DONALD SCHENKER: A CALIFORNIA STORY
by Jack Foley
from Berkeley Daze
I couldn't speak because I'm incapable of praise, too
Donald Schenker's Owl (Alice Press) is an extraordinary, unique book.
critical. I'll miss our movies and I'll always love you,
in spite of myself. Love forever from a very critical friend.
—Moe Moskiwitz, proprietor of Moe's Books
at Donald Schenker's memorial
Published posthumously, it contains some of Schenker's finest work. I knew Don and often heard him read from his poetry. I even heard him read some of the pieces collected here, but I was unaware of their full power until I saw this collection, edited by the poet's widow Alice with help from various local writers, friends of Schenker's.
Poet John Oliver Simon suggests that "if Donald Schenker had had the sense to write his best poems before he was thirty, like his contemporaries Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, he would have died famous." Simon is probably right, but, as he realizes, it is unlikely that anyone would write such poems "before he was thirty." The poetry in Owl is unrelentingly middle-aged. These poems are at once fanciful, enigmatic, elegiac, funny and courageous. They are an elegant dance with death, represented in part by the title character, Owl, Schenker's totem animal—a successor to the "teddy" he lost as a child. I don't know of any poetry which is quite like it:
Just after dawn, someone approaches the coast
Donald Schenker was born in Coney Island in 1930. he first visited California during a stint in the Navy in 1948. He and his wife Alice came here to stay in the late fifties. "I came," he told me, "Because of Howl and A Coney Island of the Mind." He went to City Lights to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Ferlinghetti directed him to Kenneth Rexroth. He also met Robert Duncan. In his early work, he said, he was "into T.S. Eliot." (So was Ferlinghetti in his early work.) Schenker's friend, Robert Stock—"a seminal poet in San Francisco in those days"—encouraged him to experiment with forms. Schenker's first book, Poems, was published jointly with David Meltzer in 1957. "America," the opening poem of Schenker's section, begins conventionally enough:
in a feathered boat,
a boy, naked but for a feathered mask.
No one waits for him.
The flowerpots sit on the mantelpieces
Don was working as a picture framer in San Francisco. In 1965 he and Alice founded the Print Mint in Berkeley. Alice ran the store; Don ran the shop. "It was a very successful business," he told me, "it became a landmark, a very appreciated place." He added ruefully, "There are problems maintaining an entity like that." As business increased, the shop became "all-consuming." "Then I became a 'boss,' hiring other people to do 'the work.' That was an agony."
under the portraits of the legendary dead
who crossed the salted oceans
to a living land
and laid it out for settlement
All the old faces rocking on shackporches . . . .
Schenker's next book, Say X, was published by The Print Mint Press in 1970. Stylistically, the book ranges widely. The author's own blurb says, "His range is enormous, from the gentle simplicity of 'The Gesture' to the brutally complex structuring of puns in 'Three Exercises in Three R's,' pointing to the fact, constantly discovered, that feeling depends upon language."
"Half Ton Chevy," a poem for Janis Joplin, is a spectacular experiment in orthography:
Thoo th rain, th old ticker thumpin from th run, th beer,
This interest in an accurate, not necessarily "literary" notation of actual speech remained a constant. It is responsible for triumphs like this from "Hunter Death Approaching A Flock of Birds":
I lever ma ass inside, one hand on th wheel, slam th door.
I shiver in th damp. I small ma own self. I take a deep breath
an loosen th crotch a ma jeans. Then I choke er just enuf t'get er
primed. Reach fer th key, thumb it home in th lock and stomp th clutch,
cocking m'hed t'hear er say hullo. Turn er on. . ..
Here comes Hunter Death.
By 1975, Schenker had become a "businessman"—he gave the word a negative charge—and wrote very little. He felt isolated, he told me, and had the sense that people "hated" him, "perhaps because [he] was in business." Years earlier, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski had urged him to be "free," even to leave his wife and family. Kerouac told him, "You're such a nice guy, Schenker. That's your problem." Schenker felt the call of such freedom and later decided that at some level Kerouac was right: "I felt in my young days that it was much safer to be tight and in control"; Kerouac was pointing to "things I probably feared." But he didn't take the advice.
You sure it's him?
Is he headed this way?
Fast or slow?
A fair clip.
In 1985, planning to devote the rest of his life to writing, Schenker retired from the business. A month after his retirement, he discovered he had metastasized prostate cancer, what he later called "back door stuff," "outhouse stuff."
