Suzanne Lummis: Our Lady of Beneficent Talent

Lummis Open 24 Hours Over the past thirty or forty years, one of the most popular and visible people in the Los Angeles spoken-word scene has been Suzanne Lummis. She is admired as a poet, an actress, a performer, a festival organizer, a poetry promoter, and a skilled promoter of herself. Last year Lynx House Press published her most recent collection, Open 24 Hours.

I’ve got to confess, right off the bat, that most of my interactions with Lummis have not been positive. For example, I once approached her at an event to ask if she might like to read at the series I host. She asked if I paid. I told her I couldn’t.  She then informed me that, due to her popularity, she only did readings for a fee. “Wherever I perform, it’s standing room only!” she declared. Recently on Facebook, when asked why more writers of color were not included in an anthology she’d put together, she began her defense by saying, “No one knows the L.A. poetry scene better than I do.”

And, speaking of confessions: a priest friend of mine always tells me, based on what he hears from me about the L.A. poetry scene, “It just sounds like a bunch of people shouting Look At Me, Look At Me!” On the other hand, I doubt people can get very far in the arts, or in any field for that matter, without vigorously and tirelessly promoting themselves the way Lummis does.

I have heard her read aloud. She is a good performer and always gets the laughs she’s looking for. So I was curious to find out how her work holds up on the page. Open 24 Hours has been my first exposure to Lummis as a writer.

Last week I read the whole book, and just now I’ve opened to a random page, to a piece called “Eurydice Finally Finds a Working Phone Booth.” After a long quote used as an epigraph (having to do with a massive L.A. sardine die-off), it begins:

I’ve got bad news

and worse news: first, I’m in hell

and, secondly, I’m calling collect. Come get me.

And hurry up, will you, I don’t like the weather—

muggy most days. And this seaside town

that maybe served once as an annex to heaven,

is shot, well, to hell I guess, the wharf eaten,

strewn with threadbare nets, stalls

where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine

of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now,

the storefronts turning to salt then

to thick and itchy air. Wow—

what was that? Can you believe all those words

jumped from my mouth? Don’t know

how I did it . . .

This material is nice, and it’s entertaining, kind of funny stuff. If read aloud by Lummis herself, I’m sure it does well at spoken-word events. One of the “schools” Lummis belongs to is the Stand-up Poetry school; as a performance piece, it would work. She has a good voice: it’s feminine, well-trained, expressive, just the right volume; and her appearance usually includes her trademark red or black beret, jet black dyed hair, dark clothes, and a deathly pale face, which brings me to the other school she belongs to, that of the “poem noir.” And what is the poem noir? There are two ways to define it. In a broad sense, as explained recently in a lecture given by British scholar John Challis, the poem noir takes characteristics not just from the famous ‘40s and ‘50s U.S. movies commonly labeled as noir, but much later ones such as Taxi Driver and more recent ones still, such as the series Breaking Bad. What do they all share? Here are my lecture notes on the films:

“Ordinary people get into extraordinary situations in which they break the law . . . Complex studies of the human condition . . . we are in the age of the film noir: hopelessness, sense of speculation . . . anxiety, paranoia, obsession, pessimism, death.”

And Challis goes on to cite some poems whose characteristics are (again from my notes): “running through the city at night . . . cemeteries . . . hard-boiled tone of voice . . . seen-it-all-before tone of voice . . . wit . . . unresolved endings . . . drinking & smoking . . . black and white: shadows . . . descent into underworld . . . hellish urban environment . . . tattoo parlors, clubs, etc. Hopelessness, despair . . . being trapped . . . ALSO: bars, trench coats, booze, cigarettes, diners.” Interestingly, he states that the poets he mentions (all males with international reputations) are not aiming to actually write noir poems and might even be unaware of doing so.

As far as Lummis’s own, more specific definition, I have not had a chance to read her essay in which she spells out her ideas (there’s a paywall for anyone wishing to read it, or the journal it appeared in can only be ordered). What I gather from her poems, however, is that many of the above characteristics apply to her work too, with the crucial difference being the tone Lummis is going for: she works and thrives in a noir atmosphere, yes, but we’re not supposed to take it seriously. There is no hopelessness or anxiety in her work, at least not on the surface. There’s not much crime; there are no tortured souls. On the other hand, she does give us an atmosphere, a setting reminiscent of the film noir world: Los Angeles, night, diners, rain, tenements, people down-and-out, definitely a “seen-it-all-before” tone of voice, a “hellish” city of night. I put that word in quotes because it’s not of course really hell. Films noirs took themselves very, very seriously. What Lummis gives us is, essentially, high camp.

I note from Challis’s lecture the phrase “descent to the underworld” and this applies perfectly to the poem I quoted above, which is all about someone stuck in hell. It ends:

Get me outta here! And this time,

Orp, we’ll make it. Because at this dump,

believe me, you will not look back.

Oh, but one good thing—no flames here,

no brimstone, like the Fundamentalists believe.

Although when I wade thigh deep

in that infected, oil-glossy tide, it kinda burns.

She calls to Orpheus to get her out. Yes, it’s hellish here all right, but the tone is worlds away from the films noirs of old, or even the deadly serious poems which Challis quotes from (one of them is by Paul Maldoon, I believe). Lummis inhabits the world of noir, but she doesn’t want us—on the surface at least—to take her seriously. Under the surface, I believe she does have a very serious intent (doesn’t all comedy?). “When things are really hellish, all we can do is laugh”—that’s what the poems communicate. The subtitle of her poem noir essay is “Too Dark to Be Depressed.”

Lummis as stand-up and “noir lite” poet—she succeeds in being both. Her poems are the edgy contemporary artifacts she wants them to be. How good are they, though? Hold on! What is “good”?!

Lummis does not try to be anything like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens. That’s not her intention. She is not a “failed Wallace Stevens.” She is very consciously doing something different. We can’t fault her for not being Frost-like or Stevens-like any more than we can fault Andy Warhol for not being more Rembrandt-like. We judge Warhol’s Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe and Mao prints as “important” and “successful” by a different set of criteria than we would a Rembrandt.

Having said that, it does seem that Lummis’s poems work better when read out loud, and especially when read out loud by Lummis, than they do on the page (she even warns us in subtitles, just half-jokingly, that some poems do not “work on page”). She has her good voice, her good beret, her pallid face, her very black hair, but on the printed page? In recent comments on KPCC radio, she quoted from some of her writing about what good and bad poems are (and not specifically stand-up or noir poems): First the good:

Well you have to be absolutely engaged with language, you have to be in love with language. And it would be helpful to have some talent.

Then the (more fun) bad:

I mean poetry in which the language is not alive — holds no charge, does not spring from precise observation, vivid recollection, luxuriant or stark imaginings. I mean poetry couched in platitudes, generalities, absent of imagery, physical details, texture and surprise. Or, I mean poetry with language that’s energetic but chaotic, murky, unfocused. Or, I mean poetry that’s careless, ungrammatical, not because the poet has set out to capture the vernacular of a particular speaker, but because the poet has not bothered to learn the basics of language.

Let’s go back to the last part of the Eurydice poem I quoted above. Where’s the charge? Where’s the precise observation? Where is the vivid recollection? Where are the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Where are the textures and surprises? If we go to the first part of the poem, the only interesting lines (and they are very good) come here: “where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine / of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now, / the storefronts turning to salt then / to thick and itchy air.” I enjoy this, especially the “thick and itchy air.” But we see that, going by Lummis’s own criteria, there’s not much going on (verbally) that’s worthwhile, that can stand alone on the page without the femme fatale, phantom-like presence of the poet herself.

