Landscape with the Fall of Berryman

after Brueghel

He has so much knowledge, and also he has none of it. He drives backcountry Minnesota where his father once lived. Because his father once lived—before he killed himself.


Now the people the man knew and loved are gone, and so John sets out to learn everything he can about everyone: the dead poets and writers and artists, Shakespeare and Crane and Brueghel, students whose skirts are shorter than their CVs, students whose ambitions grow thicker than his beard.


He writes poems and essays and biographies. He writes Henry. He writes his darling mother a letter (October 1954) asking for more: more knowledge; more Daddy; more Oklahoma, Florida, Minnesota.


He sets out in search of more women and more poems; more ammunition with which to fill the gaping space aching inside him like a cannon’s mouth—because he is the canon’s mouth. But he doesn’t shoot himself the way his father did: he jumps. And as some of the people watch, he waves at one of them and turns himself over to the world and the immutable laws it’s governed by, because he is the authority who best understands tragedy, and therefore has to fall.



after Jackson Pollock’s Mural

Sioux City Art Center, July 2014

Fifteen days after my son was born, I saw it. I did not cry, the way some people said I might, when I held him for the first time. Nor did I cry at the painting. I cried when my father died, a little, which was also the birth of something.

I have no idea, I told my wife, when she asked me what the painting was about. It didn’t make me feel at all like a father, though I was one.

I have known people who touched that painting. Who helped hang it. They worked very hard not to leave any part of themselves behind in it. And I suspect they regret that, the way I regret not having carried my son—before he was born. Because my son is not an extension of myself; he is myself. And he is, of course, not.

He was fifteen days old when I first saw it. He was right there. Though he might as well have been in the painting, as much as I understand of him.



How did you travel down to the world of darkness?

Faster on foot, I see, than I in my black ship.

                —The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles

It seems like it’s taking me years to get through it. Like the war itself. Like every voyage home.

I don’t want to hear about the shipwrecks and the cyclops. Nor the lotus, nor Princess Nausicaa, nor all the unbelievable, immortal sex.

I don’t want to hear about how easy it’s supposed to be to visit the land of the dead—and come back.

But Elpenor I always relate to, who got drunk and fell off the roof and speaks to Odysseus in the underworld—like Homer can sometimes still speak to me—

saying don’t forget; bury me, please, with my armor, but don’t forget.


About the Author

Brendan Todt lives in Sioux City, Iowa. His recent work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Necessary Fiction, Reed Magazine, and The Ekphrastic Review, where his poem “Because the Living May Be Worth Something, Too” was selected as a Best of the Net nominee. His poem “Because I Am Human” won the 2021 Juxtaprose Poetry Prize. Brendan teaches creative writing at Morningside University.


Photo by Jochen van Wylick on Unsplash