IN A DYBBUK'S RAINCOAT by BERT MEYERSEILEEN TABIOS [and DENISE LEVERTOV] Review
IN A DYBBUK’S RAINCOAT: Collected Poems by Bert Meyer, Edited by Morton Marcus and Daniel Meyers
(Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series/University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 2007)
For about a year now, I’ve been paying attention to Collected Poems. I read such books not just from an interest in a specific poet but because I’m curious to see what the volume of any one poet’s output suggests about how a poet lives. For my purpose, the quality (however that is judged) of the poems is just one “test.” I’ve also been interested in poetic development, how poetry affects the poet’s lifestyle—perhaps I’m curious most about how the decision to live as a poet comes to matter.
Bert Meyer’s IN A DYBBUK’S RAINCOAT, is the type of discovery I’ve hoped to make during my exploration of various Collected Poems. Meyers, indeed, is my favorite discovery so far among poets I read for having Collecteds—a significant number of which I pick up at random. Meyers’ bio in the book reveals that he dropped out of high school to become a poet and, over the next 18 years, worked at a number of manual labor jobs (janitor, carpenter’s apprentice) before becoming a master picture-framer and gilder. Though he never took undergraduate classes, he was admitted to the Claremont Graduate School “on the basis of his poetic achievements. By 1967, he had completed all work for a Ph.D. in English literature and was hired to teach poetry workshops and literature at Pitzer College. Over the years he published his poems in many journals and in five books. In 1979, shortly before his death at the age of fifty-one, Meyers assembled a slim volume of those poems he considered his best work.”
That slim volume is the basis of IN A DYBBUK’S RAINCOAT. Given the difficulty of this manuscript finding a publisher (having circulated for about 20 years, and before the days of POD technologies), kudos must be given to its publisher, University of New Mexico Press/Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series. Apparently, this manuscript (or an earlier version) was even once accepted by a publisher but who then went bankrupt (okay poets, let’s all do a collective wince here).
Meyers’ poems are lush, gorgeously imagistic, witty, slyly humorous, and replete with lines that make me wish I’d written them. Here’s a sample poem—check out those “sonorous nipples—each one a lozenge full of memories”!
Untitled—Or, “To Be A Poet”
I turned to poetry the way a man turns to a woman,
in order to live; the way an animal moans or a
bird sings, to relieve myself of pain and joy.
Words, to me, are sonorous nipples—
each one a lozenge full of memories under the tongue,
a liquid in the throat.
I found Whitman and believed a poet should express
his country; Rilke, and pitied my middle-class self for
a while; Blake and saw politics in every line;
Issa and wished to be so compassionate and humble.
Emily Dickinson taught me to rely on metaphor; Yeats
showed me the value of music in a time of portentous prose.
Ten years as a picture framer and gilder convinced me that even
poems should be beautifully made.
I’ve known waitresses and janitors form whom great
images flowed like traffic on a freeway. I prefer
fairy tales to most literature and I believe that the last stanza of
“Mary had a little lamb” is more profound than The Cantos
or The Waste Land.
But now, rather than trying to say something that’s been said better by others, let me—in the great tradition of poets steal…, I mean, collaging other peoples words—present an excerpt from Denise Levertov’s engagement with Meyers’ poems, which is presented in the book as its Introduction:
Bert Meyers’ work seems all to have been lyrical; he was not drawn to the epic, narrative, or dramatic modes and eschewed the hortatory or didactic. For clarity of discourse, I would reserve the term “major” for poets whose range of genres and also quantity of work seem equal in breadth to the depth of their poems. But the term “great” should be applicable to those who produce deep and exquisite work in fewer modes, or in a single one: though here too some sense of abundance seems to form part of what “great” implies. I feel Meyers can be called great because of the extraordinary intensity and perfection of his poems and the consistency with which he illumined what he experienced, bodying it forth in images that enable readers to share his vision and thereby extend the boundaries of their own lives.
The image is unequivocally at the center of his work; indeed, a sequence of short poems…is named simply “Images.” Often there are single lines, or brief syntactic units, within longer poems of his, that seem fully poems in themselves—random examples would be:
Night lifts the moon like a coffee cup
from the skyline’s cluttered shelf,
Sailing for hours
in the same spot;
and the joyful sound
of the invisible sea.
All around me, butterflies,
hunt for the ideal door.
It is apparent that Meyers himself recognized, and cultivated, this ability to find images that can function autonomously;…
…But he also knows that the image was a building block out of which he could construct longer poems: one of his strengths is the way in which every longer poem of his is built up of an accumulation of such image blocks, each of which has such integrity that the whole edifice is dense and strong. In this way his poems, like the best haiku, are capable of imparting a sense of his life and values, his emotions and deepest loyalties, with a minimum of stated opinion.
Though he did not like “engaged” poetry, feeling that it violated what he believed was the essentially evocative and non-didactic nature of the art, he at times encompassed historical comment, e.g. “Arc de Triomphe”:
Nothing but gray seen through the arch
as if triumph were an abyss
into which a nation marches
And in a poem such as “Saigon”…he did make a very direct criticism of the corrupting influence of the United States—the poem’s epigraph is, “In our own image we created them,” and it describes teenage thugs in pre-liberation Saigon:
Their smiles are gun belts,
their brains, nuclear clouds;
and they speak a dialect
that sounds like money …
Around them, the landscape’s
a flag that fell from the sky:
red roads, bloody stripes;
whitened by bones
and stars that explode;
blue, like genocide’s queer smoke.
The excerpts from above should indicate the marvels to be found in Meyer’s long-delayed book. But as a Collected Poems project, it’s also enhanced by other facets of the book which incorporates Selected Prose By, and Articles On Burt Meyers. In this sense, editors Morton Marcus and David Meyers should be lauded for their editing.
Much of the luminosity—radiance!—in Meyers poems can be traced to his lucid vision as a person. His encounter with Garrett Hongo, a former student, is recounted here. Specifically, Meyer had encouraged Hongo to write poems about his (family) history which includes the shameful period of the U.S. incarcerating Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. One cannot underestimate the sensitivity and awareness—and risk—required for Meyers to have raised the camps to Hongo whose parents had been interned. As Jack Miles put it in an article published in the Los Angeles Times:
Bert Meyers, a Sephardic Jew whose parents had come to Los Angeles from Spain via Brooklyn, knew why Garrett Hongo was pissed off at a time in Hongo’s life when Hongo himself did not know. Yes, Hongo’s parents had been in the camps. This was to be one of Hongo’s subjects, among those that would win him the Lamont prize in 1987, but he didn’t know it yet. How did Meyers know it? He couldn’t, in fact, have had more than a hunch, but such hunches only come to teachers who are watching their students’ every move, thinking about them with intelligence and love, and willing to push them to the brink to open their eyes.
…Not all Japanese American writers are called to write about ethnic identity. With the wrong Japanese American student, Meyers’ [approach to Hongo] could have been a clumsy and perhaps a crippling mistake. Meyers took a chance, then, but he was the kind who watches closely enough o know when and with whom to take such a chance.
Later in the article, Miles would observe generally about poetry but with Meyers presenting the proof: “Poetry proceeds by a heightening of the precision and clarity of ordinary perception.”
IN A DYBBUK’S RAINCOAT presents a poet who made a difference and did so by living the way he wrote his poems: with an attention embodying Love. Bert Meyers' Collected Poems manifests “Poetry as a way of life” in the most inspirational way.
Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...
One can say many things about Denise Levertov's accomplishments, but to quote simply from the UNM press release for this book, she is "an accomplished American poet and teacher who was poetry editor at The Nation."