In another poem, “About Misses Iverson,” narrated by the voice of a low-rent building’s super/handyman, we have an old lady locked up in her apartment, dying in her bed. It has the noir characteristic of taking place in a sleazy residential hotel; there’s death; there’s Los Angeles; and above all there is an inconclusiveness to the piece, and an air of speculation, which are both noirish things I jotted down in my lecture notes. But what of the actual writing? The style on the page? Here’s how the poem starts:

She don’t open the door,

that old lady there, four-oh-six.

You know she shy, quiet, and never

do nothing, never call attention.

But the manager come for rent and she

don’t open. And he, you know,

’s calling Misses Iverson!—Come

back the next day—Heriberto—she

don’t open.

All very plain and simple. This would make a good passage in a screenplay or play. And the poem ends with speculation about Iverson’s motives:

The way I see it,

she work for some boss,

you know, some little place, her whole

life, where they do your taxes or sell

you insurance, something like that,

and she shy and she never do nothing. Well—

she do what she supposed to do.

Now she dying she push back some—

she don’t have to answer to nobody.

Don’t have to jump up for every knock.

Ahh no, she think, Uh Uhh.

I ain’t gonna open the god damn door!

This piece, with its lack of resolution and its speculations, works as a bit of noir; but how does the poem hold up if divorced from its avowed noir and stand-up intentions? Can it really stand on its own? Would you want to commit this to memory? Again, where are the precise observations, the vivid recollections, the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Okay, I admit there’s plenty of starkness here, nothing but starkness. What we have is a kind of torso, a short speech from a play.

In another piece, “Last List: Tenement Lexicon,” Lummis writes a list of things she is (or may be) called, things such as “Boss Lady” and “Tough Little White Girl” and “La Roja Loca.” Then she has a list of things she should be called, and one of them is “Our Lady of Beneficent Talent.” She also says “She Who Should Be Paid Attention To.” And she goes on to say “Miss Netherworld” (again, a reference to hell) and concludes:

Astarte   Leaping Deer

Philip Marlowe

 

Late-Night Sue

A Relatively Sober Dorothy Parker for the New

Millennium

 

Frank O’Hara in a

                     Joan Didion Mood

La Mujer Bellisima

Amiga

My Friend

 

My Love

This is fun and it’s revealing. She no doubt does fancy herself a kind of L.A. Frank O’Hara for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. She does, I’m sure, fancy herself a kind of poetry incarnation of Joan Didion. Lummis is a good performer and a fabulous self-promoter, but, I have to ask once again, where are those precise observations and vivid recollections and luxuriant imaginings she imagines we’ll be dazzled by in her poems?

Where is the love affair with language?

The empress of L.A. poetry has no clothes.

New Books by Jack Bowman and Sherman Pearl

JackBowmanNewShermanPearlNew

Recently Jack Bowman (left, or top on mobile devices) and Sherman Pearl (right, or bottom on mobile) read at the Second Sunday Poetry reading series that I host once a month. Over the last week I’ve been reading their books.

Sherman Pearl has been around the L.A. poetry scene for many years. He started out as a journalist and began writing poetry relatively late in life. His book, Elegy for Myself (Conflux Press), is excellent for its unity and the way he has of bringing some poems to surprise endings that work. Many poems are about the poet/narrator alone in the desert or in front of abandoned stores or contemplating a traffic “crossing guard.” They deal with getting old, forgetting things in rooms, ruminating about the past.

One of the best poems is “Crosswalk.” The poet contemplates the seemingly boring, unfulfilling life of the elderly “crossing guard” at his grandchildren’s school; the guard “holds up his sign like a martyr’s crucifix.” The poet wonders if he should come out of retirement and become a “crossing guard” too:

I’m thinking of retiring

from the morass of retirement, of starting a life-

ending career. I scour the classifieds

for openings in the field of boredom, which

I’ve become highly qualified for. And what could be

more boring than waiting for death to cross

before the children do.

 

Sherman has chosen a great subject for a poem: the kind of character only artists would pay any attention to. We have seen this kind of person again and again in American cities, and yet we see him with fresh eyes with the help of this poet’s insight. The poem ends, “As I step off to start / my own crossing the guard leaps / from his chair, raises his sign, and leads me.” I love the religious tone of this: it’s understated and touching. The poet is at once observing the guard and identifying with his outwardly insignificant life. But what could be more significant than safely shepherding children (and grownups) across the street? There’s a lot to think about here.

In another poem, “Salvation in the Dead Zone,” the poet is gently critical of the country/western sounds moaning out of his car radio when he’s far from civilization and unable to hear anything more interesting. Soon the music dies and he winds up with only religion:

Then twist the dial

like a gambler betting everything

on his last toss of dice.

A faint voice comes through the haze,

some snake-oil preacher

hissing about Jesus and life everlasting.

You turn up the volume.

 

That last line is a surprise, but it makes perfect sense because the narrator is getting old and he’s driving through the “dead zone.” He’s cast off his big-city cynicism and opens himself to what the preacher has to preach. The poem is written in the second person, which serves to universalize the theme of aloneness and dread of mortality and isolation.

And there are many other similar good last lines in these pieces. If the poems have any faults, they have to do with a tendency to write too much, use too many words, not allow for white space and suggestiveness rather than spelling everything out. You get the feeling reading these pieces that everything was planned out, premeditated, like a magazine article. In fact, a few of the pieces might have worked better in prose. Sherman is at his best when he’s using fewer words, trusting the reader more to read between the lines and bring the reader’s own life wisdom to the experience of the poems. For instance, in “Man and Boy” what we have is a really magical encounter that involves an unnamed man and boy who are none other than the poet looking at himself at two different stages in life. It verges on the sentimental, but it’s not that at all; it’s a touching, lovely little poem that needs to be read in its entirety. Towards the end, the nimble, girl-obsessed boy reaches out to help the older man along, and tells him, “Good game. You’ll be a star some day.”  ( ! )     I suggest you buy the book.

***

Jack Bowman’s new The Troublesome Tales of Frank Macabre couldn’t be more different from Sherman’s book. The lines are shorter; more is (often) suggested rather than said directly; there’s little punctuation; the eye runs down the page easily in a vertical way very different from the horizontal orientation of Elegy for Myself. Jack’s world is rougher, his spirit crazier and more spontaneous. Sometimes he hits the jackpot, so to speak, with these poems; other times the pieces seem like hastily assembled thoughts on life. I love the way he has an alter ego, Frank Macabre, who enters into a good many of the poems and gives the book unity it might not otherwise have.

Interestingly, this is the only book I’ve ever read without page numbers. The poems here are numbered (there are eighty-one), not the pages.

When he’s good, he’s very, very good. In one poem, “Simple,” Frank Macabre plugs himself into some kind of device to get himself “clear” (as the Scientologists would say) and ready to start his day or whatever he needs to start. It’s a terrific poem. The device could serve as a metaphor for the many ways we use substances to zap us into shape for what we need to do. I’ll quote the full poem in this case:

Simple

In an effort to reduce stress

and back away from the razor,

Frank decides to sweep out his mind,

rinse out his heart

and hallow out the demons in his soul

 

he prepares the devices; cleans them

thoroughly,

straightens the wires,

untangles the conduits,

connects it to power

and begins

 

he shudders, trembles, as each chakra

fires;

sending blue fluorescent beams into

his head,

hair changes color,

skin adds green and violent hue,

translucent scales then shed,

feathers grow then detach

 

he mumbles phrases in Aramaic,

Swahili

and Togolese

each a proverb of strange, unknown

import

and then . . . he is back

exhausted, clear and ready to press on.

