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September 4, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Neglected Poets 3 – Donald Schenker

There is no Google image available for the beloved, almost forgotten Berkeley poet Donald Schenker (1930-1993), other than this modest yellow cover, from the Ahsahta Press edition of Up Here (1989). Here indeed lies one whose name was writ in water.

Up Here was a cabin in Siskiyou County where Don Schenker wrote his best poems in the eight years between his diagnosis and his death. Don, in David Shaddock’s phrase “a New York Jew in the wilderness,” found in Hurd’s Gulch an ordinary tragi-comic stage in the backwoods where poems could occur.

*

Message

The orchard clamors

in the sun

for my attention.

*

Trees wave

all together,

letters in a grid.

*

Read me,

read me.

Now read me again.

*

I met Donald Schenker in January, 1971, when he asked me to read with John Brandi to benefit Walden School in Berkeley. He showed me his jazzy book Say X. I was just back from pushing my strong stupid 29-year-old body 150 miles over three mountain ranges in the dead of winter, and was too self-absorbed to take in Don’s work, or anybody’s really beside my own. In November, 1990, I went to hear Don read at Cody’s Books and was enchanted by his radical insights so laconically folded within everyday speech. At that point he had just over two years to live.

In those two decades I had published a number of books and chapbooks to not a whole lot of acclaim. Don had published one thin book, Up Here, and was about to publish another, High Time, not attracting much recognition either. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1985, sold his business, and devoted himself full time to writing. My friendship with Don was based against the shadow of death, freeing us from a competitive edge that often undermines the friendships of poets.

Don Schenker was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who’d served in the Navy and wandered to San Francisco to be part of the beat scene; he hung out with Rexroth and Ferlinghetti but none of the glamorous poets really noticed him. He married lovely blonde Alice from Wisconsin and had three kids and they bought a summer cabin in Siskiyou County. Don’s early poetry has a lot of chatter and jabber, irrelevant brilliance, a voice in the middle of the air, sharpening his chops; once he was told he was going to die it concentrated his mind wonderfully. He got permission to write when he drove up to into the little cabin in the Klamath Mountains with wet wood crackling in the stove and the six million wasps to be killed with rolled-up newspapers, Coyote howling at dawn, the woodpeckers asking about money, and grasshoppers complaining at his passage like frenetic political Lilliputians. Eternity in the details of any moment, and Death over his shoulder.

*

Noon at Bear Meadow

*

We were on our separate ways

to the meadow, the bear and I.

We were going to meet there.

*

He was going to stand up

and open his arms

and I was going to walk in.

*

In the middle of the meadow,

in the middle of the day,

nobody there but him and me.

We thought we’d try it.

*

But something happened.

He got there early and didn’t wait,

and I came late.

*

He was leaving as I arrived

and never looked back.

I stood and watched him go

and never called out.

*

I went back every day after that

for a long time.

Then every month, then every year.

*

In the center of the meadow at noon

I’d sink down into the grass,

close my eyes in the bright sun

and think about how close we came,

the bear and I.

*

One of these days I’ll run into him again

in the woods, on the ridge.

Neither of us needs meadows now.

*

No need going over what went wrong,

feeling each other out,

making arrangements for another try.

Then and there’d be fine.

*

Don was pissed off to the end that he wasn’t famous. Of course, his best work came pounding in over the last few years, with Death watching. And maybe it’s also true that if he had been recognized early it might have taken off a certain edge; maybe he needed to be alone against the void without the comfort of posterity in order to write the poems he had to write. At least we could grouse together about the randomness of the name game.

Hundreds of people turned up at the Unitarian Fellowship for Donald Schenker’s memorial. Poets, folks from the Gulch, old Berkeley hands. When I got to the mike, I warned the crowd I was going to abuse my privilege and read two poems. Never leave a poet alone with a microphone. Don would have done the same. I read “All Over the Place” and “Exodus.” Not many dry eyes in the house. Months later, I went up to the Gulch and stayed alone in his little cabin. His ashes are up on the ridge, scattered around the boulder with the owl stone. I hadn’t thought to bring my hiking boots, so I had to borrow Don’s, and left his footprints all along the frosty paths where once the bear had come but couldn’t stay.

*

Wings

I wake from a dead sleep

at a gallop, writing.

A bladder full of words.

Standing there, I am half poetry,

half asleep.

*

Later, trying

to make this poem about

the anxiety of making poems,

*

I sit here,

half poetry, half desk.

I have an urge

*

to let the desk half go, let it

drop away, down down

until it lands with a little

splash far far

behind me.

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Alta / Sep 10 2010 5:11 pm

    Wow. The poems are great.

    Thanks,

    AG

  2. Will / May 12 2014 2:48 pm

    I believe I also read at the Walden School Reading that night. I still have the poster, so I can see if we were on the same bill. Schenker was influential in giving me confidence as a writer, and I thought his work was worthy of more recognition than he got. I’m glad to see you included him in this blog. Will Fowler

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