Summer 2005


Summer 2005


We work through delirium and hold onto the word. We sing past all reason in order to discover a center and to make it our own. We leap over the whirling dervish and discover our silence.
-Neeli Cherkovski, introduction to New Poetry from California: Dead / Requiem
The oranges of an artist sit on the canvas, bleeding.
-Neeli Cherkovski, Naming the Nameless

A new book by Neeli Cherkovski is always good news, and Leaning Against Time is no exception. Though prolific -and very much a “literary man”- Cherkovski has been underpublished throughout his career. His books, some of them classics, have fallen in and out of print, and though he has been praised, his work has rarely been assessed in its entirety. The poetry books in particular have been difficult to find.

Born in 1945, a “Polish Russian Jewish American,” Neeli Cherkovski discovered himself to be a poet at the age of fourteen. He attended California State University, Los Angeles, and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; during that time he was active in the anti-Vietnam War Movement. In the late 1960s he co-edited Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns with his friend and drinking companion, Charles Bukowski. His first book, Don’t Make a Move, was published in 1973. The Waters Reborn followed in 1975 and then Public Notice (1976), Love Proof (1983), and Clear Wind (1984). His most recent books are Ways in the Wood (1993), Animal (1996) and Elegy for Bob Kaufman (1996), another famous poet who was a close friend. He wrote the first biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1979) and Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski, the first biography of that writer, in 1991. Hank was later revised as Bukowski: A Life and republished in 1997. He wrote the wonderful critical / autobiographical study, Whitman’s Wild Children in 1988; a revised edition of that book was published in 1999.

For the past several years, he has been teaching at New College of California, and he has recently begun to paint. “I am continually being reborn as a poet,” he writes: “There is a reality beyond the ordinary, a poetic, as opposed to a prosaic, view of the world, an unpremeditated outlook relying on spontaneous revelation.”

Throughout these various books, a feeling for nature and a feeling of kinship to others are strong elements. More recently, Cherkovski has also developed a strong interest in philosophy, particularly in the work of the German, Martin Heidegger. Ways in the Wood invokes Heidegger’s Holzewege with its exalted image of the poet-large, mythic, enormously solitary. More like Neruda or Whitman than like the ordinary guy of Ferlinghetti’s or Bukowski’s work, Cherkovski's hero identifies himself with the landscape but at the same time admits that “perhaps / i am inventing this, the memory is lost / in ruins, my helplessness is nearly / complete.”

Though Neeli Cherkovski was born in Santa Monica and now lives in Bernal Heights, he has been associated with North Beach since coming to San Francisco in 1975. The lyrical Elegy for Bob Kaufman is an exploration of “that San Francisco rapture” in which one heard “bohemian melodies” and in which Bob Kaufman was “Orpheus sitting at the bar,” “the last real / beatnik.”

Cherkovski’s book conjures up the author’s youthful experience of a great poet and an enormously problematical man, but, beyond that, it is the imagination of a bohemian world which somehow worked while Kaufman was in it; “when he died North Beach / took a dive / and didn’t recover.” Elegy for Bob Kaufman is a tribute to a “gone world.” It is a book about a community, “a forest of people / seeking to resist the murder / of imagination.” It strives for - and here the personal element enters - “self-knowledge without loathing.”

Animal, published in the same year as Elegy for Bob Kaufman, is the poet’s most daring and experimental work to date. It is full of long, deep meditations on his extremely problematical existence:

nothing but
an unreal
really, a man
without money, an
of lust
needing only
love, a lover
with a friend
and that’s
the end
of it as
wings of chance
change me
into a survivor,
I’m alone
in this
world, forever
to a stone,
just like you….

Three of the poems collected in Leaning Against Time - “AIDS,” “County Hospital,” and “Animal”-were originally published in Animal.

Like Bukowski’s, Cherkovski’s poetry tends towards the plainspoken, the “accessible.” But there is an important difference between the two writers. Bukowski’s strength is essentially stylistic: a tough talk he can at times elevate into poetry. Cherkovski’s strength is a depth of selfhood - often a surreal depth of selfhood - that erupts into the plainspoken surface, as here in “Guadalupe”:
is there life after death? do the

animals inspire us? what force destroys
us? why? I fear pain
when it creeps up
the wall. I push flowers
away from eyelids of flowers….

