The Cantakerous, Compelling Musings of Poet Bert Meyers
In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat: Collected Poems
by Bert Meyers, edited by Daniel Meyers
University of New Mexico Press, 295 pages, $24.95.
Bert Meyers is what some might call “a poet from the bones.” Meyers, a lyric poet, a proletarian poet, a poet who deplored any and all attempts to categorize a poet, creates work that presents itself as constant contradictions, as a parallel to living life and a reflection of his place in poetry. Prior to his death from cancer at 51, Meyers determined his best work for publishing his first selected work of poems. Odette Meyers, Bert’s wife and a poet in her own right, charged forward in search of a publisher, leaving the manuscript in the hands of friends who made promises long unkept.
Now, more than 20 years later, and after Odette’s passing, Meyers’s friend and fellow poet Morton Marcus, along with Meyers’s son, Daniel Meyers, has graced us with “In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat: Collected Poems,” a volume that includes not only the poems Meyers had chosen for his selected, but even more of his best poems, songs, articles and testimonies from his students. Gritty, self-reflective, raging, loving, political, embroiled in his surroundings and pounded in the sweetness of everyday life, Meyers offers us poems riddled with cantankerous musings, provoking images, skilled metaphor and a voice that long lingers under the skin, asking questions more than providing answers.
A Sephardic Jew whose parents immigrated to Los Angeles from Spain via Brooklyn, Meyers dropped out of high school and worked in manual labor, later becoming a master picture-framer and gilder. He never attained an undergraduate degree, but was nevertheless admitted to Claremont Graduate School based on his poetic achievements. He went on to get his doctorate in English and to teach at Pitzer College, but he preferred the world of craftsmanship above and beyond academia. Sadly, the gold dust he inhaled as a gilder was too harsh on his body and later contributed to his onset of cancer and to his early death.
The steadiness and precision of his work as a framer echo his poetics of sheer exactness. In his earlier work in “The Dark Birds” Meyers’s poems are mostly short in length, shaped as couplets, quatrains or evenly lined two- or three-stanza poems. He expands his length as we move into “The Wild Olive Tree,” including some prose poems. In “The Blue Café,” the reader becomes privy to the strong influence that music and rhyme had on Meyers’s poetic sensibilities. Much of his movements in this section rely on end and slant rhyming, as well as repetition of whole lines, as in “It’s Very Nice.”
…Hatred is the battered heart’s disease
People were made to be together
like Cyrano and his feather
like a father and a mother
But hatred is the battered heart’s disease.
Some have said that Meyers disliked political poems. But politics, and in particular his scorn for the moneyed elite and politically powerful, come to life in a number of his works, including “A Short Speech to the Hungry,” “Eichman,” “Eviction,” “In Saigon,” “A Citizen,” and “How I Feel,” where he writes, “because men light/small countries like cigars/and inhale their neighbors… because the cities,/as sure as their walls go up, will like rain come down.”
His expertise as a picture-framer infuses image after image of museumlike portraits on the page. In “Another Caterpillar Poem,” Meyers writes: “Its head is a microphone dragging its cord. Used pipe cleaner, so many little accordions open and close like a mountain range of exhausted joy.” With crisp images came a knack for, and skill in, irony, best demonstrated in his use of simile and metaphor in such poems as “Rainy Days” in which he writes, “Outside, nothing moves: only the rain/nailing the house up like a coffin.”
In Kabbalah, a dybbuk is a spirit that inhabits the body of a living person, giving a soul another opportunity to fulfill its function that it did not complete in its lifetime. With few references to Jewish life, the title invokes a rich extended metaphor on Meyers’s collection. Meyers locates himself, and us as his readers, in an in-between space — between a layer of protection and a spirit searching for peace.
Whether you take to Meyers’s work or not, he will make you love what poetry can do. He will make you fight with words, reflect and then fight again, all the while knowing that the fighting isn’t about a literal physical brawl. Rather, the real struggle is about seeing and acknowledging how we are in constant battles with our best selves. Meyers’s gift to us, his “skin thinner than a dybbuk’s raincoat,” is about knowing how, sometimes, our enemy is without, as “Man is a skin disease/that covers the earth. The stars are antibodies/approaching, your president/ is a tsetse-fly…” and how sometimes our deepest enemy is the enemy within.
Cole Krawitz is a master of fine arts candidate in poetry at Lesley University’s Low-Residency Creative Writing Program, and editor of JVoices.com.