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Book Reviews by Sesshu Foster

from small press review 28.7-8 (July/August 1998)

Love After the Riots.
By Juan Felipe Herrera
1996; 62pp; Pa; Curbstone Press,
321 Jackson Street, Willimantic, CT 06226.

Sesshu Foster

The poet as Marcello Mastroiani, and Fellini back with us directing, shooting the movie of the L.A. riots of 1992 (the sure aftermath of La Dolce Vita, in the American remake that starred Ronald Reagan). The poem as film, with urban devastation as a backdrop for cinema spectacle. Instead of a whimsical score by Nino Rota, Juan Felipe Herrera provides a Surrealist whimsy of shortened lines, a flickering imagery that fails to fully unfold along a linear logic; his fractured images titillate, amuse, surprise, disturb.

These are the titles: "7:30 pm/ Thursday," "7:35 pm," "8:00 pm," "8:35 pm," "8:37 pm," etc. The poems play like brief edits of time, jump-cuts up to the moment. Whereas Ginsberg proposed Buddhist breath units as a measure of poetic line, and Williams an American phraseology, Herrera makes explicit use of the forms of another medium as measure and line break. He slashes and bags his lines like freeze-dried flowers, like a Pop Art Modernism, a post-Modernist fin- de-siecle Futurism (Marinetti's enrapture with the Modern as precursor to Fellini's bemusement over its decay). The brittle shards of imagery glow with energy strangely absent from most North American poetry in its contemporary confessional, testimonial mode:  

The TR-3 spins at 75 kilometers.
Florence Street, an egg. Eat, she says.

Yes, only for you, she says.
Eat it, she says in Italian.

We go by the country,
a miracle is in the making.
People are running.

Where are the children? A scoop
about the raped women in Bosnia.
Their elongated scarves are the clues,
Marga whispers into my tiny ear.

("3:03 am," from the `Friday' section); really, it's like a long poem with these juxtaposed stanzas, or a poem cycle, with segments that do not stand alone well (film being moving imagery that merges, flips, changes - one or two images fall out of context). And, like Mastroiani's world-weary character, Herrera's gaze in these poems is semi-detached, quizzically fascinated by the continuing urban crisis for which the riot serves as apt metaphor. 

The protagonist in these poems drives through the riots in a Triumph TR-3, watching Rome burn through the flames of urban America. This book is a ticket, a note of inquiry left on that burnt out vehicle - the 20th century - a century that promised the moon, Revolution, a world of labor-saving devices, and ends with charred aspirations imploding, Modernity collapsing in on itself as urban centers spew new dangers across a darkening planet in an ever-expanding oil slick. Herrera writes from that edge.   

Good Sense & the Faithless by Michelle T. Clinton, 1994, West End Press, P.O.Box 27334, NM 87125, $9.95, 100 pages, paperback.

Clinton’s second book after “High Blood/Pressure.”

Language stiff, like swollen, sensitive with black or purple blood. Lines straight to the touch. Not pastel soft, pastoral ambiance of university seminars where the patio opens out on the lawn. Where the voices are modulated by well-fed bodies leaning back into the chairs. Not the closeted reflection of the inner self far from the intense concertina wire tangle of urban life, what Adrienne Rich calls, “the issues. The issues are our lives.”

This is the 2nd time in as many years that the National Guard has been sent to L.A., the 3rd time in 2 years the Republican governor had to declare Southern California a disaster area. Freeway overpasses are lying down on freeways, apartment buildings and parking garages collapsed, dawn to dusk curfew and the water undrinkable after this earthquake. Last time it was fires, most of them arson, raging through rich people’s hilly chapparal neighborhoods, and before that the riots they call the L.A. Uprising. This environment is the immediate subtext connected to each line break of “Good Sense & the Faithless,” it informs everything between the lines. What is implied in the white space of each page is how this city is man-made, the existences we live here not to be blamed on economies that are so unlucky (again and again), not to blame God’s substance abuse problem (again and again), nor momentary lapses (again, again) of the general good humor in the system.