The pieces collected in Leaning Against Time are enjoyable, accessible, and often touching, but they tend to be the poet looking outward at other people. Of the fifty-three poems collected in the book, ten begin with the pronoun “he,” and there are many which begin with an equivalent to “he”: “Freddie Blassie in white trunks,” “Mike the Fence drove his cancer,” “the old man was never quite old enough,” “I got old honey, she said.” The book is full of character sketches - often excellent ones. (“Roy,” for example, is a particularly successful poem in this manner.) The point isn’t that Cherkovski writes bad character sketches: it’s just that they aren’t his strongest suit.

The powerful selfhood present in other Cherkovski poems is present in Leaning Against Time, but it is present in a less problematical manner than it is elsewhere. One can sense it in these fine, disturbing lines from “Dividing Darkness:

lust moves me
out of my room, onto streets
South of Market
where transient voices
perform for an imaginary queen
it divides darkness
and solitude, it descends
without looking up, wild
or serene, it covers love
and our cruel desires until
the beginning pulls us
towards the end

But compare what I have just quoted with this brilliant, daring passage from “Queer Careers,” the opening poem of Animal, and you immediately see the difference:

Feel your way to the door, your body laced in velvet, those
purple arms, his way of letting you know, his
way of describing you as an ugly man, a pushy man, a
man he can wrap around his fingers,
unburnt, unhurt, he lies on top of you before
pushing you away, world-wide, sacred,
he’s going to build a career, don’t step on it,
he’s going to bust up your house
and appraise the ashes, he’s a monster of arousal,
he deliberately arches his back
in such a manner, he lies over the phone…but John
I love you…you know
I love you…he grabs the man’s
and pushes it between his legs
Kissing his feet, vessel of a body,
4 a.m. behind bushes, invisible, needing his scent, his eyes
asking, did you come for love or holocaust?
I came for my brother

The Cherkovski presented in Leaning Against Time is much more a “regular guy,” much more the smiling presence of the photograph on the cover. In Leaning Against Time the out-of-control areas of the poet’s psyche are muted, rarely in evidence. Nor is the poet’s “philosophical” side present-though that is represented in the just-released, fascinating booklet, Naming the Nameless (Sore Dove Press, 2004):

A butterfly swallowed the sun.
Quixote sniffs the wind.
God cursed Job and died.
Quixote drops his lance in my path.
I sleep in the Blue Mosque.
The philosopher invited the poet to dinner. The poet ate the philosopher. *

There are even moments in Leaning Against Time - though they are not many - when the plainspoken language goes a bit flat. These lines from “Sea Walk” offer an admirable but perhaps too conventionally-expressed sentiment:

I think peace will come running
over the waves
amid the clutter that lies on the sand
and that we will pull ourselves
out of the madness
one more time

The Cherkovski of Animal condemns “the madness” but, ever ambivalent, simultaneously understands himself to be a part of it: “did you come for love or holocaust?”

As the title indicates, the poems collected in Leaning Against Time range over a considerable period and include early efforts such as “The Woman at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.” Themes of time passing and of “the dread night that encroaches” are prominent. Among the dead are not only “the gods” but God Himself:

Jesus died, Buddha
died next, followed by Moses
and God, we were
surrounded by mourning
[“The Bakery Truck (1953”]

There are many figures, most of them male, who must deal not only with mortality and old age but with a persistent sense of failure:

the old man was never quite old enough
to forget his early plans, nor could he forgive
the failures he felt
(“The Old Man”)
he sits in the fog
of the morning thinking
only of Havana in 1957
and of what his life had
been like fucking Americano boys
seven days a week, siempre
as they say, when he was
never old
(“Cuban Émigré”)

I got old
I had a hard life
nobody helped me

The self-pity and despair in these lines are a major theme of the book: the words pain, loss (including “unredeemable loss”), lost and memory echo throughout; darkness and shadows are everywhere. Cavafy’s “brilliant mind” is “a rage of / memory, he yearns for the phantom / of yesterday”; the poet is “alone in a dull room.” Such feelings are countered only by moments of vision and creativity-moments which allow Cherkovski “to dream / of something better than the teeter-totter / of joy and sorrow that abides” and to visualize himself as a bard, a creator, someone able to inhabit through imagination the very beginning of life, the quintessential moment of origin:

