Walking With Eric

By Neeli Cherkovski


Eric Walker
Eric Walker late 1990s

    Eric Walker jumped into my life so quickly and with so much 18-year-old wonder and abandon that I had trouble understanding where his poems came from, nor did I realize their enduring value. I met him because Jack Mueller, the great lyric poet, was paying attention. He phoned from the nearby Savoy Tivoli, a bar/café on Grant Avenue which cut through North Beach, to tell me a young poet had landed in town, “His name is Eric Walker and you better get down here. He needs a place to crash. The kid is either 17 or 18. Cute, even with pimples, and a terrific poet.”

    If you know me you’d know how I felt. On my way to the venue: I built an exciting image of a tall, luxuriantly blond haired youth, a convenient fantasy to fill the time. The poet turned out to be short with a mop of sandy hair, defiantly awry. Within the first ten minutes, we were old friends, sitting at my kitchen table, pouring hot coffee into our cups, as I offered Cognac to boot. The young poet tossed his cap into a corner – it landed on the old linoleum floor. He wiggled in his chair -- probably guessing that my eyes were undressing him. He lit a cigarette and leaned back, took a sip of coffee, some of which spilled on his shirt, and said, “Do you like Rimbaud?”
“I adore him. His poems and his surly lips, fresh from the countryside.”
Eric giggled. His eyes glowed. “How about Verlaine?”
“Sure. Another madman. The absinthe inhaler.”

    I sized him up as a true scamp, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn with pen and paper. His limber body was compact and his voice a bit shrill, but I suppose the most outstanding feature was the eyes – great orbs that absorbed vast quantities of light. Those eyes would become, for me, an iconic reminder of Eric Walker’s presence. They even became beacons in my own dreams. He was made for the Bay Area, but a part of him lived forever in a mythic Paris with Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Eric had Bohemia buried in those astounding eyes and under the umbrella of his abnormally long eyelashes. Those features blended well with the prominent nose and delicate lips. In the days of late 1982 and early 83, Eric’s was a wily and slim, somewhat gawky presence. How I remember them, those eyes, the eyes of a poet for sure, restless, probing, bespeaking an intelligence viewing the world through poetic lashes. Poetry wasn't just art for Eric Walker, it was his bread and wine. He would come to ravish my Harwood Alley bookshelf, finding gems inside of gems, gold inside of gold. Among them were Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Ace of Pentacles by John Wieners, and an early Charles Bukowski poetry collection inscribed to me. I saw that this high school dropout knew where to find a true classroom: in his own hands, out of his own mind. As we talked over the months to come, I observed that for all his antics, and there were many -- the time he doused me with a water balloon while I sat in our favorite cafe, the day he stole a bag of books from our local bookstore -- I also remember him listening acutely to what was going on around him and taking notes when someone said something interesting. This was a poet who caught the rhythms of ordinary speech, who identified them within the lyrical chamber of his own mind, and was able to construct poems with a relentless passion largely out of what he conjured.

    I encouraged Eric to pour another nip of Cognac into his coffee, which he did. “I heard you’re a dirty old man?” he said.
‘Yes, I have that reputation.”
“And Philip Lamantia lives across the street from you?”

    I assured him that was true and we would go to meet the great surrealist poet soon. When he heard that we often spoke to one another through kitchen windows, Eric peered across the alleyway, but Philip’s curtain were drawn. We talked until 2 in the morning. By that time Eric’s jacket was on the floor alongside his cap, and cigarette butts were everywhere. He told me how he captured the audience at the reading earlier that night and that I should have been there. With reverence he mentioned Kirby Doyle, old-time Beat genius. “He really loved my poems,” Eric said. “If only Bob Kaufman had been there as well.” I read a few poems to Eric hoping to illicit an enthusiastic response.
“You use the word “time” so much. I’d watch that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, think of a melting clock, like in the Dalí painting. You can describe time and not have to use the word so much.”

    He was cocky, too, and probably correct, and I filed the thought away. The next day began with bacon and eggs and more talk as the young man assembled his outfit of baggy pants and scarves, an elaborate mask of Rimbaudian verve and post-hippie splendor. Eric recounted winning a poetry competition sponsored by the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Federation of Chaparral Poets. The sun filtered into the room as Eric glowed, “I got a one hundred dollar check and a certificate. My mother drove me to the event – it was Surreal. There were mostly women, all old, and they swarmed around me.” He said that they were enamored of rhyming poems, mostly, but they loved his images.
He lit a cigarette, stepped up and play-acted the scene, hobbling across the room in imitation of an elder poet’s shaking hand giving him the check. “And they had me read the poem as my mother beamed with pride.” He took a breath and burst out laughing.
“What is it?”
“Well, my mother must have thought I was on my way to an academic career. The prize just made me more restless to get away from home.”
“You could make money if you were a teacher.
“You’re not serious, are you?”
I thought a moment and said, “No, but it is still an option.”

