Karl Young


Thirty Years of "Face": Introduction and Tribute to a Poem by David Meltzer

by David Meltzer
Black Sparrow Press, 1976

One of David Meltzer's practices in verse composition is to start with a simple, basic, elemental idea and build on it, taking in associations and improvisations as he goes. It is a method almost identical to that of the classic jazz musicians he admires and from whom he has learned even more of his art than may be immediately apparent from what he says about his sources.

I first met David, heard him read "Face," and read the poem on paper on the same day. That was in 1975, and going by the weather rather than a calendar or other record, it was probably in November. If memory isn't playing tricks on me (something it likes to do) I may be writing this about as precisely thirty years after the reading as the gears and wheels of opportunity and circumstance could arrange. The reading included, and may have begun with, "Mr. Peanut." That's a good poem with which to warm up an audience. David also read several others I'd read before. The poem that really impressed me most, however, was "Face," which I had not read, and hence first encountered by ear. It has remained a favorite since then. I asked to see the ms. after the reading primarily because I wanted to see how David had worked out the lines on the page, and use that to help determine how well I'd heard the poem. I asked if I could publish it in my magazine, Stations, and to my delight and good fortune, no one had yet called dibs on it, so it became the first work of David's I published. I showed him several pages of what would become Cried and Measured, which he accepted for Tree magazine. The magazine never appeared, but on a subsequent visit to Milwaukee, David agreed to publish the complete book. Since this may be the best poetry I've ever written or ever will write, the arrangements for publishing "Face" and Cried and Measured seem to have come at a fortunate conjunction of some sort of Kabalistic magic.

The shape of a face is one of the first things a baby learns to recognize, and faces may do more to shape our lives than anything else we can see or conceptualize. It's no wonder that so many expressions include faces. That the Aztecs and Mayans used "face" as a synonym for what their Spanish conquerors would call "soul" or we might call "psyche" seems to fit in with its basic nature. Although all faces are individual, and some can be eccentric or sustain mutilation, the recognition of a face is about as basic as human perception and conceptualization can get. It thus seems a good poem for me to write about on this occasion, and perhaps a good starting point for at least some readers of David's poetry.


When Meltzer and I first discussed the poem, he referred to it as "severe," "harsh," and "austere." I did not hear or read it that way, but have since come to see why he thought of it thus near the time of its composition and in the context of other poems he was working on at the time.

He has carefully built up his poems from small units, often more basic than other poets of his time and milieu. He had recently started the practice of using the period as his main form of punctuation, and had broken up sentences with them or used single words or phrases that included compounds but not a noun and verb as a sentence. In many instances from the early '70s to the present, these small building blocks have reminded me of haiku, a form Meltzer refers to frequently but never seems to actually write. In such situations, the sentences contain traditional haiku's paradox, contradiction, or illogical association, split by a sudden, intuitive realization.

Some poems built from such units resemble linked verse. "Face" makes some of the most skillful use of one-word and broken-up sentences in his opus. This gives the poem a particularly emphatic character. The long line associated with "Howl" and other Beat classics for the most part disappeared from Meltzer's work in the early '70s and only reappeared for special purposes later -- as it does once in this poem. The staccato use of short barking units in "Bark: A Polemic" carries the sonority of soapbox orations. "Face" and "Vav" are both dated 1972, and appear next to each other in the Black Sparrow collection, 6. The tonal and rhythmic contrast between the two poems is strong. "Vav" is gentle, uninsistent, lyrical. It is scrupulously free of ornament, as are all of Meltzer's poems not meant as plain comedy, but this is closer in tone to the plainness of Robert Lax than other Meltzer poems of the same time. The first lines of "Face" are plain, blunt, and emphatic, and this abruptness recurs through the poem, but the poem moves into a fulcrum of breathless erotic lines that gives it a forcefulness not found in many other poems of the era. The poem's range of experience seems broad and all encompassing, and its burden in many respects wildly optimistic. Its straightforward, emphatic, and unmoderated character seemed to me downright effulgent.

The poem begins:

About face.
How to begin.

This is not an unusual Meltzer opening. Many of the Judaic works begin with a consideration of a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet or its numerical value in Gematria or other coding practice. Some begin with an individual word.

In this instance, the word from which the poem grows begins with a pun. The first line could act as something like a rubric, telling you the subject of the poem, or it could be heard as an order to change direction -- to change the way you face. Unlike many of Meltzer's poems which begin with a word before going into exposition, this one states that he is searching for a place to begin, even as he turns around and faces a different direction.

The face that grows through the poem is not a portrait or a series of images. Meltzer does not once mention such features as nose, cheek, or forehead. The physical face of the poem is defined by the eyes and mouth. Its significance has to do with how an individual negotiates experience and how two individuals can interact. The first of the faces on which Meltzer, in jazz form, creates variations and riffs, is face as felt from inside, what it means to have your face exposed and what the way you're facing has to do with your level of interest and your ability to direct attention. As the poem progresses, it comes to include attempts at seeing behind the face which this face faces. The face of the title thus acts as a verb as well as a noun. As a verb, the title is in the imperative, but goes through other grammatical usages as part of the exploration of the melody it generates. The noun, verb, and melody often become frustrated by the fact that the first face doesn't see what's going on behind the other face, but rather sees itself reflected in the eyes looking at it.

The second stanza makes use of a stutter as it deals with the problems of facing difficulties:

They say he cant,
You cant.
Face the music.
They say you cant face it.
That music between you.
She hears nothing but music.

