Review: truth and lies that press for life: Sixty Los Angeles Poets Print E-mail

0604_Art_Melancholy(Poetry Flash Number 223 July 1992)

Uneasy Confessions

Today, the prevailing trend in publishing poetry, besides presenting individual authors, is to publish the work of poets in community. Scan the anthology section of your bookstore's poetry corner and you'll see the packaging: the poetry of ethnicity (African-American, Jewish-American, Native-American); the poetry of gender and relationship (men's issues, mothers to daughters, incest survivors); and the poetry of place (Key West, Ohio valley, Oregon coast). But such grouping is not new to poets; they have already come together as working writers, developing themselves through communities that often fuse elements of the University writer's workshop, the coffee klatch, and (at times) the 12-step program. Poets organize in communities not only because of their identity, but also because they wish to create community, to commune, where a personal and shared poetry becomes their bread and wine.

truth and lies that press for life is one such community project, put together by Connie Hershey who writes in a preface that she collected these poems after participating in the poetry writing workshops of Jack Grapes, through the UCLA Extension Program. (Grapes is also the editor of the L.A. lit mag Onthebus. Incidentally, a number of poets in this anthology have been published by the other mainstays of the L.A. literary scene—Sculpture Gardens Review, Tsunami, Poetry/LA, Jacaranda Review.) She says the book "is a tribute to a gifted teacher," who "trains his students to find `the voice within' in their writing." "It was hearing `goose bump poetry' week after week that inspired me to want to bring the work of these poets to a wider audience" (vii).

In one sense the title truth and lies that press for life suggests a group of poets who are examining the difficulty of living well in what is surely the most tumultuous and physically exhausting city in America. In light of the recent unrest in Los Angeles, it is tempting to look in this book for predictive evidence about the riots, about the vortex of poverty and injustice that has sucked in the multiracial underclass of L.A. for years. Such a reading, though, won't hold up. This book is not a response to public life, although it does share the despair and helplessness of the 1990s, which the riots have helped crystallize. No: The burning here originates in the personal isolation into which these poets have plunged themselves, who appear to choose loneliness and self-pity as guides through their individual pain. Their inner selves are bent and twisted by failures in marriage, relationship, and career. In truth and lies, such wounds result not in any explosion but in uneasy confessions. Many poet-narrators set out to explore their desire to grow or change internally yet end up worse off because their emotional depths have overwhelmed them. Predictably, some poems do little more than photograph frustration and numbness. A poetry of stunned realizations, of therapy, it speaks of art as mere self-disclosure: We tell about our troubles and we feel better. But what exactly locks these writers up is seldom found. Kathy Hand writes in a poem apropos of the book, "Jack's Workshop," of another poet Paul, "who reminds me of me/ who writes poetry/ that breathes deeply but/ stops before it takes/ off running a marathon/ smog gets you every/ time if you let/ it Paul don't/ let it" (66). I find quite a few poems here whose narrators recognize the size of the difficulties confronting them yet whose response is to remain withdrawn, to stop at guilty admission.

Overall the book offers us a community of struggling, isolated selves, who together are expressing their poetic sensibilities in ways that are no doubt new and exciting. I imagine Grapes' workshop supports that sensibility wholeheartedly, supports and nurtures it into poetry, even into publishable form: Written together and published together. Incestuous? Perhaps. But that's the nature of community writing. The helping circle, in which each member's expression is supported through much of his or her writing process, often creates a group whose trust and openness keeps people writing. But there's a danger. Sometimes, poems developed in the group are valued as mere expression: if a poem resonates with others, it is accepted, approved, worthy. Too often, though, the empathic power of the writer, in person, is mistaken for poetic craft. Despite the admirable urge to commune, I'm unclear whether in this book the group's emotional support of the poet has significantly helped develop the poet's artistic responsibility to the poem.

For example, Julie Rae's "U-Haul," which I suspect received encouragement for its revelations about loss, seems not to have gone any deeper in language than to state the hurt. She writes that the break-up of a marriage is "like moving furniture":

suddenly I get this urge to rearrange things

and I won't rest

until it's done.

