A Style So Clear It Could Wash a Face: On Pleiades Press’s “Bert Meyers”

By Shoshana OlidortAugust 12, 2023

A Style So Clear It Could Wash a Face: On Pleiades Press’s “Bert Meyers”

Bert Meyers: On the Life and Work of an American Master by Bert Meyers

“I WANT TO CHANGE. / Even a wall gets painted again,” writes Bert Meyers in the closing lines of his poem “A Citizen.” Like so much of Meyers’s work, these lines are striking for their simplicity and clear-mindedness, for how utterly devoid they are of conceit in both sentiment and expression. There is no illusion of grandeur here, no outsized sense of self. As Dana Levin notes in her introduction to the new Pleiades Press Unsung Masters Series volume Bert Meyers: On the Life and Work of an American Master, which she co-edited with Adele Elise Williams, Meyers spent much of his adult life engaged in manual labor—“as a janitor, a ditch digger, a sheet metal worker, a warehouse man, a printer’s apprentice, and house painter, until settling into work as an artisan picture framer and gilder.” In a journal entry, Meyers writes of that period: “I met many men and women who could see and speak as poetically as those who are glorified by the printing press and the universities.” Though he would eventually be hired to teach poetry at Pitzer College, the voices of those men and women, and the world the poet shared with them, reverberates throughout his work.

Born in L.A. in 1928, to Romanian and Polish Jewish immigrants, Meyers died of lung cancer in 1979, also in Los Angeles, which he describes in one poem as a “city [that] grows / from a highway’s stem” into “a glittering circuit board, / a crystal that palpitates.” Meyers published five books of poems during his lifetime and had prepared a sixth, which was released posthumously in 1981—all of them now out of print. This new volume brings together selected poems from across the poet’s oeuvre, along with archival materials such as letters, photographs, and diary entries, as well as brief essays by poets—including former students and colleagues—and by Meyers’s son, Daniel Meyers, that offer close readings of poems and reflections on the poet’s life and enduring influence. Supplementing the book is a digital archive of Meyers’s work, launched by his son, that features audio recordings and a video of a reading Meyers gave in 1975, in which the poet introduces his poem “Madman Songs” as “sort of a spiritual autobiography.” It’s a telling description of a poem whose language is plainspoken in the extreme: “I hated home / it caused me pain / cloudy days / and evenings came.” I was taken aback, at first, by the seeming transparency of these lines—but their surprising straightforwardness may be exactly what makes them poetic.

Meyers has a knack for disarming the reader who comes to his poems with preconceived notions about poetry, and expectations of what a poem is or should be. “Someone held me there was harm / now each word’s an alarm / the man who looks so calm / will turn into a bomb,” the poem continues, lulling the reader, before taking a sudden, subtle turn: “Woman daughter son / I wake up and put them on / they hide me from the law.” Meyers’s blunt statements of fact and feeling have transmogrified—or is he, perhaps, simply putting the reader on? While the language remains eminently accessible, the sense has shifted to something almost magical, even surreal—the image in my mind’s eye was something out of a Salvador Dalí painting. Meyers is reaching here for the absurd in order to deepen his exploration of the human condition and the ways in which it is shaped by fear, loneliness, pain, and desire. The speaker says, “My desire’s a blade of grass / I trample as I pass,” and while the idea that one could “put on” another human being may seem ludicrous, Meyers is pointing to the fundamental absurdities of human behavior. Indeed, who among us has not, at some point, hidden behind another human being?

A dark undercurrent animates Meyers’s work, but so does a sense of humor, particularly evident in poems that anthropomorphize inanimate objects, or otherwise imbue them with life: “An airplane roars like a sperm / through a crack in the smog’s deep stone,” and “even a motor / bleeds when it breaks / drops of oil stare from its skin / like the eyes of frightened fish.” The poet is a keen observer of everything, from pigeons, who “pray as they walk” and whose “eyes are halos,” to a lone pebble: “The rock’s / quiet child / The flower’s / pure disciple / Wasteland’s embryo.” The poem “Pencil Sharpener” concludes: “Revived, still shivering, the pencil sheds itself—and there’s a butterfly, teeth, the fragments of a crown.”

