Photo: Tom Berthiaume
In early January of 1972, the poet John Berryman jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue Bridge – the upper deck of which serves as the pedestrian walkway between the West Bank and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota. Seventy feet below the structure, the Mississippi River slumbered under ice. Although I grew up living in Minneapolis, news of his death eluded my attention.
Two years, eight and a half months later I made my maiden excursion across the Washington Avenue bridge, stopping midway to look over the railing and watch as a portion of the Golden Gopher crew team rowed out from the shadow of the bridge, a cross between a water boatman insect and a centipede. I would discover I was at approximately the place where the poet and professor ended his stay on earth. I never really understood suicide; certainly never understood the motivation to jump. Often the question of death, of suicide came up amongst my fellow students. Filled with beer and early twenties angst, the conversation would turn to, “Have you ever considered…?” Most often I would smile and say, “I’m more likely to kill you…!” We would laugh, continue shelling peanuts, scattering the husks on the floor, and move on to the struggles of writing. Or of dating.
On the spring of my senior year, the Mississippi crawled up out of its bed – a gnarled, angry creature poked to vengeance by a heavy snow melt and heavy rains. Crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge was not a problem. The river below was deep always, and did not flow over any terrain. I walked the long way home down the St. Paul side of the river, and crossed on the downstream side of the Ford Parkway Bridge. Just below the bridge is Lock and Dam Number 1. The river was up and over the dam, the water raging, pulling. As I began to cross, I felt the pull. I heard… no, felt in the flood waters, the thrilling pull that spoke to something deeply hidden within me. It took me nearly twenty minutes to walk the bridge, holding to the railing, staring at the walkway.
One never knows what
Ice for the poet failing
Flood that sobered me
It’s Haibun Monday at dVerse Poets Pub, and our bartender is keeping a tab of our fears: What I would like for us to write about today is fear and how we overcame it, how something frightened us, how something still frightens us. So please, write about something real that actually frightens or frightened you. It can be as simple as the nightmare you had last night or something as complex as phobias – insects, being outside, cats, black cats, dogs, chickens, red cars, the number 13….It can be as simple as walking home in the dark one night and all the night sounds around you. It can be as complex as being afraid someone you love will die. Fears are often not logical. But then, neither is joy! I mean, why should a butterfly make me smile but frighten another person into gibberish? I do not pretend to know.