 

In another poem, the first one of the book, entitled “Nightmare Ave.,” we have, similarly to the above poem, a kind of little story, this one equally weird, about a home invader who tries to strangle a woman in her bathtub. That poem was very well placed at the beginning, because it’s strong and sets the tone well to head the collection. Jack works as a psychotherapist, so not only does he write from a place of exhaustive self-knowledge and exploration, but he has plenty of material from those he has sought to help. One poem, called “I Am Hurting,” has twelve lines that all read “I am hurting” followed by: “I am still hurting / And I want it to end.” And that’s a kind of sonnet, I guess, minus the “volta” that sonnets are supposed to have. It’s risky, it’s raw, and it works.

Jack’s pieces that use a lot of long words, jargon, and abstractions work less well than the ones I’ve quoted above; one poem starts, “From the moment eyes open / sounds echo throughout the cool / house / things known and unknown / emerge to connect / this world and the others.” A lot of this is generic sounding, empty. I think he’s at his best when there is some kind of story involved, even if (or especially if) the story is jaggedly-madly told. In “Threadbare,” he masterfully describes a spider imprisoned in an upside-down goblet. I think it’s just a wonderful metaphor for not just spider life but the whole human condition. There’s no escape. The poem concludes:

this is it,

was it worth it?

Was all that webbing and trapping

and spinning

worth it?

 

Hope so.

 

 

(You can purchase a copy of this book by writing to:   Jack Bowman L M F T @ yahoo dot com )

 

 

 

 

My Journey Ends in Your Eyes, the Graveyards of Everything Mysterious: Desert Sorrows by Tayseer al-Sboul

Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee (Michigan State University Press, 2015)

It is very hard for English speakers to find anything on the Web, in bookstores, or in libraries, about the Jordanian poet and fiction writer Tayseer al-Sboul, who was born in 1939 and died young, by his own hand, in 1973. Now translators Nesreen Akhtarkavari and Anthony A. Lee have gone some way to rectifying this situation with a bilingual volume entitled Desert Sorrows, containing all of Tayseer’s poems. It is an impeccably made book, with long and informative pieces at the beginning to help readers get acquainted with the late Jordanian writer. Translator Anthony A. Lee’s preface, in particular, stands out. It is beautifully written and touching, and it explains the deep kinship he feels with Tayseer’s struggles and work.

As Lee says in his piece, some of the writing may at first strike a sophisticated Anglophone reader as clichéd and simplistic. This is a problem that has as much to do with cultural differences as with the act of translating. There is a reason (beyond language) that North Americans and Brits and Australians (etc.) know so little about Nigerian and Palestinian and Egyptian (etc.) writing, whether it be poetry or prose: there remains a huge divide between people of different cultures. And it’s not just “relatability”; it has to do with the question of what is considered good/new/fresh. For example in much early 20th century Spanish poetry, writers were still referring to the soul, el alma. But for Americans or Brits, the word or concept of soul seems, and has seemed for a long time, abstract and old-fashioned. Antonio Machado, who mentions the soul a lot, just hasn’t traveled as well as Lorca outside the Spanish-speaking world. What is anointed a good poem within a comfortable MFA context in 2015 is not so easily going to be accepted as a successful poem on the occupied West Bank, and vice versa. And I’m not even referring to the intricacies of translation.

Which brings me to Tayseer, who had a tragically short life but produced a novel, a few stories, and poems still much admired in the Arab world. Lee cites the following lines as examples of what could strike us as “flat. The images of the desert [are] too clichéd, and the narrative [seems] too stereotyped to represent the author’s real experience”:

From time before time,

in the darkest caves of eternity,

it [a Bedouin’s voice?] stretched through the Arabian Desert

flowing like a dream, magic, melancholy,

like the nights of Scheherazade.

As Lee discovered more of Tayseer’s poems, he realized there was more to him than he first realized. He cites these lines, and recognizes depression:

Winter has ended.

Boredom has ended.

I know I love the spring.

I long for it with desire.

But my suffering heart, full of winter,

……………………………………………………..

Appears at no fixed season.

……………………………………………………

My life is winter.

I read the preface after the poems, and I confess those lines jumped out at me too; they are especially poignant if read in the context of the whole poem.

Tayseer’s voice is lugubrious and heavy with abstractions; it is rife with lines that in most American workshops and MFA programs would meet with disapproval, lines like “The flowers of love will not grow in my barren heart. / If you come, my heart will not remember you.” Consider the first of these. It was written in the 1960s but could strike the sophisticated American as something from 3000 B.C.: the issue is the pairing of “flowers” with “love” and the phrase “barren heart.” If you look at much of this work from an “MFA perspective,” you’d say there’s not much here. But in this sense the three introductory prose pieces at the beginning of the volume do help us put Tayseer’s work and words in perspective. We do need a lot of background. We do need to know that he lived in Syria and Lebanon for a time and believed passionately in Arab unity, was suspicious of Western cultural intrusions, and was deeply (catastrophically) thrown by the outcomes of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973. If we as readers come to know about his life and times, his struggles and passions, then lines that may at first seem dull take on new meaning.

I believe the poems in this edition are not presented chronologically. (I could be wrong about this.) For some reason, the strongest poems come in the last third of the book, when the poet, never cheerful to begin with, goes into exile, despairs, and takes his leave. I love “Andalusian Song” and “A Gypsy.” When I first read these pieces (before reading the introductory remarks), I imagined the poet  temporarily in exile in Spain and visiting Seville. I took “A Gypsy” to be about the stirring song of “ancient” Flamenco performers as they sing and play castanets and guitar and stomp their feet. They remind the poet of the splendid days, a thousand years ago, when the Moors prospered in Spain and Arab culture thrived all through the Mediterranean. My interpretation could be off, but it is an enjoyable poem to read; speaking of Lorca versus Machado, it invokes the spirit of the great Gypsy poet from Granada who also died young and violently:

Gypsy!

I am running away, carried along by distant roads,

my black faith, unknown, terrifying.

My journey ends

in your eyes, the graveyards of everything mysterious.

Gypsy!

If I make a sacrifice to you,

it will be my heart.

Rain on me!

Rain on me

torrents from your cloud of mystery.

Rain on me! You are still wealthy

with the scent of grass on your breasts,

and the dew-drenched earth.

If Tayseer hadn’t shot himself in 1973, he might still be with us, and would be in his seventies. I wonder what he would have made of developments over the last forty years. Possibly he would have seen some good in the way his country has developed, an enclave of relative peace and prosperity. Given what we know about his character, he probably wouldn’t have much positive to say. Recently Jordan was in the news because of the savage killing of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic State fanatics; he was burned alive in a cage. I wonder what Tayseer would have made of that atrocity. I wonder what he would have made of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Obviously he left the world—for reasons we’ll never know for sure—much too soon.

 

RADOMIR LUZA’S TWENTY-FIFTH BOOK, “NEW YORK NADIR” (AuthorHouse, 2014)

 

New York Nadir is Radomir Luza’s twenty-fifth (!) book. Two things, I believe, set it apart from his other efforts: it chronicles marital break-up, mental illness, homelessness, and institutionalization in a journal-like manner; and also the poet recently rediscovered it (as he tells us in a preface) “under a pile of newspapers after it had been long forgotten.” New York Nadir was originally composed “in ten days in the [appropriately named!] Journal Square section of Jersey City, NJ.”  A poetic journal about being down and out, a manuscript forgotten and then dug up years later: the reader is prepared for something rough, confessional, brutal, crammed with brilliance as well as first-draft chaff, and that’s what’s delivered. If this were a polished, meticulously crafted book years in the making, it would not be the honest account of manic depression and outsiderness that it is. Since Luza produced this manuscript in just a few days, it no doubt served as a form of emergency therapy for him. I have done this kind of writing, too, and know how healing it can be.

