Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
Two of the authors reviewed in this column are featured at LA venues this month:
Catch Peter Ludwin at:
Saturday Afternoon Poetry
Santa Catalina Library
999 E. Washington Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91104
Saturday 8/8/09 3 pm
Peter Ludwin, Jack Bowman, Sojourner Kincaid Rolle +Open Mic
Second Sunday Poetry Party
311 Glendale Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90026
Sunday 8/9/09 8:30 pm
Peter Ludwin +Open Mic
1820 S. Catalina Ave.
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Tuesday 8/11/09 8:10 pm
Peter Ludwin +Open Mic
Catch Peter Ludwin and R. D. Armstrong at:
1049 Swarthmore Ave.
Pacific Palisades, CA
Monday 8/10/09 7 pm
Peter Ludwin & R.D. Armstrong +Open Mic
A GUEST IN ALL YOUR HOUSES
Book by Peter Ludwin
Word Walker Press ((www.wordwalkerpress.com)
In A Guest in All Your Houses, Peter Ludwin explores the American West, its landscape and its history, with a deep understanding of human foibles and resilience, and with all his senses open. The poems are both immediate, placing the reader in the middle of the action and scenery, and contemplative, finding deeper truths in what Ludwin presents.
History is one of Ludwin’s great concerns here. Many of the poems, especially in the first section, are strictly historical, covering the settlement of the west (“Notes from a Sodbuster’s Wife, Kansas, 1868”), the Indian Wars (“Comanche Moon, 1844”), and the Spanish Conquest (“Onate”). Others reflect Ludwin’s personal history in the region.
But whatever the topic, the past lurks in all these poems. It may be the song “Black Magic Woman” reminding him of his own past (“Potter’s Shop,Taos Pueblo”) or the beams in the Sagebrush Inn evoking the history of the Spanish Conquest (“Vigas at the Sagebrush Inn, Taos”), but it is always present.
The other constant in these poems is the landscape. Almost every poem is set sharply in the prairie, the desert, the mountains of the west. Ludwin describes these not just visually, but with all his senses, the smell of the greasewood, the sound of the jackrabbit, and the feel of the wind. making it come alive for the reader.
The sun on the red cliffs behind me,
the stream roaring through rabbitbrush
while cottonwoods dance in the wind
(“Forest Camp, Pahvant Range, Utah”)
Landscape and history are deeply entwined in these poems. Like Carine Topal’s In the Heaven of Never Before (reviewed here, May 2009), A Guest in All Your Houses focuses on the persistence of history. However, rather than finding history in family or language, Ludwin find it in the landscape. Landscape is intertwined so deeply with history that they become inseparable. Landscape not only influences history, it is history.
Although it might be more accurate to say that he finds the landscape in history, for the landscape is the constant here. Poems from a variety of times are all linked by the consistency of the landscape. In fact, in “Interpretation” he makes the argument that the only way to change history is to change the landscape:
Think of it this way,
Before the European war against the wild
neither dent nor scar disfigured
that rippling kingdom of grass,
no topsoil boiled skyward like locusts.
But the real constant here is the wind. Ludwin refers to it repeatedly, starting with the opening lines of “Sodbuster’s Wife...”:
What really got us in the end—
we women who didn’t make it,
who withered and blew away in the open—
was the wind.
The wind is an essential element of the landscape, but it is also the only counter to its permanence. Again and again he makes this point: “only erosion is history” (“Out West: On Hearing the Songs of Mary McCaslin”); “change is wind” (“Four Corners”). Yet even as an agent of change, the wind is consistent. “I am the wind/ I will be a guest in all your houses,” he writes in “Driving North.”
But Ludwin’s ambition is bigger than just evoking history, landscape and their intersection. He wants to make peace with them. He accomplishes this not only with individual poems, but with the structure of the book as a whole. The book is broken into three section, each bringing him closer to his goal.
The first section lays out the background—the history of the land, and Ludwin’s travels across it. The second section is more personal, tales of Ludwin’s interaction with various locales and characters across the West. In the third section he has settled in Terlingua, Texas and made friends with the artist Miguel Arguello. There he comes to a transcendent acceptance of the land and its history.
But that evening the doorway of the cafe
framed a light that changed my life,
the desert beyond melting from bleached
to butter gold, lavender to mauve,
each incremental gradation richer,
more stunning than the one before
as ridge and angle moved into focus,
the light a blade sculpting shadow,
and women stepping up to the bar
stirred a longing the dormant mustard
flower feels on the cusp of rain.
However, this structure is not as linear as that makes it sound. It is more a circling spiral, touching again and again, on his various themes, while moving ever closer to resolution.
In the end, A Guest in All Your Houses is a journey of discovery through the American West, discovery of the landscape, of its history, and of our place in it.
—G. Murray Thomas
THE LONG WAY HOME
Anthology edited by R.D. Armstrong
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)
The Long Way Home is an anthology of poems originally published in Lummox Press’s Little Red Book series. The Little Red Books were pocket-sized chapbooks (about half the size of a normal chapbook), most presenting the work of a single poet (a handful were anthologies, a few others featured two poets). R.D. “Raindog” Armstrong, the creative force behind Lummox Press, published 60 such books over the past ten years; The Long Way Home collects the best poems from those 60 books.