It’s no surprise that an insect associated not only with beauty but also with transformation recurs across several poems in this book, even if in some of these instances the poet appears to void these creatures of their life force, whether likening “[w]hite butterflies in a field” to “the frayed handkerchiefs of those / who didn’t finish saying good-bye,” or seeing the butterflies “all around” the speaker as “ecstatic hinges” on a “hunt for the ideal door.” In “Suburban Dusk,” it’s Los Angeles itself that, once “the sky slips a coin in the slot between two buildings […] [e]ach night, becomes a butterfly, trembling in its oil,” so that once again the substitution of the animate for the inanimate is inverted, as the city comes alive.

More than four decades after his passing, Meyers’s impressions of Los Angeles continue to resonate: “This is the desert / that lost its mind, / the place that boredom built.” While advances in technology and stricter controls have improved the city’s air quality so that it’s no longer “[t]he world’s largest ash-tray,” Los Angeles remains a “capital of the absurd; / one huge studio / where people drive / from set to set.” In a particularly poignant moment, Meyers imagines the palm trees lining the city streets as “exotic janitors” that “sweep out the sky at dusk.” Reading these lines, I had the distinct impression that the poet was seeing something of himself—as a former janitor—in the city’s evolving landscape.

If Los Angeles is central to this poet’s sense of himself, and to his writing, so too is his Jewishness. In “The Garlic” we are introduced to the “Rabbi of condiments, / whose breath is a verb, / wearing a thin beard / and a white robe,” and who is “shaped like a fist, / a synagogue.” The poem “To My Enemies” recalls a world familiar from the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem, among others. “I’m still here, in a skin / thinner than a dybbuk’s raincoat,” the poem begins, ominously enough, before moving on to an array of richly imaginative curses:

May your wife go to paradise
with the garbage man,
your prick hang like a shoelace,
your balls become raisins,
hair grow on the whites of your eyes
and your eyelashes turn
into lawn mowers
that cut from nine to five …

In the essay that follows, Victoria Chang points to Meyers’s “additive piling on of humor,” and the way that, “[i]n a Meyers poem, it’s as if everything has an extension cord, even the joke.” Of the move from “impetuous, immature tone” to sophisticated imagery, Chang notes that the shift in registers is indicative of the complexity of human nature, the fact that “we can behave like second graders and be sophisticated poets.” In fact, what Meyers is evoking here is not second-grade behavior but a second grader’s expression of sentiments that, I’d argue, continue to animate us well into adulthood—primal feelings of anger, sadness, jealousy, and revenge, whose force we may learn to tame with time but which nevertheless remain fundamentally unchanged.

Poems written for the poet’s father, son, daughter, and wife are especially moving, and often draw on similar images and themes. In “Homecoming,” the poet recalls his father—now aging and “locked […] up with strangers, / because he drools too much”—as a young and “tender man / whose blue eyes would overcast / by noon,” and in whose arms the speaker once “flew to the ceiling.” “The Daughter” opens: “She won’t believe she was born without wings. / Why can’t I live in the ceiling?” And when the son is “[f]rightened, he sails away in his mother’s arms.” Reading through these poems, I was reminded of how short-lived that period is when kids are small enough to take flight, or find comfort, in a parent’s steady arms, and of how much of the rest of our lives is spent on a quest to find that same sense of safety, and of wonder.

Meyers’s depictions of a child’s flight into fancy bring me back to “Madman Songs,” whose speaker draws a world in chalk, on the sidewalk, only to be told by passersby: “That’s not the world.” In a much later poem, “The Poets,” the protagonist is laughed at by his friends for “dream[ing] of a style / so clear it could wash a face,” and while they “drive their minds / prismatic, […] he remain[s] to raise / a few birds from a blank page.” This seems to me like a tactical shift taken by a mature poet who understands that the closest one might get to building the world anew may be raising “a few birds from a blank page.” Reading his work now, nearly half a century after the poet’s death, it strikes me that Meyers’s poems, dormant for so long, are finally taking flight.


Shoshana Olidort is a critic, writer, and translator.

LARB Contributor

Shoshana Olidort is a critic, writer, and translator. Her work has appeared in Asymptote, Electric LiteratureLit Hub, Columbia Journal, The Paris Review Daily, Poetry NorthwestPublic Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, among other outlets. Shoshana holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University and is the web editor for the Poetry Foundation.


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