Reviews of City Terrace Field Manual
By Stephen Kessler
From Poetry Flash (February/March 1997) and
Kaya: a publisher of asian/diasporic literature and culture
On Native Grounds
City Terrace Field Manual by Sesshu Foster (Kaya)
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie (Norton)
From Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler through Charles Bukowski and Joan Didion to Wanda Coleman and Mike Davis, among various lesser knowns, Los Angeles over the last six decades has bred an increasingly diverse and distinctive range of literary expression. It also seems only poetically just that Henry Miller and Anais Nin. those consummate egomythomaniacs, both found their way to L.A. in their later years just as Bukowski's star was rising as the new low-budget bard of the self-made self. Historian Carey McWilliams, in his classic study Southern California: An Island on the Land, observes that the L.A. region is a cultural exception within the larger exception of California as a whole, a geographically and psychologically isolated realm--and thus a microcosm of America--where escapist and adventurous individuals have traditionally migrated for the sake of reinventing themselves.
Idiosyncratic Los Angeles artists such as Sam Rodia and Ed Kienholtz, musicians like
Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell, and authors like some of the above have engaged that
tradition in their own ways by reinventing their respective forms. While the spectacles of
the entertainment industry, celebrity scandals and natural disasters all lend a mythic or
legendary air to mass-mediated versions of the Southland, equally vital in a wide-angle
view of the city and its multiple cultures are narratives of the urban and suburban
enclaves housing the people who work in the factories or wash the dishes in the region's
restaurants. In recent years, the voices of these less visible communities have been
rising to take a significant place in the L.A. literary landscape. Anthologies have
proliferated, and books by uncelebrated local writers have found their way to the margins
In a barrio called City Terrace in East L.A., Sesshu Foster was writing and assembling
pieces of his recently issued City Terrace Field Manual, a book which in its recombination
of literary traditions begs the question of genre and extends the boundaries of existing
poetic frontiers. In an intensely personal form of documentary prose poetry Foster offers
picture--or collage, or kaleidoscope slide show, or smashed-glass mosaic--of the territory where he spent most of his boyhood and to which he's remained connected both physically and emotionally ever since.
In their mixture of imaginative and nonfiction techniques. their blend of narrative and lyric elements, their musical forms and unconventional structures, even their almost identical lengths, Waldie's and Foster's books have much in common. Both are extraordinarily effective in conveying the texture and atmosphere of a very particular geographic setting; both narrator-protagonists are unheroic self-effacing recorders of local day-to-day life, even as they reveal their most intimate responses to what they've grown to know as normal; both exercise a crafty formal control, an economical compression which gives their writing tremendous resonance. In the days while reading and after finishing both these books, I couldn't stop thinking about them.
And yet in other ways Waldie's and Foster's books could hardly be more different from
each other. While both writers have remained close to home (Waldie in the very house where
he's lived since he was born) and made their living as public servants (Foster as a
teacher in the public school system), their respective experiences and attitudes and
systems of belief are worlds apart. Waldie is a practicing Catholic whose religious faith
suffuses and informs an otherwise dispassionate account of his own
and his community's development; Foster is a political activist who dreams of and works for some kind of revolution that would correct the countless injustices so excruciatingly recorded in his book. Waldie serenely accepts the limits of his world and the tragic or pathetic failures of average humans to realize some greater accomplishment than quotidian survival, indeed,
perceives the pattern of that ordinariness as evidence of some greater, sacred order. Foster protests a social order thnt condemns his friends and family members and students to lives of poverty and violence and substance abuse and racist degradation even as he celebrates the near-miraculous vitality that enables the fortunate ones to endure and thrive. Waldie's style is cool, measured, almost detached in its commitment to an accurate factual representation of his material; Foster's is charged with furious heat, a spiky verbal salsa of percussive rhythms and cinematic jump cuts, sometimes restrained but always rippling with fiery energy.
(I should note here that in Foster's acknowledgments he thanks me, along with several other poets, "for supporting his work," by which I guess he means that in the course of our intermittent correspondence over the years I responded with admiration and encouragement to the pieces he sent me from the book in progress. My response to the finished product would be the same with or without that acknowledgment, or if I'd never before heard of the author.)