Schenker did devote the rest of his life to writing—he died on Valentine's Day, 1993—but his life was immensely complicated by the fact of his illness: "You become a cancer patient," he said, "you become a corporation."
Donald published two more books of poetry during his lifetime: Up Here (1988) and High Time (1991). Alice Schenker tells us that "Don wrote most of the poems in [Owl] during the early months of 1988 while involved in a meditation/visualization practice begun as a way of helping his immune system deal with . . . cancer. Owl was a totemic character that evolved through this process along with several other characters and a geography . . . .These visits with Owl quite naturally found voice in poetry but left him feeling uncertain about publishing them as a book since they were a diary of this rather unusual personal experience." Schenker did finally decide to put the poems together as a manuscript, which he was organizing at the end of his life. "Don chose most of the poems and which version to be used," writes Alice. She completed the book with assistance from Tobey Hiller, John Oliver Simon, Steve Ajay, and Richard Silberg.
In a radio interview, Schenker commented on his discovery that he had cancer—an experience he could hardly "control": "My life just stopped. I was so shattered. Something drove me back into therapy and into a kind of spiritual crisis. My desire to live became very powerful. I began to meditate. During the meditation and visualizations I was visited by this entity that turned out to be an owl. A spirit helper. I went to this place and there he was. Each time I went there, there he would be. He took me to places and I came out of each place with a poem. They came to me fast and furious. It was very difficult not to honor him. We had a deal. I was to honor him and he was to give me the poems. The poems were the honor."
Owl's main characters are "Owl," "Teddy" and "the Kid." Reading through the book, one is reminded a little of Wind in the Willows—a child's fantasy. "There's something about animals and small children that affords healing," Schenker told me, "the innocence, the purity." But that's only one aspect of the complex vision Schenker is developing here. "The place in the geography of those visitations with owl," he continued, "represented my prostate gland. There was a beach where you turned left at a stream and went into a field that was—rotten. There was water setting in it and you could smell it. I did a lot of work in there, draining the place."
Owl begins with a moving entry from Schenker's journal. It's dated December 26, 1991, a little more than a year before his death. This is the opening paragraph:
There was always a reluctance to Owl's visits, a quality that seemed familiar to me. I needed his presence, and was deeply moved by it as by nothing in my life until then. Slowly I began to remember him, as a child recognizes that spirit in small animals. Remembering, I remembered Owl, and yet Owl seemed reluctant, almost recalcitrant. It was as if there were so many hours he had to give me; just those and no more; and that the quality of the visits was such that if I'd picked a creature more mammalian . . . But this was the quality of Owl and his visitations. He seemed to stand off and watch me as well as visit, and this caused me grief. Is this quality of distance not also the attribute of any deadly disease, and of our own selves, too? In the midst of Owl's presence was the very grief he was teaching me to feel about my own life that was slowly draining away. I was never sure whether to acknowledge this grief or deny it. Grief and abandonment. The greatest gifts brought to consciousness seem not to be enough. Life, taken for granted, never asks for more life, but the first look into the face of death implies a begging which no mere guide can answer. Owl's simple duty was to lead me through the landscape I had come from, appear to me in dreams and meditations, enter my waking hours with his fuzzy features, and remind me painfully about the unfathomable bigness of everything in which he and I were brothers more than victim and guide. It's a hard lesson I never did learn. And if I know it, like a kind in school who, in a flash of understanding, gets the problem on the blackboard, exulting, loses it on the way home. Someone says, "So what did you learn in school today?" and a flash of inkling passes through the mind and is gone.
"The unfathomable bigness of everything" is reminiscent of a child's perspective but the sense of "pain" and the awareness that "my own life…was slowly draining away"—cf. "I did a lot of work in there, draining the place"—is from the point of view of the adult. In Owl, "innocence"—which is close to "ignorance"—is constantly interplaying with "knowledge." This sense of innocence, this "rediscovery of the landscape I had come from" is linked to Schenker's discovery of the virtues of Kerouac's position, with its emphasis on, as Schenker himself put it, "immediacy, non-conformity and expressiveness." (That discovery is celebrated in poems such as "August 31st, 1989" and "High Time," both in High Time.)
The journal entry concludes with a reference to "Sally, a dog, who at the time was a puppy, bright and vital; didn't know any of the rules. That innocence, to me, in the midst of my experience with Owl, cancer, etc., was almost ecstatic. Letting Sally lick me, I remembered how I felt as a child. Letting down the barriers, the cages. Chopping down the dark trees."
