The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

Neeli Cherkovski's Hang On To The Yangtze River

Neeli Cherkovski
Hang On To The Yangtze River
(Lithic Press , 2020)

I have known Neeli Cherkovski for close to three decades. His fame, which seemed mythical owing to his close association with Bukowski and the Beats and books he had written about them, had wafted across the Bay to me for some years before our first encounter. In the ’90s of the last century I was co-editor of Pantograph Press, and Neeli showed me a manuscript called, Animal (1996)which I thought was really good and represented the enduring themes Neeli has always invoked in his poetry—his personal relations with other poets, nature, his own identity as a poet, all of this imbued with both tragic lyricism and wit. Close to a quarter of a century has passed since I had the privilege of publishing Animal, and Neeli has continued writing and publishing poetical texts year after year. Among his many books published in that time, I would single out Elegy for Bob Kaufman (1996) and Elegy for My Beat Generation (2018) as among his more significant works. 


Hang On To The Yangtze River, just published and in a beautiful format by Lithic Press, is full of the sort of lyricism and wry, often mournful, meditations on life that one expects from his poetry. Cherkovski is keenly aware of his own mortality, and he confronts it face-on:  

           “fear of knowing the day of my death, 

             fear of not knowing the day of my death”

and goes on to say in that poem: 

            “trapped on the borders 

              far from home, never to return”, as eloquent a statement about mortality and solitude as one can find. In another poem, “What Was It Like?” he observes: 

              “death charred morning light, 

                rusted desire, death is a swan, a river, the Everglades 

                a bitter old man giving the lowdown” 



Clearly Cherkovski is at a point (he just turned 75) when a poet begins to sum up the years of his creative life and inches toward a wisdom of sorts: “I want to be a dead poet / alive beyond life.” And that he is, alive beyond life, and in reading many of the poems of this book you get the sense of what a variegated and rich person Neeli is, a keen observer of life’s frailties and joys, both sexual and meditative, unafraid of admitting his own doubts and perplexities in the face of a society that is becoming more technologically advanced and incrementally crueler and more impersonal, even as the planet plunges toward its possible extinction: 

          “seven times around a ring of tree 

                          truth reckoned in brine and kelp 

                                        truth died, there is no help, drown now”

(“Ocean Ode”) 


While it is not easy to categorize Cherkovski’s poetry, it comes closest to this reviewer to Beat or neo-Beat, best exemplified in poems such as, “They Shut Me Up”, with its staccato jazz-like delivery in often breathless stanzas: 

          “on the phone for hours, reading five books at once 

            don’t answer letters, no matter how sweet no matter 

                           I will be there and I will not” 

Yet he is not trapped into being just an “American” poet writing in a specific time and place, as his poetry and lyricism also derives from and is resonant of poets and poetry from other climes and times, especially Rilke. Cherkovski represents in his own idiosyncratic style the arch-poet, a Nietzschean soul driven by either the Muse or the Socratic Daimon, intent on being nothing other than a poet, day after day, come what may, communing with his animals, staring off into Bixby Canyon, summoning the ghost of his father, remembering his Jewish ancestry, and unabashedly rejoicing in his gay nature, and above all lingering in that space between here and eternity, the brief mortality which he lauds sometimes fervently: 

          “how long can I play? Today I walked on Bernal Hill 

            with my dog, we wrote poems in a notebook and 

            watched as fog devoured the Golden gate Bridge”

(“How Long Can I Play?”) 


Iván Argüelles

Iván Argüelles is a Mexican-American innovative poet whose work moves from early Beat and surrealist-influenced forms to later epic-length poems. He received the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award in 1989 as well as the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 2010.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues