Patrick James Dunagan
“I sit alone / in the garden bending light”: California Poet Neeli Cherkovski
Neeli Cherkovski was born in 1945 down among the showmanship depths of Southern California (So Cal), that hazardous wonderland where sandy beaches lie stranded alongside industrial waste yards and international seaports while oil rigs are as likely to dot the ocean horizon as they are the local corner that was once nothing but a sand dune. Poetry thrives there much as it might anywhere of course. Having myself been raised a So Cal 1980s-90s skateboarding kid, however, I’ve witnessed firsthand how over the last sixty years the abysmal landscape has swelled into a decidedly detrimental locale for the eye and ear: all that offensive sprawl of concrete, the endless summer of swimming pool after swimming pool, freeways spiraling out to nowhere and everywhere, the Hollywood cultural engine grotesquely burning up individuals as if they were house flies attracted to its merciless death-dealing light.
This is Cherkovski’s home territory. He’s lucky enough though to have had a family history rich in character which as luck would have it has generally supported his pursuit of influences beyond reach of the region’s most disastrous kind. His father spent the Depression hopping freight trains crisscrossing the West. Rather than attempt to hide his past out of any sense of shame he passed onto Cherkovski awareness and appreciation for the values of the hobo perspective; not only sharing the worthwhile nature of experiencing the human interaction with fellow travelers but also exposing him to appreciation for the physical environment, the trains and tracks on which he rode.
Rail yards are dangerous zones full of machines and equipment, much of it left where it fell when cast aside years before. They are a functioning, necessary part of our transit hub for goods and materials connecting disparate economies and trades. They lie in back of the glossy veneer of shops and streets where most of society’s business is conducted, representing a direct connection to the underbelly of the cultural engine. Throughout Cherkovski’s writing reference to freight trains and rail tracks pop up as recurring motifs of strange beauty, historic markers of human endurance. This is a deep resonance he shares with many of his peers such as poet Jack Micheline. Railroad tracks appear in Cherkovski’s poetry as early as 1959 in the poem “Redlands” written at the age of fourteen:
i cross one two three railroad tracks
and kick empty bottles into red music
making carnations violently bloom
And reappear decades later in "My Fifty Years" from his collection Animal (Pantograph, 1996):
[…] it's all
going fuzzy and
gray, the years
in the Santa Fe
Cherkovski’s uncle Herman Cherry was an established artist and art dealer who gave a teenage Philip Guston his first show. Cherry is Cherkovski’s birth name, his uncle Herman imparted to him a sense of artistic integrity along with remaining alert to life’s complex weavings of imagery by way of color, light, and form. Cherkovski himself actively explores painting and drawing to this day, as does his partner Jesse Cabrera whose artwork adorns some of Cherkovski’s books such as Animal. This familiarity and active interest in visual arts comes across in the attention Cherkovski lavishes upon color, shape, form, and movement in his poetry. It’s readily found in sexually explicit lines from "Erotic Suites I" where the bodies of the lovers are described as if laid out on canvas:
your ass carved into faded blue of the bedroom door
our clothes scattered I take a bite of your right foot
my dick resting in your palm light red body traffic
granite spires ancient marks of fire a tune a turn a flute
rugged limestone an outcropping of your teeth
and maps for your meadows the sweet slope your white thighs
As a teenager Cherkovski befriended, with the support of his father, the infamously self-proclaimed "dirty old man" poet Charles Bukowski. They went on to spend a wealth of time together over the years, going on multi-day drunks, hanging around dive bars and freight yards, arguing at Bukowski’s kitchen table, bonding over a passionate devotion to writing. The two men shared a lasting friendship to the end of Bukowski’s life and Cherkovski later penned a Bukowski biography. Although Cherkovski cut his young poet teeth writing, chatting, and drinking at the notoriously drunken, raw, foul-mouthed older poet’s elbow, his poetry is not in any way hemmed in as being identifiably “Bukowski” in nature. In regard to Bukowski, Cherkovski slips out from under the influence racket.