When I read this collection, I realized (and not for the first time) that Luza is one of the most naturally gifted poets around Los Angeles. Here are some examples of what I mean:

[America], where you and me and every person in their house should take the TV set and ram a dictionary through it.

Then look up imagination. (“America”)

 

The Starbucks on West 6th matters tonight

It slices through the poetry critic in my head like

The birth of death (“Cleveland”)

 

The wooden confidence taker

Has me in its grip

I think

Because its brain is bigger than my heart (“Stage”)

 

The streets shimmer with sweat like housebroken monkeys

The addresses don’t fit the buildings

The toys aren’t big enough for the boys

The traffic light over there way over there

Should be over here (“Mineola”)

 

There was academic poetry in all its cold uncanny warmth

There was jaded you and jaded me

Def Poetry Jam in its television performance mode

Three minutes for half an idol (“Just Do It”)

 

There was no air conditioner at the Al Gore movie

The one about global warming

 

There was no air condition at Gladys’s beating today

Her husband Al wiped himself clean afterwards (“Air Conditioner”)

 

I wonder every night

Why the train passes,

Without stopping,

To help the lost,

 

Why the priests

Give such magnificent homilies,

Then hide in their rectories,

Like mice without a soul. (“Under Oasis”)

And there are many passages like these; I, for one, was in awe of Luza’s intellect. There aren’t many poets who would consider starting a poem with the air conditioner at the Al Gore movie! He’s quirky; he’s spirited; he’s more alive than most of the “academic poets.”

What makes this a great document about manic depression is also what keeps it from being a masterpiece: Luza was not concerned with meticulously editing/sculpting/refining the pieces here. He had a therapeutic goal in mind; his allegiance was to the process of restoring sanity, not to crafting little poems that would please academicians. For instance, he has quite a few lines like these:

[America], Where ecstasy has replaced cocaine as the mature drug.

Where America dons a disguise too ugly for

Halloween and too pure for Christmas. (“America”)

 

Where a truck driver like Elvis Presley changed the world. By not listening to it. (“America”)

 

These lines don’t contain much that is new or interesting, and then suddenly we come across pure brilliance: the next line reads: “Where Jesus speaks every Sunday morning. And is mute the rest of the week.” Yes! This is just great. This book is loud, uneven, inspiring, weird, fun, and touching. Let’s finish with some of Radomir Luza’s own words, the complete short poem “On the Set”:

At dawn the world finally makes some sense

The agonies and compromises of the night no     longer matter

Words sabers

Garnished like razors

Cutting through this moss of misery like pizza

 

Then the night

And sirens

I don’t care if

 

And the night

Covers my head

Bleeding from the wrist

I trip

 

Susan Sarandon breaking my fall.

 

OBAMA GETS 295 PAGES, JUSTINIAN THE GREAT ONLY 81!

Justinians FleaI am referring to the number of pages these leaders are allotted in the current Encyclopedia Britannica, if viewed with a rather large text-size on the Britannica iPhone app. Does this really mean that Obama is almost four times as important as the Roman historical figure who did so much to change the world?

And to think that on May 17, 1983 I sat near Barack Obama in the graduating class at Columbia University while school president Michael Sovern delivered his boring homily on U.S.-Soviet relations and Isaac Asimov rose to silently receive his honorary doctorate. I didn’t know the future president. I knew very few other seniors. Neither Obama nor I graduated with honors, as can be seen in the Columbia Senior Class Day booklet, handed out the day before.

I realize more is known about Obama than Justinian, but surely the editors at Britannica are doing their readers a disservice when they devote so much more space to a contemporary politician than to the ancient ruler. Can Obamacare really compete with Justinian’s Code? I note as I type these lines that Microsoft Word does not try to correct me when I type “Obamacare”: it’s now part of the lexicon! And yet the Affordable Care Act remains a lesser achievement than the aforementioned Code, the Hagia Sophia (ah! Microsoft wants to correct “Hagia”!), and the re-conquest of Italy.

All of which is by way of introducing the volume JUSTINIAN’S FLEA: THE FIRST GREAT PLAGUE AND THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by William Rosen, published in 2007. It’s a fun and memorable read, especially of course for history buffs; but it is flawed. The problem is the title and the way the book has been marketed. Its main thesis can be summed up simply: the (for us) little-known sixth century bubonic plague had a role in toppling the Roman Empire. Due to depopulation, the Empire was left vulnerable to the spread of Islam in the following century. The emphasis on the plague serves as a great hook, but most of the book isn’t even about the plague; it’s more a survey of Late Antiquity as it transitioned into Medieval times. When Rosen finally gets to the “demon,” he delivers a dramatic and eloquently scientific chapter on bacteria, flees, rats, and the conditions that carried plague to the world at large from its original “home” in Africa. These are very intricate and detailed passages; I felt he was building a grand pedestal. But the statue never arrived. I suppose I wanted Camus. I wanted novelistic scenes of the first arrival of rats, the piling up and mass burial of bodies, the spread of hysteria and pain. A solemn overture is played—no fully realized opera ever shows up. What’s missing is a detailed account or even imaginative speculation about how people living back then experienced the spread of humanity’s first great plague. Instead, Rosen veers off to . . . Persia, and then the Franks, and the Silk Road. The topic of the plague comes up often enough following its arrival, but it’s not developed, not in the right way. Just twenty or thirty pages of cinematic description of what the plague felt like, and then a chapter with some concrete theories connecting the scourge to Rome’s fall would have made this book a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, what we do have is a well-written, engaging look at Late Antiquity that whets the general reader’s appetite for such classics as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the histories of Justinian’s contemporary Procopius. There are enough scintillating facts and nuggets to keep the reader engrossed. What Rosen does especially well is create an atmosphere; we read his words and we know we are in the presence of something mighty and dreadful and grand. Oliver Stone succeeded in creating this kind of atmosphere in JFK. There is a scene in which the New Orleans district attorney is seated at a round restaurant table going through documents and photos related to Kennedy’s assassination and the Illuminati-type characters who might have been responsible. The lighting, the camerawork, the eerie choir music in the background—I get goosebumps just remembering that scene. Rosen has the same gift. There’s isn’t a page that’s dull. Like Stone, he opens doors for the reader, in this case doors that lead to wide open spaces of depopulated farmland, horrific battle scenes and massacres, heresies, dark theology, glorious architecture, “barbarians” on the move across wide swaths of land. From Part III, “Bacterium”:

When the demon began the last stage of its own evolution, its immediate ancestor may have been living anywhere between the River Nile and the Bay of Bengal, but for now, it is probably more useful to adopt the creature’s perspective, and to say that it lived in a somewhat more circumscribed universe: the mammalian gut. Like all bacteria for the previous three and a half billion years, it was very small—so small that it approached the lower limit of life itself. Fifty of them, stacked atop one another, would just about equal the thickness of a dollar bill. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, as it would one day be called, was, by the scorecard kept by natural selection, a highly successful organism: wide ranging, gigantic in numbers, and, in general, so innocuous in its effect on its host that it could survive for decades in the same human intestine, causing little more than an occasional flulike stomachache.

