||A Review of: Being Here
by Ernest Hekkanen
There is poetry which transports one to sublime heights and then
there is poetry which dumps one in an abyss of despair, and Being
Here by Robert Meyer definitely belongs to the latter category.
In the tradition of Cline's Voyage to the End of the Night, Bukowski's
Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts, or, more
recently, Bruce Serafin's Colin's Big Thing, Being Here is an
unremitting, caffeine stare into the face of destitution at "Main
and Hastings", the title of the second poem, where "the
sidewalk deals/cards out to the game."
The title poem of the collection is a line in length and serves as
the poet's motto, as well as a riddle he tries to unravel, "Who'd
expect." Robert Meyer, who purports to have been an English
teacher and a Lecturer in English Language and Literature at colleges
and universities, now finds himself in what has been described as
"the worst third-world slum in North-America." Who'd
expect it, indeed.
How has Meyer come to be here? Perhaps the poem "Elegy"
offers us a clue; it describes a collision between a child crossing
Alma Street and a city dump truck that has gone through a red light.
Flat as a pancake
her yellow raincoat blue rubber boots
her red hat her red hat
I lay myself down
for the rest of my life
this child this child
no longer playing dead
Alma Street is on the Westside of town, in the upwardly mobile UBC
area of Vancouver, a continent away from skid row. Lost innocence
is the subtext of Being Here. A poem called "Skid Row"
follows upon the heels of "Elegy" and skid row, as we
come to learn, is "a concentration camp though as far/as I'm
Being Here isn't eloquent, unless we rework the meaning of the word
eloquent.' It is a harsh slap in the face by a concrete sidewalk,
the jagged cut of a broken beer bottle to middle-class conscience.
Relief aid misses this community, and misses it big time, but
"Hollywood North" doesn't. It comes "north to the
ghetto/with its quaint buildings from the previous century"
But all that can be hoped for by locals "is to be an extra."
But, in the Downtown Eastside, everyone is an extra.
Moored to no one
they flicker in the light
on and off like beacons
close to the poverties of their positions
like the sheets of a cold bed
far from the regions of hope
I happen to know that "Robert Meyer" is the pseudonym of
a poet with great lyric gifts, a poet who wishes to maintain his
anonymity because he still has "to walk the streets of [his]
neighborhood." I'm not sure how he came to reside in the Main
and Hastings community, but I do know that "the horizon run[s]
like a thread/with its needle/through the whites of [his] eyes."
Reading a man in middle-age who finds himself contemplating the
fall' which has led to his current life circumstances, but who
nevertheless clings to his dignity and humanity, is a little bit
like watching "Little hands reaching for the umbilical cord/trying
to fly a placenta like a kite." ("Gallery Gachet")
Just the same, the poet, aka Robert Meyer, keeps "calling/to
let the classically dead know/I'm still here under the fallen pine
needles." ("The Calling")
Being Here called on me like a painful twinge where once I was
deeply wounded. It arrived in the mail on January 19, 2005, with
the explanatory note: "Some time ago you expressed some interest
in the book I had been writing about the Downtown Eastside."
I can't recall whether I actually expressed such an interest. No
matter. Being Here took me firmly back to the late '60s, when I
arrived in Canada as a draft dodger and took up residence on the
Lower Eastside and again, in my late thirties, when I became a
homeless person for three years. This short collection of poems
reminded me, and humbled me.