On "We're Caffeinated by Rain"
City Terrace Field Manual, if the poems collected in the
Oxford Anthology are representative in their approach to characterization specific
and emblematic experiences, visceral and personal sketches as opposed to generalized
representative samples or objective anthropological study is ironically titled. I
agree with Stephen Kessler, writing in Poetry Flash, who characterizes the
collection as a survival manual for Los Angeles: less a how-to set of
procedures than a record of experiences from which the writer/witness has somehow managed
to emerge alive. The mode of surviving L. A. for Foster seems to have been, given
these poems as evidence, a commitment to very local interventions, in the form of a
sketchbook of individual characters and actual people living in L. A., or for teaching
near his place of birth. His poetry investigates the effect of L. A. -- of poverty, of
dizzying multiple forces of entertainment, capital, culture, language -- at an intimate
level, where those forces get underneath his characters fingernails and when they
exhale it when they kiss their children. Id thus disagree with Kesslers poppy,
energetic review of Fosters poetry when Kessler dwells on its razor-sharpness and
its gunfire: charged with furious heat, a spiky verbal salsa of percussive rhythms
and cinematic jump cuts, sometimes restrained but always rippling with fiery energy.
To be fair, Kessler would be wrong to diminish the energetic rhythm, the almost rushed, I
think, alliterative structure in Fosters poetry, and to be fair, Kessler briefly
notes a more tender tone in Fosters poetry. Id like to give that tone a fuller
consideration here by examining a moment of pause in Were caffeinated by
Were caffeinated by rain plays with an alliterative structure in many of its lines, sounding a loose structure of repetition: off rhymes and consonance that move its cadence along in a skipping, unsteady beat:
Were caffeinated by rain inside concrete underpasses,
rolling along treetops, Chinese elms, palm trees, California peppers.
Its opening sentence not only imagines an L. A. climate injected with (more, and
ironically, in this case, natural) stimulant, but follows a frenetic scheme of rhymes as
part of its rhythmic mode. Concrete, Chinese, and palm
trees are all approximate rhymes whose syllabic parts echo in counter rhythms to
their obvious aural connection. The long e sounds are also heard in Were
and treetops. The elm of Chinese elm repeats
approximately and immediately in palm, reinforcing the caesura between items
in the list of flora: Chinese elms, palm trees, California peppers. The poem
thus offers aural matches that never settle into sustained rhythm, and repeated sounds
that repeat idiosyncratically. There is a slippage of sorts in rhyme that
allows the poem to connect itself for a few beats, often in lists of work, produced goods, or commodities, and then release itself. Its a rhythm that reflects the day-to-day structure of day-laboring life: predictably shabby, undercompensated work, menial but not repetitive (in the long term when compared to, say, line work or extended part-time service employment) service jobs, and a kind of anonymity that attends a paternalistic at best and cruelly exploitive at worst series of employers.
The most ingenious section of Were caffeinated by rain ends the poems first movement, which identifies the collective identity of the poems narrator as a day-laborer in L. A. who earned a subsistence living trading service and menial work for cash and unsteadily flowing checks.
. . . . We told our youth to grab hard a piece of paper swirling like tickets
in a bonfire, fire-
crackers at Chinese New Year, toilet paper in a bowl.
We coiled long green hoses. We oiled mean little
engines that buzzed like an evil desire that could spit a
steel slice or sharp stone to take your eye out. We
gripped rusty clippers, clipped leafy hedges, ground
sharper edges. We hurled their sacks of leftover leisure
that rotted at the curbside. We slapped our hands with gloves, slammed white
doors of Econoline vans, showed
up at sunrise in the damp perfume of the downtown
flower market. With all the Japanese gardeners gone,
were all Mexican now.
This section moves through a series of repetitions that give it aural coherence, but
only briefly: the repeated assonance of toilet, coiled,
oiled,; the alliterative ss in the following lines in spit a steel
slice or sharp stone; the combined hard ps and gs and short es and
is of gripped rusty clipper, clipped leafy hedges, ground sharper edges; and
the alliterative pairs leftover leisure and gardeners gone.
Id suggest that these strings of rhyming sounds have embedded connecting tissue.
