The Firehouse Gallery North in Berkeley is a small, homely space. Its deep display windows draw passers-by into a tunnel: vaulted ceiling and walls close in, telescoping toward a vague and undefined space out back. It is not the sort of place one expects to encounter fame or greatness, but the ghosts of both are perfectly at home between its shabby walls.
The names on the walls attached to various works of visual art are names I know. David Meltzer’s cherubic “Golem” grins down on the tetragrammaton and lends the room an occult air. Jack Hirschman’s rough-textured application of paint to canvas mocks the onlooker with nonsense names and literary loanwords on paintings big enough and loud enough to announce a vital presence without giving away a thing. The works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti are obvious at once — a woman veiled in black with a Joker smile looms beside a hermaphroditic figure in blue. The aura of celebrity pools around these works, and the crowd follows.
The crowd is a mixture of those who know beatniks from books, and the fading hippie luminaries of that time come to overawe them. I am the youngest person in the room by decades. I try to blend in and eavesdrop, but a saxophonist takes up the loft above the space and turns the rumble of conversation into a roar.
When Beat poet and local legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti arrives, he sits unhappily in front of his own paintings, and the crowd cannot decide whether to stare at the man or his works. More than once, I catch someone quoting his own poetry back at him, reminding him the artist is “constantly risking absurdity and death whenever he performs.” Ferlinghetti sighs and says nothing. He wears the expression of an old king made to sit and receive petitioners long past the time he would have rather been in bed. A gasbag hovers near his ear, assailing Ferlinghetti’s communist ideals on the grounds that City Lights, the bookstore the poet founded and still owns in part, does not offer bathroom facilities to the public. The painter-poet rolls his eyes.
Fellow Beat legend author and painter Jack Hirschman is working the crowd in his trademark red scarf, his eye full of mischief that makes him look much younger than he should. He catches me eavesdropping over the old king’s shoulder and closes in. He grips my upper arm with surprising strength, and with his other hand, he pulls my hair.
“You’re a reporter?”
I tell him I am. I am patient with his physical contact — but wary.
He leans close to my ear, his rumbling basso profundo and New York accent electrifying. In a tone normally reserved for lovers or enemies he says, “When you write this, be sure to print that I ain’t a beatnik. I’m a commie.” He lets go and glides away into the party, flipping his tasseled scarf over his shoulder. See, here I have remembered.
I come back to Firehouse North three days later for the poetry reading attendant to the art show, both events part of their exhibition titled “Rebels, Hipsters, and Visionaries, Bay Area Poets and Artists, 1950s and ’60s.” All of those categories are represented, but the crowd is smaller, as the gallery charges admission for the pleasure of hearing David Meltzer speak.
Meltzer looks incredulous as he is introduced, as if he cannot believe the way he is talked about by those who admire him. He settles in to read from “Beat Thing,” his 2004 collection of poetry about the Beat era and his friends. Meltzer launches almost immediately into the work, which he describes as “Talmudic” due to its constituents being part poetry and part commentary. It sounds more like a lamentation of branding as he describes the uncertainty of living during the atomic age and the importance of the Beat ephemera that fill the shoeboxes under his bed, as the poet describes it in his bouncing elegy.
A small man, he sits knotted in his “Doctor Who” scarf and reads, “Don’t wanna be forgotten, but don’t wanna be remembered in rememberings’ dismembering.” He interrupts himself frequently, saying, “It goes on like that,” as though he’d rather not continue in the same vein. The poems read like a list of thanks being given by an Oscar winner who is desperate to thank everyone before the swelling of the orchestra forces him offstage.
UC Berkeley professor Ron Loewinsohn slips out early, just in time to miss his own name in the litany of those who were there when the scene was a scene. A woman in the audience nods to his back as it goes out the door. “He was one of them, you know. He knew Ginsberg and all those guys.” I didn’t know. I sat in his American Lit class last semester, and I watched him come and go tonight without a word.
As the night draws to a close, Meltzer reads one last poem.
“Book is barrier
Book opens the gate
Book remembers language
Book never sets the record straight.”
He’s right. I take my leave of poet, painter and his work. Out on the streets in the Berkeley night, the beat goes on.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].