Bert Meyers's "Driving Home at Night with My Children After Their Grandfather’s Funeral"
Thoughts on poetry as disarmament.
Driving Home at Night with My Children After Their Grandfather’s Funeral
See how the moon follows us? That’s Grandpa’s face in the sky. It smiles; so, he’s still the same. Sleep. The way home’s always shorter than the way you came. Shh ... the car’s a steel measure that swallows the road like a tape; and we’ll all live twice as long as it takes the snail to go around the world on its crumpled skate. from The Wild Olive Tree (West Coast Poetry Review, 1979)
I thought I’d read this one aloud, so, if you click that little button above this, you’ll hear me reading this one aloud.
I have a note on my phone that just says: read a lot of poems by Bert Meyers. It’s been there for a month or two now, and I finally listened to it. I spent the week reading a lot of poems by Bert Meyers, who, thanks to Dana Levin, Adele Elise Williams, Daniel Meyers (Bert Meyers’s son), and a number of poets, is getting some newfound, posthumous, and deeply well-deserved recognition. A book is coming out, dedicated to resurfacing his work, and a number of his poems were the feature of a recent profile in Poetry, introduced with an essay by Levin.
In that essay, Levin writes:
Reading Bert’s poems was revelatory. His capacity to visualize, to embody metaphor, stunned me. “I see it exactly!” I would think, encountering his images: two sailboats like tennis shoes walking on water; garlic whose “breath is a verb”—how entirely apt! As anyone who has tried to write a concrete and resonant image (or tried to teach someone else to write one) knows: it’s hard. What’s required? Devotion to both the five-sense fact of a thing and the dream it inspires…
I was torn about which of Meyers’s poems to write about today. There are so many that embody metaphor, as Levin writes, so many that offer a kind of devotion to the whole aspect of a being, of nature, of the world we live in and that lives in us. Today’s poem — singsongy and lullaby-like — could not leave my head. There’s a tenderness to it, implied by the title, that allows it to transcend maybe even its own expectations. I didn’t realize until maybe the third or fourth time I read it that it even rhymed.
When I think of today’s poem — and Meyers’s work in general — I think of one word: disarming. I think that Meyers’s work shows how deeply poetry can function as a tool of disarmament. That’s a heady word, I know. Something that conjures violence. And yet I mean it. Last week, I quoted Sarah Bakewell quoting the existentialist Gabriel Marcel about what he called crispation, a state of being that makes it seem “as though each one of us secreted a kind of shell which gradually hardened and imprisoned [us].” I think that, because of the way in which ideology often functions for individuals as a kind of defense mechanism against the complexity, inconvenience, and difficulty of living in the world, we each take on a kind of crispation — a hardening around the edges, specifically when it comes to certain notions — that makes it harder for us to change, to allow for change, to even let in the possibility of change, or complexity, or strangeness, or — simply — light.
When I read Meyers’s poems, I feel that crispation in me worn away. I feel myself softened. Whatever weapons I have consciously or unconsciously brought to my reading of the poem — I feel myself laying them down. And it’s true. We often do bring knives to our readings. We say this can’t be so. We say a poem cannot do this. We say too short or we say too long. We sometimes refuse the allowance a poem brings. We sometimes refuse the enchantment. In his book Confabulations, John Berger writes:
More than half the stars in the universe are orphan stars belonging to no constellation. And they give off more light than all the constellation stars.
I think of that now whenever I read a poem. To read a poem, in some ways, is to read the light of un-constellated stars. It is to read someone looking towards the unnameable or undefinable or the mysterious and trying to craft, through some imperfect medium, a name for it, or a narrative, or just simply an image. And that, that gathering of light — which is maybe one of the few things which is perfect — in an imperfect way, that is its own light, something worth allowing, something worth softening toward.
I think of all of that when I read Bert Meyers. Today’s poem offers its whole reason-for-being in its title: “Driving Home at Night with My Children After Their Grandfather’s Funeral.” It’s hard not to get biographical here. But, in his poem “Gently, Gently,” Meyers begins:
We, too, began with joy. Then, sickness came; then, poverty. We were poor, so poor, our children were our only friends.