Toilet, coiled, and oiled repeat, approximately
told; their ls and os are repeated in bowl,
long and hoses. The alliterative ss of spit a steel
slice or sharp stone repeat until the compound ls of leftover
leisure breaks their string, and pick up again until they run out of energy, an
energy that restarts in the alliteration of hands, slammed,
vans, and damp.
The soft a and consonant n repeat in Japanese before another alliterative double appears, gardeners gone.
The series of aural hand-offs which never completely yield up the echoes of words sounds like a complicated dance might look: patterns that repeat and switch, sounds partnered with other sounds which themselves move on. The unpredictable repetitions in this poem, then, become a kind of pace, insisting on a reader response that attends to its sounds on their unpredictable, yet structured terms. These terms, in their turn, are analogous to the rhythms of day-laboring life:
. . . . Instead of us, they saw azaleas, piracanthus, oleanders, juniper
They didnt want to see us, they like nature in rows and
flowering things, not another kind of face. Notions rattled in us like spare
bolts in a coffee can.
Were caffeinated by rain responds specifically to a condition of near-invisibility of impoverished day-laborers in L. A. given five minutes a week or fifteen minutes a month by benevolent charities and the malevolent intentions of exploitive capital. Its as if the poems loose alliterative structure were preparing readers not just to be attentive, but to expect representation and expression to escape preconceived notions of poetrys form and themes: rows and flowering things. This poem rattles around, to borrow its pun, as day-workers do around L. A. from day to day or week or month, with a certain predictability the labor, repetition of service tasks, the deferential stance that accompanies menial work, even if the content of that work, its locations and movements, are slightly different from day to day.
What I find at the still center of the poem, however, is its narration of a relationship between father and children, who see their parents as a series of effects of their work, much as those who employ and exploit them do:
Try to make our children see more than this man with
green stains, cracked skin, red eyes. More than the back
bent over stacked tools and coiled hoses. Coffee breath.
This introduction to a domestic space in L. A.s day-laborers lives ends with the phrase, Coffee breath, the poems shortest sentence. It is one of few end-stopped lines and advances after what I read as the poems most dramatic pause. Although the poem has investigated the miniscule effects of its narrators stained and infected fingernails, it seems that here, in the caffeinated breath of a parent, the poem slows down. Perceived as, if we are to allow the diction of injury in the line green stains, cracked skin, red eyes to govern the tone of Coffee breath, a bitter, unnatural, smell to the narrators children, a current of laborings effect runs through the relationship among families, even at the moment of embrace or kiss. Whats cruelly ironic is that the stained clothes and bodies identify workers to both their employers and children. Whats disarming is that the poem, in effect, saves its most densely packed images for those same children as objects in the narration. In its first movement of identification:
We told our youth to grab hard a piece of paper swirling like tickets in a
bonfire, firecrackers at Chinese New Year, toilet paper in a bowl;
and in its concluding two sentences:
Our kids today want to grow up to get lucky. Okay, we tell them, have it your
way, and we light our children like candles.
The image of candles, lit in celebration, even ritual, or simply as emblems of hope or clarity, redeems the bureaucracy, chance, chaos, and, ultimately, hopelessness of the series of images that comprise the advice to youths the poem narrates earlier. Tickets in a bonfire hints at a lottery and at paystubs and paper money, which, in the logic of the poems first advice, have their most visible use as fuel, transform into the short-lived payoff of firecrackers, or appear in the material of the crudely and banally depressing toilet paper. Perhaps the poems final sentence works to cash in the check of day-laboring in L. A. in a different, extended mode. In lighting its children like candles, it arrests the consuming process of conflagration or spectacular ignition, while maintaining the tone of unfounded hope. The laboring parents light their children like candles, breathing a kind of resigned hope into them. The simile resists affirming them as willing or able vehicles for that hope, however. I would want to retain the poems thematic and rhythmic attention to the inconsistencies of day-laboring, however, and the omnipresence of artificial stimulus the metonymy of coffee and the fact of menially laboring jobs as a qualification for a reading of regenerative, slow-burning, less artificial light/life at its conclusion. One imagines much meaner engines than candlelight signaling the continuation of day-labor in L. A., making a terrible racket indeed.
Copyright 2001 by Andrew Moss
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