This is my life I'm talking about.

Like the living room,

the idea comes, I see my interior

in a new light and

all the dust balls have to go. (141)

Later, she states, "So I grab the end of the heavy leather couch/ and I shove and I push and I sweat/ and I cry for all the times I hoped/ alone" (141). The poem's search for its unique identity in verse, its impossibility as Charles Simic would call it, is never attempted. Instead, the "furniture" metaphor overtakes the poem and shows us a narrator stuck in mere remembrance. True, the poem may be read (by the poet!) to "sound good." But on the page it reveals more of a narrative snapshot of an experience than a journey with verse which ultimately transfigures that experience into something new.

Consider the beginning of "Aspirin" by Lisa Glatt.

I am always taking aspirin. My head

doesn't hurt, my back

doesn't pound, no tooth

aches. I just

take aspirin. This habit

started after one night

of heavy tequila

drinking. . . . (57)

After further jaunts through the narrator's bar-hopping background, we are peppered again with more lines about her disaffected state: "I ask men/ for aspirin/ when I want/ to be sucked on." The poem ends, "At dawn/ I take 4 aspirin. At noon/ I take 2 more. I wait// and wait/ for my head/ to split" (58). I'm not sure if "Aspirin" is the fact of the matter or the fact of some irony. But the rush of discovery—for poet and reader—doesn't register. The poem seems imprisoned by its central image, using, again, a pseudo-explicit narrative voice to tell a series of related events. In the telling, however, no change occurs, no sudden action moves the narrator, no decision or discovery is felt. Alas, this kind of flat-statement poem depicting isolation crops up too frequently in this book.

Of course, the lackadaisically written poem will, in any anthology, stand out awkwardly from the more crafted poems. One reason is, the poet's inattention to the verse-tools of punctuation, spacing, and lineation. Here is the beginning of "Not Alone" by Eve Brandstein.

Not alone

Just when you die

or just before

you adjust to the way it will be

after it was

out on the ocean

before landing

just before riding in

riding out

to the foam lip of arrival

towards home

walking with history

always inside your heart

under foot

in between toes

in between ideas

of where you come to

where you're off to . . . (25)

First, the referential ground of this poem is nebulous because of "you." Who is "you"? Where is "you"? I am more bereft, though, because the short lines lack a crafted physical identity, not a meter or an accentual pattern but some rhythmic consciousness that controls the lengths of lines, syntactical phrases, and sentences. I am not pulled by the energy of a composed rhythm crossed with enjambment and cadences to read the lines. A poem's line-by-line movement should emphasize, in part, the quality of its subject via the rhythm of its lines. I am drawn to a poem that tells me as much about its composition as it tells me about its subject. Here, because the subject is vague and the lineation is negligible, I remain outside the verse. Furthermore, when the poem forgoes punctuation, I look to the words themselves for moorings as I'm blown from line end to line end. Brandstein provides few bearings.

Poems with little punctuation are all right if the punctuation is replaced with some other print or rhythmic device to give the poem a reading life. For example, in Quincy Troupe's sparsely punctuated "A Poem for `Magic'" (the poem is printed in Troupe's Weather Reports, Harlem River Press, 1991), the lines are crafted with wonderful internal sounds that push the poem forward and make it at once oral and readable: ". . . so put the ball on the floor again, `magic'/ juke & dazzle, shake & bake down the lane/ take the sucker to the hoop, `magic' johnson,/ recreate reverse hoodoo gems off the spin,/ deal alley-oop-dunk-a-thon-magician passes." This is a great out loud poem! From truth and lies now watch and listen to the craft in the carefully shaped (nearly punctuation-less) "On The Ward" by Jane Autenrieth Chapman.

If the glass is thin I

smell hospitals

angels' voices in

the silverware—

someone's singing that note

again—rubbing alcohol in

a small glass


hush—the apron is coming

in quiet shoes

door closing heavy

hurry now—hide in the drawer

try to look like

a spoon. (31)

Quirky and sinister, this poem uses a few well-placed dashes and spaces to help render its evasive quality. What exactly does "if the glass is thin" mean? Thin glass, used how? for what end "in the ward"? The tension of the opening line is developed because Chapman plays with its edge. The spatially shaped lines magnify the narrator's wandering mind. Yet with those parallel dash-and-space holes, we see a logic to her paranoia.

