Poetry for Southern California
We would like to welcome several new reviewers to the Poetix staff. Eric Morago has been writing for us for several years now. Nancy Shiffrin provided her first review in September. Also, look for reviews from Danielle Mitchell soon. As usual, I will continue to provide reviews on regular basis myself.
G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
LOOK EACH OTHER IN THE EARS
CD by Michael C. Ford
Hen House Studio (henhousestudios.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
L.A. poet Michael C. Ford has teamed up with his old college buddies The Doors to show how poetry and music can work together. Ford met Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison at UCLA Film School before they even formed their band. Now, 50 years later, the three (at the time of recording) remaining Doors back him up on his new CD, Look Each Other in the Ears.
What’s important here is that this is not a Doors album, it is a Michael C. Ford album. By that I mean that the music is there to serve the words, not to showcase itself. There is no point at which you say, “Hey, that sounds like the Doors,” at least not so much that it distracts your ears from the poet.
Ford’s poetry has a light touch, yet tackles some deep topics. His primary target is modern American culture, especially its commercialism and militarism. He is an observant poet, pinning his verse on well-chosen imagery. In “Making Out (With Westwood Village),” the image of Pegasus advertising Mobile gas manages to symbolize both that commercialism and the cultural destruction it causes: “someday the gods and goddesses of urban renewal will bring that lofty plastic beastie down from its flamboyant perch.” “Wartime Carol” uses President George H.W. Bush’s stomach problems in Japan as a metaphor for the first Gulf War; although the real potent image in the poem turns out to be a water pistol.
Ford is also capable of more ethereal poetry. “Sleeping Underwater” is simply a beautiful description of a moment. “A Simple Ode (to Frank O’Hara)” and “Waterfalls” are moving eulogies, one to the poet, the other to the turn of the century.
As I said, the music complements the words. “Waterfalls” uses a jazzy, almost New Age sound, anchored on Manzarek’s piano work, to provide the peaceful atmosphere the poem calls for. Similarly with the guitar and piano interplay in “Sleeping Underwater.” On the other hand, “An American Bomb” gets a sparse, bluesy accompaniment, fitting to its story of the nuclear bomb. “Whatever Happened to Grandma’s Orange Groves” is driven by an almost frenzied organ and guitar jam.
My one complaint about the album is the overuse of vocal choruses, often just the title of the poem repeated in a sing-song voice. Unlike the other musical accompaniment, these often do intrude on, and at time overwhelm, the poetry. There are pieces where they do work, such as “Waterfalls” and, somewhat surprisingly, “American Bombs,” where they serve to separate the individual stanzas. But in a meditative piece like “A Simple Ode,” repeating the title in a cheerful chorus detracts from the thoughtful poem about a great poet. And since nearly every piece has a chorus, they quickly become an intrusion on the overall sound of the album.
But that is a minor complaint on what is otherwise a great marriage of music and words. Other poets and musicians could learn a lot from this CD.
Book by Brian Komei Dempster
Four Way Books (www.fourwaybooks.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
Brian Komei Dempster’s poetry in Topaz is multi-layered, in both obvious and subtle ways. In many of the poems, disparate events are presented simultaneously. History is collapsed so the experiences of multiple generations nestle up against each other. Dempster finds the connections to make the separate universal. At the same time, by using specific details, he breaks the universal into its individual pieces, much like the facets of a gemstone.
In the poem “Transaction,” he aligns his mother receiving a reparations check for her internment during WWII, the hate-killing of a Chinese man, and his own experience with a stripper. The following excerpt is just a sampling of the layering he maintains throughout the poem:
my name wrong she muttered. A white father
and son, lacquered
in piston grease, fired
from the plant.
My name’s Francine
she whispers as she snaps
my bill, swiveling her hips
to Motown. They swilled gins,
Four years in the camps
my mother said, raising
her check to the light.
they thought aloud
This one poem encompasses most of the main themes of the book: the internment camps, various forms of prejudice, and Dempster’s own, at times uncomfortable, sexuality. The book takes its title from the camp where his mother spent her early childhood. Her experiences there form the base strata on which he builds the book. But only a few of the poems deal solely with the experience of the camps. He is more interested in how that experience reverberates down through the years. “Crossing,” the second poem in the book, is about Dempster searching the Utah desert for the remains of Topaz. “If I can find it, how much can/ I really know? ... I don’t remember/ my mother’s answer to everything.”
His search for what his mother refuses to remember reveals to him how much the prejudice that enabled the camps lingers, and is augmented by additional prejudices. He finds it alive and well when he dates a Korean woman.
You never bring flowers to the house. You haven’t even learned
to pronounce my parents’ names. You don’t ever bow
and speak to my father in Korean. And I, half-Japanese,
barely able to speak the first language of my own mother,
Fuck no, I don’t understand.
The picture gets even more complex as sex, illness and death work their way in. To set the following excerpt in context, Dempster’s uncle is dying from cancer, his mother has barely survived a bout of appendicitis, and Christine is the girlfriend of his best friend Derek, who has died in a drunk driving accident:
My uncle thinning in critical, my mother released, Christine climbing
through my window, resting her drunk head on my stomach,
slurring, I miss him. I missed you my father whispering upstairs,
rubbing her line of stitches as we hardened into Trojans. She on top
of me, he on top of her, Christine crying Don’t put anything on...
my mother crying Not too hard... the wound will open.
At this point I should point out that the poems in Topaz interact with each other. The repeated themes, stories, locations and even physical objects reverberate throughout the book. So when she says, “the wound will open,” it brings to mind all the wounds Dempster has already related, and the many more to come. In a way, it speaks to the entire book, which is a series of opened wounds.
But all is not bleakness. Over time, Dempster marries (to a Chinese woman, not the Korean woman previously mentioned), and has a child, Brendan. There is redemption in the hope that Brendan may have a better life than his ancestors. Dempster directly links and contrasts his mother’s childhood with Brendan’s. The poem “Steamer Trunk,” early in the book, describes cleaning out the trunk that was used to transport the family’s few belongings to the camp so that it can now contain Brendan’s baby clothes. The penultimate poem, “Migration,” brings it all full circle, concluding with:
the flight of years reaching destination
when my grandmother touched
my grandfather’s bearded face,
and my infant mother returned to him
quieted, like our son,
a plum inside my cupped hands.
I have actually only touched on the major themes of Topaz. It also deals with The Bomb, homophobia, Buddhism, and trains (as a metaphor for many things). This is a book of astounding richness, one which deserves multiple re-readings. Like the gemstone of its title, it reveals new beauty with every new examination.