A Poet’s Guide to Los Angeles
By Calista McRaeOctober 21, 2015
Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond by Suzanne Lummis
AFTER MOVING from what Robert Lowell called “dour, luxurious Boston” to Southern California, I opened this anthology. It has proved good company: Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond is a wonderfully unsystematic Baedeker’s guide to LA, and a welcome introduction to over a hundred contemporary writers.
Although nowhere near every poem in the anthology is about Los Angeles, many of the writers collected here do touch on the area. Hilda Weiss, whose poems open Wide Awake, equips you with a wealth of metaphors for one LA phenomenon: not the iconic palm trees, but the palm fronds that lie all over the sidewalks.
Of course they look like wings,
these long, dismembered arms blown down in the rain.
Rudders and oars broken loose from a ship
and one lone wave rising off the meridian.
A pelvic bone. It could be a saddle.
The waist of one impaled on a fence.
Weiss turns the sidewalk’s “battlefield of plows and rakes” into a list of disparate, half-animated metaphors, accumulating and discarding them a little like a palm sheds. Although Los Angeles is not exactly a city for the pedestrian, this anthology is full of street-level observations. Linda Dove’s “St. Nicholas of Tolentino Spies a Palm Tree in the Storm Drain” notices another oddity almost hidden by being so common. Every tiny palm struggling out of the cracks in the pavement throughout the city is, as she says without exaggeration, “a minor garden,” in a land where most gardens are manifestly willed (whether surreptitiously watered, or confected from gravel and desert plants).
Poetry anthologies stemming from specific areas — the Chicago-based City of the Big Shoulders is another recent, more exclusively topical example — delight in part because of these moments of recognition. Whether we are identifying a local characteristic or a place-name, the satisfaction is largely personal. (For example, Laurel Ann Bogen’s mention of Highland Park jumped out at me because on my first Gold Line trip someone with Highland Park tattooed on the back of his head got off at the Highland Park stop.)
Bogen also mentions the famous “Roscoe’s House / of Chicken and Waffles” in passing, as she heads north to Pasadena, en route to other topics. Location tends to work slightly differently in lyric poems than in other kinds of literature, in part because of the constrained space for description. Big novels can make you a resident of their cities. For Los Angeles, scenes from Raymond Chandler’s novels or the films Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski might seem more obviously grounded in the city as a location. But perhaps that moment of identification with a city can be especially suggestive when more peripheral. In lyric poems, places evoke unexpected affinities, but might check them, too. The two or three spots one speaker remembers so clearly might have little significance to another reader.
Many of this book’s tributes to Los Angeles are undercut by misgivings, and many poems that begin disparagingly, such as Lory Bedikian’s “Driveways” or David Hernandez’s poem about the Huntington Botanical Gardens, find interest within unpromising places. Chief among unpromising places are highways. As you might expect, wide lanes and gridlock pervade this collection. Even when in Canada, Rick Lupert sees “large photographs / of Los Angeles Freeways”; his capitalization makes the snarls of road into their own institution. Bill Hickok pushes the highway numbers along line endings: “Take the 10 / to the 405 / take the 405 / South to the 90.” John Brantingham rattles off those numbers: “your 5, 405, 605, 105, / your 10, 210, 110, 710.” Larry Colker takes a surprisingly effective poem from a traffic report, beginning at 6:44 a.m. with “Loose Animal Live Dog in Car Pool Lane.” At rush hour, avant-gardistes are stuck next to formalists: Timothy Steele rhymes “breeze” not with “trees,” its eternal match, but with “SUVs.”
Cars themselves acquire personalities. Wanda Coleman, in a resigned yet frenetic depiction of life in a “city of cars where / you come to know people best by how they maneuver on the freeway,” promises her car “a new bumper / and a paint job.” Eloise Klein Healy’s love “wants to park / in front of your house”:
It’s taken over the transmission,
drops into second when I try to drive by
and rolls down its own windows.
