A Crow in San Francisco
by Anthony Zedan
I HONESTLY WISH the poet Neeli Cherkovski had decided to name his collection after the full title of the poem "When the Crow and I are Alone," rather than The Crow and I, but I understand the poetic urge to compress much meaning in few words. The Crow and I expresses and respects the metaphoric interchangeability and equivalency of these two entities. His collection encompasses many themes, growing old, memories of youth, eroticism, states of mind, and observations on the grim state of the modern world that is filled with evictions and violence.
His poems range from playful cigar smoking, to a nostalgic ode to his deceased loyal dog Comet, to scathing commentaries about the future. They teach us how to age gracefully, calmly and in a cultivated way, much like the end of Voltaire's Candide when we are told to go cultivate our own gardens. I could see Neeli out on his deck in San Francisco, taking a break from his otherwise busy day, puffing on his cigar, writing and sketching in his notebooks, and observing the flight of hummingbirds as metaphor for a future poem. For a poet mentored by Bukowski, his poetry surprisingly lacks swearing, public drunkenness, lewdness, tirades, loose women, and horse racing, but does include humor, social commentary, and the brave, sad homoerotic narration of lost loves.
One has to ask, where has Neeli Cherkovski been hiding all these years? The truth is that he hasn't been hiding; rather, he has been here all along—always a part of the vibrant San Francisco poetry scene, a North Beach fixture—and now a new generation of aspiring poets will discover him and benefit from his poetic wisdom. Cherkovski has been translated into Italian, German, and Spanish. He reads often in Europe and Mexico, where he has a strong following. As for hiding in plain sight, he himself admits he has "…learned you can hide for decades" in his "A Box of Candles" poem, and, as for looking forward to a time when he will "stop craving hot young men" ("Nearing 69"), apparently not until he stops breathing. Growing old sometimes intensifies those strong primal emotions rather than extinguishes them. Most of the poems broach the topic of growing old, the fear that accompanies it, and the confidence that experience brings to life's crazy adventure.
For me, the best poem out of the collection is the title poem, a snippet of which became the book's title, "When the Crow and I are Alone." It echoes great poems, such as Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and the visionary scope of Ginsberg in the "I have seens…." Neeli Cherkovski takes the crow off of his pedestal and makes him real for the reader. There is even a Poe "Raven" moment in the poem in which the bird flies in and reminds him of a lost Miriam (the poet Kenneth Patchen's wife). The crow says, "Miriam dear Miriam so/ long ago/ now you are a plant in the window." She may be the referent of "your" of line eighteen, "take your storage boxes and toss the souvenirs." But I also have the clear impression that this command is directed out to the reader of the poem, once you have "look(ed) into the mind of this universe," the past will seem trivial and insignificant. The crow brings a message to the reader, "the harbinger flies into the room/ I shut the window"; again, the crow brings an explanation back to Miriam of his heightened senses and a feel for what lies just below the surface of our earthly experiences.
From the very start, the reader is left with the implied question, what exactly happens when the speaker of the poem and his pet crow are left alone? Do they conspire? Do they converse? Do they go off on an adventure together? He tells us that "life is much easier," but why? Man and bird can communicate their hidden rage, not a howl, but "a scream and a caw"; even a dumb animal can understand the need to scream every once in a while, to share a moment of understanding with a friend, birds of a feather. The speaker of the poem seems more animated and vivid than the crow, but that must be how crows manifest it—more gracefully. Why is the speaker screaming and raging? The scream can be seen as the psychological response to the realization of being utterly and completely alone in this life and how we have a need to commune with others, human or animals or nature, to make some kind of sense of our existence. Is he screaming about his lack of friendship? Possibly, he only has a crow as a companion. Is it the scream of an old man facing his own mortality? Screaming for one more experience? One more sunrise or sunset, cigar, or orgasm? This friendship between the crow and the man is important. They sing their ceremonial song, the poem brings man and bird closer together, they commune. A shaman comes to mind, wearing black feathers, evoking the spirit of the crow in his song. The man and crow "…come along and speak to airborne intelligence." What can a mere man know of intelligence that lingers high up in the air unless he has a crow's help?
