I had two reasons for enrolling in Pitzer College in 1978: to finally complete my B.A. and to study with poet Bert Meyers, whose poetry had knocked me off my feet. It had been nearly ten years since I’d been an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley, and returning to college as a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two small daughters, made me feel ancient and out of my element on campus.
Nonetheless, I desperately wanted to hone my craft, to learn all I could about the art of poetry. It seemed a serendipitous twist of fate and geographical proximity that I had an opportunity to study with this locally revered master.
During our first day of class, Bert sat at the head of an oblong table in our seminar room, his white mane of hair making him look leonine, and his striking blue eyes gazing at each of the eight students present with an intense curiosity. He asked us what we thought poetry was, and why did we want to write it? His voice was beautifully sonorous, rich and clear. A halo of cigarette smoke encircled Bert’s somber face as students struggled to articulate their poetic aims. I stuttered out some quickly improvised answers, feeling that I’d already failed in his estimation. But he nodded sagely and then said, “The only reason to write poems is because you can’t avoid writing them. There has to be some internal imperative driving each person to tackle this ancient art form.” He paused, then added, “But God knows you’ll never make a shekel from poetry.”
Then he passed out mimeographed copies of his favorite poems—an eclectic array including works by French poets Jacques Prévert and André Breton, as well as works by Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, Serbian poet Vasko Popa, and American Naomi Replansky. I’d not read any of these poems before, and each one was a revelation. Bert quietly read aloud to us Edouard Rodti’s translation of Breton’s “Freedom of Love,” and I felt the hairs on my arms lift and my breath accelerate:
My wife with the hair of a wood fire With the thoughts of heat lightning With the waist of an hourglass With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger My wife with the lips of a cockade and of a bunch of stars of the last magnitude With the teeth of tracks of white mice on the white earth With the tongue of rubbed amber and glass My wife with the tongue of a stabbed host With the tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes With the tongue of an unbelievable stone My wife with the eyelashes of strokes of a child’s writing With brows of the edge of a swallow’s nest My wife with the brow of slates of a hothouse roof And of steam on the panes My wife with shoulders of champagne And of a fountain with dolphin-heads beneath the ice My wife with wrists of matches My wife with fingers of luck and ace of hearts With fingers of mown hay…
Bert talked about surrealism for a few minutes, sternly telling us that there was always a “strangely perfect logic” to surrealist poems, and that merely recording one’s dreams or throwing a bunch of disparate and unrelated images together did not constitute a surreal poem. His manner was intimidating. It was clear that poetry was sacrosanct to him, and that we needed to take it as seriously as nuclear war or heart surgery. Then he read “Pater Noster,” a startling poem by Jacques Prévert. Later, I realized it voiced Bert’s own discontent and disillusionment with humanity, as well as his celebratory regard of the world’s manmade wonders and natural mysteries. These were parallel, but not necessarily dueling, views present in his own poetry:
Our Father who art in heaven Stay there And we’ll stay here on earth Which is sometimes so pretty With its mysteries of New York And its mysteries of Paris Worth as much as that of the Trinity With its little canal at Ourcq Its great wall of China Its river at Morlaix Its candy canes With its Pacific Ocean And its two basins in the Tuileries With its good children and bad people With all the wonders of the world Which are here Simply on the earth Offered to everyone Strewn about Wondering at the wonder of themselves And daring not to avow it As a pretty naked girl dares not show herself With the world’s outrageous misfortunes Which are legion With their legionaries With their torturers With the masters of this world The masters with their priests Their traitors and their troops With the seasons With the years With the pretty girls and the old bastards With the straw of misery rotting In the steel of cannons.
When our first seminar meeting ended an hour later, I felt that my life had changed in both subtle and obvious ways. I was convinced that poetry could actually change the world, since it could alter a person’s apprehension of time and space, the perception of herself, and of the possibilities inherent in being alive and mortal. There are so many ways that poetry expands a reader’s inner geography, I thought as I walked out of Bert’s classroom that day, my ears ringing, my pulse quickening, and my mind vibrating with poetry.
