Neeli Cherkovski: The Thirteenth Man
A retrospective review of:
From the Canyon Outward, R.L. Crow, 2009
Animal, Pantograph Press, 1996
Whitman’s Wild Children, Steerforth Press, re-issued 1999

Reviewed by Art Beck

I’ve known Neeli Cherkovski since the 1970s. Whenever we’ve met, it’s always been cordial, jovial, collegial, just plain fun. But despite having lived in the same city all these years, we only seem to run into each other every five years or so. We always vow to get together again soon, but...

Re-reading Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski’s critical memoirs of twelve beat-contemporary poets - first published in 1988 and reissued in 1998 to add Michael McClure and Jack Micheline – I realize why. Neeli and I have lived in the same city, but in parallel universes. In one sense, perhaps no one lives in the “same” San Francisco, the way the old Greeks opined that no one could step into the same river twice.

But maybe that’s too philosophical. The reason I mention this is to point out that whatever perspective I have on Neeli’s poetry and poetics may be skewed by my own bend in that river. Through the seventies, eighties, nineties and much of the “aughts”, I was working in a bank and publishing poetry under a pen name. I socialized with poets, but didn’t lead “a poet’s life.”

Neeli, conversely, has been intimately involved in that milieu of poets and post beat bohemia that’s sometimes characterized as “North Beach.” But as much a state of mind as geography.  A place in the mind where the Los Angeles ghost of Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg’s New York shade still slip out from the stacks of City Lights for a smoke in Jack Kerouac Alley.

The Wild Bunch

Sure, I read Bukowski, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Micheline, etal. But Neeli knew them personally, and well. In the seventies, I’d park my car at the foot of Columbus past Washington Square, and walk the mile or so to the Financial District. More often than not, I’d cross paths  - in the morning or evening - with a strange old loony looking guy in a dirty poncho. “He’s got his problems,” I’d think and keep my distance.

Only years later, recognizing him from photos, did I realize this was the revered Bob Kaufman, that fey, poetic saint. These were our parallel worlds: I avoided what looked like an odd, troubled character. Neeli, around the same time, finding Bob Kaufman in need, took him in and gave him a room in his small apartment.

And incidentally - in a seventeen page section of Whitman’s Wild Children, wrote an essay that both captures the innate beauty of Kaufman’s sparse, eccentric poems. And provides a portrait of a unique human being cursed and blessed with an entangled almost angelic, innate eccentricity.

Little Rimbaud

The first poet (other than Whitman) discussed in Whitman’s Wild Children is Charles Bukowski. Cherkovski met him when he was fifteen and Bukowski was in his forties. The relationship began on a sour note. Prompted by a mutual friend who told him about Neeli’s fascination with his work, Bukowski dropped by to visit the precocious boy - who panicked and feigned sleep. As Neeli describes it in Whitman’s Wild Children:

He walked into my bedroom with my father who said “Wake up, Bukowski is here.” As I got out of bed, before me stood this large man with a ravaged face, broad shoulders and deep penetrating eyes.

“Okay little Rimbaud. I heard you wanted to meet Bukowski, “ he said. Then he looked at the photos of some of the literary heroes on my wall and said, “Jesus, how come there are none of me?”

We went into the living room. I handed Bukowski a handmade book of poems I had written about him. He took one look at it, reading the first few lines, and threw it into the fireplace where my father had made an inferno.

I dove back after the book, managing to save it. Only the fringes were burned.

Bukowski took it from me, saying, “I’ll read your little poem, but no one has ever written about me. I’m sorry, kid.”

Fifteen minutes later, he was in the kitchen trying to make love to my mother. “Come on Clare”, he said. ”I’m more of a man than Sam. Let’s make it.”

But from this shaky beginning, a lifelong friendship grew. The “kid” and the old reprobate would collaborate to produce the iconic ‘70s mimeo Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns. And much later, Neeli would memorialize his compadre with the biography, Hank, later expanded in 1997 into Bukowski, a Life. (Steerforth).