Vehicles take over similes — see Linda Albertano’s praise of “teeth as white Lincolns, / parked in neat rows” — and elicit similes. David Hernandez rushes “to St. Mary’s [hospital] / on a flat tire, no spare in the trunk, / a burst of sparks as the screaming rim / scored the road like a pizza cutter.” As with his poem about cacti, Hernandez telescopes beautifully. By zooming out here, he turns the chaotic landscape into a pizza: wide, flat, probably hot, sliced up along geometrical lines, scattered with a jumble of objects, potentially messy.
From this inescapable traffic, the poets of Wide Awake often glance up at the night sky. See, for example, Gloria Vando’s “He2-104: A True Planetary Nebula in the Making,” or her excellently titled “My 90-Year-Old Father and My Husband Discuss Their Trips to the Moon.” Charles Harper Webb transforms his childhood biking to “soaring like the Apollo space ship,” with locusts “loud as booster-engines.” Tony Barnstone drives “past icons, / orange planets floating over the gas / stations,” through “galaxies of dust, / the low sky stained with nicotine and rust.” It’s hard to say whether the writers turn to the stars as escape from LA’s light clutter, or whether that light clutter actually evokes constellations. The book’s cover photograph might allow either possibility: it takes in the moon, Jupiter, and Venus, despite the light contending from the glittery, smog-smudged mass below it.
Perhaps the most unearthly translation of the astronomic and the earthbound is found in Dorothy Barresi’s extraterrestrial rats, scurrying up palm trees:
Half-dissolved in moonlight, released from the ground,
they are astronauts wedged in
capsules of fur and rabies […]
Barresi’s three poems make you want to find more of them. One of the others included here is about security at LAX. Each stanza is surreal in a slightly different manner; each is held in place by insistently passive verbs:
At one [checkpoint] we were asked
The Lord’s Prayer.
to sip from the wheezing guard’s
cold coffee mug.
Are you a wolf?
Have you ever been a wolf?
Pancakes were fried
in a gentleman’s hat
who wished only to visit his mother
in flat Cincinnati.
Between one and four poems from each writer are included; the relative briefness makes every page lively, and allows considerable scope (writers preparing their first books, people who have been publishing for decades and are well-known). I did wonder why there is no work from Harryette Mullen, whose most recent book is a diary of tanka about walking around Los Angeles; beyond that absence, however, the breadth here leaves few gaps.
Another effect of the array of writers here — and of the relatively small selection from each one — is that you begin to notice chance similarities between poems or poets. An inadvertently shared word, for example, draws out points of contact between Douglas Kearney’s “City of Searchlights and Dead Cats” and Stephen Yenser’s “Paradise Cove.” Kearney’s poem repeatedly refers to aerosol, specifically red aerosol in graffiti and the mouths of coyotes; Yenser’s, playfully, turns Aristotle into aerosol to mirror a toddler’s demand for “blue Plato” (Play-Doh).
These are two poems that would not, on the face of it, have much in common. The punning, leisurely ending of “Paradise Cove” delays more and more with each long line:
even as the sun sinks,
Even when again the sun is setting — or rather, here in Los Angeles,
City of Angles, the set is sunning — stunning,
Even, in ever acuter, gentler rays that with the smaze
Turn the horizon Technicolor pinks and blues, lavenders and zincs.
Even the rhymes help pause the sunset: the sun’s sink[ing] is suspended in pinks and zincs; rays meld, comically, with smaze. The scene closes hours before the tense urban nightscape of “City of Searchlights and Dead Cats” begins; in Kearney’s Los Angeles, coyotes swagger and amble,
swole from eating cats; upright trash
cans line the drives like families
awaiting those inevitable hearses.
Yet Kearney’s forbidding, taut couplets can slide into pentameter (the inevitability of awaiting those inevitable hearses), and rhymes — as in Yenser’s ending — emerge unexpectedly and frequently:
don’t play up in that ivy, y’all
there’re snakes in all the vines. the lines
of his name became the drawl of red aerosol.
Although the two poems couldn’t be much more distinct, the collection invites you to see their points of contact.