Most of us have heard about the Black Death, but Justinian’s Plague is less famous, even though it may have been even deadlier and more consequential for Europe and the world. Rosen has done a fine job of shedding light on those almost forgotten times.

HOT JOCKS SPOUTING APOCRYPHA: ON ALEX LEMON’S “HAPPY” (SCRIBNER, 2010)

Happy_AlexLemonAt the end of 2014 I took a two-week cruise to Hawaii and read like mad in preparation for the next draft of my memoir (but also for pleasure!). I didn’t mingle much with others. This was my third adult cruise (I mean since the ’70s): the first one, in the Caribbean, at the end of 2011, I sat at a table every night with a warm group of fake friends. We almost bonded, but then came the cutoff. I never heard from any of them again. My second cruise was to Alaska. I went with my birth father, Frank Verges, and during the course of the week I realized he was suffering from dementia. And still I managed to have a good time. This last cruise I was both traveling alone and not scheduled to share my meals with anyone. A real retreat. I sat in the nicest parts of the Grand Princess. I ate a lot, exercised, slept better than ever in a dark interior cabin. One book I read was Alex Lemon’s Happy.

I don’t have great memories of Lemon. I saw him at the 2007 AWP Conference, heard him read, bought his first poetry collection, Mosquito. I got him to sign it for me. “Thank you for purchasing my book!” he said. Later I noticed that in addition to being young and good-looking, he was popular as hell. I watched him from a distance at an AWP event as people came up to him and shook his hand and so on. I read his book—mostly poems indirectly about his  battles with brain disease—and of course realized how gifted he was. I tried to write a review and submit it to Alehouse, the now defunct journal created by my New England College fellow-student Jay Rubin. Jay insisted the short review go through weeks and weeks of revisions. It was like being thrown back into grade school again. Jay emailed me, “I hope you are enjoying this process!” After weeks of back and forth, I gave up. I never published the review of Mosquito. But I never forgot Lemon in spite of these negative associations.

So when I opened Happy I was hoping for some fine writing. Or maybe I was hoping it wouldn’t be so fine. I discovered the only really top-notch passages are the poetic ones related to his catastrophic illness. This book has people coming and going but no characters. Lemon doesn’t make the least bit of effort to draw anyone here except himself. We have a series of names; we have girls, boys, bodies, body parts, parents, doctors, nurses, teammates, coaches. But the book is strong in two areas. It is, as the blurbs on the back tell us, poignant and persuasive when it comes to a body’s succumbing to disease. And this after all was the main point. Lemon knows he’s not really a novelist. But what was equally interesting to me was his vivid depiction of his relationship with his buddies—his bros. Oh and what’s a bro? NPR will help: “[The] pillars [of bro-ness], which may overlap, are stonerish-ness, dude-liness, preppiness, and jockishness.”(For more, see here: Jeah! We Mapped Out the Four Basic Aspects of Being a Bro.)

All through this book, but specially near the beginning, I noticed a dramatic contrast between the rich inner life of the main character, on the one hand, and his easy relationships with his seemingly shallow, generic regular-guy-friends on the other. First some background: during college he was beginning to have vision and balance difficulties, headaches, dizziness—couldn’t, for example, catch the baseball when he needed to, surprising everyone. He brushed these off at first as maybe symptoms of a bad hangover or the flu. Finally he went to the college doctor, who immediately knew something serious might be wrong. The rest of the book is a chronicle of his descent into illness, his experiences in the hospital, his relationship with his mother (“Ma”), and his limping journey to recovery. An interview with the author serves as an epilogue to the book; I was struck by the fact that Lemon speaks about his wish to write a series of essays on masculinity (I have the feeling he’s now published those thoughts). In this book I could experience first-hand, as never before, how virile, popular guys interact with one other. I always suspected, especially in school, that the tough guys, the “real” guys, were continually acting, putting on a good show, role-playing. They may have had inner lives, but they concealed these lives and became the male equivalent of cheerleaders: cool surfers and lifeguards, shut-down ballplayers, taciturn studs emitting the occasional formulaic phrase. In this memoir we see what an act it is—at least for some of them. And definitely for the protagonist. He’s smart. He reads poetry! He does not talk poetry with anyone in the book, especially his teammates. Here’s a passage. Note: Tree is a fellow bro; the narrator’s nickname is Happy.

Tree stares at me, leans to Rick, and says something about the freshman being fucking worthless, just loud enough so everyone can hear it. “Kidding, brudda!” he shouts, punching my arm.

“Man, check your shit.” KJ pushes me. “You’re fucking bush league! BUSH LEAGUE, HAPPY!”

Rick spits in a bottle, pulls down his hat, and nods hello. “Nice to see you, Happy.” He smiles. “Glad ol’ Chester got all his shit done.”

“Whoo ha!” I yell like Busta Rhymes, punching my fists and forcing myself to laugh. “Whoo haaaa! I’m canned already. What a fuckin’ night! Sorry, fellas.” Everyone chuckles watching me fall sideways onto the couch. My head throbs. The world bounces in time with my heartbeat. I hiss a beer open with my key chain, and Rick tosses me a tin of Skoal. When we clink out bottles together it feels like I’ve got a tuning fork inside my chest.

The drinks spill as we spout our apocrypha, and I tell them how good my life was—the big game, the Super 8, at the farmhouse, the playoffs, in the cornfields, the state tournament, the superhero, the pond, jumping naked off the cliffs. And then the tapioca-thick sex stories—the backseat of a Buick, the church parking lot, a friend’s mom’s minivan, with the parents upstairs, while my friends pounded the car’s steamy windows, under the stars on home plate.

“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time,” I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed, grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.

“BACK IN TIME!” KJ slurs.  “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”

And this is typical. The bros are shooting the breeze, not much to say, and yet the narrator is capable of the beautiful “Empty bottles turret the tabletops,” using a poetic trick he is fond of (as are many poets): transforming nouns into verbs. And yet when Happy tries to say something a little bit deeper (“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time”) his friend playfully upbraids him (“BACK IN TIME! Fucking Huey Lewis and the News”). At one point the narrator actually admits, “I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them.”

Much of this book is devoted to the disconnect between bros joking around and a lonely inner soul contemplating both the world around him and his illness, his body betraying him. This reminds me of Genet’s Thief’s Journal: an articulate, sensitive “ruffian” surrounded by inarticulate, insensitive ruffians. And so we witness a divided self: Alex Lemon, “Happy,” plays a role in order to be accepted by his buds, a role helped by genuine enjoyment of drink and baseball and appreciation of the opposite sex, but inside his head he’s comparing the beer bottles to turrets; inside his head he is capable of dazzling language to describe his own pretended superficiality: “We spout our apocrypha.” Apocrypha?  Well, that’s stretching the meaning of a word, but it’s spot on: apocrypha as in fakeness, tall tales, a façade of masculinity, easy camaraderie. But inside him he’s focused on the great poets; inside him he’s struggling with the first signs of loss of heath and even of life. In the same vein, here’s a baseball passage; it’s now becoming harder for him to play:

My eyes roll in their sockets, and everything between Coach and me goes blurry. It’s like he hasn’t yet thrown the pitch. Like there is no ball at all. I feel myself falling, legs quivering to right myself, and then, suddenly, the baseball appears right in front of me, shooting celestially through the watercolored light, snipping over the dish. The ball hits the net, and I’ve barely started to swing. The guys watching hoot and clap and I shout, “Fucking shit!” and toss the bat off the ground.

“Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” KJ laughs. “Let’s go, man. Punish that shit!” He sticks a bat between his legs and thrusts his hips. “PUNISH IT, MAN!” He makes gorilla noises. “Get primitive on that shit!”