The Culture of Counterculture

Whitman’s Wild Children provides more than just portraits of twelve poets. These are also critical essays in which Cherkovski engages each poet with the perspective of his own developing aesthetic.  As such the book is valuable to two distinct sets of readers. It’s of obvious appeal to aficionados of the broad genre of beat/meat poetry.

 But Whitman’s Wild Children is written for a broader audience and it also provides the uninitiated with an enjoyable romp through wild territory as filtered through Cherkovski’s perceptive eyes.  Since the mid 20th century, American - or at least California - poetry has been perceived as a series of rebellions. A countercultural undertaking. The beats, segueing into the anti-war movement. The “meat” poets and Bukowski-ites digging foxholes of alienation.

Even the counter-current language poetry movement seemed defined more by what it opposes than what it produces. Its hermeticism as much a shield - and sometimes weapon - as a tool. 

And the new-formalists, for whatever reason, also seem obliged to portray themselves as “controversial” and oppressed by free-versers who’ve taken over the writing programs of the academy. With one noted new-formalist anthology even entitled Rebel Angels.

One of the things that makes Whitman’s Wild Children unique in this atmosphere is that Cherkovski insists on relating his twelve counter culture poets, not so much to their times and struggles, but to the ancient art and tradition of poetry.  He chooses Whitman – the pioneer not the revolutionary, as his primary touchstone.

The persecutorial San Francisco vice squad seizing books and tearing down posters makes its historic appearance. But history in Wild Children doesn’t begin in the ‘60s. Cherkovski assesses and reads these poets in the context of Blake, Dante, Jeffers ...  The Bob Kaufman legend all too often casts him as a persecuted genius, able to articulate only painfully under the establishment’s heel. Conversely, here’s an excerpt from Cherkovski’s sketch:

Believing strongly in the reality his poems created for him, he lived comfortably with them, and that is why he became like a poem, why those who knew him were always treated to gems of language invented spontaneously or brought out of his memory bank of images.

When we first met, at a book party in 1975, he said ‘I knew your uncle, Herman Cherry, in Woodstock... Herman Cherry painted Fruit Compote and gave it to me at the Lincoln Monument. Herman Cherry is an airplane flying over America, with Fruit Compote, a small painting in a gilded frame that he gave me in Woodstock thirty years ago... I was a labor organizer... Rimbaud is an orange blossom... Cherry is Fruit Compote painted for Bob Kaufman, Poet.” He then began reciting Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, gesturing elegantly, moving his wiry body back and forth, his fingers playing an elegant invisible instrument. Three-quarters of the way through “Prufrock” he spliced in lines from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Federico Garcia Lorca as well as his own poetry. Through the years, I would see a repeat of such performances in cafes, barrooms and my own apartment, especially in those months Kaufman lived with me after the Dante Hotel burned down.

Poet #13

Neeli Cherkovski is present in all twelve essays. These are, after all, memoirs of people he personally knew. But he leaves the field pretty much to his subjects, interjecting himself sparingly.  He does show glimpses: A self deprecating and funny description of a bad lsd trip that caused him to take shelter with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a night. He has some on the edge adventures with Bukowski reminiscent of the recent movie The Hangover. He’s subtly alienated by Ginsberg’s careerism, and questions its effects. As well as experiencing the opposite side of that coin with Jack Micheline’s “downtrodden poet syndrome”.

He expresses his kinship as a gay man to the gay poets in Children, beginning, of course, with Whitman. And reminisces about cruising with Harold Norse in the days before AIDS.

But, it’s in the section on Michael McClure that he suddenly leaves his subject behind and reveals himself as a poet. He spends a lot of time on McClure whose poetry he first came across as a teenager working in his parents’ Los Angeles bookstore.  McClure’s  The New Book/A Book of Torture conjured thoughts in the young Neeli of William Blake illustrated by Jackson Pollock.  Going on in the discussion, he relates McClure’s line from “FOR ARTAUD”, OH BEAUTY  BEAUTY  BEAUTY BEAUTY BEAUTY (BEAUTY IS HIDEOUS) , to a sentiment expressed by Bukowski and even touched on by Whitman.

