A gnomic inquisitor of cultural history and personal experience, San Francisco poet David Meltzer has long been a vital force in postwar poetics. Surfacing in North Beach in 1957 after a childhood and adolescence shared between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, he began reading the great works of modernism and fell in with the intense scene surrounding poet Jack Spicer, honing his craft with other poet novitiates. The rich context of postwar America, its economic prosperity, political tensions, and social anxieties and awakenings, afforded Meltzer and his beat comrades space to found a renaissance of West Coast letters.
David's Copy, the first major collection of Meltzer's poetry in nearly ten years, spans a career in a bohemian underground rich with diverse social experiments in life and art. Edited by Michael Rothenberg, whose previous attention to West Coast writing has made public the works of other beat writers like Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger, the ninety-odd poems here reveal an intense consideration of our circumstances as postwar citizens: We must improvise the rudiments of decency in a world confined by the threat of nuclear destruction on one hand and economic fatalism on the other. Meltzer makes the case for personal confrontation between the hermetic world of the poet and the greater context of social and political history.
The youngest poet to have his work included in Donald Allen's influential anthology The New American Poetry (1960), Meltzer emerged alongside Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and others as a figure of improvisational charm and gnostic vision. His earliest poems reveal a preoccupation with life and observe the fragile relations between family, friends, and the larger world that influences those connections. He relates an instance of domestic pattern, its fragility and wonder "arising to quiet our children, / last night's seed / a trail of light down your thighs." Care for language is not to make it obscure but to use it as a tool for discovery: "The heart sees / what the mind sees / what the eyes see / differently."
A selection of "commentary" from Beat Thing, one of the book's final selections, examines 1950s cold-war obsessions. Here Meltzer argues that beat culture is partially derived from, and is also a response to, the collapse of European culture after World War II. He perceives the European and American obsession with race through radical Jewish hermeneutics, tracing various histories of violence: The Shoah and the A-bomb revealed a horrific disregard for human life and liberty, while at home in America, "frenzy teens dance mindless," the "system's survivors in white buck Angora / sock hop perfect." He notes a "spirit crisis disconnect / no subject but blank unrelenting / busted time / no future." Charged rhythms mimic the apparent off-the-cuffness of beat poetry but also constantly undermine that improvisational model with shrewd and subversive observations of mid-century America. The investigation is masterful, critical, handling with tenderness society's failures and treating them as though the great contradictions in history and the individual could be resolved by the power of art. Few books of poetry reveal such impassioned arguments for the contradictions and entanglements of personal and social life in this country.