In Memory of Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan


Daniel Berrigan, the activist Jesuit priest who inspired many of us in the anti-Vietnam War movement, died on Saturday. Berrigan was also a poet so it seems fitting to post his “Dark Word” to mark his passing.

As the poet sees it, poetry allows him to express dark parts of himself which he might not otherwise admit to. These poems are “blind” and “dumb” in that they are fumbling around in the dark without a rational language to express themselves. But they are also “agile” because they can go where the conscious mind cannot. Therefore they must be acknowledged as kin (“my own shadow”). Perhaps the poet was once terrified by what might come out (“the mind’s dark overflow, the spill of vein”) but he has come to embrace this side of himself, this “dark word” (“we thought red once but know now, no”).

Our darkest fears concern our own death, which Berrigan calls our “violent last line.” But what initially seems to be oppressive starts seeming less so—death may be a “bird of omen” but Berrigan does not call it a bird of ill omen. Death may “snatch me for its ghost,” but the snatching action is followed by a contrasting gesture, that of a purposeful hand gently closing the speaker’s eyes.

In the end, the poet, whose shadow side once composed poems, has become an entire book. Shadow side and light side are all bound up together. I feel fairly certain that Berrigan’s final image is an allusion to John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, the one that contains “no man is an island” and “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In the meditation Donne also compares death to a translation and says that our fates are so bound up with one another that

when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

I imagine Berrigan loved the image of God as a bookbinder gathering up humankind’s scattered pages, with “bind” also suggesting a healer binding up a wound. Here’s the poem:

A Dark Word

By Daniel Berrigan

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close –
blind, dumb, agile, my own shadow;
the mind’s dark overflow, the spill of vein
we thought red once but know now, no.

The poem called death
is unwritten yet.  Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise, 
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.

Berrigan’s poem called death has now been written. God has gently closed the book.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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