He’s enraptured by other McClure poems including “ODE TO THE ROSE”, again relating McClure’s lyric vision to Bukowski’s perversely cynical eye. And Cherkovski’s unlikely, but apt linkage does both of them credit.

As he progresses quoting various Michael McClure lines and stanzas, I’m also struck by how much of what he’s getting from McClure: – the horror that shadows beauty, and lines like the poor cut flower/risen from the earth,/stem, bitter. nitrate, sweetness, water,/sunlight   - struckby how so much of this aesthetic seems also shared by another favorite of Cherkovski’s – Rilke. Although Chekovski never mentions Rilke in what becomes a paean to McClure, he could as well be reading Rilke as McClure.

Then, after a dozen or so pages on McClure, Cherkovski suddenly shifts to himself:

I closed my copy of Simple Eyes and dreamed.

What is a poem? I guess I’d ask, “Where is poetry?” I am a literary man, but quite literally, I wish I wasn’t. Trapped in the world of do’s and do not’s I’ve gone and done it – lived as a poet this past half century. Think of it. The deep pond is there, and I stuck my hand into it, felt the cool water and saw many pebbles on the bottom, and then I dove in and covered myself in the water.

A poem is a field...something you can walk in taking your body, heart, mind, and soul... all the moveable parts, all the stationary ones. In that field you might find day and night, night or day, sunlight, moonlight, a convex mirror...

He goes on in this vein for a couple of pages and you soon realize what you’re reading is both aesthetic criticism and a poem. An ars poetica that ends...A poem is a terrain, mostly a field, but what about a canyon, a hillside, a mountain of old stones, a shaft of moonlight, slices of sun, darkness, light, sacrifice, crickets at the gate, odd doors, silent windows?


Cherkovski published two very different volumes of poetry in 1996. One, Elegy for Bob Kaufman is a tribute to the Beat poet and is a sequence of poems in the Beat tradition: accessible, expansive, a bittersweet but North Beach-exuberant remembrance.  Kaufman died ten years earlier and there’s a 1987 magazine acknowledgment noted for one of the poems, so I’m not sure how much of this volume was written when.
But Elegy, for all its mourning, belongs to an aesthetic that Cherkovski seems to leave behind with Animal, which was published a month earlier in October, 1996.

There are certain words that recur and run like elusive concepts through Cherkovski’s poems.  One is the word “sun”. And another is “animal”. Cherkovski isn’t a religious poet, but when he throws out the concept of “animal”, there’s the implication of an indwelling spirit. Not unlike Yeats’ line about the soul “fastened to a dying animal.”
In a recent poem entitled “Before Dying” he provides a long list of what needs to be accomplished on earth before death, including:

...find your
dinosaur tracks and your animal eyes
 before it is too late take the road
to the higher camp by the glacial pond, stare
at the clear night sky in your
fist, go down to the Pieta, touch the
obdurate stone, light a candle in the
catacombs of your head
go into the night with these animal feet
find your center in the clearing
make your mind into wild seed
as canyons of the sun
call to you and the vast solar
gods don their clown uniforms...

So, it’s appropriate that one of his better collections is entitled Animal.  But if the Elegy for Kaufman is a bright, clear saxophone, Animal is murky, inward, challenging in its imagery, questioning, rather than declaiming, in its emotions. And its aesthetic is unique to itself  - Animal isn’t the kind of volume any of the poets in Whitman’s Wild Children might have produced.

It’s interesting that the Mc Clure section of Whitman’s Wild Children that ends with a long inner foray into Cherkovski’s own poetics was added in 1998. That aesthetic, I think, was only nascent in the pieces on the other “beat contemporary” poets published in 1988. In the mid-nineties, did something change? To me, it’s as if Cherkovski is waving a fond good bye to the Beats with the Kaufman Elegy.

And with Animal, entering the dangerous dark forest of his middle age. The forest of Freud and Jung and Hansel and Gretel and children and ovens.