    He spoke that first evening of the importance of William Everson in his life as a poet. Not only did he draw sustenance from Everson’s The Birth of a Poet, but he had the opportunity of sitting in on the poet’s classes at UC Santa Cruz, awed by this tall, bearded man whose spiritual journey and poetic growth came about on the same terrain Eric knew so well. Everson’s plain-spoken instructions dwelt on an Emerson-inspired self-reliance and on his aggressive connection with man on the land. Eric and I read aloud both the thunderous poems of Everson’s life as Brother Antoninus and from the later work with its return to the more land-oriented imagery of his youth.

    The phone rang. It was Lamantia who had heard a young poet had landed in town. In no time Philip came over and was sitting at the table. Eric was in heaven facing a man whose earliest poetic efforts at fourteen, had been recognized by the likes of André Breton. They shared a natural enthusiasm. Philip the elder was still Philip the younger – restless and feverish. Anyone listening that morning would have seen an elder youth with the wisdom of the ages and from whom the young poet could learn. He spoke with grim authority of the French Surrealists, often pounding the table to make a point. Eric had met his match and he knew it –offering Philip his last cigarette. What Philip went on to delineate, as he expounded, was a map to such Surrealist precursors as Matthew Lewis, Gerard de Nerval, and Lautréamont. He also added a few words of praise for the English poet Thomas Chatterton who had taken his own life while still in his teens. At this point, Eric might easily have fallen off his chair so intoxicated was he, as Lamantia grew increasingly excited. I went over and ground enough coffee for a strong pot as Philip launched into a frenetic discourse on alchemy. I leaned over form the coffee making and said, “We poets change paper into paper and ink into ink.:
“Yes,” said Lamantia.

    Over the ensuing days Eric came to know North Beach culture well. We raced one another to the Caffe Trieste, eager for our coffee, eager for our friends, and just plain eager. “Come on, old man, come on. . .” he would encourage as we made our way past the venerable Italian businesses sagging in the San Francisco light. Eric became the darling of Yolanda, the sister of the cafe’s founder, Gianni Giotto. Often she would dote on him and he hopped, skipped, and jumped table to table as Puccini or Verdi boomed out of the juke box. In no time Eric was rubbing shoulders with Doyle, Kaufman and Gregory Corso – heady heroes for a kid from Santa Cruz who was sewing his way into the fabric of poetry. You felt his exuberance, and admired the commitment to his journey –at one minute in animated conversation with the political lyricist Jack Hirschman and with the translator George Scrivani, or charming a young French woman from Paris, then eagerly listening to her description of the Left Bank.

    Caffe Trieste was a mixture of downtown business people, successful cultural figures, secret poets, world travelers, and a stopping-place for Allen Ginsberg on his jaunts through town. For Lawrence Ferlinghetti it served as an ante-room to his office at City Lights Publishing Company. When Eric met him, introduced by me one morning. Ferlinghetti smiled kindly and said, “Welcome to the Casbah".

    One day we sat with Harold Norse who painted for Eric a picture of his expatriate years in Athens, Paris, Rome, and Tangiers. Harold even read a poem from his book Hotel Nirvana. It was called “Classic Frieze in a Garage.” Eric plied him with questions about living outside of the country: How did he survive? Did he speak other languages, a question was quickly answered when Harold recited a poem in Italian by G. G. Belli, whom he had translated into English. As the afternoon went on the three of us went for Chinese food, Eric hanging on to Norse’s every word and shouting out one of his own poems on busy Columbus Avenue – he had stepped into the street and began lobbing words into the windows of passing automobiles. Harold called him back to the safety of the sidewalk and we arrived, all of us in one piece, at the restaurant.

    Eric and I spent a few afternoons at Golden Gate Park, exploring the many trails, hunting the Rhododendron Grove and sneaking past the ticket booth at the Japanese Tea Garden, playfully pushing one another, and drinking green tea with the tourists. Afterwards, we sped down Highway 5, staying two nights at a lonely Motel 6 watching movies all night long and stumbling into nearby restaurants for god-awful food. On that occasion, we regaled each other with talk, walking arm in arm into a field of weeds near the motel, until the land transformed into an outpost of Oz, emerald lights gleaming. Eric told me about growing up. His voice was soft, as if he had to strain to put memories together. Midway through a thought the present would crash through and he had much to say about looking back as a springboard to the poems he was writing now. I knew then that his personal taste would carry him down surrealism’s path, grabbing the outrageous image, smoothing it down to a fine lyrical glow. He had an intense feeling for the commonplace as well. Eric was simply ‘out there’ on a breeze-driven night in the poetic whole.

Eric Walker
Joie Cook and Eric Walker, North Beach, SF, circa 1989

    “I think we left the TV on,” I said at one point. Eric suddenly remembered we had been watching the news which drew from this: “News, it was always something archaic, like “Napoleon is entering Rome.” He distrusted anything coming out of the media. He didn’t say it but I knew he put his trust in a cosmic mind, and read the stars like others read books. We wandered for an hour or more, cars echoing from the highway and joining with mysterious and unidentifiable sounds, some of which would resound in future poems. We went back to the motel feeling illumined by the night – Eric held my hand, swept his free one across my forehead and told me I was a very young old man.