Perhaps the reason why poems lack punctuation or spatial shaping grows out of the orality of the workshop. When a poem is read in the group, its rhythms are usually improvised by the poet. The poem's rhythmic shape may be found in this first reading. But some writers believe that readers will shape the poem's rhythm in ways significantly different from the author, that rhythm like opinion is free. Not true. Any reader reads what the poet has put there to be read. Some workshops insist that a poem is turned in ahead of time, so group members can take it home and hear the voice in the poem for themselves. But more often poets read brand new work and then receive comments. Also, in workshops I've attended or run, groups invariably talk content; rarely do they help shape the poem's lineation. In any case, the published poem will lose its spoken force, and only some form of punctuation or spacing or line break or composed speech can redeem what is lost when language moves from oral to aural.

In America our two greatest poets, Dickinson and Whitman, were also great redeemers of the oral language for print. Dickinson loved to compact her grand themes within the short span of her singing-and-rhyming tetrameter lines. She used the dash to indicate an interplay between the steady passing of time (and her awareness of it) and the timeless expanse of her subjects: Nature, Eternity, Death. Here is a stanza from "It struck me—every Day," (No. 362).

I thought that Storm—was brief—

The Maddest—quickest by—

But Nature lost the Date of This—

And left it in the Sky—

Dickinson interrupts her lines with the dash to give the jolt her words bring a resonant space. The dashed space makes a bridge over which a reader can linger (and feel the power of the Noun) or continue on. Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass used, in place of "normal" punctuation, ellipsis points, a lousy tool for the precision required of a poetic line. The ellipses made his poems seem less determined, as if he were unsure what to put in those dotted spaces. Whitman later realized his mistake and vigorously punctuated his phrases, resulting in his characteristic end-stopped line. And it was the end-stopping that gave his verse line, made audible the stress patterns with which he composed because he clearly enclosed those patterns. (Joyce Carol Oates is one of the few masters of fiction who uses italics to sculpt a similar measure and emphasis onto her prose.) My point is, punctuating verse is one useful tool (I have not touched on the tools of rhythm, line break, sound, and stress) with which we inscribe the vibrancy of spoken verse onto the "silent" page.

In some of truth and lies' better poems about loneliness, the poet-narrator, deep in the despairing self, is seeking through the act of writing to create a hyper-self-conscious self (as autobiographers often do) that is recognizably different from a past self or an internalized other. In Cheri Gibson's "in a house without me" there is some deft play with the narrator's other self who Gibson labels "my girlfriend":

she tosses and turns and screams in her sleep.

she pushes me away when we are awake,

she makes coffee, smokes cigarettes,

writes poetry with the door closed

while i walk our daughter from room to room. (52)

Perhaps her other is a lover. But that would be too easy, avoiding the most cavernous split between her and her deepest desire. Only an imagined shadow self can go down there. I like the mystery of "i can't go there/ where we hold hands and she listens to the dark/ pretending i'm gone" (53). Gibson leaves me with a felt experience of isolation: Instead of a poem that restates an actual incident, hers is a poem in which the incident occurs imaginatively in verse.

In "The Pond," by ellen, the poem from which the book's title is taken, the narrator revisits the scene of a childhood trauma. "I am thirsty for the splintered dock where I was pushed,/ the murky water lurching for my lungs/ and it didn't care" (48). She finds that the pond "became a lie. I honored truth and lies/ that pressed for life." The pond became a lie? How? The answer comes from her recollecting more peaceful scenes that also inhabit the place. There is much tranquility the narrator re-ascribes to the pond and, in so doing, her description lulls the horrible memory, which goes unexamined. Dwelling on the serene allows the lie to flip over: the pond "becomes the truth." We feel a terrible relativity in this poem as a survivor manages the meaning of a pond, a metaphor for a not-fully-resolved past which the author has discovered but only partially believes.

