Beat Thing by David Meltzer
(La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, NM, 2004)
David Meltzer’s book reads, on the whole, in epic scope, like the work of a poet simultaneously assessing a movement, his place within it, and the trajectory of the culture that spawned it (Meltzer is one of the original San Francisco beat poets). However, this is not to say that the book is simply a beat retrospective, career assessment, or pop culture collage; Meltzer employs these, and other, methods in order to do the work of an epic: to find out where we came from, how we got to be that way, where we are now, and where we might be heading as a result. The epic poet sits in the crow’s nest of the ship of a culture: he can see inside it, behind it, and ahead of culture, all at the same time.
Beat Thing is divided into three sections: “The Beat Thing Looms Up”; “Beat Thing: Commentary”; and “Primo Po-Mo.” The first section begins mid-sentence and immediately invokes a film reference that serves as a controlling image for the poem:
“like Campbell’s “Who Goes There” Jim Arness tall as Olson inside a rubberglove suit tears the door off an arctic station where Scientists confront alien life & fall apart in the impossibility (the impassability) of the Other, the Thing”
Meltzer sets up, formally and contextually, what is to come in this brief opening. Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing (From Another World) concerns the events described by Meltzer (James Arness plays the “Thing’; the film was based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John Campbell, though it’s possible Meltzer is also referring obliquely to Joseph Campbell). The analogy is apt: one culture encountering a hostile, radically different Other that both resembles it and is capable of destroying it. The nature of this Other is considered in the first section of Meltzer’s book: where it came from, and what qualifies it (authentically, in terms of writing; cynically, in terms of style: the “Beat Gap line of chinos lumberjack flannel shirts Dr Dean beat shades Joe Camel unfiltered beat smokes . . .”).
If the poem were only a catalog of “beat” past and present, we might admire Meltzer’s collage of images. But Meltzer gets to the heart of the poem in section two, “Beat Thing: Commentary”:
“it was the Bomb
it was void
spirit crisis disconnect
no subject but blank unrelenting
suburban expand into past
present nuclear (get it) family. . .”
Like the unknown, atomic Other in Hawks’ film, the Thing at the door is Us. Beat Thing (both character and poem) is a response to the void created by that which Meltzer considers the watershed moment of the American 20th century: the explosion of the atomic bomb. Meltzer realizes the Faustian bargain of Hiroshima: the destruction of many thousands of innocent Japanese lives in an effort to end the destruction of war, a methodology mirrored in the film The Thing by the expedition’s lead scientist, Dr Carrington (played by Robert Cornthwaite), the embodiment of unreasonable reasoning. This paradox—unreasonable reasoning—underscores the entirety of Beat Thing.
The third section, “Primo Po-Mo,” asserts the result of this bargain—the death of Modernity—from its opening line:
“1945 marks Modernity’s death & the birth of the Postmodern—despite whatever theorists, critics, academics, clerks, klutzes, kleagles, grad students, rad relics, cocktail intellectuals, faux aboriginals, white midclass mall rats, hip-hoppers, flip-floppers, say or signify.”
Meltzer doesn’t miss many, if anyone, in this list of cultural commentators. The opening of this third part of the poem is the strongest example of Meltzer’s assertion; if the first two sections of the poem ramble through an assemblage of images from varying perspectives and cut up in various ways, the opening of “Primo Po-Mo” is a full-on blast of invective directed, with no dalliance for the sake of poetic nicety, at the heart of the condition of the postmodern. Meltzer speaks with the authority of one who was there, and has seen; the dominant perspective of the piece is one of informed observation.
In a way, the poem is conditioned by how we read the poet’s “authority.” Certainly Meltzer was there, an original of the SF Beat movement. His handling of style is a masterwork of Kerouacian spontaneous prose, and like much great writing, the style is deceptively simple. We might think of it as mapped spontaneity; the images recur with a web-like geometry. The force of this style is summed up in Meltzer’s closing line: “history is the story of writing.” This is a fine aesthetic statement, fully lived in the achievement of Beat Thing.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming in 2012. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.