Peaks and Valleys

by Barry Spacks

“I live in the only east-west valley in North America.” — Dan Gerber, in conversation

SPEED WRITER: The factoid above is the sort of thing a poet would want to know: Dan Gerber and wife Debbie, a prize-winning horsewoman, have settled in a valley near Santa Ynez unlike any other. An honorary Santa Barbaran, Dan has read at our Museum of Art, at the Contemporary Arts Forum, at UCSB, and in various April Poetry Month celebrations in town. A man as distinguished as his valley, he’s one of the most admired and honored poets in our area.

A writer with the calm slowness of manner befitting long Zen training, Gerber is also used to traveling at 200 miles per hour. A professional racecar driver as a young guy — and author of a book-length history of the Indianapolis 500 — he gave up speed after a disastrous racing accident some 30 years ago, but has recently taken the sport up again. He also makes frequent speed trips to Santa Barbara gunning his slick bike, a Ducati.

He has published five collections of poems along with three novels, a book of stories, and a smattering of essays, with individual works appearing in The Nation, the New Yorker, Poetry, the Georgia Review, and numerous anthologies. Among his many honors was his winning of Forward magazine’s Gold Medal Book of the Year Award for poetry in 1999 and the prestigious Mark Twain Award in 2001. His next gathering of poems arrives from Copper Canyon Press in spring 2007.

Here’s a brief sampler of recent Gerber poems, work modest in voice, spiritually oriented, releasing a mysteriously koan-ic energy. The first followed a long series of visitations from a fox who’d stare at the poet:

When I looked up again
I could see the fox from my window,
watching as she would every day
on my walk,
from her cover of mullein and snakeweed,
barking her curt, raucous bark
till I scanned the hillside
and our eyes met,
as if, by some pact,
made back in the primordial when our
trails first crossed,
we had agreed on this still,
shrouded, morning in June
to question these two
of our ten thousand lives.

This wry way of delving for mystery in the Gerber voice is familiar to Zenists, as is the self-aware teasing in the poem below:

At Any Moment
This anger sneaks back in
like the thought of a white horse
I’m determined to ignore,
my heart on fire with intolerance
of intolerance,
the wars I fight against the wars
in me.
I have come to regret
being right about anything.

In a last example, with an S.B. setting, the poet again sounds the note of ironic self-knowledge. Most readers won’t need to be told that the title refers to a person committed to relieving the pain and forwarding the happiness of others.

When the young man on State Street
approached as if to ask directions,
saying “Can you help me out a little here?”
and I, though I already knew, said
“Help you out how, exactly?”
“A dollar or two if you can,”
he said, and I took a deep breath,
holding in what I might’ve held out,
hearing. When someone asks, you
give what you can, from my bank
of training in the ways of compassion,
and though I didn’t want to,
opened my wallet, and
with the munificence of a toad,
pulled out a five and bought him off.

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