Here are four more of the voices brought together in Wide Awake. Candace Pearson’s poems are poised exactly between comedy and bleakness; take the first sentence of “My Brother is Busy,” which tells you, “My brother is busy packing for jail.” (Another poem consists of a series of questions and varyingly sensible answers between a neurologist and the speaker’s mother: “All the way home, at each red light, / she slaps her hands against the dashboard — Go. Go. Go.”) That wry, half-surreal streak takes another form in Sesshu Foster’s prose poem “Movie Version: ‘Hell to Eternity.’” Its opening relays a literal, matter-of-fact substitution: how Guy Gabaldon, a Chicano marine, “was played by a white actor named Jeffrey Hunter, who suffered a stroke at age 42 in 1969 and died falling down the stairs.” Foster’s next deadpan-nonsensical substitutions, however, are more like those from Mad Libs: “In the movie version, the cold beer is played by country music nasal twang, and Jeffrey Hunter was played by slight nausea and nostril flare. His headache was played by the 20th century.”
Wide Awake also introduced me to Mehnaz Sahibzada’s shifting cadences (“I’d tossed my cell away / in the laundry pile, my flip-flops / in the sink. No I wasn’t drunk. // I didn’t drink”) and good metaphors (“my thoughts took off their heels”). And to Lynne Thompson’s “Laceum,” a terrific list poem that Thompson wrote after seeing a photograph of a tattooed figure:
Whenever he thinks of me (he will), he will
think of me walking away, my body turned
against another weariness, my hips inked with
roses and he’ll be convinced he can smell them,
each petal wafting its singular fragrant particular,
its own design, and he will believe that when
he saw me last, I was clothed in only blue lace,
blue as blue as the harbor at Toulon, pale blue,
forget-me-blue, blueberry, blue of the high-stepping
Prussians, of ice, of hard boys, the politics of scratch,
Egyptian blue ground from silica, copper and lime,
the indigo described by Pliny the Elder, the blue
of the cloak of Christ in the Hagia Sophia,
in the pottery at Delft or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
That long sentence ends at line 14 — just like a sonnet. But then, in a kind of unforeseen, belated turn, Thompson adds six more lines, to end with a new kind of list:
And when he recalls the lace (from the vulgar
Latin: laceum) — linen or silk, purl-knitted tablecloth
or doily for wounded flesh — then he will recall
that I was adorned with ribbons colored pink, gulabi,
cherry blossom, rosa, flamingo and Amazon dolphin.
Also our sorrow: I never stopped or turned around.
It’s a thoroughly unhurried poem, both deliberate and whimsical. Its clauses meander, appealingly. The lines often slide into loose pentameter or into dancelike triple rhythms, but never seem to be trying to do so. And its form, the accidental-sonnet-plus-bonus-sestet, conveys generousness, assurance (“he will, he will”), effortlessness: apt for a poem whose speaker “never […] turned around” after “walking away.”
The book’s light editorial touch — especially its total freedom from an overriding topic, but also its willingness to let typography change occasionally — works most of the time for this reader. The book is organized by poet — that is, each poet’s poems are kept together — but editor Suzanne Lummis joins one poet to the next with loose links of topic. So “Hollywood Downtowner,” the last poem contributed by Jamie Asaye Fitzgerald, takes place where “neon cackles / and the sheets prick,” and where
in the broken-bottle morning
the wicked also cry,
Agggh, I luff you! I luff you!
while overhead, rock the beds.
Selections from Sung Yol Yi, the next poet, open with “The Cheap Motel,” which ends with a similar, slightly rueful sense of inevitability: “and began to unbutton slowly / In a cheap motel.” After Lucia Galloway remembers hauling and drying peaches, Erika Ayón relays another fruit-picker’s memories: “the strawberries bleed onto your cut, / blistered hands,” and “people are plucked / from trees by the immigration police.” These thematic connections tend to be light, flexible, and more often than not playful. Sharon Venezio’s poem about dissecting a sheep’s brain is followed by Judith Pacht’s “Bird,” which begins with a conversational fragment: someone talking about “A slice of sheep cheese with apple.”
Such links aren’t ever overbearing. The way the poems glint off each other is perfect for this flexible, capacious anthology.
Calista McRae is a PhD student at Harvard University, writing about humor of language and form in recent American poetry.
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