I’d spent the previous summer reading and rereading Bert’s poems, in preparation for my first class with him, and I was enthralled by them—by their use of stunning metaphors, their poignancy and imagistic brilliance, and by their lapidary perfection. Short, precise, and elegant, Bert’s poems are deeply influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry and by the French symbolist and surrealist poets, but his voice is like no one else’s, ever surprising for its melancholy soulfulness. In addition, his poems often offer fresh insights spun from mundane objects or perceptions, as in this stanza drawn from “In the Alley:”
At noon an airplane, a hard drop of sweat, rolls down the sky’s big forehead.
Bert’s poems range expressively in breadth and depth. Sometimes they’re playful, as when they depict animals (“bats those weird umbrellas/ that open only at night”), for instance, or they may be bittersweet when they zero in on a domestic scene, or angry when they decry war or the existential angst the poet feels. A masterful imagist, he never simply portrays places, events, or objects; instead, he brings a trenchant pathos or sharp insight to them. In “Garlic,” Bert provides a deft description of a head of garlic, while also paying tribute to this condiment’s culinary and domestic power:
Rabbi of condiments, whose breath is a verb, wearing a thin beard and a white robe; you who are pale and small and shaped like a fist, a synagogue, bless our bitterness, transcend the kitchen to sweeten death— our wax in the flame and our seed in the bread.
Now, my parents pray, my grandfather sits, my uncles fill my mouth with ashes.
Poet Garrett Hongo, who studied with Bert at Pitzer College in the early 1970s, wrote in 1987 that: “[Meyers] takes the plain daily items of observation that we may have allowed ourselves to dismiss without exercising that lavish interchange with imagination that gives to them the metaphoric filigree of a Fabergé egg, the stark glamour of tromp l’oeil, and the dark, rueful humor locked in the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Meyers is a sensitive master of tonal control, delicate phrasing, and the sensuous transformation of plain description into startling image and metaphor.” This stanza from Bert’s poem, “These Days,” demonstrates his “delicate phrasing” and his use of a “sensuous transformation,” as he transmutes something ordinary, rain, into a simultaneously extraordinary and humble figure:
Be like the rain that wears a ragged coat and finds the lamp in the smallest stone and sings for nothing from street to street
Though sometimes melancholy, Bert’s poems also contain a deep reverence for the world’s intrinsic beauty, and his highly original and striking metaphors force readers to see even the simplest things anew, as evidenced by this remarkable poem, one of my favorites:
Fragment of the first chunk Irregular moon Perpetual cloud The dust’s blind eye The mite’s crude planet Durable friend between the fingers Destroyer of giants Something that grows immense in a shoe The boulder’s crumb The rock’s quiet child The flower’s pure disciple Wasteland’s embryo Despair’s grey seed Staunch member in the brotherhood of water polishers Wisdom’s jewel The weed’s eternal fruit The raindrop’s tomb
Bert had been a gymnast in his youth and apparently loved to walk around on his hands to amuse his friends. An autodidact who didn’t finish high school, he was eventually admitted to Claremont Graduate School, based solely on the merit of his poetry. There he earned a Master’s degree in English, but, disillusioned by academia, he left before completing his PhD. This excerpt from one of his writing journals reveals Bert’s disdain for academia and his proletarian leanings:
“I worked for more than fifteen years at various kinds of manual labor, and during that time I met many men and women who could see and speak as poetically as those who are glorified by the printing press and the universities.”
During those years, prior to his tenure at Pitzer College, Bert’s jobs included serving as a janitor, farm laborer, printer’s apprentice, and house painter. Later he became an artisan picture framer and gilder. The skills and craftsmanship required in these pursuits engendered Bert’s deep respect for the worker’s tools, which carries over into his poems:
……..It has no arms or legs, this tiny nude; yet grip it by the waist, then stir its hips: a dry leaf multiplies, a cold motor starts in the wood. ……..Revived, still shivering, the pencil sheds itself— and there’s a butterfly, teeth, the fragments of a crown.
During my studies at Pitzer, I’d reread Bert’s poems so often that I’d unwittingly memorized many of them. I’d recite them to my daughters while giving them baths and to my husband over weekend breakfasts. Taking Bert’s class was a great gift, even though I often felt dumbstruck and fearful as I sat just a few feet from him. He could be quite scornful of students’ poems, and of their lazy reading and writing habits. I’d seen my fellow classmates wince, go pale, or shudder almost imperceptibly when Bert critiqued their poems, doing so with tact, but also with an unsparing honesty. So I said little and absorbed everything he said, rushing off after each class session to Honnold Library to devour poetry volumes written by a moveable feast of international writers whom Bert admired, among them Chilean poet-diplomats Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, Hungarian poet Attila József, Polish poets Anna Swir and Wisława Szymborska, and Spanish poet Gloria Fuertes.
