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On "We're Caffeinated by Rain"

Andrew Moss

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. I’d thus disagree with Kessler’s poppy, energetic review of Foster’s 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 Foster’s poetry, and to be fair, Kessler briefly notes a more tender tone in Foster’s poetry. I’d like to give that tone a fuller consideration here by examining a moment of pause in “We’re caffeinated by rain.”

“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:

We’re 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 “We”re” 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. It’s 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 “We’re caffeinated by rain” ends the poem’s first movement, which identifies the collective identity of the poem’s 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,
we’re 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 s’s in the following lines in “spit a steel slice or sharp stone”; the combined hard p’s and g’s and short e’s and i’s of “gripped rusty clipper, clipped leafy hedges, ground sharper edges; and the alliterative pairs “leftover leisure” and “gardeners gone.” I’d suggest that these strings of rhyming sounds have embedded connecting tissue. “Toilet,” “coiled,” and “oiled” repeat, approximately “told”; their l’s and o’s are repeated in “bowl,” “long” and “hoses.” The alliterative s’s of “spit a steel slice or sharp stone” repeat until the compound l’s 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
shrubs, marigolds.
They didn’t 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.

“We’re 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. It’s as if the poem’s loose alliterative structure were preparing readers not just to be attentive, but to expect representation and expression to escape preconceived notions of poetry’s 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-laborer’s lives ends with the phrase, “Coffee breath,” the poem’s shortest ‘sentence.’ It is one of few end-stopped lines and advances after what I read as the poem’s most dramatic pause. Although the poem has investigated the miniscule effects of its narrator’s 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 narrator’s children, a current of laboring’s effect runs through the relationship among families, even at the moment of embrace or kiss. What’s cruelly ironic is that the stained clothes and bodies identify workers to both their employers and children. What’s 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 poem’s 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 poem’s 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 poem’s 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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