Two-Way Mirror: The Mysteries of Meltzer

by Garrett Caples

At 75, David Meltzer has lost none of his curiosity about what makes poetry tick.  We’re sitting around his apartment talking poetry and oral tradition when he remarks, apropos calypso legend Mighty Sparrow:

“Calypso is a form of rap, really.  It has this wonderful cutting contest, like a slam.  But these particular contests, you have to make it up on the spot, like a freestyle battle rhyme.  And it’s kinda remarkable if it works.  That’s ingrained in oral cultures.”

I think of the people I know, younger than he, poets even, who have already thrown in the towel, who wouldn’t have the vaguest idea of what a battle rhyme is, let alone be able to relate it to calypso, and I’m reminded once again how fortunate I am to be this poet’s editor at City Lights.  It’s not simply that I learn a lot hanging out with him but that he provides a model for a restless, searching intelligence undiminished by age and its attendant infirmities.  At a time in life when many cling to the familiar, David is ever ready to interrogate his past conclusions and set out in search of the unknown.

Having worked together on David’s most recent book of poems, When I Was a Poet (Pocket Poets #60) in 2011, we’re just beginning discussions for his next City Lights title, an expanded reissue of his classic Two-Way Mirror, due out next year.  First published in 1977 by Robert Hawley’s innovative Bay Area imprint, Oyez Press—responsible for such Meltzer volumes as Blue Rags (1974) and Harps (1975)—Two-Way Mirror is both a notebook of poetics and an instruction manual in the art of writing of poetry.  Composed in sections of discrete remarks, some running a few lines, others a few pages, Two-Way Mirror functions at an oblique, epiphantic angle, its pedagogical method perhaps best suggested by a Venn diagram formed from aphorism, zen koans, and Wittgenstein.

“Initially,” David recalls, “the impulse was to have some kind of book for younger people, like high school students, who had the possibility of being at the advent of this form for themselves, and knowing how terribly the subject was taught in high schools in 1977.  I was pitching it as something basic but enigmatic, as mysteries are.  So the book was nonlinear and basically just various quotes to mull over.  Like a section of curious instructions: write a love poem without using the word ‘love,’ stuff like that, and also a little memoir of how I wrote my first poem is tucked in there.  And other odd disparate texts that are just seemingly in there like fortune cookies.”

Among the texts for meditation are statements by poets like Blake, Whitman, Jack Spicer, and Clark Coolidge, philosophers like Edmond Jabés, and musicians like Aaron Copland, interleaved with Meltzer’s own observations as a practitioner and other materials drawn from anthropology and ethnology.  Enhancing the volume’s somewhat deadpan instructional ambience are numerous black and white illustrations David collaged from a pair of grade school primers.

“All of the graphic elements, like the cover image, were things that I gathered from a thrift shop English textbook,” he says.  “Some of the interior images came out of another textbook for the deaf and if you notice, in those drawings, nobody has any faces.”  He laughs at the uncanny suggestiveness.  “I don’t know what that means or how it’s supposed to pertain to deaf people….”

David being David, in any case, he isn’t content with merely reissuing Two-Way Mirror; he wants to reexamine his thoughts of 35 years ago and bring them into the 21st century.  Thus Meltzer has planned an ambitious, four-part lecture series and writing seminar, “Basic Mysteries,” to be delivered at the Mythos Gallery in Berkeley in February, using a recently stumbled upon carton of the original pressing of Two-Way Mirror as a textbook.  Between preparing for and delivering the lectures, David hopes to generate either a new section of remarks or an afterword.

“The first lecture is ‘Before the Page,’” David says.  “That’s song, chant, rite, rhythm, pulses, and so forth.  Movements, hand gestures.  The body as the expression of this and the physiology of expression.  The second one, ‘Marks Against Time,’ is the origins of writing, of alphabets.  It’s interesting because almost every culture that develops its own writing system has a creation myth attached to it, and all of this reaffirms the singularity and identity of a people, a tribe.”

“Then the third, ‘Inside the Page,’ would be the book and the taking of the voice and silencing it, and, like any technology, creating alienation from this primal stuff.  The alternative is the song in both popular and sacred cultures.

“And finally ‘Beyond the Page,’ which, in a sense, is where we are now.  It began by transforming the page, through this,” he says, gesturing towards his laptop.  “Now you have all these things: blogs, flarf—I’ll have to find out more about flarf!”  He laughs.  “But writing itself is a technology, putting together a book is a technology, even reading a book, because you have to learn how to use the technology.  When books became available to the middle and lower classes, people became alienated.  In the domestic situation, say: ‘Get your nose out of that book!’  It’s like people texting during a reading today.”

The way the image of “the nose in the book” mirrors today’s clandestine smartphone consultation through David’s historico-poetical wizardry, it suddenly occurs to me to ask why the book is called Two-Way Mirror.  “Well, I wrote it better than I can say it,” he says, turning to the right page:

 

A poem is a two-way mirror.

 

*

 

“Moving or allowing movement in either direction.”

 

*

 

A poem is how the poet looks out at you.  His words make you look back upon the page to see yourself revealed.

 

A recognition.

 

*

 

The poem is a two-way mirror concealing a page.

 

For information on how to register for David Meltzer’s “Basic Mysteries” course, go here.

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