One can see what Meyers’s children meant to him. A picture framer by trade, Meyers died relatively young as a result of the gilding-related fumes of his craft (and the fumes of constant smoking). His son is one of the major reasons his work is experiencing a small resurgence. A whole world, then, is contained in the title of today’s poem. There is a tenderness in its origin. A desire to offer a salve. To quell despair. There is a poem, one might say, within this poem. It is the poem we make each second that we turn toward the world to look for an answer to a question we do not have the answer to. Look at the first stanza:
See how the moon follows us? That’s Grandpa’s face in the sky. It smiles; so, he’s still the same. Sleep. The way home’s always shorter than the way you came.
One can easily imagine the onset of this poem. One can imagine the children’s grief, the non-understanding, the desire for something solid on which to place their unknowing. And one can see the poem’s speaker, fervent at the wheel of the car, grieving himself, looking urgently toward the world for something, anything, to use to offer that answer. One could perhaps say that the better parenting move is to tell it straight up. To speak as plainly as one can about death. To resist the urge for metaphor. But this is a poem. The moon is in the sky. And the speaker turns toward it, and finds in it an answer:
That’s Grandpa’s face in the sky. It smiles; so, he’s still the same.
It’s hard not to think of Bill Knott when I read these images-by-way-of-answers. Knott’s short poem, “Death,” reads, in full:
Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest. They will place my hands like this. It will look as though I am flying into myself.
When Knott writes, “It will look as though I am flying into myself,” it is doing the same kind of work as Meyers’s line: “It smiles; so, he’s still the same.” Both moments show the way a poem can function as almost dream-work, a surreal and suspended moment when the world is at once both the world and what it could be. Both poems seem to know that the world is still what it is — a world where people die. A world where things simply are exactly what they are, where the imaginary possibility of a metaphor does not always guarantee its actuality. Knott writes as though. Meyers immediately asks his children to sleep after giving them the comfort of an imaginary image. And yet, both poems remind us that attention is the doorway to the imaginary, which is the doorway toward hope.
In that aforementioned book, John Berger writes:
Much of what happens to us in life is nameless because our vocabulary is too poor.
Poems like today’s offer an antidote to Berger’s point; it offers that rare vocabulary for making sense of namelessness even when we cannot name it. It is a sad truth of this world that adults often have to explain the way things are to children, who are often — prior to this kind of indoctrination — the most imaginative and metaphor-receptive that humans can be. So, when I read this poem, I see Meyers trying to inhabit that space — trying to offer his children not just a way of understanding the world that might make some sense to them, but to offer a way for himself to reunite with that imaginative space. How important is that, especially in our grief and our despair? What is unsaid in this poem is that the speaker must be grieving, too. The grandfather of the children might be the speaker’s father who is gone. And so, the metaphor-making is not just a source of comfort for the children. It must be a sort of comfort for the person speaking.
The final stanza, to me, makes this point clear:
Shh ... the car’s a steel measure that swallows the road like a tape; and we’ll all live twice as long as it takes the snail to go around the world on its crumpled skate.
Here, the speaker, after an implied noise raised by the children (responded to by the Shh…), offers one more metaphor as a salve. And what a metaphor! Can’t you see it? The car as one of those big, geometric metal shapes, swallowing up the road as if the road were the tape of a tape measure? There’s an ease to such an image. A real certainty. I can feel it in my hand. And I can even hear it, the way the repetition of sounds — tape…takes…skate — calls back the image of the world rotating, however clunkily or awkwardly, each of us, just like the snail, a little bit crumpled by the days. Such an image, which is an image of pictures and sounds and narrative, speaks to the “five-sense fact of a thing” that Dana Levin writes about. But what I am struck by are those final three lines:
we’ll all live twice as long as it takes the snail to go around the world on its crumpled skate.
I did the math. Meyers is only just a little off. A snail moves .03 miles per hour, which means it would take 96 years for it to traverse the circumference of the earth if it never took a rest from its breakneck pace. We don’t live for 192 years on average, but, in some ways (maybe in the scope of geologic time) Meyers is very roughly in the ballpark.