I love the contrast between “shooting celestially through the watercolored light” and “Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” The inner and outer worlds. A lovely and strong bit of writing about how a sensitive boy can be one of the bros. And that begs the question: The other pack members may not be poets, but they must have inner lives too. Maybe they’re not thinking about celestial shots and watercolored light, but something is going on inside them; they’re just keeping it well-hidden. They’re doing what guys do, especially adolescents. In a sense, you could call Lemon a “closeted artist/intellectual”; his peers might even have the same reaction as Wallace Stevens’s fellow lawyers did to Stevens being a poet: “What?! Wally a poet?” (I realize Lemon is still very young in the passages I’ve quoted, but even at that age he knows he’s an artist.)

As the memoir proceeds and illness takes its toll, the baseball “friends” gradually recede, and there’s much more now about Ma, doctors, girlfriends, etc. The memoir doesn’t have an upbeat ending, though the poet is still very alive and successful in the world. I’ve been looking through my copy of the book and see that I underlined most in the first fifty or so pages. It’s like a horror or disaster movie: the set-up and the first premonitions of disaster are the most intriguing moments. But I found the pleasures of Happy lay mainly in its candid examination of outer coolness/inner depth. On a bigger scale, I’m reminded how our lives are full of different discourse modes: we talk to our pets differently from the way we talk to our boss; we have one way of talking to a spouse, another way to a shoe salesman. Most of us are split into many different voices throughout a single day. Even when, back at AWP in 2007, Lemon said to me, “Thank you for purchasing my book,” he was using the formal word for “buy” that he never would have used with Tree, KJ, or Ma.

Happy contains (among many other things) a complete portrait of a late adolescent who can have it both ways: a rich life as a budding artist alongside easy relationships with other males and acceptance in their peer group. And yet I can’t help juxtaposing the Lemon from this book and the Lemon I observed at AWP, a center of attention, surrounded by supporters and friends. I always used to believe that high school popularity was a very different thing from success later in life, which I assumed depended solely on “artistic,” “intellectual” merit. Now I see that, usually, knowing how to work a crowd, connect with potential followers and influence them, build a network, and fit in with life’s teammates is what most successful people know how to do well, no matter the field. Lemon was training for his later role in the arts when he bonded with fellow bros. These days you are much more likely to hear about Lemon than Christopher Davis, phenomenally talented, reclusive, shy, but not shy in his writing about gay love. At AWP I watched them on a panel discussion together. Lemon stood up at the lectern and read a beautiful elegy. Davis didn’t even want to leave his seat; a somber, ghostly presence (or absence), he didn’t care if the audience liked him or not. And thus high school and college mostly continue, most of the time.

l’ll end with some lines from a Christopher Davis poem:

For My Pen Is

a pink glass office tower erection dominating
our brand new south downtown. Designed
by Chinese architects to intensify evening,

its sun-burned, glaring panes refract twilight,
hot air blossoming, dyeing dull gray sidewalks
bloody, rosy, color of a bad taste in the mouth.

A possum, ripped apart, reminds me of a men’s
room, brown liver served upon a bed of noodles,
death’s stench not unlike ammonia, piss, cologne.

(from the Project for Innovative Poetry blog)

THIS EDEN, THIS HELL, I SUCK ON HER NECK: THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO THE LITERATURE OF LOS ANGELES (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Cambridge CompanionI’ve just finished this marvelous collection of essays.  I heard about it after I googled “John Harris,” the well-known Los Angeles poet who is now unfortunately suffering from dementia and confined to his home and even bedridden. His name appears in a list of search results, one of them a passage from this book. When I saw the title, I knew I had to read more about the city/county/mini-country I’ve been living in for twenty years. Yeah, twenty years! I arrived from Barcelona in September, 1995, just three years after the riots (called here the Justice Riots), as the whole world was awaiting a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, in a time before cellphones and email, when a few cool youngsters had pagers.

I was shocked to learn that the first printing press didn’t come to Los Angeles until the 1830s. I was surprised to learn LA is the twelfth largest metropolitan area in the world. After reading this volume cover to cover, I feel a new kinship with and curiosity about my adopted city.

Names and titles that keep coming up: Joan Didion, James M. Cain, The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler, the novel Ramona, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I have read some of Didion’s essays, but until now the other items on this list were either unfamiliar to me or barely familiar and not much more. Since the first printing press didn’t arrive until the 1830s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is very 20th century. Not much happened before that, at least not much that has lasted. I enjoyed the discussion of the Californios, in one of the book’s early essays. I learned about Daniel Venegas’s novel Las aventuras de don Chipote o Cuando los pericos mamen, “a picaresque novel published by a Los Angeles newspaper, El Heraldo de Mexico, in 1928. Here for the first time we find the term chicano in print to refer to working-class mexicanos in the United States.” It’s a novel about the exploitation of the working class—published by a Spanish-language paper, in 1928! I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to read it, but it sounds fascinating, as does the story collection Cuentos californianos by Adolfo Carrillo. Who reads this now but a few scattered scholars?  And yet these books must open contemporary readers’ minds to a now distant and forgotten part of California history. I’m sure we’re not expecting to get something as groundbreaking and exciting as Cien años de soledad, but these books are of historical and sociological interest, at the very least.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (from the 1960s)—a novel I have read, but a long time ago—gets a detailed analysis. A passage is quoted, about “minority LA” harking back to “the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescing from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint . . . Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful.”  Russell Berman goes on to say, “For Isherwood this romantic poverty provides an alternative to the antiseptic modernization that he sees devastating the city.” The romantic poverty of LA? Not a point of view that one hears much about anymore, but if one looks at it in historical context, it’s intriguing: after all, A Single Man was written some fifty years ago by a British expat.

Los Angeles as the new Eden, the city of the future!—or, conversely, the city that exemplifies more than any other the decadence of America in the 20th and 21st centuries and the failures of the capitalist system. Los Angeles should be celebrated for turning its back on the old models of urban planning like New York and Paris!—or, conversely, LA as a chaotic, nightmarish mess, the graveyard of the American Dream, a monster noisily dying from an overdose of greed and hedonism. This sort of binary can be found throughout the book.

Though he is alive and well and not old, I hadn’t heard about poet Sesshu Foster until now. Here is an excerpt from one of his prose poems:

Los Angeles is my city, I sucked on her neck, gave her purple hickeys before she backhanded me out of a car at 35 MPH on a turn in Highland Park. From a street corner, all the Chinese signs in Alhambra declare her love. Korean signs of Koreatown are just another word for feelings. Beautiful hair of Vietnamese noodles. Wonderful smile of oranges sold at East LA on-ramps. Big bottles of pigs’ feet & giant kosher dills on the counter at every corner store . . . Babies, shot in the head, not knowing how to love, how to write their names. They cry too much. Their parents cry too much in churches.

Stunning, gritty, a heady bouquet scent of LA life—I need to read more by Sesshu Foster.

The only weak link in this informative and inspiring book is Bill Mohr’s “Scenes and Movements in Southern California Poetry.” He doesn’t go very deep, the way most of the other essays do. More than any other piece of writing here, his work feels like a hastily complied survey and collection of names. Take this sentence:

By the final decade of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first, one could assemble a tantalizing anthology comprised only of university-affiliated poets: Gail Wronsky, Tim Steele, Ralph Angel, David St. John, Steven Yenser, Sarah Maclay, Cecilia Woloch, Harryette Mullen, B.H. Fairchild, Christopher Buckley, Dorothy Barresi, the late Dick Barnes, Robert Mezey, Molly Bendall, Patty Seyburn, Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Peters, James McMichael.

