Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

The Poetry of Pain and Beauty

By Dale Keiger

Poet David Bergman '77 opens his book The Care and Treatment of Pain (Kairos Editions, 1994) with an image of death that is strikingly removed from the Grim Reaper. A young man says:

"Death, you needn't be afraid, thin and fevered
though I am. I, who have waited so long to see you, will not
struggle now that you've arrived. Just be gentle. This is my

And Death responds:

"Yes, I was
frightened. Though I have taken many ravaged by Time and Cruelty,
yet not until now, one like you so beautiful and ready. Let me
you in my arms."

Pain, death, and beauty lie at the heart of Bergman's latest volume of poetry. "Beauty and pain are linked," he says. "Sometimes beauty is the compensation for having experienced pain. Sometimes beauty has its own pain because it's not going to last. If we're only willing to experience pain or experience beauty, then we're going to live on only some of our gears."

Bergman, a professor of English at Towson State University in Baltimore, has become a significant figure in gay literature. He edited the most recent edition of the gay literary anthology Men on Men, and in 1991 published a seminal work of gay literary criticism, Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. His first book of poetry, Cracking the Code (Ohio State University Press, 1985), won the 1985 George Elliston Poetry Prize, from the Elliston Foundation at the University of Cincinnati.

Poet Daniel Mark Epstein has known Bergman for more than 20 years, since they were students together at Kenyon College in Ohio. He says, "There's enormous passion in his work. It's very unusual to find a modern romantic poet with a vigorous sense of irony. Generally modern poets are either very astringent and ironic, or sentimental, and he's neither of those things. There's also his spectacular range of interests. He'll write about Melville in one poem and urban redevelopment in another. David's a real polymath."

Bergman divided The Care and Treatment of Pain into two sections that explore the link between beauty and suffering. The first contains 10 poems of pain and loss: friends dying of AIDS, the anguish of ruined relationships, the pain of honest self-recognition. The second section of nine poems concerns the aesthetic and artistic response to beauty, often in the face of pain.

The book's poems took shape over 10 years. Says the author, "I'm a slow writer, of poetry at least. I have to live with a poem for a long time, let it get here on its own. I've had to learn not to press a poem into existence. Mostly, when things are going wrong, it's because I'm trying to make a poem do something and it doesn't want to do that. It wants to do what it damn well pleases."

Though most of his poems occupy no more than two pages, Bergman often tells condensed little stories. He says, "I've always been interested in narrative. Ultimately, I think our actions do tell more than we're aware of, and that's why narrative is so powerful. We register emotions in many subtle ways that can't be captured entirely on the page, but can be captured more than we think."

A striking aspect of The Care and Treatment of Pain is the autobiographical honesty of its author. Says Epstein, "He has taken to heart the Delphic oracle's injunction to know thyself. That's the great wellspring of poetry."

Says Bergman, "If you're going to be any good as a writer, you have to be absolutely ruthless about yourself." He notes that painful self-recognition came early to him. He recalls playing with his collection of toy cars as a boy of 4 or 5. Each car had something wrong with it - - a wheel off or a cracked fender. He remembers looking at the cars and suddenly realizing, "I was a person who breaks things. As a human being, you can't take care of something without ultimately causing it harm."

Part of the last poem in the collection, "A World of Difference," can perhaps be viewed as a summation of the verse that has come before it.

am humbled by all these fallen creatures of the world who've
me that even harder than the act of making is the act of re- 
making and, as Yeats said, "those that build ... again are gay."
want to tell my former neighbor  that no one can make a world of
difference;  at best we uncover what's already there so various
true, beyond our meager powers to recognize or to comprehend.

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