Jennifer Knight's "Tuned Out" is an elegantly descriptive poem about a daughter-narrator whose hatred of her mother's irrecoverable life invokes the picture of a sad, lost woman: "and her face and neck and chest/ greased up with Ponds cold cream/ and those gold and silver kidskin mules" (70). The poet scares us with the permanence of this scene. Yet, when she wonders in the end "if it's just because I've come home,/ or if it's the same every night," the claustrophobic perception of the daughter, perhaps true, perhaps overblown, is revealed. Carine Topal's "The Scream" after Edvard Munch's famous painting is one of the most powerful poems presented. Much of the marvelous happens in this poem. The poet interweaves the viewer-narrator, the woman in the painting, and the painter to explore the overlapping emotions of the three. What begins as "The sound we almost think we hear is strands/ of a woman's hair caught in her lover's heart—" becomes through the narrator's identification with the painter's craft and the voice screaming from his painting "the/ hollow of birth when it comes, the shriek of/ someone else in your mouth coming up but never/ reaching out from your throat./ The sound I almost thought I heard" (176-177). A magical poem.

Wendy Rainey has a number of poems in truth and lies which are disarmingly simplistic, full of steadiness and shock, often stylishly flat in the manner of a Ray Carver short story.

so removed were my feelings for them

that by the time my dad had a coronary

and my mom drove the station wagon into

the side of the mountain,

I took it as a good sign

the house took on a new dimension

with those two out of the picture.

I took to having tv dinners every night

in front of the tube

where I learned to appreciate

the beauty of baseball— (from "Planets" 149)

The poem develops not the loss of her parents, but her immersion in the baseball games she watches, whose terms of catch and home somehow help to relieve her pain. The narrator can only feel her "senses intact" when the TV offers baseball's completeness: the home team wins and the game is over. Completeness in life—surmounting her parents' death—is not possible: "how a heart knows when to stop/ is beyond me" (150).

I loved the intensely observational memory poems of Elizabeth Degenhardt, the surreal richness of Shirley Love, and the impish humor and self-deprecation of Lee Rossi. But most I favored Florence Weinberger's verse. Three poems about marriage were superlative: "I went to the ball," "Old Marriage" and "What We Bring Home, We Put on the Table." The wisdom of couples who equally value autonomy and intimacy is celebrated in "What We Bring Home."

. . . When I walk alone, I track

only where I put my own feet,

and whatever I see, a fat bee black and

yellow against purple morning glory,

a bird chasing a squirrel across a telephone wire,

etches in me a path I won't be talking about

over dinner tonight, and your trip to Toronto

last week, though I'm certain it went like the words

you spoke on the way home from the airport,

leaves out the rain on the runway in Chicago,

how that changed you. Still, you brought it

home . . . . (182)

Weinberger's "Mame Loshen, The Mother Tongue" describes in catalog style the Yiddish language of her father from which came "your wild colors/ intact, your bent humor, your centuries/ of bottled-up rage and richly-imagined revenge," in addition to "the rhythm of my poems." Even though the spoken word has enriched her poetic voice, she reveals a harsher inheritance underneath his authoritarian expression. She names things language could not give:

and where in his mouth were the biblical mothers

Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah and where

in his mouth was his own mother Rachel

who taught him the one song he sang to me

when I was a child? (184)

The storyteller seduces us with the energy and voice of the language. But once the spell is cast, it may take years for us to awaken to the manipulative authority behind those words. Words have users, Amiri Baraka once said, but worse, users have words. And users use words to deny people the intimacy of love and song, which any grown child wishes she would have had. Indeed it is the most daring poets who create that missing closeness, who write to replicate it, by fashioning a text that will speak with intensity and intimacy.

Such composed intimacy is what I wish I would have heard from more of these L.A. poets, more of the mechanically, acoustically, and rhythmically detailed choices an individual writer wields. When that feeling is sculpted in the poem, the love that was no doubt born in the workshop is born again between poet and reader.