Where Bukowski allowed for and looked for So Cal to provide a sense of security which in turn boxed in his writing Cherkovski refuses to accept any such limitation. He understands that as a poet drawn towards a life of reading and writing it is to his utmost benefit to experience as myriad a set of circumstances as possible. The particulars of one’s birth and/or where one makes lives are never insurmountable. Once the impetus towards poetry first arrives, the poet must seize upon the force of imagination pushing back at the everyday demands of life in order to strike out in exploration of the unsaid, the undercurrent back of language's heavily used roads of commerce and familial claptrap of hearth and home. Bukowski clings to a constructed crutch of alcohol and home to provide him the security in which to write. His work routinely revisits “Bukowski” subject matter: the dregs of blue collar work, disappointment, horse races, drinking, women, failed beauty, and (later) fame. In contrast, Cherkovski writes as an explorer adapting to unfolding circumstances, dismantling his sense of security in order to advance his exposure to the unknown.
Having worked as a young office staffer for this and that city hall machine, Cherkovski also knows his way around the small time California political swamp. He’s been thoroughly inducted into the ins and outs of the headaches and heartaches of politics, historical as well as contemporary. Poetry, however, has always proved to be his passion: the pure love his life aims at appeasing. He's no stranger to the seductive ways of greed, avarice, and pride but he’s always returning to humility in the face of art and beauty. His enthusiasm for life embraces the humanly endeavor to endure as it rises above the pettiness of life's affairs to flourish in search of transcendent wonder.
His final break with So Cal came in 1975 when he moved to San Francisco. Dating from that same year, his poem “California” acknowledges “this is the right place / in a bad time,” continuing on a few lines later:
this is my land, I was born
here in the shrine to Hiroshima
with a death-camp on my lips
and a harp in my hand
In San Francisco Cherkovski found his place in the post-Beat North Beach poetry scene. It was from San Francisco he would later write his Bukowski book having first written a biography of Beat poet and City Lights Books founder-publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1979. North Beach also brought his way several important lovers, men and women alike, many poets in their own right. He formed lasting friendships with Beat poets such as Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman. None of whom are left alive today. He celebrates these friendships and others, in his collection of critical-memoir pieces Whitman’s Wild Children (Steerforth, 1999), taking joy in locating the wisdom he finds within their poetry.
After Kaufman’s passing Cherkovski composed a book-length poem of tribute to his onetime room-mate and ever staunch poetic ally. Elegy for Bob Kaufman (Sun Dog 1996) shares Cherkovski’s remembrances of his pal emphasizing how poetry was always the bond which brought them together and to which they always turned when in each other’s company. Mutual dedication to orders of The Poem would bring them to bicker but always kept them from parting.
we argued over a poem
he was drunk out of his
mind and I had smoked a
lot of hash, but the problem
was the poem looming
so large, pouring over
the remains of the beat
generation and its afterglow
picking us up
in its swirl of words
and silent spaces . . .
In the company of older poets, such as Kaufman and Lamantia, Cherkovski discovered confirmation that is in only in the momentary enthrallment of having probed into the unknown, after many hours of practice and study, that some few lines promising a broader consciousness might be left glimmering upon the page.
Cherkovski remains in constant pursuit of such occasion. I recall hanging around a wedding where Cherkovski presided. As always he was ever generously verbose in his exchanges with both bride and groom along with their assorted family and friends, yet even after hours of active socializing, once free, he immediately sat down at the nearest available table bringing out his ever present notebook and fountain pen. Poems and drawings came immediately pouring out in a flurried burst of energy. In no time his notebook was a smear of crisscrossing lines, the edges of pages nearly dripping as, with what it seemed must be the last of his ink, he would finish filling one page only to move directly onto the next.