The Little Red Books published many top names of SoCal poetry, and of the national small press scene. Among these were Gerald Locklin, Scott Wannberg, John Thomas and Philomene Long representing SoCal, and Todd Moore, Bill Shields, Erroll Miller and Lyn Lifshin from the national scene. Even these names are just a small sampling of the talent presented here.
With a list of poets like that, it is no surprise that this is a powerful collection. Among the standout poems (to pick a minimal sampling of the great work) are “bucketful of yes” by Scott Wannberg, “Some Truths” by Will Taylor Jr., “throwing tears at the stones” by normal, “Treatise on Beauty” by John Thomas, and “September 5” by Belinda Subraman.
As might be expected in a collection assembled by a single editor, even over many years, there is a certain similarity to the style of the poems here. I was going to try to write this review without mentioning Bukowski, but I can’t do it. His influence runs too deeply here. Luckily, the influence is a positive one. For too many poets, the lesson of Bukowski seems to be that he freed them to write about drinking and whoring. Not that there’s none of that here, but the influence leans more towards honesty about life, including its negative aspects, and an ability to express that in plain but sharp language.
Still, there is enough similarity of style that, at times, the poets tend to run into each other. This is further aggravated by identifying the poets only at the end of their selections, leaving one to guess their identities while reading.
Take the following examples:
made me decide not to
kill myself. Planned on
slitting my wrists; had
the note prepared; cat
squared away for a few
days at least.
(“Funk Out” by Scott Holstad)
he only half
listening watching the smoke
drift about the room
not knowing what to say just
wanting her to stop
it’s okay pouring her another
glass of wine wondering
when she would be drunk enough
to let him fuck her.
(“Hotel #1” Will Taylor Jr.)
deep pulls on
Lake Country Red,
out of control,
trying to make up
for the worst kind
of lost time,
the kind no clock
(“The Slaughterhouse 5” Alan Catlin)
To me, these could all be one poet’s voice (even down to the placing of line breaks). But this is a minor quibble, and it does lend a coherence to the book. Also, it should be pointed out that, as the series grows, the variety of voices expands. I found much less of this similarity in the latter half of the book.
Another aspect of Bukowski’s work is its sharp examination of the life of the underclass. That is also carried through here. There is a running theme of working class lives (and even what might be called non-working class lives). This makes the book surprisingly relevant for today, even though it contains work as much as ten years old. However, that just reminds us that, for much of our population, the economic crisis is actually nothing new.
I highly recommend The Long Way Home, both as a sampling of
ten years of top notch small press poets, and as an example of what one
editor with a vision can accomplish.
—G. Murray Thomas
Book by D. Edward Ennis
Curbside Pickup is a collection of character sketches. Each little poem (most under 20 lines) gives us just enough information to grasp the person presented. Some of these characters are despicable, others are just beat down by life, trying to do the best they can. Ennis has a real talent for presenting a full-formed character in a minimum of lines.
driving out of town in navy blue 92
Chevy Corsica with a slight lean to the
driver side Ernest gently felt the front
pocket of his denim shirt containing
exactly 17 days of union wages and a receipt
for a full tank of gasoline the back seat
brimmed with what little was salvageable
from the apartment above Stanley Hardware
a bird cage full of dirty laundry portable
cd player with broken tape deck 2 pairs of steel
toe Wolverines 4 DeWalt boxes of miscellany
perhaps the only items not taken in his haste
were the family album and his lawyer’s cell
number hoping to never again need either
These are punchline poems. By that I mean the last line both hits you unexpectedly, and explains everything which came before. Sometimes the punchline is humorous, sometimes shocking:
back in the small town of his childhood
Carl now discovered himself full circle
and after some many odd years of living in
the city he found himself relearning the importance
of appearances just being white was no longer enough
he now had to be careful not to linger on his way past
the neighborhood bus stops in the mornings or outside of
the church centers in the evenings and most importantly
to never find himself with a suspicious amount of
popsicles in the grocery store check out
Curbside Pickup is also under a heavy Bukowski influence. These poems, in plain, stark language, tell tales of the underbelly of society, often at its seamiest. But Bukowski, for all his bluntness, rarely tried to shock for shock’s sake. At times, that seems to be the goal here. The very first poem, “working relationship,” sets the tone:
it was shortly after George
Ding caught me fucking his
wife that i started
calling him ShortStack and
... she was
a special woman George Ding’s
wife with her long gold hair
her permanent black eye and
a smile like you read about
Granted, not every poem here is shocking. In fact, some of them are quite tender. Still, the shock of the initial poems lingers, keeping the reader off guard, afraid of what might lurk in that last line.
Whether you enjoy Curbside Pickup is going to be a matter of taste. Those who can stomach, or even enjoy, its moments of brutality will find a book of sharp, amusing writing. Others may find it a much less pleasant experience.
—G. Murray Thomas
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