The City Speaks: Recent New York and Los Angeles Poetry
By Paul VangelistiJune 13, 2021
The poetics are evident in the first two poems, “Between the Griffon and Met Life” and “This Beautiful Bubble.” From the former’s long, rushing paragraph of a line (“I am totally enamored of every person passing in this unseasonably warm mid-March evening near 39th and Park”) to the latter’s basic declaration (“The rule is: to speak./ Make contact, and you will find more people than you thought”), we find the embodiment of Whitman’s challenge: “Here the theme is creative and has vista.” That all-embracing “vista” informs the entirety of Katz’s collection.
Skirting the prosaic, poems like the elegiac “I Miss Bern Nix” or the eponymous “Broadway for Paul” affirm the Katz’s connectedness to what he calls the “denizens” of New York: “All are one in this day / It is a day not of dread, but of wonder.” Poetic comradeship is at the heart of one of Katz’s tours-de-force in the collection, “Lincoln Plaza,” where optimism emerges as an essential ingredient for life. Again employing the verse paragraph to handle the rush of imagery surrounding him, the poet plays on the word “fit,” defining the spaces people occupy in the spectacle: “People are very fit on the plaza, they fit on it, and if the fountain goes into ecstacies of jets, that is something they understand and adapt, moving away and looking, save for a young woman who persists, getting wet, laughing, asking her friends to photograph her.” The paragraphs push the reader to often arresting conclusions, encompassing ever-growing human and spatial relationships, as at the end of the piece: “And that’s something I’d say to Paul, why not meet here one evening? We’ve still got time.” No oratory or uplift, but the timely recognition of the poem as intensely social space.
Immediately after, Katz offers two longer, even prosier works, arranging the pages as journals, with dates at the end of each entry. The first, “Maine Hours & Days,” takes a meditative tone, reflecting on August away in the country. The poet keeps observing, though in a more speculative manner: “The same place with the same junk but a different emotion. In the side mirror, a different look of green leaves, patterns of a wall hanging in nature. 8/9/17.” Or on the last day before returning to the city: “Everything gets broken, but some things get healed. I come in silence, and the silence is poetry. 8/31/17.” Then, in another journal-like piece, “Autumn Days & Hours,” the poet is back home, announcing, in the first entry, a less than silent resumption of daily life: “Today it all started again. I am all ages — 5, 12, 23, 35, 42, and all the other ages in between and beyond. Until that age when age stops mattering. 9/5/17.” Toward the close of Katz’ autumn in New York, one finds what might serve as the book’s climax, the entry striking a chord of resolution:
I was thinking about ego, and how little that has availed one. And how easy it is, really, not to be run by ego if one wishes. I realized that my early life had been a flight from meaninglessness. I was terrified of people for whom the universe seemed a shut, fully understandable, and harshly limited condition. And I went toward those who felt the opposite, who felt unburdened. 11/18/17.
One piece, however — “A City Marriage,” the book’s final 12 pages — feels very much out of place. It’s not just the occasional querulousness that disappoints — an acquired taste, perhaps, at the heart of New York School poetry — but a rhetorical tendency infecting American poetry since the time of Whitman: the use of oratory (or speechifying) in the quest for wider public acceptance. Perhaps Katz has a different intention here, but it eludes me. Reading the piece, it’s as if the modern revolution in poetry had never happened, and verse were only a more ornamental form of prose. There’s nothing challenging to this discourse, no “Hunger of the Word,” (Roland Barthes’s phrase) that makes poetic language uncompromising and, ultimately, unique. Instead, “A City Marriage” is another tried and true American spectacle, like the newspaper or TV editorial, or the inside scoop in yet another politically correct polemic, with its pieties aimed squarely at the masses. One’s at a loss to understand why this final piece is included in such a mature and accomplished collection.
Beth Ruscio’s first book-length collection, Speaking Parts (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2020), is a significant addition to Los Angeles poetry written by and about actors and acting (Harry Northup and Michael Lally readily come to mind). There’s both energy and precision in Ruscio’s verse, as she approaches her avocation as a poet with the same determined play she practices as an actor. Poems such as “Reclamation,” “Correcting for Death,” or “Standard Time” disclose quirky scenes of artists at work:
First, we lifted our pretend skirts, our arms akimbo just so,
then without a sideways glance,
set about our magic-seeming backwards trot.
The conclusion of “Standard Time” rings as an anthem fром inside the relentless Dream Factory where Ruscio and others make a living:
[…] Yes. Raise a glass adieu
to sunburnt days of lemon frazz,
the flushed headiness
at the roller coaster’s crest
and the sun too close
for Icarus and the rest.
A swinging back beat, enough
booze and Chinese food
to get us up and running. Rejoice.
This is standard time now, for real.
Having lived here for over 52 years, I can testify to the allure of working within a highly eclectic creative community, even if the entertainment industry remains a place, as Gore Vidal put it, where many “do well what shouldn’t be done at all.” It’s also a place where actors work in TV and movies by day but develop their craft during the evening hours and weekends on the stages of independent (often precariously surviving) theaters. Ruscio’s poetry “rejoices” in what it’s like to live here, but, as she shows in “Late Valentine,” she isn’t blind to the risks and disappointments: “Or out of our mouths, only the truth? No, honey / Heartbreak, all heartbreak, all the time.”
The second section, “Repertoire,” begins with “Westering,” in which Ruscio muses that “the very decision to set forth on the journey is a kind of death, involving the total abandonment of all previous life.” Addressing “Dear soul,” then “Dear departed east,” and finally “Dear knee,” Ruscio’s show of bravura abruptly ends: “Dear knee, / bent on the trail of folly / which will not end with me —” The “Repertoire” finishes with “The Geometry of Watching,” a strong transition to the book’s final section, “Soliloquy.” The piece reads like a brazen manual:
Plant your feet in the night.