Composers and Performers

To help put Neeli and Animal into perspective, let me digress a bit here.
This is a somewhat stretched metaphor, but I’ve often felt something happened to serious music around the middle of the twentieth century. Traditional composed European music seemed to hit a stone wall, imprisoned in its own art.  The 500 or so year tradition that saw successive generations of composers build a shimmering cathedral on each other’s shoulders – suddenly ran out of composers.

 But music insisted on evolving, and “serious” music became a performer’s rather than composer’s language. New music didn’t originate with composers but directly with performers and became in large part an improvised art- jazz in America and its counterparts in South America and elsewhere. The art song gave way to Billie Holiday.

Sometimes, I also think there are “composer” poets and “performer” poets. The composers offer themselves to readers to perform in the reader’s own inner voice. The “performers” – perform brilliantly for us but rather than guide our stubby fingers on the keyboard, they slap our hands away.

Chopin was essentially a composer, Liszt, a performer. No one could play Liszt, better than Liszt. A poetic comparison might be Yeats and Pound. When Yeats wrote: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, the line immediately belonged to every reader in each reader’s own individual voice.  He’s capturing a common fear, a queasy inkling and showing us that it’s poetry.

When Pound intones: I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman, the reader has little participation in a line that would never occur to most, if any, readers. The issue belongs only to Pound and the reader is there to applaud the poet being a great poet. With the implication that very few of us are large enough to encounter these problems of the great.

And, in Pound what seems an instinct to interject archaic language – pull down thy vanity, pull down -  also seems akin to an alpha wolf growling to warn off the intruding reader. This is his language, his poem, not ours. It’s only in his translations, that Pound seems to subordinate his voice to a larger human chorus.

We read the “composer poets” in our own voices, the “performers” only in theirs. They resist being “covered” every bit as much as Charlie Parker, Coltrane or Monk.
Of the poets Cherkovski discusses in Whitman’s Wild Children, probably Ginsberg is the most “performer-like”. There’s a sense of being among the initiated in Ginsberg’s Howl. A vision for the elect in a poem that begins: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/ madness, starving, hysterical naked/, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/, looking for an angry fix...

Howl works, not because it taps what’s already in us, but because it gives vatic words to something akin to that “rough beast” of Yeats, slouching towards birth.

Cherkovski the howling Psalmist.

At the heart of Cherkovski’s Animal is a thirty-some page dirge for his mother written two or three years after her death, entitled “Job Suffering”. As it progresses, it becomes a visceral howl of roving pain. But unlike Gingsberg’s Howl which erupts from social pain, Neeli’s howl is metaphysical.

Job, tell me (from your stone lips and high white cliffs)
what it’s like turning and turning your amusing head
so frequently on a wheel of sharp needles? burning bright
.and how do you like
 the head’s torture chamber, a real pleasure
so intricate, so deep, filled with abstraction and natural objections.
I guess you spend a lot of time in your head or
in the hole, how dark it is there, please open
your breast of silent prophets, they will shake the walls,
for I am alone in this screaming corner...

“Job Suffering” is a dense poem, not always easily accessible. Challenging to read from beginning to end - and perhaps best enjoyed intermittently, in segments whether in or out of sequence. Its stanzas like psalms, but written by Job in Job's hurt voice. A questioning, imprecise music.  Human, not prophetic. And this, for me, is what places Cherkovski among the “composer poets”. Defines him as a Mensch rather than one of the Übermensch “performers”.

The poem wanders, but returns again and again to images of Cherkovki’s mother, her last days and death.
then we cut to the hospital where she
dies of lymphoma, she wove shadows
from your movements, bumpy, self centered
through the centuries, what else could they be?
my Father tries to pull her back to her old self
but ashes rise, we deteriorate, dust covers
every smiling window...
mein Lieb, mein Geist, mein Gott...

Her death echoes backwards through Cherkovski’s childhood, the family bookstore:
...hold on to your eyes, come with us
laughing fit of adolescence, keep your family center
surly forehead, smart lips, we were once a community
imagine mid-day San Berdoo, the sonnets in asphalt
twilight birds, cat feet, the barber Irving

we’ve had four sales this morning
adding up to a bad afternoon
we eat in the barrio
there’s no better place
than Mitla, half the diners
I knew are dead, buried
and one wonders if they felt the pain...

