The Portable February by David Berman

by Dawn Marie Knopf

After disbanding the band, Silver Jews, in January of 2009, David Berman said he would go into muckraking. Commercialism or industry surely rules in The Portable February, where Berman’s illustrated billboards announce the upcoming offerings along the highway: “PSYCHIATRY” and “SWANS.” As an artist who straddles songwriting, poetry, and visual art, Berman could very well be cursed by what he mentions in a Dusted interview: “Commercial History pushes the uncategorical out of the way.” 

In The Portable February, his new book of illustrations, Berman continues to put pressure on the “uncategorical.”  Much like John Ashbery’s far-flung connections, The Portable February fixes on dreams, perception, and thought, but the book also daringly disturbs the relationship between the symbol and referent.  One symbol in particular stands out in the pages of the book, for both its power and controversy: the swastika.  

In one of the least terrible of Nazi atrocities, the Third Reich hijacked and misappropriated the sacred symbol of the swastika, altering it forever. The word “swastika,” itself, which roughly means “good luck charm” in Sanskrit, could only be interpreted as a benevolent, auspicious symbol dating all the way back to the Neolithic Era, especially for past and present Hindus, Buddhists, and some Native American Tribes. Berman bravely uses the swastika for his own means. Among Berman’s self-labeled “rude little drawings,” a butterfly proudly displays a swastika on her wing while one caterpillar reassures the other, “Don’t worry, it’s just a phase.”  Another swastika is composed entirely of acoustic guitars. 

If anything, Berman recognizes the unalterable importance of a symbol in context. Once a lucky charm, the swastika now reminds many of the Third Reich’s brutal history. Perhaps putting the swastika in primitive and darkly humorous contexts, Berman reclaims or lessens the destructive power of the symbol. By its placement, the swastika acts against the Nazi forces in the book. Berman gives his audience the opportunity to point and laugh at Nazi antagonism. 

No stranger to inevitable failures in representation, Berman describes a book as “ineffective / like a watercolor of a fire engine / or a statue of the fastest man alive” in his first collection of poems, Actual Air (Open City, 1999). Berman writes: “Souvenirs only reminded you of buying them.”  In Berman’s work, the souvenirs do not remind us of our visit; they only remind us of the commercial-focused world, where genuine memories cannot be bought and sold.  

This awareness of misrepresentation does not stop Berman from making giant metaphoric leaps. Perhaps not as solipsistic as some of John Ashbery’s poetry, Berman’s poetry contains those occasional electrified arcs for which Ashbery is both criticized and celebrated. His poetry stands next to Ashbery’s as a less opaque younger brother, though Berman is best in The Portable February when the illustrations are only part of the joke, not fully realized, as if we entered the conversation right at the punch line. The captions sometimes appear as confident staccato statements. 

Despite the simmering humor, the book does not shy away from difficult subjects. Personified versions of death, the soul, fantasy, conflict, and decay populate the pages.  Berman refigures contexts to allow for easy examination, making the settings unobtrusive and comically distant. Death, a rudimentary ghost, sits in a chair staring off into space, as if unemployed and bored in his living room. The caption reads: “Death just sitting around with no one to kill.” 

One of the most successful illustrations, “Spring Break Hitlers,” debuted at "Lots of Things Like This," a caption-art show organized by Dave Eggers in 2008.  Berman's work appeared alongside Henry Darger, Kenneth Koch, Leonard Cohen, and others, placing this artist in sympathetic company. “Spring Break Hitlers” depicts two figures standing on a dock, one figure holding a can of soda or something more devilish, yelling at the top of his lungs, at once adolescent and startling.

Both antagonism and innocence lurk throughout The Portable February. Greeting cards wish the recipient to PLEASE GO TO HELL and one poor apparently blind character unwittingly holds a beautiful woman on one arm and a Nazi-insect on the other. The book, with its sometimes-amateurish styling, is a fascinating and surprisingly complex addition to his other work. Let’s hope that if “commercial history” can push the “uncategorical” out of the way, Berman is an exception.


The Portable February, David Berman