David Berman’s The Portable February

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David Berman, poet and former lead singer of the Silver Jews, has always been four parts poet to one part musician. While he definitely has bardlike qualities — the mumble-inflicted profoundness, the Biblical succinctness — his primary way of communication has always been the one-liner, a simple humor born of equal parts irony and despair that has led to song titles such as “I’m Getting Back into Getting Back into You” and “The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor.”

david berman, the portable februaryWhen I interviewed him upon the release of the band’s final album, he talked about how he loved the Torah: “I read it everyday but I don’t perform the mitzvot. I am some kind of sub-junior Jew-in-waiting.”

But to call Berman anything remotely like a Jew-in-waiting would be like referring to Aaron the High Priest as the Men’s Club president. Even if he’s not the textbook example of your average, everyday Jew (and I don’t know anyone — including, probably, Berman himself — who would figure him to be), he’s still brilliantly, cleverly, and unapologetically Jewish.

So that’s why it doesn’t seem odd at all that, on the cover of Berman’s new book of cartoons, “The Portable February,” there is a passive-yet-disconsolate-looking pigeon staring down the neck of a toppled-over Christmas tree. Is it rebellion? Is it a Jewish uprising? Is the bird curiously dispassionate, indifferent to his toppling over the symbol of a people that represents both the birth of the religion that has persecuted Jews possibly more than any other, as well as the execution of the most famous Jew ever?

Some of this book is excuselessly self-indulgent. Some is both quaint and disturbing. (The Buddha-like stick figure leaning against a tree, captioned “‘we’ stands for ‘warn everybody’,” calls this to mind especially.)

david berman the portable feburaryThe drawing is not particularly expert, although it belies a certain undeniable cuteness. There’s a shakiness of hand behind every meant-to-be-straight line, and the birds, rabbits, stick figures and decapitated heads that populate its pages are, if not correct in their dimensions, extremely efficient — that is, they convey exactly what Berman wants them to convey.

It’s a weird book, by anyone’s account. The fine art world would never claim it as one of their own, and it’s definitely too abstract, dark, and adverse-to-punchlines to be a book of Family Circus-type cartoons. Some people might call it a journal, although I don’t think it is — there’s not enough narrative thread to qualify as even a passing glimpse of real life. He has a sociopolitical anger that comes through in more than a few of these panels, but his message (and his burning polemic earlier this year, in which he hopes to counteract the work of his father, right-wing lobbyist Rick Berman) is too complicated and abstract to fight him on any sort of straightforward level. Instead, David Berman is firmly lodged in the infirm abstractness of his own Dadaist aesthetic.

Call it that, if you want. Instead, I’d call The Portable February a triptych through Berman’s head. It’s bizarre, disjointed, and sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, and far more often than not, worthy of contemplation. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to read this, but when you do, it’s almost impossible not to read a few pages, drift off, and come back to the next page, thinking, “I know exactly what he means.”

Posted on July 28, 2009

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