But musing on the “buried treasure” in the bookstore, the classics, Apuleius, the Illiad, her death interjects itself again:
 her body travels on a barge, that’s a fact of light
along rickety cobblestone rivers she flings coins into the air...
her body becomes a starling, her body
a feathered bird stretched across sustaining night
when pages turn her eyes are closed, deadly in that manner...

Marsyas at Fifty

Despite its rich lyricism, “Job Suffering” is definitely not what might be called an “Apollonian” poem. It wanders through personal and human history, philosophic, and poetic ancestors - all from the perspective of a wound.
...day after day, vexation reigned, from portals of sleep
we observed changing air, vampiric hues, night fires on the rim,
explosive gestures, earth, twirling, green silences, flames
turning umber, Erde, I love what morning brings...

For all this erudition it’s a wound that refuses – or is incapable of - healing. A disorderly wound, a great howl echoing through a concept of history that offers no answers. I think there are certain ages and personal life passages, different yet similar for everyone, where everything is called into question. Where death becomes personal and looming even if it’s perceived as off in the future. Where life is suddenly infused with a certain dread. Cherkovski’s “Job Suffering”, written when he was fifty, seems to mark that kind of passage. In these kind of inner circumstances, poetic discipline is useless. The poet’s job is simply to listen and echo.

Job is a good model, as opposed to, say, Rilke’s Orpheus. Another is that Job-cousin figure, Marsyas. The intelligent mythical, half-animal satyr who retrieved a set of pan-pipes discarded by a goddess and reveled in his sudden, great unexpected talent. But his exuberant joy offended the divine Apollo, who tricked him into a rigged musical contest - with the winner awarded the prize of doing whatever he wanted with the loser. The god nailed Marsyas to a tree and flayed him alive.

In Zbigniew Herbert’s famous poem, "Apollo and Marsyas" “the real duel of Apollo and Marsyas” takes place after Marsyas is skinned. It’s a duel, as characterized by Herbert, between “absolute ear versus immense range.”

Why relate Marsyas to Job? The essential "problem of evil" that the Book of Job wrestles with, is after all, a problem of monotheism. But even in the classical world, there are divinities offended by naive human exultation, and the orderly music of the spheres can torture mortal ears. Marsyas, like Job is the victim of his own innocent happiness.  And, in Herbert's poem, his "real" song begins with loss and disaster In the Allisa Valles translation:
bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl.
only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
in reality Marsyas relates
the inexhaustable wealth
of his body

bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders...


Similarly it’s the immense human range of Cherkovski’s howl in “Job Suffering” that keeps a reader reading.
...men and their hardened masks, hard odd ghost
eaten alive in elevators by beautiful horses, lovely loser,
men and their satyr bodies struggling, silent...

I hear death’s aroma, I’m only
human, as Zarathusra called from his cave on the mountainside
all too human, that is, really, poetry is unbreakable. I’m
unable to think of the body, so intricate,
a separate place from the soul, but it might be...

...as for me in the haunted palace, tipping over
expensive furniture, antique China tea sets, seeing
a ghost in every corner, afraid
of the ghost dressed in human garb, gaudy half-
ghost, ghost-maker, Samurai vapor, rhythmic swords clashing,

Still. if the impetus for “Job Suffering” seems to come from a deep psychic wound, the poem itself feels like an act of health. An astringent cleansing of that wound so that it can properly heal - as best it can. Maybe never totally - scarred, but without infection.  At its end:
...wheel of trouble, talk about God
concocting a test, there’s enough
suffering to go around, though it was
as good a death as any, that is, when my mother died
and they called us at home, she’s gone, and we came

trust in the ax
and your skill in
guiding it

sound of the woodpecker
late noon, our emerging fate.