In the white light on these pages knuckle-hard truths shine into angles of decline of urban life in America, into corners at the back of the mind which are always there, out of sight of the media and its lying camera eye. Poetic truths envisioned through passionate/compassionate contemplation/reflection of the actual. True incidents. The real. Beginning like:

In the fifties my momma got caught
in the back of a musty pontiac
w/ her legs in a catholic koan
she wanted to do it & did
but got caught by a hard man
a missed period & me
soft bones & white spittle
me & my waste all over my momma’s hands

As a child she dreamt of nursing
in white stockings w/ stiff cap
part of the colored elite rising in the am. 1954
my mother the only colored speck
in st. teresa’s school of nursing
first negress capped & pinned
after she finished nine months
she dropped out
when i dropped in her life
(“The Emergence of Barren Women”), or:
my clit as your hard candy/ my mouth’s everywhere you want/
every opening slush/ like snow cones/ like i’ll be your
bicycle/ i’ll be nasty if you want/ i grew these titties
i watched the black circle spread their weight/ do it like some
body bad/ somebody greedy/ we can hide under the dark/
or stake me in the open/
(“Sex and the Mother Wound”), or: 

That night i smoothed the hair of my lover w/ my palms, w/ my fingers in his mouth,
sleep was a numb dream spun w/ sharp, geometric shapes & hard, dark colors. And
that first breath of the morning was cold as the harsh part of city living.
(a piece of “Blood is a Bright Color & Tears are clear”).

You can see how the verbs, their brittle English sounds, impact each line with motion. Imbue fragmented desire with a spin. A torque on the worked and reworked imagery, the directly transcribed diction of feminist images. Peeled off like bubblegum tattoos, rubbed on, spit on or smeared with anxiety, fear or (not solitude so much as) loneliness, torn a little, put back into place. Each line is not constructed with the ennobling artifice of prettified long academic or religious words. Her abstractions are others, artistic, personal, political. Clinton likes to stick with the compound grammar of her African American upbringing. Given the class structure of our society that too of course implies the taste of streets.

Her unstinting focus on the relationship of sex to gender, class, everyday living (or perceived reality thereof), go to the psychological wound of our survival in L.A., locus for urban disaster(s) of our time. Against the distancing of gentrified adjective/noun phraseology which would proffer some kind of individualist nostalgia for the exotic Third World/other or for the aestheticization of personal confession or for a glamorization of death & despair, Clinton gives us instead a collective dialect of African American grammar, the popular idiom, mixed with street politics:

The 17th boyfriend had a hook dick
the 25th boyfriend liked the color purple & karl marx
the 37th boyfriend could fuck good & that’s all
boyfriends 45, 72 & 67 were good as guns in a street situation
boyfriends 85 & 95 gave up beaucoup cash
I tell them about all the lunatics in the city

“The Hundredth Boyfriend”

This live mix of language encouraged Harvey Kubernick’s Freeway Records and New Alliance Records to record Clinton’s widely admired “spoken word” performances for distribution. It is, doubtless, an art form that some will find “vulgar” (i.e. too democratic or too anti-academic). They may look to the postmodern (in vain, I think) for rumors of war, for popular response to street heat, for secretly coded mumbling for salvation of their ass in somebody’s New Age. Clinton herself acknowledges the influence of Ntozake Shange, a seminal figure pioneering forms where feminism & text, black dialect & theater create new inner space, cultural dialogues. Following the text are notes which summarize the history of these poems as performance pieces, mostly at Beyond Baroque and Highways Performance Space, two of the main venues for hybrid drama and art in L.A.. In so far as her work also reflects these new trends in popularizing new democratic poetics, “Good Sense & the Faithless” is also a text of new forms. There’s a cutting edge here, not linguistic reaction.

“Good Sense & the Faithless” manifests individual bravery in the face of collective disaster, the everyday realities of L.A.; everywhere smoke fills the air, guys with automatic rifles rushing around after dark. No retreat into a myth of self. Or obfuscations of frenetic artifice. A black belt in shorin ryu karate, Clinton demonstrates a combat poetics unafraid of social responsibility and personal pain (“Sensei Maria’s Story,” “Poem in Gratitude for San Kyu”). Like the discipline of martial arts, her craft serves. My guess is no avant-garde advances in fear, afraid of discipline, responsibility, pain. “Translate This Fuck Face,” “Guidelines for Brothers: How to Heal Rape,” “Giving Up the Near-Sighted Ghost/In Praise of the Multi-cultural” and other poems of “Good Sense & the Faithless” defy hard facts of massive alienation, abuse and violence with their own bitter sharpness. Clinton accepts the challenge of devastated public places & urban spaces inside us and beyond, her singular voice raised up.

-- Sesshu Foster

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