The Poetry of Neeli Cherkovski


of late a sun
walks over the hill
and settles-in

bright light on
yellow facades
face the workroom

you’re singing in Swedish —
clear air whispers an elder
song so elderly
it defies humanity, we
must go, we need to
jump, no choice

you sing in the native
tongue, the sun
trickles through dawn’s
taut riggings and aligns with our
wily wounds, I imagine
you, across town,
another sun or a part
of this one by your window
looking out on the Bay

you’ve made coffee already,
you’re smoking a cigarette,
the nightingales are
somewhere else, all storms are
overseas, we are ever
on the Passage, day on day



I learn to listen as you chop a stack
of wood for your fire, bodhisattva
beatific beautiful body
alone and finally dead as the grasshopper,
yet you sting the air and go from bush to bush
in Bixby Canyon’s lovely darkness

spontaneous father of the ancient
beat, cross country chronicler, chasing
Hemingway and Faulkner peeking
at Fitzgerald’s Gatsby prose, you
prattle on the road, home and away,
then home again, barge man, alive
and alone on Snow Mountain

so long ago at 47 you walked
into the fire and expired
like hot coals
on the morning air, dumb
with drink, numbed by the
whiskey. compassionate and
lost, now your light
bops up an down
like a melody from heaven
in the shadows by a stream

your essential mind hovers
in the pages of the book I read, you
and your buddies dining
on hamburgers, drinking Red Mountain
wine, haunting the rail yards
waiting on Whitman’s graybeard ghost
or Emily Dickinson’s reed pipe

we are sitting on a deck
by the pond of trees, your words
whisper slowly and climb
the cliffs, a swath of cloud clears
my muse, cold chill cold chilly eyes
of a demon from the mountains
of an old Buddhist poem
inhabits the drawing room

cool miraculous death, it is
fortunate to die, it is a happy
thing, it happens to a newborn
and to the grandmother
who turns the earth
in her garden, it is a ring
of gold you toss
onto the void, death, words,
your vision of a wild peace

the cool Kerouac world, those ancient
boy and girls, a memoir of Depression-Era
boyhood and the man in an iron mask and
those dark desires turned
into dust, the ashen horizon, I walk
in the woods, I awaken to
the drummer, one black bird turns
into a magnificent plumed bird

the luckiest men
know how to make love
in the wily wild, the happiest poet
is always mourning, each thing
is so true I wring out of your life,
the tales and tall Babylon
on your eyes, jazz songs and
leaping liquor to stalk and nail you
down, imperfect student on the way


For Eric Walker

ah my wild thin broken body
of a young man just eighteen
who won a poetry prize four years
earlier for a poem about flowers
dying in a vase, raising their arms
to hard sunlight, yes how broken down
and beaten, yes I turned you over
to one side and felt you
deep in my mouth, then a stream
of come all over my heart,
the veins of your poem
came rushing ‘long the side
of my room, four walls rocking
into the night, my bed soaked
in your poem, the flowers struggling
toward emancipation, ignorant
lovely petals of a bloom, cruel
afternoon heat, you said
your mother drove you to the
award ceremony, elderly women
who also wrote poetry and met
every month to talk about it
huddled round your wiry frame,
you must have given your small
hands to each of them, then,
in taking them back, you also
accepted one hundred dollars,
the prize, and a certificate, while
all the time you had Rimbaud
on your mind, you were thinking
of his dirty ass and his ILLUMINATIONS,
and of Verlaine, bald as can be,
sipping absinthe in an ill-lit
cafe, I wanted to keep you
near me, awkward, big-nose, tiny
lips and eager voice, I know, because
they tell me, you went north
and fell in love with a girl
who couldn’t have you, and
that you were medicated,
that you were thrown in jail
and died there, a suicide, not
yet twenty-five, but here’s
a flower and there’s
the sun I crawled
past your balls, pretty
wrinkles of time, our
bodies warm or cold,
the wilted vine, the
fallen stem, the colorless



out of wastes Samuel comes
from memory’s choke-hold
Samuel, supreme actor
gentle, yet worn, contemplates a boulder
shadowing an ear of light that sounds
like a lyre played by a boy
with handsome thighs

Samuel crosses over as Autumn brings rain
the trail is ash
he moves forward, the air chained pillars of fire,
the old man pauses by a well
lambs bleat, a few trees
complete themselves in
Samuel’s eyes, the moon streams