The Rest of Animal

Animal, like a lot of things, is divided in three parts. The first consists of five medium to short length poems. Most notably, I think, the poem "Jew", a longish piece that travels back through Cherkovski's ancestors, beginning with his great grandmother. It's a subject that could easily slip into the sentimental, but Cherkovski steers clear of that and "Jew" provides a sort of prelude to "Job Suffering":
...a non-Jewish Jew hears water on rock,
remembers strop
of his father who
committed suicide in the Philadelphia River,
one hand reaching for truth,
other clutching incomprehensible
silence, painted HIM as a Godless creator,
that Adonia who glows,
enormous HE printed on the sky, but who can say?
God is what we don't know and thus
ignorance spreads out and takes wing...

 The second section consists of "Job Suffering", in itself a chapbook length poem. In the third section, things lighten up. The poems have a chattier tone. In "Race", Cherkovski introduces himself:

I'm Polish Russian Jewish American
born in Santa Monica, raised in Los Angeles
San Bernadino, trapt for life...

and after a couple of pages expounding the uselessness of racial characterization ends:
...is it red white and blue? is it brown and black and green and white
and yellow? does it wear a suit of dust? do you presume?
I am very sorry to be ignorant, tongue tied in fact
at the precipice, the face of the dream,
that ties me in knots deep inside.

Animal ends with a quiet, accessible poem entitled "My Fifty Years", dedicated to Jack Foley, one of two friends who helped Cherkovski in choosing the poems to be included. (The other is Ivan Arguelles.) "My Fifty Years" starts out addressed to Foley:
Friend, I guess
I'll always have
Walt Whitman
jumping rope
in my head, old
wound dresser,
kissing those
street car conductors...

But somewhere, around a third of the way through, in an almost sonnet-like turn, he begins to talk directly to his dead mother. With a simple, quiet intimacy that's rarely the case between living parents and children. But in this case, there's the sense that Cherkovski has passed through his valley of mourning and can chat easily with the dead in the voice of his own mortality:
I'm alone
in this
world, forever
to a stone
just like you
once said, so
that's the beginning
of it
on this
of sentimentality
which must be absurd

I cut the crap
right out of life
and find my way
to a high ridge
from which
I see a snake of
a lake
and a drop
of death, nature
being such a
cemetery, such
a pinprick
of one man's
years, of one
man's need
for continuity
and remembrance
as if
one might
go back
to the end


From the Canyon Outward

This is Cherkovski's most recent volume, published in late 2009. Neeli is 64, now and the tone of these poems is more subdued. Not particularly at peace or particularly hopeful, but wise enough to know that certain struggles with the nature of things aren't worth the grief. In a poem entitled "The Rage":
...take the anger
you fear and
fling it across the room
until it bounces
call your sorrow
what it is,
name the sweeter sorrow
we call joy
and let it flood...

In another, "Meditation Nearing Sixty", he begins:
sixty years in July, It's a bit embarrassing
I was never meant to be old
like this, just like I wasn't meant to serve in the military, or
to sit on a jury, or to
fend for myself as other men do, the sun is climbing
in my window...
Then he follows with a long list of everyday consolations - sitting on the deck on the garden, playing with his dog, watering his plants and
...the misery
we've caused, the pain and suffering
we, ourselves, come in and go out with...

And as in the poems in Animal, Cherkovski's aesthetic impulse is to get beyond himself, to speak for not to the reader:
...sixty winters, sixty dreams, one day
of reckoning, one father, one mother, one sister, one lover, one
dog, a garden, a redwood deck, a work room, a bedroom...

...a new born child clutching
a dream of the one poem
that rises from our common desire.

It's interesting to notice how From the Canyon Outward revisits the poets in Whitman's Wild Children.  Several poems are set in Ferlinghetti's borrowed cabin in Bixby Canyon near Big Sur. There's a long conversation with Bukowski, centered around Cherkovski's talk at the dedication of the Bukowski archives at the Huntington Library that leaves Neeli with/without his old pal, and alive and alone.

There's another poem "To an Old Friend", in which the dead dedicatee is nameless, but could fit easily into the Wild Children friendships era.
...how we drove
 along the boulevards
haunted and
you liked it
when we had those
three day drunks
against the miracle
of light and
spoke disdain
for almost everything
that moved...
you met the cowgirl
from Utah
and Liza, wise
in drug land
and now, in
a home...