    One mad weekend took us to Coast Highway 1 for a visit to Eric's grandparents who were tending their garden as we arrived. It took some time to get there, Eric was nervous, we had to pull over and stop the car several times,. “Are you really okay with this?”
“Sure. I just feel bad, like they don’t approve of me. They probably think I’m on drugs.” All I could do was reassure him.

    The encounter was awkward and uneventful. We may or may not have been invited inside, but Eric did get $20 from his grandfather and we sped off leaving the anonymous suburb behind. Eric felt drawn to his family, but he was a rambler – always on the move from Santa Cruz and San Francisco, knowledgeable in hippie and beatnik lore, a true son of California, and a child of the 1960s. He had rebelled against his parents, but over time he did receive intermittent encouragement from them, as I learned later from his older brother, Scott.

    From the beginning of our time together I was taken by Eric’s sensitivity to my needs and my deep desire for love and acceptance. I can still feel his small hand in my palm and on my shoulders, It was the soft and caring touch of compassion. At 18, Eric was absolutely sure of his mission in life, which was to write poetry. I was in my late 30s and in fear of everything. Eric, a wiry warrior of poesy saw North Beach, San Francisco as the perfect playground for a young poet unattached to academia. This was his glory – that he was unattached, but bound to the life of the poet.

Before eighteen he had landed in Berkeley where he met the street poet Julia Vinograd.

    She was the first teacher-friend who helped develop his latent powers, softening his verbal touch and pacing. In this poet she saw a natural talent and also sensed in him a need for companionship. We would ultimately both fit the bill. Knowing and working with other poets is one thing – living with them is another. I remember a trip to San Bernardino, to visit my parents. We spent three days there. At first Eric tread softly, speaking little, and even holing up for hours in my bedroom. It wasn’t until my father reminisced of his days as a hobo that Eric came to life and engaged him. “I knew every hobo jungle between here and Galveston,” my father said. Eric was on the edge of his seat. My father told stories of being pursued by railroad cops, called “bulls,” which already had a personal ring for Eric.

    I had a reading scheduled at UC Riverside with Allen Ginsberg in 1983. Eric accompanied me. He desperately wanted to meet Allen. At the event, crowded as it was with people eager to hear the famous Beat bard read, Eric did not have much of a chance. He was glum at the reception, but he and Allen did exchange some words. At every moment, however, Allen was besieged. Finally. Eric stormed outside and onto the grounds of the university, where I joined him. I asked Eric, “What did you think of my reading?” He was noncommittal, but there was his usual animation as he said, “Hey look at the stars.”

    It was not difficult to witness Eric’s often over the top behavior, to wonder about his mental stability. By the waning days of our time together I realized he needed help, but said nothing as he was not about to listen. His clothing became more and more flamboyant, his talk was often scattered, words shooting out staccato-like over the table, and he exhibited some truly paranoid traits: he was being stopped from publication; people were conspiring against him; he was going to leave and never come back. Still, the writing kept on coming a growing body of illuminating work.

    The poets of San Francisco took Eric for the wild and freewheeling poet he would always be in his short life. Eric was a spark plug for the scene. He could turn a quiet cafe on Telegraph Avenue into a den of poetic thought and for that everyone was quietly thankful. It astounds me now, decades later that Eric was gone by age twenty-nine. I do not remember the circumstances of our parting, other than that it was devastating for me and that it was also a way to free myself of another poet’s aura. I needed my own space, and because Eric was bouncing off the walls with his rapidly developing psychological problems, I groped for silence. For some reason, when he would call from distant places, even from Eureka, where he took his own life, badgered by the police and plagued with delusions, a toxic combination, I either didn’t take his calls or spoke quickly and abruptly. Only when his magnificent poems surfaced through the work of Tisa Walden, who had published him initially, and Raymond Foye via his tribute in the Brooklyn Rail, did I come to appreciate his work anew. Walden came to know Eric early on, and from the beginning, respected his gift. She would put out three books, Night’s Garden, Helen, and Jonah’s Song. They were beautifully produced, chapbooks over-brimming with lyrical energy. Another book was in the planning stages, but fell through.

    I feel fortunate to have had so many poets in my life, Charles Bukowski when I was fifteen and beyond, and then with Eric in my late 30s. I hold a candle out to both of them: two ends, many ends, amends and amen. The poems of Eric Walker are exquisite.

    Not only did he possess a musical ear and a natural sense of craft, but he left behind a considerable body of work. Although repetitive at times, that in itself only enhances the sense of mastery over his interior demons and gives the reader a grasp of what would rise to the surface later if his life had not been so tragically shortened. They are so much of his mind and of his imagination, but they grew out of the rough and beautiful coast lands of California, and down through the tangled shadows of his psychic redwood forest.