I was too shy to visit Bert during office hours, but I longed to discuss my outside reading with him. I felt exhilarated and deeply moved by the rousing poetry to which he’d introduced me. One day, mid-semester, he asked me to go to his office after class. Initially filled with trepidation, I was relieved and surprised when Bert plied me with some poetry books from his personal library, urging me to read them. Then he said, “You don’t say much in class, but it’s clear that you think like a poet.” He paused while I blushed, then he added rather bitterly, “It’s not a vocation I’d encourage anyone to follow, but in your case, maybe you should keep at it.” He combed his long, slender fingers through his white curls, fixing me with an intent stare, then added, “You’ve got the keen ear and stubborn heart of a poet. Clearly, nothing I say will dissuade you from it.”
I’d secretly hoped for just such a validation from Bert, yet I never actually expected to hear it. Even his ambivalent affirmation dazed and buoyed me. Because I admired him so profoundly, it was thrilling to receive Bert’s encouraging endorsement, and, thereafter, I internalized his critical stratagems and sensibility, hoping to live up to his tacit expectations by continually improving my writing.
At semester’s end, I signed up for Bert’s next poetry workshop. Following his tempered praise, I felt less insecure about showing him and our workshop members my poems. But when the new semester began, I was shocked to see how thin Bert had grown, and how sallow. He coughed continually, sometimes pressing one palm to his forehead as he covered his mouth with the other hand. He continued to smoke during class, but less often. I didn’t know until halfway through the term that Bert was battling lung cancer. He was 51 years old.
One day in class, when another student suggested that a metaphor I used in my poem was “tired and clichéd,” Bert exclaimed to me, “Be on guard!” Puzzled, I looked up at him inquiringly, and he added, “Don’t let your language go slack and without purpose. Let it be an engine for perception, a testing ground for truth, and a finite lens to the infinite.” (I scribbled his words down in my notebook, and years later discovered them again with a jolt of surprise and gratitude.) Bert stared at me intensely, all the color drained from his face. His fiercely eloquent outburst reminded me that, for him, poetry was something intrinsically sacred and indispensable, and nothing less than the highest art form. How could my poems ever live up to such lofty ideals, I wondered.
One day, two weeks later and right before our class commenced, he took me aside and said, “I’m quite ill and I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to teach next week, or the week after. Would you serve in my place?” Stunned by his admission, I said nothing for a moment, then—both mortified and honored—I agreed. The final stanza from Bert’s poem, “After the Meal,” haunted me during those weeks:
Smoke waters the flowers that grow in the lungs. The cigarette, like your life, is a piece of chalk that shrinks as it tries to explain.
Two weeks later, after Bert returned to class—ashen and emaciated—he invited me over to dinner at his house in Claremont Village, where I’d meet his wife Odette and his teenage children, Anat and Daniel. While Odette busied herself in their kitchen, she described her difficult childhood during World War II, speaking with a lilting French accent, and sometimes pausing to search for the best word or phrase in English. Nearly twenty years later, she’d publish her extraordinary memoir, Doors to Madame Marie, documenting her and her mother’s survival as Jews living in Nazi-occupied France, and paying homage to her savior and mentor, Madame Marie Chotel.
After listening to Odette’s fraught memories, and as I helped her set the dining room table, I glanced at the Meyers’ refrigerator. It had several quotations pinned by magnets to it, and most of the comments focused on the same subject, mediocrity. I remember a few of those maxims: “Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre,” from Albert Camus and “The only sin is mediocrity,” from Martha Graham. But the one I found most memorable, due to its humor, was by novelist Joseph Heller: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” The quotation sardonically parodies Shakespeare’s famous lines from Twelfth Night, and it reminded me how once, in class, Bert had railed against mediocrity in poetry, saying that it was “the worst offense in art.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bert sitting in the living room reading during Odette’s dinner preparations, pensively holding his unlit rosewood pipe. His cough sounded terrible, and I wondered to my younger and fairly naïve self: “How can he smoke with lung cancer,” not understanding the treacherous nature of addiction, although I myself was an occasional smoker. Human nature was such a conundrum. I remembered his words, “The cigarette, like your life/ is a piece of chalk/ that shrinks as it tries to explain.”
