Two-Way Mirror, a poetry notebook by David Meltzer, reviewed by Alex Rieser


“A poet sees what you see but brings back the image in words that makes the seeing more memorable and always within reach,” Meltzer writes in a single-sentence bulleted section of Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook. Brief but in no way small, these shotgun ideas comprise the energy and spiritual structure of Meltzer’s text, a “primer,” as he calls it: “an approach to the creative principle embodied in poetry.” Meltzer’s statement on bringing back the image is just one of the many places in this text that send the reader spiraling back into the lines of some of the great poems that stick with them. At the moment I am recalling a white umbrella that a man is washing in the silt of the river Ganges, the sucking sound as he opened and shut it, opened and shut it; lines from Jorie Graham’s Imperialism, which I often wake up seeing and which were brought back to me many times while reading Meltzer’s book.

Meltzer opens Two-Way Mirror with a discussion of the time, place, and state of art in education that inhabit the ethos of its conception. Beginning with the history of San Francisco’s New College in the Mission District where Meltzer taught at the time the book was first written, and continuing to the MFA program that it more or less became years after. This is all in building to a particular metaphor from which the title of the book is taken. But before he gets to that, Meltzer establishes his credentials in a way that poets of the beat generation are so wont to do: by naming friends. Particularly those who left New College and whose influence would become the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of San Francisco. One of the poets whose name will inevitably come to mention when discussing New College (it appears twice before the second page comes to a close) is Robert Duncan, and it’s important that Duncan is mentioned in a text that takes as its primary goal to create new avenues for poets, because Meltzer and Duncan came to poetry in nearly identical ways: via a teacher, one true believer who summoned the muses to them.

“God bless Mrs. Callahan,” Meltzer writes, the teacher who promoted him to write a poem for Manhattan’s Bicentennial, and when Meltzer confessed to her that he didn’t know how to write poems, Mrs. Callahan tells him not to worry, to: “concentrate on defining a feeling or feelings” which is where all of this starts. For Duncan, it was Miss Keough who introduced H.D.’s “Heat” in such a way that it was not a matter of prescribed course (as Meltzer’s assignment was indeed extracurricular) but as an offering, a separate thing that students might take with them and make their own, as poems are often brought in educational systems. “Heat” is the second part of a poem entitled “Garden,” which appeared in the 1915 issue of Poetry. It is through the thick air of the poem that Duncan cuts, ploughing through it to develop a kind of “life reading” of the text, or a message that can be carried in one’s pocket and applied to the way one moves through the world. The idea being that “heat” is a kind of oppressor and there are ways you may not notice that it bends you and shapes you. Ultimately you must be like the wind, rending it open, turning it on either side of your path. There are few poems or metaphors or codas, sayings, credos that are capable of sustaining a life’s worth of knowledge, but “Heat” is one of them. Meltzer’s metaphor for a life reading, although more specialized in that it applies directly to poetry, contains just as much of that thick life pulp as H.D.’s blunted grapes. This of course is the book’s overarching metaphor: “A poem is a two-way mirror. You must look into it in order to see, to recognize your own face.”

More a conceit, it is possible that this idea was lifted from Whitman, who Meltzer gives several pages to within Two-Way Mirror, including:

Let who may exalt or startle or fascinate or soothe, I will have purposes as health or heat or snow has and be regardless of observation. What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.

As this is a text primarily concerned with teaching young novices, or perhaps converting young people as neophytes into poetry, the poetical message here is that: you learn your craft, practice it, master its intricacies, concerning yourself at first with line, space, meter, sound, voice, semantics, and rhetoric, all in order to forget it and just write your true poem. In short: the poem is a reflection of the poet. The poet sees the world through the lens of poetry and thus it is through the poem’s reflection that they see their true selves.

But Meltzer’s metaphor of the two-way mirror extends beyond the poet’s self-identification. Meltzer is a voracious reader, and Two-Way Mirror is a text of conversation with many of the texts he’s encountered. One such collection of words is that of Janheinz Jahn, a scholar of sub-Saharan African literature:

The word holds the course of things in train and changes and transforms them. And since the word has this power, every word is an effective word, every word is binding. There is no “harmless,” noncommittal word. Every word has consequences. Therefore the word binds the muntu. And the muntu is responsible for his word.

In this dialect, the word bantu is translated as “man,” but the concept of muntu “embraces the living and the dead, ancestors and deified ancestors: gods.” In short, muntu is every living being that has the capacity for language, and all of them responsible for the words that they create, all of them linked by these words. Meltzer then cycles back to Robert Duncan to link this idea of the muntu and his metaphor of the mirror in Duncan’s Rites of Participation:

The drama of our time is the coming of all men into one fate, “the dream of everyone, everywhere.” The fate or dream is the fate of more than one mankind … We have gone beyond the reality of the incomparable nation or race … in which identity might hold and defend its boundaries against alien territory. All things have come now into their comparisons. But these comparisons are the correspondence that haunted Paracelsus, who saw also that the key to man’s nature was hidden in the larger nature.

The term “rite” means a social custom, practice, or conventional act, but perhaps it also contains the word “right” as in one’s duties, responsibilities, and participation in the word as the key to our larger nature. The word being all encompassing, the living and the dead, unites.

When the lens through which you see the world is poetry and you see poetry in what you observe, you also come to see all people as poets. That is, all people are potentially poets yet to be converted to make time for the page. Thus all people are allowed to take part in these rites of participation. Play their role, contribute their verse, sound their barbaric yawp.

At its heart, Two-Way Mirror is a text of conversation, conversation with the poets Meltzer admires, those he knows or knew personally, the works of these poets, and the poems themselves. It’s a conversation between the parts of Meltzer that will always be a student of the word, ever hungry for expansion in understanding. As a text that invites you to respond, approaching it conversationally will allow for the best read. This is your formal invitation to participate in the work.

Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook, by David Meltzer. San Francisco, California: City Lights Publishers, April 2015. 213 pages. $18.97, hardcover.

Alex Rieser is the author of the chapbook Emancipator (New Fraktur Press, 2011), and has internationally published poetry, fiction, interviews, and criticism. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Cossack Review, The Portland Review, Paris Magazine, The Prague Review, and many others. He holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco, where he served as Chief Art & Poetry editor for Switchback. He currently lives in Riverside, California, with his wife and son.

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