What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Actual Air
by David Berman

Field-Tested by Anne Holub

in Charlottesville, Virginia

These days, it seems that I'm avoiding actually visiting my hometown. Though I take great pride in being from there, I spent my first 23 years living in virtually the same zip code before graduating from the University of Virginia and starting my life as a gypsy writer/graduate student. Since then, I've accrued seven semi-permanent addresses in three semi-permanent states, and visited Charlottesville for a total of six days in the past four years.

I chose to read Berman's book of poetry because we come from the same place. He was born a two-hour drive from my town, we went to the same college, and we've shared two of the same states, though never at the same time. The founder and lead singer of alternative rock band the Silver Jews, he's never toured with the group, until this year. I saw him play in Chicago during a spring heat wave. With his dark suit and heavy beard, I heard such a familiar accent in his voice that I wanted to cry, or call my mother. I started his book on the plane home.

At dusk, I sat on the porch at my father's house and read his poems over and over again. What was I looking for? Maybe I wanted some touchstone back to the town we both used to know, maybe some lyrical spotlight on some local character everybody knew of, or knew well. Maybe I craved just anything familiar.

But it's not that easy. Much like returning to the street in front of your old house in the middle of the night, Berman's poems talk about the decay of the familiar. He is at once surrounded by the ghosts of men at the bar and conjured pictures of family "filed under 'Misc. Americana.'" His poems are about a life of constant travel and a desire to grow old at the base of the mountains. They are riddled with voices from every town he's ever visited. They are haunting and cool on your skin, like a long shadow. They revel, in their heightened sense, of being a stranger in a foreign land, never able to return home, the maps each burned in our wakes.

Anne Holub is a poet and writer living in Chicago. She is the local music editor for the city blog Gapers Block.

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