the annual AWP conference in Minneapolis, and the three days prior I had spent time visiting the Elmer J. Anderson Library on the University of Minnesota campus looking through Berryman’s archived papers and visiting the bridge where he had jumped to his death.

Prior to my Minneapolis trip, I had spent six months obsessively reading Berryman’s Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (by Berryman), Berryman’s biography written by John Haffenden, and numerous essays and interviews on the Confessionals. Berryman had been the main influence on the second section of the book of poetry I was writing; his confessional tone, his rhythmic writing, his pointed imagery, his crafting of words, and the way he spoke of love in Sonnets. (When I found the notebook pictured here in the archives, containing Berryman’s penned sonnets, I felt I was physically touching the very brain of this brilliant poet.)

Resurrection Cemetery was my final stop, and I took a cab to the cemetery and asked the driver to drop me off in the parking lot near the main office. The office was closed when I got there at 5:00 pm, and as the cab pulled away I pulled out my notes that indicated the plot Berryman was buried in. I looked out across the expansive cemetery and didn’t notice any section markers. I knew there was no way I would find it on my own, but for some reason I also knew very soon I was going to stand above his bones. A flashlight would be helpful. I actually believed I would be here the entire evening, and at that moment, I was immune to fear. There was a lone car in the parking lot, and as I was deciding which path to take in the cemetery, a man walked out of the office toward the car.

“Do you work here?” I asked.

“Yes I do. Did a cab just drop you off?” he inquired.

“Yes. I’m from Connecticut. I’m staying in Minneapolis for a writing conference, and I’m in search of the writer John Berryman’s grave.”

I was embarrassed. I was a responsible person, a rule follower, a mother. What was I doing? I was at a cemetery close to dark in an unfamiliar city, I didn’t have a map to find the grave I was looking for, and I didn’t have a plan on how I was going to get back to the Metro four miles away.

CemeteryFieldThe person walking to his car was John Cherek, Director of The Catholic Cemeteries. Resurrection Cemetery is one of five cemeteries under his care. He happened to be working late that day at this particular cemetery. Once he heard my story, he decided he was going to be part of the adventure. He took the time to call a staff member after hours for assistance, drive me to what we thought was the general location of the grave, trek back to the office to look up the plot in the hard copy source records, and comb the rows of stones brushing off leaves and dirt in search of the one stone I was looking for.

When we finally found the flat grave stone, I was overwhelmed by the search and by the fact that I was standing above the remains of John Berryman. When the director kicked the leaves from the side of the stone, revealing the full name and dates of birth and death, I nearly fell to my knees.

Cherek wondered why Berryman had been buried in the section of the cemetery where we stood. He commented that this was a location mainly for state assisted burials, when families couldn’t pay. Looking out across the field, he commented on the beauty of the spot and talked about how back in 1972, the area would have been wide open. I thought about John Berryman and the loneliness I see shining within his poetry, and I was sad he was buried in a place I considered lonely and forgotten.

“Go ahead and take your time at his grave,” Cherek said. “I’ll wait in the car. When you are done, I will drive you to the Metro station.”

I was stunned with relief knowing I would be able to get safely back to my hotel. I knelt by John Berryman’s grave.

I looked at the dates: October 25, 1914-January 7, 1972. He died before I was born. I spoke to him at his grave and left him a poem I had written for him earlier in the day.

The resurrection of the lost and forgotten is the theme of Poor Yorick. This piece is being published on my last official day as Editor. The experience I had at Resurrection Cemetery is what this journal promotes—an awareness of the past, a whisper or a shriek of something lost, and a connection to the current cultural pulse. I feel so thankful to have been the editor for a journal that seeks to honor the past and uncover the foundation of our present.

I followed John Berryman from his published works, to the archives where his notes survive, to the bridge where he jumped, and to the cemetery where he was buried. I found pieces that helped me see the world more fully. And most importantly, at the end of my journey, I found beauty in humanity as I worked with two strangers, one alive, and one dead. I often wondered why people go on pilgrimages to grave sites and suicide sites, and now I know. What I learned about myself and my view of the world is staggering. I no longer feel as lonely.

GraveStoneI like to think Berryman felt my gratitude while he lived. Maybe for a moment he knew that others in the future would continue to learn from him, from his writing. Maybe he knew someday, someone like me would stand over his grave and thank him for being alive and for giving so much of himself to his poetry.

Thank you to John Cherek for taking the time to help a crazy writer connect with another crazy writer!

Rest in the utmost peace John Berryman. What you left for others continues to be uncovered.






Melissa Gordon