As its title implies, City Terrace Field Manual is a guide to survival in a combat zone--less a 'how-to' set of procedures than a record of experiences from which the writer/witness has somehow managed to emerge alive. Others he describes are not so lucky, having succumbed to or been gravely wounded by bullets, car crashes, incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, police violence, on-the-job accidents and other forms of urban despair and mayhem. Yet this is not a
work of sociology. Foster's eye and ear and nose for the looks and sounds and smells of the city are attuned to the specific sensations and personalities encountered and remembered in his tour of duty; he leaves it up to the reader to draw more general conclusions. The portraits he offers of high school buddies, girlfriends, students, neighborhood characters, parents and grandparents are fragmentary, anecdotal, not 'developed' as in a work of fiction, but the people in his pieces of stories are invoked with totally convincing vividness. These are not characters but human beings, drawn with a few quick strokes--emblematic individuals, figures in a bigger picture.
Cindy didn't get any respect. The other kids didn't know she had already been shot three times. She was
twelve, and they called her "Bumperhead" because she had a big forehead above such light blue eyes. She had
a friendly smile, though like most gangbangers she paid no attention to me. The day she was kicked out of
school, she went down the hallways threatening other students. I stood at the door to the corridor, calling her
name. It was like she couldn't hear it. Later on, someone caught up with her, and she showed up at my desk with
a transfer form for me to sign. "Cindy, Cindy, Cindy," I said. But she didn't look at me or say anything. She
just fidgeted, waiting for me to sign her out.
Structurally, Foster's Field Manual is an assemblage of fragments, untitled,
unnumbered, that can be read in any order and which exhibit a great variation in tone,
mood and mode, ranging from fairly straightforward narration to feverish lyrical delirium,
from smoldering rage and baffled grief to tenderness and nostalgia from invocations of
Lenin and Che Guevara to affectionate recollections of hapless cholos whose only
revolutions were those of the rounds their cars made in the varrio. Whatever the mode,
though, and whatever the length of the fragment/paragraph--from seven or eight lines to a
couple of pages--Foster's writing sustains a relentless intensity that renders the texture
of his world in a way that feels physically and emotionally
exhausting, oppressive and exhilarating at the same time. Saul Bellow once said of Dreiser that while his style was clumsy his attention to difficult detail gave his writing great "lifting power." Foster's style has a terrific agility--it isn't clumsy at all--and it's the seriousness of his unflinching vision combined with the snappy grace of his prose that lifts the heaviness of his material into a realm of almost giddy revelation.
I was the needle in the rain. I fell through years like a character in the Mayan calendar. I was the Chinese woman a floor below the street, bent over her machine in the dusty half-dark. I was the only white guy on the Mexican railroad crew, I was the breed who caught it from three sides. I was the one always on the out. I was the government worker piling slash after the logging
company had gone, knowing I was laid off when the job was done. I was the unknown artist sweating out images in a neighborhood garage. I was the guy whose only call came to sweep up at the factory, and I hurried to take it. I listened to the radio in the boarding house when everyone slept and heard a seagull calling in the middle of the night. At noon, I was the spots I saw high in the sun over the telephone poles.
I quote short sections--many of the longer ones have the kind of continuous firepower that singes your eyebrows--because the only way to get these pieces is in their entirety; but even in these few lines you can hear the tension between dismay and defiance that drives the rhythms in the poet's voice, and the Whitmanic self that both is and is not the author, identifying with his surroundings, moved to affirm the existence of even the humblest luckless nobody, to hear the lonesome unmusical yet somehow hopeful call of that unseen gull.