I’m struck by these lines because at first I took them as some sort of snobbish put-down of the snail. But I think I’m wrong. I think there’s a sense of solidarity here. I think Meyers sees us in communion and companionship with the snail, who — crumpled skate and all — still moves slowly through the world. We live, according to Meyers, twice as long as its journey around the world, and so we too must be broken as a result of the journey, and moving slowly on our own crumpled skates. And yet still we live. I see this last image as something Meyers’s speaker whispers to himself, the children finally asleep, the family member having passed away — these words whispered as a reminder to continue to try to name the unnameable, to live life in its mystery, because of and despite and in spite and all of it. Messy and true. Forever until it is not.
You might hear the way in which today’s poem sounds almost like a children’s rhyme. Dana Levin mentions how Meyers, opinionated and maybe even stubborn, once wrote, about Ezra Pound’s The Cantos: “I think the last stanza of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ is of far more value to mankind.” You can see how today’s poem embodies that notion. It takes the impossibility of quelling grief in an instant and renders it into a form that might be pleasurable for a child to hear. It’s poetry not as a pop song, but as communicable language. It’s poetry of comfort in the uncomfortable world. There’s love and care, then, in the choice to allow this poem to rhyme, to offer it the rhythm and resolution of a song. It’s a lullaby, yes. A lullaby for when the world cannot be explained away. A lullaby for Just sleep…I need some time to think about how to move through the world with this loss with you. A lullaby for It will be okay, even when it’s not.
I love Meyers’s work for this. He has one poem, just titled “Lullaby,” with the subheading “1963, / Cuban Missile Crisis” that reads:
Go to sleep my daughter go to sleep my son once this world was water without anyone
Contained within these seemingly simple four lines is an attempt at comfort, yes, but also a recognition of the grand insignificance of our lives, and an attempt to center a recognition of that insignificance and frailty, rather than to attempt — through power — to transcend it, as so many people in power try to do.
Meyers’s work shows us what poetry can do in this regard. How it can be a true tool of disarmament through illumination, making the world surprising again to us, and beautiful. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the end of his poem, “These Days,” the title of which calls to mind that gorgeous lamenting song by Jackson Browne. It ends with these lines:
Be like the rain that wears a ragged coat and finds a lamp in the smallest stone and sings for nothing from street to street.
Or, think of Meyers’s poem, “Sunflowers,” which reads in full:
No one spoke to the sunflowers, those antique microphones in the vacant lot. So, they hung their heads and, slowly, fell apart.
Both of these poems use an image again as a tool of disarmament. They say put your knife down. They say look again. And so now, when I look at the rain, I feel it embodied. I feel it living. And when I hear it pattering against the roofs or upon the variety of surfaces that litter a street, I see its hands drumming, I see its voice singing. And so now, when I see a sunflower, its big head drooping down, lonely in the far corner of the corner deli’s flower stand, I want to whisper to it. I want to say I see you. I want to say don’t fall apart.
We come to a poem often as we come to each day: full of ideas, our mood changing, maybe stressed or anxious or tired, holding onto what we hold onto because we need it or because we love it or because it makes us feel secure in this world that so often does not make us feel secure. Meyers’s poems hold such things, too. “These Days” begins with the lines: “These days, everything’s bad. / The future waits in a button.” But Meyers’s poems also call us to look again at the world in the midst of all we feel, in the midst of our weariness or anger or pain. They remind me that I don’t have to enact the same violence of the world that makes me angry, that I don’t have to, because of the un-generosity of so much, be ungenerous myself. I can still find solace in an image. I can still sing a lullaby, look at the moon, speak to the flowers. I can still remain devoted. And, like Meyers writes in his poem “Gently, Gently,” I can feel the love I have for this world justifying itself, “like the nails in the house / during a storm.” I can lay my body down, unclench my fist, and be held by the world as I open my hand toward it.
I had the honor of having two poems published in the newest issue of Good River Review, out of Spalding University. You can read them here. I have a finished manuscript of a book of poems circling around the idea of light — both of these poems are from it.
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Thanks for the consistent gift of these gems. And yes, we all need to be reminded to approach poetry with openness and to let it work it's magic on us. This was beautiful.
So grateful for this deep and thoughtful dive into Bert’s poems, which you so *get* — love how you describe their “disarming” nature and what you mean by that term. And so apt and beautiful, your evocation of a poem as an “unconstellated star”— yes.