I cannot help but be reminded of Icarus's fatal mistake, along the lines of don't fly too close to the sun because you will get burned. But intelligence could mean knowing how to fly—which the poet does know how to do with words and the power of his imagination. The speaker of the poem reminds us not to deify, take too much pride in those around us, or to mystify those we're familiar with, "he is not a god/ nor a medallion// the crow is not a charm." He wants us to see things for what they actually are, real, alive, vulnerable, hungry—he brings us back to earth. He even mentions the "earthen power," that is, the power of the earth to bring us back to life. Why is the speaker sweating in the dark at night, impending death? The darkness of the crow's feathers and the "cruel white hand of night" foreshadow violence and death. Evoking Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Night," the speaker also contemplates death in the beauty of winter, "here in the frost it is possible to believe/ that one may die a better way."
The speaker moves from contemplating his own death to experiencing how alive the world actually is, and the poem ends in a realization that "the planet is alive… when the crow and I are alone." The poet needs to separate himself to fully immerse himself in the world around him. The crow could be seen as his muse, in classical terms. But I see a lonely man, filling that loneliness with his pet crow, and since the crow belongs to the larger world of nature, it becomes the vehicle through which the speaker can apprehend nature's more subtle qualities. An inspired line of poetry by Kenneth Patchen interrupts the end of the poem: "I say the drums are going like mad." The speaker cannot keep the remembered line from surfacing as it embodies the emotion of the moment; how the poetry still keeps coming to him like mad drums even though his wife is gone. The drums could be the heartbeat that beats hardest when we are alive in the moment. Why are the drums beating so? Could it mean the urgency of action necessary to live life with the imminent threat of death? The poet Cherkovski has inverted the couple's deaths for poetic and dramatic reasons. The real Kenneth Patchen died twenty-eight years before his wife.
In "Nearing 69," the first poem of the collection, "huge blue elephants" invade the speaker's house, trampling on things, not respecting his space, old age like a houseful of elephants. The poet talks about adjusting to old age but, a little later in the poem, contemplates, "making a break from it." These are not the pink elephants of inebriation but the blue elephants of depression, weighty excess, and the blues that motivate the speaker to write down his experiences. These elephants remind me of the large and slow procession of one's own life, the bigness of worries, anxieties, responsibilities, sadness, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. The poem ends in a vision of staggering beauty, swimming in the ocean at night, being aware of the beauty that nature offers us on a daily basis. In a few poems, reflecting on stars in the sky allows the speaker to transcend the banality of old age through a glimpse of wonder. I felt as if Neeli Cherkovski was "running off leash" in these poems, in a good way; he tackles an array of topics, but the crows keep cropping up as do his reflections on growing old.
In "Eros, Flowers," the speaker of the poem likens a young poet to flowers in full bloom, and narrates their lovemaking with language that might have been slightly embarrassing to the younger man, but its brashness alludes to the sexual experience and plain speech of the speaker. This beautiful and touching poem ends sadly, immortalizing the younger poet's later suicide.
Neeli Cherkovski is in tune with current events in San Francisco, his poem "Eviction: One More Beautiful Day," bemoans the loss of civility in the City By The Bay. Like most San Franciscans, the speaker of this poem has a love-hate relationship going on with his city, but in the end the fog and the gulls and the crows, the return of nature and its appreciation is the City's grace, after all the snobby galas and posh eateries have run their terrible, destructive course.
The poet, aware of having reached certain milestones in his life here in the heart of San Francisco, often ponders and questions the wisdom of old age, but he continues to burn bright in these poems like the meaningful moments of life that flash and dazzle us, building up to a roaring fire to keep us warm and give us the courage to grow old more meaningfully and wisely. Neeli Cherkovski is arguably one of the last Beat poets in San Francisco; his poetry is anarchic, raw, full of energy and strong social messages—a poetry borne out of an age of civil disobedience, social protests and cosmic love.
Anthony Zedan earned his Master of Arts Degree in English from the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California. He currently works as a Library Page at the San Francisco Main Library.