And Cherkovski's easy amiability extends to the, then, still alive Harold Norse in "Visiting the Elder". Norse, forgetful, living in a home for the aged, lies in bed but springs up, /an old acrobat, five foot four inches tall... he gets up and beams the beam and those big eyes of wonder...I try to interest him/ in a stroll down the hallway/ he diverts my attention/ the outside world is strange and foreboding. / An old man with a walker shuffles past/"that son of a bitch keeps going/ to the end of the hall,/ doesn't he realize there is nothing there?"
The nonagenarian Norse, his life finally narrowed to a room and one hallway, sees out of ninety sets of eyes/ he doesn't socialize. Or does he? Norse casually mentions as his visitors leave - "and by the way you should meet my mother/ she looks less than 40/ and she's at least 120 years old/ she has a crown of diamonds/ she walks down the hallway/ like a queen to visit me here in my room."


If Animal seems to circle a wound, the poems in From the Canyon circle an impassive, quizzical sun. Many of the poems are what Cherkovski refers to as "nature poems." A nature that's both deadly and nurturing. In a short piece, "The Length", it is the "cruel" of the/ ocean, not what you see, the cruel/ solitude, the inevitable/ loss...

And mixed up with "nature" are the love poems. One set in 1967, to a school days lover lost to time. But most to his long time partner. A good many of these are opaque and indirect. As much about "nature" as "love". Only in the third stanza of "In the Northern Cascades", does the reader realize Cherkovski is talking to a companion:
I rub my hands
together, crystals fall
out of my flesh
red tailed hawks
fly above the horizon
you turn
and maybe you feel
the storm
as I feel it, how it has come
and gone, it will come
once more

just to know
the motion and to be here
in the garden
of ice, to reach for a rock
with black markings, to turn
the rock into a feather
and let it float
into the arms of air.

to believe in wisdom
and in the snowflake, to say
the world is a drunk
walking toothless
in the afternoon
we are about to return
to the lodge I am compelled
to lean on the sun
as it wanders...


This sort of pantheism of "love" is addressed head on in " Being in Love" in lines like:
...there were whispers of love and lust
in the olive grove, we were allowed to walk there
when the pharmacist opened the gate
to what he called paradise, it's just a hidden grove
almost timeless, the bleached green leaves
were brittle to the touch, I was
charmed by their fragility, I wanted to say
how much I love to think of trees
I thought of what extraordinary love
(for example) Monet had given to the
poplars, or was it they who gave to Monet?
and everything talks to everything else, even
the silent man talks to Socrates, even
the painter forgives his mountains, I guess...
as he locked the gate
to the grove, we said we need time
to let go of love, we need a treatise
on the improbability of knowing
why this feeling is here, this luminous
loss, these empty eyes, these rocks
we place where the hunger had been, this gold mask
we hammer into shape, this tree at the end
of land...


Growth and Heartbreak

It's a truism that everyone's a poet at twenty. The trick is to keep at it as time separates us from our easy songs. In this aspect, it's impossible not to admire not only Neeli Cherkovski of the Bukowski and North Beach days, but also the mature poet who's managed to keep growing and gone on to places so many of his old pals and models haven't. Maybe he also has among his models, his uncle, the painter Herman Cherry who died in 1992 at 83.

A man just 9 years older than Neeli's avuncular mentor, Bukowski. The same Herman Cherry Bob Kaufman lauded. There's a short poem, "He Pushes Toward Abstraction" in From the Canyon that could well be about that old uncle at his end. Its ending goes a long way toward framing Cherkovski's aesthetic.

...his cranium filled with rage
the eyes grow weak, the hand no longer steady
drops a brush onto the floor
his lily pads are mythological islands
he picks up a leaf from the path and examines
every line, the universe is deaf
the enemy is near, he cannot breathe
talk to the examiners, open the door to his studio
where there is a whisper of failure
the artist struggles to break his own heart
he becomes the trees, he cannot breathe

Isn't it in that struggle to " break his own heart", that a poet whispers his humanity?