Maxine Chernoff


Travels with David

by David Meltzer
Black Sparrow Press, 1970

In fall of 1996 I was chosen as one of eight writers sponsored by the Literatur Werkstadt in Berlin, Germany, to represent San Francisco at a writing festival. I had only lived in San Francisco for two years and wore its mantle tenuously. Among the others chosen was David Meltzer, whom I had yet to meet. Aware of his long history in music and experimental poetics, I was happy that he would be among the group and guessed before the trip began that he and I would probably form a bond.

A fiction writer, two theater people, and three "slam" poets, all of them friends, comprised the rest of the group. Though the fiction writer and theater people were cordial and accomplished, they were not of the world I defined through a long connection with the type of poetry David represented. Though I had also written fiction for a long time, my first and enduring identity as a poet as well as my connection with New American Writing and its precursor OINK!, the magazines that Paul Hoover and I have edited for over thirty years, made me feel as if I already knew David.

It's true that when we travel unexpected connections are formed. On a recent trip to China, owing to their mastery of English, a Maoist-Chinese-Christian couple from Adelaide, Australia, became our most sought-out companions in a group of 170 Chinese poets plus Paul and myself. On this literary trip to Germany, it was David that made me feel that I had a traveling companion. Of the group that was chosen, by the way, seven of its eight participants were Jewish. Going to Germany even as a very secular Jew has its tensions and dramatic context. The sights that our charming tour guide and facilitator, the gay boyfriend of the Werkstadt's director, took us to included the SS Museum, housed in its former headquarters and including its former torture cells, and the interim headquarters of the Jewish Museum, where I saw photos of Berlin Jews, just as urban and secular and modern as myself, who anonymously faced the fate of all Jews during the war. My chosen identity as writer kept encountering the jarring fact of my Jewish identity.

I say this to provide background for the fact of a quick and easy friendship that David and I formed on this oddly intense trip. That and similar habits of personality meshed well and sometimes hilariously. I'll discuss the hilarious first.

Neither of us has a very good sense of direction, I learned, and though I drive my own car in S.F., I am far more comfortable as the passenger. If we really want to arrive at our destination, my husband reads the maps. David is a worse case. He doesn't drive at all, and his beloved wife Tina, who had recently died, had been his navigator. Suffice it to say that it sometimes took us half an hour to walk the two blocks from the Literatur Werkstadt to the spare East German lodge where we were accommodated. The Werkstadt building was in a row of old mansions that had formerly been part of the consulates that lined the streets before the rejoining of Berlin's two sectors. There were still two zoos, two aquariums, two botanical gardens, one in each former half of the city. I wondered how the formerly Communist bears felt about the democratic ones across town.

One day when our guide had other responsibilities, David and I boarded a train for the main part of the city where we'd browse music stores, museums, and have lunch. Of course, with our shared lack of direction, we headed away from the town center and ended up in farmland far east of Berlin. We agreed it didn't look quite right and corrected our course after a time. Finally reaching our destination, we celebrated a safe journey in a revolving orb atop a dated modernist building. The martinis were delivered, sweet vermouth with black olives.

Later that day or perhaps another, we visited the Pergamon Museum, where first we were told that David would have to surrender his cane. Of the two of us, I had the best German. With a few words and a caustic expression, I convinced the guard that it wasn't an affectation or a weapon but something he needed to make his way.

The rooms of Islamic art -- illuminated texts and calligraphic manuscripts -- were where David headed and lingered a long time. He told me many facts about the collection in his calm, modest way. Aside from their literary and historical importance, they were beautiful items as were the mosaics and other Middle Eastern artifacts housed nearby. David seemed an expert on most everything in the museum. I felt lucky to have such an erudite companion in a place that lived outside of Germany in some eternity of truth and beauty. I needn't consider in these rooms whether I was a poet or fiction writer or really from San Francisco or Jewish. I could lose myself in art and would have chosen to have continued to be lost if I could have.

When the time came for the events, several nights of readings sponsored by the Werkstadt, we found ourselves paired either logically or haphazardly with the other writers. I was there for my fiction and read one night with the other fiction writer. The two theater people performed their polished and skilled pieces on the same bill. Two of the "slam" poets read together, and the Germans, who love the most shallow of American writers -- Bukowski and Brautigan have massive sections at all German bookstores -- were duly impressed. David's night, however, suffered the misfortune of being arranged by the poet who had made the most contact with the German organizers. He had represented to them that of the two, David and himself -- though he was younger, more obscure, and highly suspect for his poetry (also of the "slam" variety) -- that he was the eminence. He read a long second set. David read a shorter one as his warm-up act.

David himself said nothing about it before, during, or after, but I felt near outrage, especially after our day in the museum where I had gotten to know his intellect as well as his poetry. The younger poet prided himself on being self-taught, on knowing, in fact, nothing that he hadn't discovered himself. He spoke of poetry as a recovery program that had saved him from himself. This is popular talk in our age of Oprah Winfrey and self-actualization, but it has very little to do with the long and rich tradition of writing, be it ancient Islamic texts or the American tradition inherited from Emerson and Whitman to the present. When I asked the younger poet if he couldn't hear the influence of Ginsberg in his repetitions and catalogues, he returned to his myth of the park bench, where, drunk or strung out, I don't remember which, poetry had saved him.

Looking at David, I thought of the difference between seasoned writers and confident beginners. Writers save poetry and are responsible for its continuation. With a cane and little sense of direction, they make their way through a city shattered by wars and the chaos of modern politics to rooms in a museum where the connection is forged between then and now. It's a deliberate and direct route. It's a line that links the eternal and real over centuries and millennia and helps writing survive in the midst of deep injury and superficial trends. It's the understanding of what is important that may not help a person find his way around the block but tells him exactly what he needs to know and how to find what matters. It's located outside of the self, not in a manufactured story of self-creation but in a deep respect for artistic creation itself, a modesty and love of antiquity that never becomes antiquated or precious, because it recognizes what lives eternally and endures.

August 2005


Back     Contents     Next