ProcessThere is music between the two faces, but she hears only the music, perhaps not trying or wanting the music to go beyond superficiality. This suggests a willful obstruction or avoidance, since hearing is something that you can't cease doing in the same way as you can prevent sight by closing your eyes. Sound also has the ability to reveal what's inside something which is closed. Sight only perceives open surfaces. Hence there is a paradox in the male face's desire to see in depth and its perception that the female face wants to hear surfaces. However, this is the place where the male face looking in one direction does not yet understand the multidimensional, nonlinear perception of the female face. Meltzer is, after all, building the poem using techniques borrowed from jazz.

In the third stanza, "Words attack face like lice." In the fourth stanza, facing her reveals "Greek in her left eye. / Hebrew in the right." This evokes and summarizes, as one of Meltzer's building blocks or musical phrases, the long diptych, Hero/Lil, which Meltzer may have still had in the works or, more likely, had just completed. In this work, the machismo of the western hero (now more often a cowboy than a Greek god) and the femininity of Lilith (whose historical declension saw her transformed from she-demon to the consort of God, associated in some forms of Judaism with the Messiah) do a dance of changing faces, both in appearance and in the direction in which they move. The last stanza of the first part gives virtually the only descriptive passage in the poem, suggesting both her stylish seductiveness and her capacity for universal union with all things. At this point, a careful reader might see the poem as a more intense and concise working of the earlier poem, "Hymnus" [David's Copy: Selected Poems of David Meltzer, edited by Michael Rothenberg, Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 49-50]. The earlier work hints at this one in the lines:

Time to wear all faces back to bone
          Alone, to return to the mother
Charging our seed with cosmos

The first section of "Face" thus acts as exposition, laying down the ideas and melodies which Meltzer will use to "wear all faces back to bone" and seek union not with an abstract mother of us all but a woman who can bear children herself in a state of independence. If this woman of the 1970s can more fully delimit the cosmos than the more passive earth mother of the 1960s, it indicates some of the later poem's maturity.

The next twelve sections work out the themes of her listening only to the music and the anxieties and uncertainties of facing experience. These work through everything from facing the nation to facing the wall to be executed. Yet all the fearful possibilities are controlled and put in a restrained place as they are explored using musical forms of exploring a melody by turning it backwards, upside down, and any other means of working out its possibilities.

Tongues appear in section 14. These seem to be what have been missing in order to make language complete and to create the full possibility of the first face dealing with the world. It seems appropriate that the tongue first gets introduced in imagination of beef tongues being sliced and prepared for sandwiches in a deli. But with the possibility of articulation comes the possibility not only of communication but of other types of interaction. The first tongue section begins with tongues being sliced but ends with the faces' tongues speaking for each other, and after that, entwining. Entwined with this, sketches of the evolution of animal species from the salt sea, the birth of humans, the relation of tongues and breath, and the quick appearance of an angel flicker through an increase in tempo, which nonetheless retains the short line units. The music has moved into an articulate exchange of sensation, hidden inside mouths instead of seen as reflections in eyes.

After this, the poem's short lines, which have modulated from hesitancy to thrusts give way to a passage of long-line riffs of erotica and communication:

            Tongue is faceless but when I speak it is with her
voice and these are her words I am saying.

Surrounding the longer-line passage, Meltzer alludes to the salt taste of the sea as a source for experience in its diversity. These suggest a form of cunnilingus both immediately erotic and recapitulating the diversity of life in its seemingly infinite variations and possibilities. The longer-lined passages include penetration, both as intercourse and fellatio. In this process of going in words written, heard, spoken, even printed on pages pass between the two people whose faces are now complete bodies pressed together. Again, the face is the person and the person's direction at least as much as the space between the neck and crown.

The final sections return to short lines. The last suggests an awareness of random objects and details in the environment of the male face; but the female face informs all items in the passage. The penultimate section is three lines long:

A mystery.
Both ways.

The operative line in this triplet is the last: an acknowledgment of the dual nature of the mystery. The exchanges of the poem have not lessened the mystery of what another person, even most intimately encountered and known, thinks, feels, believes. This, however, doesn't eliminate or reduce the power, depth, or completeness of exchange between them. Sharing may ultimately be more important than understanding.

Generally speaking, Anglo-Americans are not very good at writing love poems. Sexual boasting is a different matter, and what I call "weenie waving" is one of the largest, and most tedious, of American genres in the twentieth century. Sentimental poses, bordering on those found on greeting cards may be more numerous, but don't appear in the magazines and books of poets who want to MAKE IT NEW. Kenneth Patchen may have been the supreme master of the genre precisely because he avoided aversions to sweetness and light and went for unabashed bliss. Jackson Mac Low wrote what to me is the love poem of the century in Stanzas for Iris Lezak by creating a huge, symphonic work capable of infinite variation and the inclusion of nearly everything imaginable. Meltzer's "Face" seems to me to belong in this company. Even though it is, in Meltzer's own terms, "austere" by comparison.

Like Stanzas, "Face" can be read in other terms than love poetry. It is a poem on basic human interactions of all sorts, on sharing, and on which way you decide to orient and direct yourself.

Quo vadis?
Follow that face.
It's all you've got.

Check out David Meltzer's "Face" at the Light & Dust Anthology.



a visual poem

This poem is a reflection on "Vav," a poem of David Meltzer's written about the same time as "Face." "Face" was a particularly important poem to me. I heard David read it in 1975, along with other poems I had previously read. "Face" first came to me without letters, and I was lucky enough to be its first publisher. David reprinted it with "Vav" in the Black Sparrow volume, 6. As I have read "Vav" during the succeeding years, it has become important as a preface to "Face" as well as an important poem in it's own right.

The Rabbi's Dream Book refers to another of David's books, and the screenfold to forms I have worked with, picking up on Pre-Columbian Meso-American sources.

My homage is presented here in relatively large graphics files, over two pages. If you're on dial-up, you might want to do something else while they're loading.

Click To Begin

You can also check out "Vav" by David Meltzer at the Light & Dust Anthology.


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