Samuel takes water
to his lips, he sees the young shepherd,
he calls, but the youth
takes his time,
t;hen turns to face the prophet

out of dust and mute desert
the magician, archaic, sanctified.
unmasking hierarchies  his words go upside-down,
he divines, he understands
and would find the unruly youth

Samuel, like an archer,
David came running
and fell to his knees

the sun, already an ancient talisman
of justice, moved a bit toward the west

the boy wept



that moment when he falls
off the Empire State Building
onto the street, his body lifeless
covered in celluloid, the little
wind up men who fall to pieces
in other ways, please help us
understand the primitive mind
of those forever unseeable angels
who cooperate with no one

in the green swamp, in the
tall grass, on a wet mountainside
the memories persist, I was a
savage, I was primitive,I was
a beast, I loved a woman
larger than the clouds covering
my island home, I was a king
and then a prisoner, finally
everything was lost, she never
loved me, I was an animal

Hollywood, Hollywood, a bit
of dust, a lot of sun, rows
of palm trees lining the road,
high sidewalks, a guidebook
to movie star homes, the
Farmer’s Market, an Assembly
of God Church, is there anything
worse than the stranger who
umps headlong into your brain?

and James Dean, he went to
fast, he drove dangerously, all
that talent, his handsome brows,
those sensitive lips, the way he
climbed into his characters and
zipped up, that’s the stuff we
want to hear, do you know him?
he was a young actor in the City
of Shushan, he died in an auto
accident out in the sticks

King Kong sleeps all day long
and only comes out to hear
the nightingales, his huge
hairy wrists are covered in
wires, he goes to the telephone
booth, but is doesn’t work
anymore, and if it did would
anyone answer? the answer
is no, no one is at home, King
King, I am with you on your
island where you reign



now I sit in the cafe drinking espresso
thinking it’s got to be okay
me being contentious and ambitious and
vain, me being myself, an old man
but young when you consider that
somewhere in what is now Indonesia
we came of age, so some tell us,
when we chewed leaves and dug up roots
and hunted with stone

it has to be fine sitting here
while the earth burns and the population
spills into the sea which will soon boil over anyway

I worry about Mozart
and Bach, all those long hours
composing music for an ungrateful mob

that’s how it is as I awaken in a fever
every night fearful of losing it
and falling down in a brick
courtyard with no help in sight

I worry about the Louvre Museum
and all that art so vulnerable
to a sudden nuclear strike
or a major eruption on the sun

what’s going to happen to my little caffe
with its gossip and poetry?
the hissing espresso machine
echoes outside, I sip the fine dark scrim
and follow with cold water

it’s all I’ve got now, this Golden Age,
as an old friend described it
listening to Italian arias
on the caffe’s juke box and waiting for
a solution to arise

I close my eyes and take one final sip
tasting the soil on a faraway estate
and the interplay of sunlight
and cloud forest

the caffe has been here
since 1956, you’ll find it
when you want it, maybe,
and maybe not, in a proper
season, in this new age
of splendor on a crowded
planet, all I ask
is that you smile
and lean back
to taste the tenor of the sky

5 Responses to “The Poetry of Neeli Cherkovski”

  1. Doug Draime Says:

    OK, now we’re talkin’. Excellent. Excellent. Excellent!

  2. Wonderful work! I especially enjoyed Eros, Flowers and An Ode for Jack Kerouac, but all were stunning.

  3. took my breath away, shed my tears, made a smile appear upon my face. thanks….

  4. Joie Cook Says:

    Actually, Eric Walker was 29 when he hung himself. I hosted his wake in my Tendernob apartment with mostly all of the North Beach poets in attendance. He was also a great lover of mine.
    A tragedy, his death. He was the great voice of his generation who never received the recognition through the schizophrenic fog which took him to horrible places.

  5. Neeli’s writing comes to us clearly from the poet’s heart and from the poet’s head. Although he is impressed by writers such as Pound and Hemingway, he chooses to write only in his own, Neeliesque way. There is no sense of “trying to copy” a master. As I read Neeli’s interview I kept thinking of the unique elements of good writers. All of us have our favorite writers; we are drawn strongly to those that develop their own voices, not the ones who are determined to write just like Bukowski or anyone else. Writing, to be good, to be authentic, must come to us as unique, inspired by the writer’s selfhood, or personality, or individuality, or “heart and head” as we see it so clearly in Neeli’s writing.

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