Hands in your pockets.
Triangulate those elbows.
Tense up the hypotenuse of each arm.
Finger on the trigger of a gun in every pocket.
The range of Ruscio’s soliloquys is especially impressive. In “The House Goes to Half,” she dramatizes the dangerous lengths towards which actors — and, by extension, all of us — go to find our voices:
In her period corset, tight, vise tight,
her voice strains, she’s running out of air —
so she will use it, this breathlessness
to sound whispery and coarse. Her pleasance … on edge!
The highlight for me of this last section is her homage to Marcel Duchamp in “Our Lady of Desires,” the artist’s pet name for his posthumous installation, Étant donnés, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on which Duchamp secretly worked for the final 20 years of his life. In her “Notes,” she writes: “At twenty-one, I worked there and took my break in the corner of that room, watching people walk up to the old Spanish door, find the peep holes, and jump back.” The poem’s a denouement to this fine debut, emblem of the poet-actor against the backdrop of this 20th-century multimedium masterpiece. Ruscio begins with Duchamp’s epigram, “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” leaving not much doubt as to her intentions:
the fading light ripens
the very moment
fruit splits …
let the dusk clothe her
now detach with abandon
oh nice touch, the gas lamp
his his his his will sing.
Rick Snyder’s Here City (Parlor Press, 2021) is the poet and translator’s second full-length collection after his well-received debut, Escape from Combray (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). The youngest of the poets reviewed here, Snyder is in some ways the most urbane, perhaps partly as a result of his having translating Catullus, as well as his immersion in the study of that profoundly civil poet, George Oppen. Snyder relocates Oppen’s gaze to the Southland, as in “Poem Beginning with My Beard,” or the sequence, “Enough Silence.” Snyder’s wit and humor energize his verse, and are rooted in his precise handling of the weight and pulse of language:
It hurts me more than it hurts you.
I feel it grow as the face shrinks.
I’m sorry, Mikhail Bakhtin,
this is not a novel way
to apologize for naming the cat
after you. She’s sick too.
As with Oppen, the poet’s ear is key to his clarity. The field of reference in Snyder’s work is extraordinarily broad, forcing the reader not only to pay close attention, but ultimately to adhere to the music on the page. He speaks not just tothe city — no easy thing in a distended, dystopic metropolis — but, like a ventriloquist, through the city’s chaotic ramblings, “the catastrophe / that matches our mise-en-scene.” Yet he always comes back to as exuberant and finely wrought a page of verse as one’s encountered in some time:
Here city, city, city.
Come on, boy, don’t be
afraid to coalesce into
an ethereal smear pocked
with monuments that burn
all night, crazier than thou.
Just as connectedness and conversation are essential to Katz’s New York, disconnection and silence lie at the heart of Snyder’s Los Angeles. “Enough Silence” begins with genial outrage:
The bottom of the face
gets all moist
while the top reigns
cold and stainless.
The poem moves to a parodic reprise of Wallace Stevens’s modernist Americana, frolicking in a burlesque of triple rhymes (“Tennessee,” “eau de vie,” and “harmony”) spread over four terse stanzas:
For a Mountain Dew
and a dip of Skoal
I would set fire
to all of Tennessee.
(For a cigar
and a glass
of eau de vie
sung in three-part
Snyder ends “Enough Silence” with the Southland as a “plaque-free” city, “outside of history / where the Muses delight / some absent father,” only to have these muses speak to the poet in a visionary travesty recalling Eliot’s London some 100 years before. Doggedness and an instinct for survival may serve far better than revelation in this metropolis:
Shepherds of smog,
it’s hard to get lost
with the same stores
on every block.
Take the filter off
and find the image
is less clear,
The title poem, “Here City,” resolves Snyder’s odyssey through what is and isn’t there, which reveals the need for certainty itself to be a kind of sentimental anachronism. The city asks for little more than one’s time. Absence is the surest bet. To ask for more of this poet or this city seems naïve, if not downright useless. Service, a terrific word for what happens in the poem, is interrupted, then restored to a global network managing to commodify all things, even its own mistakes, simply to resume
its tangents and vectors,
processed by objects
as small and dark
as the eyes of a starling,
constantly soaking up data
and sending it back to Seattle,
which sells it to Tokyo,
which sells it
to someplace else.
Such writing owes its effectiveness to a vivid tradition (evident in the scant allusion to Stevens’s “Blackbird” of the preceding lines), which Snyder has the talent to revisit and keep alive. History, literary or otherwise, belongs here to no one and everyone. It spews forth absurdly beautiful music, as well as a cruelty often difficult to overcome. Happily, poets like Snyder keep trying to save us and our ridiculous enterprise. The book ends with “Field Notes”:
Ah penny, bad penny, bad penny.
Were I to conflate Yeats and Big Black
the smokestack would continue to belch
its paean to the past. Forever waiting
to be photographed by your dad or mine.
Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and editor, and the Founding Chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design. His many works of poetry include Motive and Opportunity(Shearsman Books, 2020), Border Music(Talisman House, 2016), Days Shadows Pass (Green Integer, 2007), and Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 (2001). He is the editor of a number of collections, including Anthology of L.A. Poets (1972), with Charles Bukowski and Neeli Cherkovski, and L.A. Exile: A Guide to Los Angeles Writing 1932-1998 (Marsilio, 1999), with Evan Calbi.
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