I watch the sparrow on my balcony
mocking with his beak, he is so small
yet immense, every nervous movement
makes the world move, he tries
not to die, his dinosaur mind
is like mine, far back in time
we neither flew nor walked
but awoke to the quasar dance
and heard micro melodies
float like streams of light
across the newborn planet
(“The Sparrow”) **

One remembers that Charles Bukowski-afflicted with intense self-loathing- referred to himself as “the suicide kid”; there are moments in Leaning Against Time in which Cherkovski approaches that sentiment. (There are references to Ernest Hemingway and Richard Cory - both suicides.) Indeed, Bukowski is actively present in Leaning Against Time as Cherkovski thinks back to days in “East Hollywood” when the two of them would

race to the liquor store
for cigars, we’d stumble
onto the streets at four a.m.
singing songs we knew
from childhood, his from
the Depression, mine from
the Fifties, they coaxed us
forward like pioneers

There is a kind of equality between Bukowski and Cherkovski in “East Hollywood”: each is eager for the “call” of fame. One feels that by the time he writes the poems collected in the present volume, Cherkovski can’t help but measure his own accomplishments against those of his superstar friend, Hank. (In “Animal” he remarks ironically that his dog “probably thinks I am a very successful writer.”) Cherkovski may well be a greater poet than Bukowski, but he is not a greater American success story. In “The Night Library” Neeli struggles against his quasi-erotic tendency to idealize others “as if they were minor gods” and wonders about Borges and Hemingway,

did they flee into
the same darkness?
one died in old age, blind
yet able to see clearly
while the other saw his body
slip away
until he put a bullet
in the roof of his mouth

Leaning Against Time is, I believe, a book shaped as much by the priorities of the publisher as by those of the author. The result is certainly a good book, but it does not represent the full capacities of a poet as complex, intelligent, and wide-ranging as Neeli Cherkovski. One feels that the searching, restless, self-haunted, obsessive poet who writes so brilliantly has momentarily been somewhat quieted in this production. One can, nevertheless, find him bursting through if one looks carefully enough:

First I talk to the receptionist
Then to a social worker
Next, I’ll confer with a medical student
And a supervisor
After four intake sessions
I will be assigned a therapist
I am an animal with no rain forest
And no wild river
I have no hunting grounds
Or mountain range
I am trapped
And anticipating the worst
I called the state [sic] Employment Agency
But they are only hiring armadillos
And leopards this week
Next week they are interviewing geese
With more than four years experience
I am lost
And I have no way of telling this to my dog
Comet jumps into my lap
He probably thinks I am a very successful writer
Or maybe he doesn’t even know that I write
I am not the one who buys his dog food
But I am the one who opens the can
Comet may not be able to understand the difference
The social worker at the Psychiatric Clinic
Asked: What is the matter?
I told her how confused I felt
There are strange animals everywhere
The other animals seem well fitted to survival
I am surviving all right
But not on my own terms
I used to be able to stalk my pray [sic] and pounce
Now I don’t even join the hunt
I want to be put on the endangered species list
I need to be protected
I want a reservation
I will move through water like a dolphin
I will think ocean thoughts like the blue whale
I will soar like a condor over California hills
And dart in dust of Ohio brush land like a red fox
I am only a track in the sand
I am merely a clump of fur on the rose bush
I am practically invisible

* Cherkovski remarks that Naming the Nameless arose out of his reading in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Poet Harold Norse - present though unnamed in Leaning Against Time - has called Naming the Nameless a “masterpiece”: “Neeli Cherkovski,” writes Norse, “has reached an objectivity that is both simple and complex…It is as good as anything any great poet has done.”

** Cf. the reference in “25 Years Later…” to “the first full flowering / in which good and evil / grew from the same stalk” and these lines in “The Clown”: “those rhapsodic trees / of the Edenic fantasy / that was our original home.” Leaning Against Time also includes references to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods and to early cave art. All these passages may metaphorically suggest the poet’s childhood. The theme of nostalgia for origins in Cherkovski’s work is somewhat reminiscent of the same theme in Dylan Thomas’s work-in “Fern Hill,” for example.





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