Having thus witnessed him in action, I’m entirely able to picture him as he describes himself in "Mis Manos" from out his collection From the Canyon Outward (RL Crow, 2009):
and many times each day
I descend into the streets
to find myself imitating
four hundred or more
sets of hands attached
to an imaginary beast
Consideration of Cherkovski's life work as a poet is a mammoth undertaking. He is always writing. I receive weekly poems via email from him, sometimes several in the same day. Some I read in depth, some I breeze lightly over, on occasion I respond with enthusiasm over this or that line, at other times I offer some correction or suggest an edit. He never lets a critical remark go by without responding to its merits. His resiliency and openness to criticism is quite admirable. Cherkovski matches whatever I throw at him and gives back a steady counter commentary. On the occasion he suggested some line edits to a poem of my own, he was spot on.
After publication of my first full length collection of poetry, “There are people who think that painters shouldn't talk”: a Gustonbook he generously offered to interview me at his home (our exchange was a rather congenial fit as the book is inspired by work of the painter Philip Guston whose first show, as noted above, his uncle had arranged). On the day I went over, he not only came and picked me up from across town, but before we sat down out on his back patio deck overlooking his garden showed me his work area, pointing out numerous paintings throughout his house, and went to his book shelves selecting out favored collections and placing them in my hands. He also played a few brief minutes of a kitchen table exchange between him and Bukowski from off a tape in the same old school cassette recorder he then used to record our conversation. His display of generosity and discretion of manner demonstrates a level of personal accord too often forgotten among many poets of my own generation.
Cherkovski’s poems prove him a quintessential poet-son of Walt Whitman. Cherkovski heartily affirms his predecessor’s declaration “I contain multitudes” whether he’s disavowing his religious-ethnic identity as a Jew, in multiple forms, in favor of becoming one with critters of the California countryside:
I am not a devout Jew, I’m not
a holocaust Jew, I’m not a mystical
Jew, I’m only a jay on a rock in the
highland, and sometimes
I’m a cougar crossing a highway
at four a.m. lost in a new land on an old land
("A Jew, A Jay")
Or adopting the voice of his recent young Turkish correspondent with whom he finds easy repartee, even though he would have perhaps preferred a more intimate relationship:
my name is Mahmut, I am sitting
for tea and a cigarette, I look into the
mirror and see I am walking into
the meadow, my life is full, what
will I do? I met Cherkovski who knew
Cherkovski shrugs off any set of labels and/or expectations. His life is dedicated to taking joy in writing and sharing that joy with those whose company he has had the pleasure of holding forth. He has lived many lives in many forms, and shows no signs of slowing. Many of his poems are based on past memories but they may as likely be of twenty years ago as a week past. Time is a constant preoccupation he explores over and over again. He’s just as likely to place a memory within a memory, recalling a time before in order to give added depth to the time at hand. Cherkovski’s poetry makes it clear he’s enjoyed his life and is in no hurry to be anywhere other than right where he is basking in the thought the poem articulates.
oh we were so free, so sublime,
free of error, middle aged
the average age of a universe is what?
do you think perhaps 40 billion years
give or take a few? does it matter
when you are dizzy walking and
walking and walking and thinking
your own thoughts, and sharing a
thought or two on the avenue
flanked by ponderous gray
monuments to the folk rituals and
shaman dreams, to the many-headed
demons and angry hungry dragons
("Walking in Berlin")
California long ago came to represent the end-stop of American Westward Expansion. This is it. From the Pacific shoreline we look out in wonder at powerful waters of a planet spinning in a universe with which we’ve barely reached any commensurate level of understanding. Poets are scientists without hard data. All of poetry’s accomplishments swing upon the imagination’s hinge. Cherkovski’s energetic spasm of lifelong poetic engagement tracks one individual course grasping after the necessary know how of cultural survival. Bustling with language, jumbling tales and vast metaphoric rides of exuberance, "one of the roughs" as Whitman called forth, borrowing from everywhere, yet ever diligent, Cherkovski continues tackling the heavy work of locating poetry within the miasma of our times in weird and lovely California.