Ethnicity, nationality, class and 'race' play important roles in Foster's cosmology, not surprisingly when you consider that his father is revealed to be Anglo, his mother Japanese and his neighborhood predominantly Mexican. The father in Field Manual is all but missing, except when he turns up drunk in a rooming house or half dead in a hospital bed after open heart surgery or remembered sending foreign currency home to his son from some port where he's docked as a Merchant Marine, boozing it up and fucking the local whores; it's not what you'd call a reverent filial tribute, even though the bitterness of the portrait is tinged with a certain grudging forgiveness. The poet identifies more deeply with his mother, but she is scarcely seen as an individual, more as the child of any Japanese American family relocated in 1942 to one of the infamous detention camps. Culturally, Foster has the soul of a Chicano; the boyhood friends he invokes are mostly Latino; his language is salted with Spanish, touched with a black and blue affinity for Jimi Hendrixesque improvisational departures into hallucinatory consciousness-bending astronautical flights of song. In other words, he's American, multicultural to the core, as indebted to Hemingway as to Los Lobos, yet he cops to the identity of only half his heritage, the half that isn't quite 'white' If one were a Freudian rather than a Marxist, one might attribute the poet's third-world revolutionary fervor to certain unresolved issues with the father. But neither psychology nor politics can truthfully be reduced to such simple formulas. To Foster's credit, he engages neither in ideological diatribes nor in crybaby lamentations over victimhood or familial malfunction; he plays the hand he's been dealt with enormous reserves of spirit, creatively transforming the anger and grief of nasty circumstances into a paradoxical elation, a battle cry of undefeatedness.
Poison summer breeze, least likely to bring any relief but strangely it does; it's unexpected but I'll take it; the wrong wrench, the wrong socket set, the only thing you bring me makes the job take even longer--I'll take it in place of anything less; your glance, cheeks colored with sexual frustration and resentment; the broken end of a bottle waved in my face, two motherfuckers spitting out insults at the end of the day; skinny dog chained in a shityard of flies, chain crackling in the dry leaves; no one has anything to say that makes any sense, the families walking through heat waves at Evergreen Cemetery; raggedy-assed palm trees & friends who'd rather read magazines than try to think--hey, whatever, whatever is left; whatever you allow--you know what I'm saying-- I'll take it. (page 111)
Foster's first book, Angry Days (West End Press, 1987), was a strong collection of poems, yet for all its rage and accomplishment it yields nothing like the overall voltage of this masterfully sustained long-poem-in-prose. City Terrace Field Manual is a breakthrough, not just for the author but for anyone else in search of alternatives to tired forms. (This review has been edited for length)
Review by Jean Gier
Published in the Pacific International Reader
Literary Supplement, Spr., 1997
Sesshu Foster's new book of prose poems, City Terrace Field Manual, hits hard; it has the heart and feel of poetry, but it is also a manual for urban survival, and definitely worth reading. Lesson #1: How do you survive when you enter East L.A. wit nothing but the clothes on your body? City Terrace begins with a short vignette about a family jumping from boxcar to dusty embankment, to take up temporary residence in a derailed boxcar. There are no easy answers. Very often, the only resource the characters of City Terrace have is their sense of caring, what one boy thinks of as "a warm lonely pain he thought must be love."
There are signs of wisdom and signs of disaster strewn about Foster's L.A. landscape, like fragments and shards from an explosion: "tinkeroys, squalling kids, a sister with rickets & my/brother without shoes, highway 101 two-lane blacktop/like Route 66... this fleeting world going down, fleeing, flat, furious desires of birth & death..."
Foster's language has an energetic, headstrong quality; each poem wrenches you from one telling scene to another, each an individual testimonio to a place where countless paths cross, leaving traces of disparate cultures, words (some chanted like stations of the rosary, some like Buddhist prayers), violence and death:
I AM this fetus: a worm in a womb of earth, root,
stone. You can look up and see Chinese ideograms
etched in baby's breath across the crystalline firmamet,
flame-dark pre-Columbian constellations over dusty
streets of Aztlan. A youth who no longer knows who
he or she is, bound and gagged in the dark so long,
raped and abused with electrodes, beaten, spit on,
and humiliated. A calendar wheel burns in epochs of
darkness, stones worn down by penitent knees, the air
smoky and stained with mumbling, wailing...
Foster's poems are concentrated histories of disillusionment, separation, and culture shock, moving from one intense scene to the next. His prosaic form is punctuated with telling dialogue and imagery that, at times, verges on the surreal. Throughout, one senses the power of cities like Los Angeles, and of North America in general, the irony and devastation of their allure. Foster's poems remind us of those individuals who make the journey: those who are destroyed along the way, and those who survive with only their dreams:
tell me you've been looking for me. I know you are
coming. I know you want help studying your kanji,
katas, cal--, your future-tense English. I know I told
your mother I would. The years are falling down, but
I just can't be there for you today. I will, I will, but...
there is too much light.
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