Instead of pointing out trends, how poets incorporate the region’s dreams and nightmares into their work, instead of any hint of poetry in this writing about poetry, all we have is this dismal list. And where is Judith Hall?!? She’s in Malibu, she commutes to Cal Tech, she won a Pushcart Prize, she’s lived here for years. What was Mohr’s agenda? I only know him, by the way, as a “historian” of the LA poetry scene; presumably he’s written some actual poetry as well? Let’s hope it’s better than his prose. Anyway, he has nothing about the long era(s) before World War II. He almost completely leaves out Latino poetry.

On the whole this is a great book for anyone wishing to know more about a fascinating and no doubt neglected subject. Interestingly, on the cover of this book we see a photograph of the Malibu fire of the late 1970s: fire in the background, shadowy figures moving along the beach in the foreground. Riots, conflagrations, earthquakes, freeways, hucksters, smog,  greed, Manson!—but also the sea, the mountains, endless palm trees and pools, the sand, the sound of Mexican Spanish and Vietnamese and Chinese and much more, the smells from the taco truck and the Thai eateries of Thai Town: that’s the terrific aftertaste I have from this book. Now I need to dive into Mildred Pierce—I mean the book (like everyone else I know the film); I want to explore Adorno’s thoughts on SoCal; I want to see what happens in Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain; I want to lose myself in Chandler. The chapter about film has also opened up doors. Maybe I’ll sit back, click on Netflix, and relax with Terminator 2, which till now I’d never even thought to watch. Writes Mark Shiel, “While the film was most remarked upon for its pioneering computer-generated imagery and its budget of over $100 million, it arguably derives more meaning from the real city it maps out, through a shopping mall and suburban streets in Sherman Oaks, along storm drains and freeways, out into the desert, and back for a showdown in a Fontana steel mill.” The strip malls, gangs, parking lots, the emphatic rawness of hip-hop, the guns, the dying palms, the millions, the Hollywood freeway at 3 a.m., the mansions, the faint weird trickle of the so-called LA River, the drought, the drought!, the coyotes prowling through the suburbs of night, the millions . . .

On Nathan E. White’s APPARENT MAGNITUDE (Aldrich Press)

Not too long ago Nathan E. White read at the poetry series I host in Los Angeles. He gave a very unusual performance. He didn’t read in a natural speaking or reading voice, but rather in a kind of elevated chanting style that owes something to the far-out manner employed by Ilya Kaminsky. The young lady who followed him was wowed by his poems, and I bought his book. It has taken me a while to open it up; now that I have studied it, I have of course a better understanding of White’s art and point of view. My overall feeling is that this project would have worked better as a chapbook.

When White and I briefly spoke, after his reading, he told me about his bad MFA experience at New York University. He said it was overwhelmingly (though not completely) negative. I notice in his book he doesn’t acknowledge any poets or readers of his manuscript who might have helped in the final shaping process; no “thousand thanks to so-and-so and so-and-so without whose help . . .” and so on. He’s done all this work feistily on his own. I can imagine him in workshops, stubbornly and angrily resistant and closed-off to other people’s suggestions.

Much too often these poems sound like notes rather than finished products. For one thing, he tends to clog up his writing with long Latinate, lecture-sounding words:  from “Discretion”:  “During our break, we heard his final shouts— / eliciting concern, trepidation. // Alarmed, tempted, our welfare subsequent . . . // Twice deprived, wrecked, the conductor’s body / hidden beneath rails and ties, dissevered.”

These word choices, as well as the general tone and diction, serve to create a voice so reserved and aloof, we get the feeling this poet has spent most of his life in a sensory deprivation tank. There is little drama, very little that is compelling. And yet he does have a good book inside this book—a chapbook. Because the most interesting, and the only moving, aspect of this project is the horrific event of his mother’s suicide, and then its aftermath. Most poems here that address this terrible loss directly or indirectly (or flow out of it into the adult man’s mind and soul and way of dealing with the world around him) are immediately attractive: in these he throws out the lecture-sounding voice and finds real poetry: “When I Stand With My Brother at the End of God” begins:

 

Light as light is our light . . .

have us brace for the cold

and stand in silence,

while we must assume

 

the late shift: winter

fields, the first neighbors

who would show us the sky

at night, names we would learn

 

Many poets can’t get out of the Poetic Voice (much moon, much use of the word “luminous” and “wafted” and so on), but White seems to have the opposite problem, having trouble distinguishing between a draft and a polished poem, between a collection of notes-toward-a-poem, and something to be published out in the world. In many of these pieces, though, he shows he can be a master poet when he wants to be. From “Preliminary”: “Were you sick? Everyone circles you, unable to get closer.”  From “Subjunction”: “I advance to the lion fully lion.”  From “Closed Hold”: “I understand, / finally, should the sky be removed, there’d be no relief / from night.” From “Whether I Last Desire: “I am always half a thought away from answer.” Or the simple, lovely observation to his deceased mother in “Assignment”: “I like to think you enjoyed sewing and the Doxology. // I know that no degree of faith / recovers a suicide. The speculation exhausts me.”

There are enough brilliant passages and whole poems in here to make a strong and memorable chapbook. Too often, as in the title poem, White proceeds clunkily:

 

First thought somehow the flash forced

your eyes: those central apertures enlarged

so that the iris seemed overmatched—

edged out by twin spheres growing

colorless and parallel.

 

 I would rather (wouldn’t you?) see more of the following, from “Order of the Day”:

 

Brisk, wading through our creek, you caught my voice

lifting from shadow. I could not follow.

 

In the beginning, no word fell between.

 

Absence we fashioned early from mother’s

suicide—absence, for us, first language.

 

In the house we knew, we found substitute.

 

Say nothing, for nights are still bountiful;

each breath between us is strictly binding.

 

 

On Georgia Jones-Davis’s NIGHT SCHOOL (Finishing Line Press)

Georgia Jones-Davis recently read at the poetry series I host, and gave one of the best readings we’ve had there in a while.  She was in good form as she read from her new chapbook, Night School.  I bought the book and have been reading it. It’s terrifically somber and somberly terrific. She writes about growing old. She writes about the Russian dog sent into space to die back in the 1950s (well, it wasn’t exactly sent to die; it was sent to do other things; but die it did).  She writes about a boring professor who interrupts his lecture to muse about writing a play as good as Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. She writes a poem called “First Love.” While the title may seem corny, the poem is anything but. This poet has remarkable empathy for those beaten down by life, those unfairly treated, those left out. She doesn’t write about the in-crowd. She doesn’t write about the beautiful and the strong.

From “Who Is This?”:

            I have seen Greece

            and it is far away.

            One day what I call home

 

            will be a blue room

            with a single window,

            a single bed,

 

            and TV table cluttered

            with yellow bottles of white pills.

The style is simple, stark; often it contains surprises:  “The mind curtseys and bows, / then devours itself raw” (“Ruthie, Who Told Artist Wayne Thibaud She Didn’t Like His Pies”); “Did you wave at the train / with its shrill keen, / as it went its own creaking way / into the distance of money?” (“Did You Wave at the Train?”). Reading this book is like listening to soft piano pieces on a late afternoon: there are no crashing cymbals, no howls, no hammer blows. The poems are all different from each other and yet fit together, all clearly belonging to a series: variety within unity—unity with a distinctly feminine voice (and she does mention the moon once too often for my taste).