Schenker's cancer gave him access to a kind of second innocence at the very same moment that he realized that time was running out. The poems in Owl arise out of both consciousnesses colliding in the field of his writing—"feeling depends upon language." Owl "loosens / stuff that can't stand light." It represents precisely the opposite of the "safe" position of being "tight and in control." Yet Owl—like, ultimately, "the kid"—is also Schenker's death. The child and the animal may be emblems of "innocence," but they are deeply linked to the cancer. Indeed, without the cancer they would not have appeared, which suggests that in some sense they are the cancer. Owl, after all, is a predator who carries with him "remains / of local mice, rats, squirrels." Despite the playfulness and complexity of Schenker's presentation of this less "mammalian" animal—at one point the creature is seen playing poker with its power animal pals!—it never loses its status as the bird of death; it is in fact not so different from Poe's raven:
The feathered body, the wings
Of course, Owl's "prey" may be Schenker's cancer. That is the function of the deer—another totem animal—in "Healing":
driving through a tunnel of air
pumping so terribly clean
that direction down.
Finding the tumor, he seizes it
But it is also possible that the "prey" is the poet himself. As Schenker says, "You never know with Owl."
Perhaps the fullest statement of the interconnectedness between life—or "healing"—and death is the penultimate poem of the series, "Owl and the Dark Tree." The setting here is "very dark," and the bird places the poet down "near a tree in the middle of the woods." Owl instructs Schenker to dig a hole. He then tells him to "reach deep inside your body and take out all the things that are bothering you." The poet does so and places them in the hole. Schenker must then dig a second hole to be sure that he has removed all the "rotten stuff": "I reach in and sure enough, I was right. There's more. I pull it out and put it in the hole. How could I have missed it?" Again the poet must "bury" what he finds. He asks Owl, "That was down there, where I reached. What about the rest of me? What if it's all up here throughout the rest of me?" Again Owl instructs him to dig a hole and bury what he finds. The same ritual occurs several more times, and the poet observes that he feels terrific: "It's wonderful to feel well," he says, "I'm weary of pain, weakness, sickness. I'm tired to death of it."
like a coyote. Like a wolf
he throws it back to his molars for crushing.
Like a cat he purrs
breaking it down, swallowing it down as he runs . . . .
Up to this point we are in the realm of "visualization," and the visualization has done its work of making the poet feel better about things. That is precisely what it is supposed to do. But the phrase "tired to death" is an indication that things are not quite as clear as all that. Owl tells the poet to dig still another hole:
So I dig another hole. "Owl," I say. "What's this one for?" "Just dig," he says, so I dig, the sixth. When I'm done, Owl gets into the hole. He says, "Now cover me up and pat me down."
This new development confuses the poet: "What have I done? Why did Owl bring me here, and what would he do if he were in my place? I sit there in the circle of six holes around the dark tree in this dark place and I'm suddenly alone."
The poet again hears the voice of Owl, now "from deep in the earth." Again he is instructed to dig a hole: "I dig the hole deep and long…I say goodbye and I get in." "Suddenly,"
green begins sprouting from each of the seven holes, luminous green sprouts, from the first one, the second, third and so on, all around. There are seven of them around the tree, and each of them grows thicker and reaches higher until they form a cage of thick green luminous trunks around the dark tree and over it, until there's not a man anywhere who could fit through between them, nor a bird.
The last hole is his own grave. Alice Schenker points out that the landscapes in Owl are all versions of the poet's body. Again and again he finds ways to "enter" that body and confront the "rotten" thing which is his disease. It is part of the process that Schenker calls "healing." Yet digging a hole is digging a grave. In these poems, "healing" and "dying" touch. The "luminous green sprouts" are also a "cage." Here, "healing" does not mean "getting better." Schenker is perfectly aware that his condition is terminal. "Healing" means accepting the death which will come whether you accept it or not. Finally, Owl is that death:
And it's not so bad being there, with Owl close by, and all the rest of me. And, after all, it's not going to last forever.
Schenker was to write many fine poems after the Owl sequence ended. But it was these poems, coming "fast and furious," that supplied him with the vision which was to sustain him until his death. Thanks to Alice Schenker for making them available to us. Thanks as well for her wonderful cover, which captures perfectly the complexities and charm of this brilliant book. Like so many others, Donald Schenker was an East Coast boy who came to California to write poetry. Owl is an indication of his late, but genuine success.
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