OCTOBER 16, 2020
A few weeks back, when I received copies of Neeli Cherkovski’s most recent books from Lithic Press, I realized that I’ve known Neeli and his poetry for almost 50 years. Remarkably little and everything has changed from the day I first ran into him at Charles Bukowski’s apartment on De Longpre in East Hollywood.
As then, Neeli is a serious poet, driven to explore the affliction of poetry in a less-than-inspiring place like the L.A. Basin and in less-than-inspiring times such as these. I won’t discuss here one of the new books, Coolidge and Cherkovski in Conversation, a truly fascinating exchange, because I’d rather devote the space to his collection of poems, Hang on to the Yangtze River — the sins, if you will, of his old age.
The defiantly wrought, sometimes overwrought poetic style of his apprenticeship (for instance, his contributions to the first three issues of his and Bukowski’s magazine, Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns) has given way to clarity and humor, both on display in the second poem here, “Hyper Me”:
I fill pages in my notebook
leaving mayonnaise stains:
“A snowflake drowns in a pool of
shit, but don’t tell anyone”
or in that iridescent bugle in the empty rooms of “Stalking Phantoms”:
Christmas is over the patriarch long gone the ladies
no longer wear lace a man in the plaza slices the moon
in half we are left to kneel and to praise the night.
Age permeates these poems. It is the impetus to a compressed music that searches the heart of thought, turning feelings and impressions upside down, in order to move, or should I say, dance on. Aging, and the memories it brings to the poet’s mind, is the catalyst that animates two very different figures. One is “Mister Carver,” his high school science teacher, who “understood perfectly” the wayward imagination of the teenage poet, and who comes to him all these years later, “still preparing the lesson”:
I forgot about you until
you appeared in my studio,
my body has no weight,
I’m forever a child of damp
tunnels under the pyramids …
The teacher here certainly hasn’t stopped teaching, nor has the poet-pupil stopped learning:
today a brontosaurus knocked on the door
raising money for the dead students
I pray you are alive and if not that your heart lives on
in the heat of a cosmic mystery.
A more recent figure of recollection appears in the next poem, “Mahmut Speaks,” a monologue by a young Turkish poet who corresponded with Cherkovski and championed his work. Neeli projects the young man’s reverie, almost a dervish dance of self-preoccupation and the impatience to sing:
I am a young Turkish poet
I make people happy especially in the mirror
I learned from popular music,
I sang forever in the house of my brain …
The old poet puts words in the mouth of the young — the same questions about poetry, in fact, Cherkovski was asking when we first met in 1971. The music and the dance become all the more spellbinding through these layers of time and sentiment. It is as hard to tell the dancer from the dance as it is to distinguish the music from memory:
I am 20 and the decades to come
are divine enough and profane like
the sun, I enjoy secular humanism
more than one might imagine but it is the moon
I love to fondle as if it were
the breath of our dying God
I am frenetic and lost, I grope
in the dark and kick a stone until it bleeds.
Earlier I mentioned the poet’s “sins,” alluding to Rossini’s wondrous piano compositions, “Sins of My Old Age,” written long after his operatic career. Not unlike Rossini’s, Neeli’s new work is transgressive. It embodies the individual and the enduring with a brimming joy in the act of remembering, and returns invention to the core of the poetic act. This joy informs Neeli’s birthday poem, “Seventy-Four,” which starts with a nod and a wink and a breezy two-step:
tomorrow life will be a joy
I’ll be 74.
As the poem concludes, we are made to feel the lightness and ease of having left behind all but the essential:
during a storm
what to do?
the master said
Talking about the past, Neeli likes to remind me of how we switched places in becoming poets: I left San Francisco and moved to his Los Angeles, while he left L.A. and moved to the North Beach of my formative years. Toward the end of the book there’s a poem, “Rilke in LA,” which makes me realize that although Neeli hasn’t lived in his birthplace for more than 40 years, his work remains vitally bound to the Southland. Humor and self-irony are always key to getting one’s bearings. The deadpan opening finds the determined if ingenuous young poet working in a bookstore, soliloquizing upon the literary life of the day:
when I began making use of dreams
it was because I felt ripped-off,
I’d pay the bus driver
head downtown, one dollar
and fifty cents an hour at the bookstore
in the decaying heart,
I went at it with rueful energy,
funny English clerks, an old lady from Mars,
the young man from Pomona
the poet was more than enough
in those days …
The poem’s conclusion comes with a disarming earnestness that may only be achieved within, and as a result of 50 years of a poetic memory. Cherkovski ends in a glow of recollection, singularly personal and lived without excuse:
you must change your life, Rilke wrote,
his heart rolled on the floor,
I need him still, fifty years down the road
in the country where angels
remain to terrify mid-day traffic
he loved the remnants
of aristocratic Europe, admired Cezanne,
served as Rodin’s secretary
died relatively young
hanging his head from a medieval pole
and dropping into the arms of his doctor
at a Swiss sanitarium,
after dreadful pain, 1926
The figure of “heart” is vital here, as we began by taking the bus downtown to the “decaying heart” of the city, while in the last stanza Rilke’s heart “rolled on the floor.” Time’s a curious thing in Lost Angels, like the ticking clock of B movies. Because of the combination of unchanging “rocking-horse weather” (Tennessee Williams) and the eerie duality and deceptiveness of the light (Orson Welles), there’s an extreme presence and absence here, a simultaneous up-close and faraway of things. In Rilke’s LA, and by extension the young Cherkovski’s, we are always in a “decaying” metropolis, where we must everyday change our lives, as well as die each day in the arms of a perfect stranger. Like the young poet in this old poet’s book, we get on the bus every day and head downtown to the literary future-past.
Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and editor, and the Founding Chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design. His many works of poetry include Motive and Opportunity (Shearsman Books, 2020), Border Music (Talisman House, 2016), Days Shadows Pass (Green Integer, 2007), and Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 (2001). He is the editor of a number of collections, including Anthology of L.A. Poets (1972), with Charles Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski, and L.A. Exile: A Guide to Los Angeles Writing 1932-1998 (Marsilio, 1999), with Evan Calbi.