Night School would be a good starting point for those afraid of poetry or not terribly interested in it. Nineteen years ago someone gave me Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman for Christmas.  At that time I was writing (or trying to write) short stories and knew very little about contemporary poetry. The book opened my eyes to a certain school (“school” for want of a better word) of non-academic, accessible poetry that can be enjoyed without special knowledge or background. Night School is another such book. It does not put readers off with obscurities, and yet the poems are rich and just complex enough to warrant rereading and further study. I love one of the last poems in this collection. A little girl is on a road trip with her parents, and here’s how the poem ends:

            The motel vanishes in a pink blur.

            The girl watches how

            the flat world speeds up

            as if the valley

            were on wheels

            and the girl, her mother and father,

            the ones standing still.

 

 

 

On Herbert Gold’s FATHERS, “a Novel in the Form of a Memoir”

I first became aware of Herbert Gold sometime in the late ’70s while strolling through the main library in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Several display cases had been set up to celebrate Gold’s life and work. These included photographs, manuscripts, first editions. It was fascinating to discover an author, important in San Francisco culture, I hadn’t heard about before. Some of the books, open to first chapters, already appeared old and yellowed by then: Gold at that point had been publishing novels for almost thirty years.  Maybe they came across as old because of the austere museum-like atmosphere of this display in the august foyer of the public library. But there was something else: so much history had transpired between the early ’50s and the late ’70s that this prolific author and these many volumes—with somewhat dated titles like The Age of Happy Problems, The Man Who Was Not With It, Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth—seemed to give off an old-time smell of 1961 and Camelot and propeller planes and pre-Beatles America.

The next time I heard of Gold was when I opened a dusty literary magazine in a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and read a short story about a father and his young daughter. It was exquisitely written, nothing dated about it at all. At one point the father is driving and his daughter is resting her head on his lap; he describes her half-closed/narrowed eyes as “cunning.”  That word stood out—cunning! Yes of course! That’s how narrowed eyes may seem, even if the person narrowing them may have nothing cunning on her mind!  But not much happened in the story. I believe the parents had just gone through a divorce. Maybe it was the classic weekend visit with the father. And still the piece stood out.  I was nineteen then and didn’t pick up anything by or about Herbert Gold for over thirty years. I never forgot the museum display, though; and I never forgot the short story, possibly from the venerable Hudson Review.

Now I have finally read some Gold cover to cover: his “novel in the form of a memoir” called Fathers.  It is a novel (to use his word) about a Jewish boy who emigrates from Ukraine to America in the late 1800s at a young age. He takes the name Gold and works for pennies, wearing rags and sleeping rough. Later he leaves New York and ends up in Cleveland, where he opens a store, slowly climbs to middle class status, marries, starts a family. The spotlight is very much on young Herbert’s relationship with his father; everything else is secondary. The portrait of the elder Gold is nuanced, tender, utterly complete; by novel’s end we feel we know Sam Gold as well as anyone from our own family:

As my mother talked, my father measured us from under a vast biblical forehead which had sojourned in Kamenets-Podolsk; it was a forehead that escaped the scars of reprisal for a tradesman’s life customarily given a man who needed labor in the open air. He wrestled out this frozen compression, these knotty ravages, at the cost of an overquickening in the work of the store, wielding cases with a plunging violence and mounting trucks like a burly fruit-store tomcat. Overhappiness too is a threat, Zarathustra said. The yellow flecks of his long narrow eyes fumed in contemplation. His sons were strange animals, born in America.

The novel has ingenious passages like this on almost every page.  Here’s a short one: “He swayed over the soup, food breathing back into his body the prayers he had forgotten in leaving his own father.”

This book should be read for its subtle, complex insights and poetic language; this book should be read (but is it still read?) for its portrayal of the charismatic and ultimately enigmatic Sam Gold. Now I see there is nothing “old-fashioned” about Herbert Gold’s books (at least not this one) except perhaps the 1950s-style covers. This work does have one weakness, which has perhaps kept it from getting on the lists of highly regarded or “great books” of mid-century America; it is a weakness that Gold probably understood when he called it “a novel in the form of a memoir”: in the arc of the narrative as a whole, there is no drama, no suspense; but more than that, there isn’t much, on the macro level, that could be called compelling. These were, after all, the days before Angela’s Ashes, a book which finally freed (or some would say fatally freed) writers to fictionalize their lives, to spice their life stories with the intensity of Wuthering Heights.  An example of this comes at the very beginning, in a prologue: we see the 80-year-old father and mother visiting the now grown Herbert in San Francisco and looking out at the bay. This serene first scene functions like a kind of friendly home movie. And it tells us that the parents are all right and prospering (in other words we see the happy ending), which undermines the rest of the book.  If Gold had dispensed with the prologue, going directly to the Old Country with the very young Sam insisting on leaving for America, we’d have more a sense of suspense about what’s going to happen next.

Recently I came across a website called TV Tropes. It analyzes drama, opera, film, and literary works in terms of countless tropes, which contributors to the site name in the easiest possible way, to facilitate finding them on the site. For example, I typed in “evil stepmother” (a trope that figures prominently in the memoir I’m writing!) and found that on that site it’s called “wicked stepmother.” Now, having just finished Gold’s Fathers, I look for tropes everywhere and label them as I please: “immigrant child coming to America” (picture the early scene from The Godfather Part Two, the young Vito Corleone surrounded by many hungry others first beholding—to sweeping music—the Statue of Liberty from a ship); “immigrant making good in America” (again, see the Godfather Part Two); “artistic child clashes with business-oriented father” (see Dead Poets’ Society, the opera Louise, the novel Buddenbrooks, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister);  “the son who catches philandering relatives” (see Proust’s Swann’s Way); “persecuted East European Jews about to leave for the New World” (see Fiddler on the Roof); “revenge for a slight settled with a duel” (see Eugene Onegin, poem and opera) and so on. One can go on all day looking for tropes, until it becomes an exhausting obsession.

What Fathers lacks in overall tension/excitement, it makes up for with smaller, episodic dramas. There is the memorable story of two concentration camp survivors who confront each other at an Ohio coffee klatch. There is the engrossing and moving story of Herbert’s rebellion against his bourgeois father as a twelve-year-old—what reader can’t relate to this rebellion? And fascinatingly this fight mirrors the rebellion of the older Gold who in the late 1800s defied his own father by going off to America. Gold leaves the most poignant story for the end; it’s something that happened long before Herb and even Sam were born, and it’s about Sam’s grandfather, who back in the 1830s (“which might as well have been the twelfth century”) was forced to undergo mutilation in order to avoid being taken away by the Czar’s army and never heard from again. He was just a little boy when his parents took him to “The Crippler,” who specialized in cutting off hands, feet, eyes, ears, so boys’ lives would be spared. We find out that Sam’s grandfather lived to be well over a hundred, and he died before the Holocaust, so in a sense his life ended happily. And still, the scene in which he is taken to the Crippler is horrific. And it really happened. How could such things happen?

The boy clung to his mother. The Crippler paused because he had to justify himself to no one, and yet he was human too, although a crippler. He had been crippled himself—he walked with a limp. He fixed the child with his fierce gaze and said, as if to give him courage:

            “Out of the right eye he will see like a tiger. How many sights can you see with two eyes? No more than with a good right eye. I’ll only take the extra one, come here”—and he bent with his beard jutting toward the terrified child while my great-grandfather’s father suddenly wept and prayed.

            “Come here, son. Come here. Here.”

            Blessed art thou the Lord our God the Lord is one.

            The boy screamed.

            The Crippler did his deed.