As we ate, I noticed how Bert merely pushed his food around on his plate, eating little, while the rest of us hungrily devoured our meals. He looked so frail it was alarming, yet he was kind and solicitous, asking me a bevy of questions about my time living in India, my family, and my literary heroes and heroines. As we cleared our plates, and Bert returned to his armchair reading, Odette mentioned that she typed all of Bert’s poetry drafts for him. Her comment startled me, since I couldn’t imagine my husband doing the same for me, nor would I have tolerated him standing at my elbow while I penned revisions. I was genuinely surprised that Odette, also a poet, as well as a translator and professor of French literature at the Claremont Colleges, served as Bert’s secretary. I wondered if she acted as Bert’s aesthetic collaborator, as well as his scribe—an intriguing prospect.
I never asked Odette this question, for Bert died a month or so later, and though I remained friends with her over the ensuing years, my question was no longer relevant. I was crushed by Bert’s death, dazed by the finality and cruelty of his loss. The students in our poetry workshop were also bereft, and though we continued meeting weekly without our mentor, a heavy pall hung over us. It was as if the sun had vanished and we were left in utter darkness, dazed and adrift.
I was touched and grateful when Barry Sanders, another Pitzer College professor and mentor, invited me to drive with him and his wife Grace to Bert’s funeral in Los Angeles. I squeezed into the back seat of Barry’s station wagon, crowding alongside two of his colleagues, film critic Beverle Houston and philosophy professor Jim Bogen. While we drove, I listened to Bert’s friends relate affectionate and funny anecdotes about him, realizing how much he was loved and admired by them.
Although I don’t remember the chapel where Bert’s funeral was held, I do recall how moved I was by the simple eloquence of Bert’s plain pine coffin—unadorned, as is the Jewish custom, and placed on a plinth. I knew that he’d have appreciated the craftsmanship and care that went into the making of his modest and austere casket. I cried through his friends’ and colleagues’ impassioned eulogies and was further saddened by seeing Odette’s and her kids’ distraught, sorrowful faces. Robert Mezey, a Pomona College poet and close friend of Bert’s, wept as he helped Barry, Jim Bogen, and Daniel Meyers carry the coffin out of the chapel at the close of the service. It seemed inconceivable that so few of us were gathered in the temple to bid farewell to Bert. How could such a monumental poet leave the world behind, without nations falling to their knees, and the earth halting in its rotation?
After we drove back to Claremont, I sat with my professors at Yianni’s, a Greek café, where we toasted Bert with glasses of ouzo. Someone had brought a sheaf of Bert’s poems, and we took turns reading them. Jim Bogen read Bert’s poem, “Dark Birds,” with its concise rhyming couplets that are reminiscent of a nursery rhyme and its mysterious ending:
The dark birds came, I didn’t know their name.
They walked in Hebrew on the sand so I’d understand.
They sang, the sea flowed, though no one made a road
I shivered on the shore when the water closed its door.
Then I felt the birds return to me like ashes to an urn,
and sunlight warmed the stones, fire undressed my bones.
I read aloud Bert’s poem, “Pigeons,” which honors the ubiquitous bird with whom the poet identifies, perhaps because it’s a humble and common denizen of urban landscapes, and seems also to represent both victimhood and survival. Bert’s take on pigeons turns them into an avian Everyman:
Wherever I go to find peace or an island under palms in the afternoon at midnight to pity my neighborhood at dawn in the shrubs to look for a child
I hear them they fly by applauding themselves I see them they pray as they walk their eyes are halos around a pit they look amazed Who are these that come as a cloud to our windows who rush up like smoke before the town burns
You will find one on a mountain in a carpenter’s shop at home on the lawn of an old estate at the library in the forehead of paradise
Whoever is mad can accuse them thousands were killed in a day
What happens to them happens to me when I can’t sleep they moan and I’m there and it’s still like that
The Unsung Masters series, published by Pleiades Press, will bring out a new collection of Bert Meyers’ poetry in the spring of 2023. It will be edited by Dana Levin.