Skip to main content

Fifteen Takes on California


ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Wayne Thiebuad, San Francisco West Side Ridge, 2001. Oil on canvas, 36 x 36”.  (ART ©WAYNE THIEBAUD / LICENSED BY VAGA, NEW YORK, NY. COURTESY OF SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, WASHINGTON DC / ART RESOURCE, NY) Poetry. I moved to California to become a poet. Or maybe it was an accident, which is, of course, the same thing. “The discipline of poetry requires that you keep yourself available,” Gary Snyder told the Nevada County Union in 2007. “The muse ‘hits’ unpredictably, almost like an accident. An artist keeps herself/himself ‘accident-prone.’” Yes, yes, I want to say, and where better to explore this side of one’s self than in a state that is itself something of an ongoing experiment? What Snyder’s on about is imagination, the idea of inhabiting an imaginative landscape, which California has ever been. How else do we define a place that owes its name to a piece of literature, the 1510 Spanish romance The Adventures of Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo? “Know ye,” he writes, “that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks.” Is it any wonder, then, that when Fortún Ximénez landed on the southern tip of Baja in 1533, he and his men chose to believe they had reached the Island of California, their own paradise on Earth?

Paradise. And yet, if this makes me out as something of a booster, how can it be so? Ximénez was a mutineer who killed Diego de Becerra, his captain on the ship Concepción, which had been sent in search of California by none other than Hernán Cortés. We all know what happened when he came dancing across the water, how in 1519, he massacred thousands in Cholula, in central Mexico, before marching on Moctezuma’s capital, Tenochtitlán. Nonetheless, I am not immune to California’s paradisal promise either, have found myself moved nearly to rapture by a drive along the Grapevine, through the redwoods of Mendocino County, the San Timoteo Badlands east of Moreno Valley, across Big Sur’s Bixby Creek Bridge. All those lines, diverging and intersecting and diverging again. Once, a decade and a half ago, I spent an afternoon on the Carrizo Plain, in San Luis Obispo County, north of the town of Frazier Park, south of Cholame. Cholame is where James Dean died, at the intersection of California Highways 41 and 46, late on a September afternoon in 1955. Almost half a century later, I found myself alone in a car—no cell phone, no source of contact—driving south on the Petroleum Highway, bound for Wallace Creek, where over the last four millennia, the San Andreas Fault has put a four-hundred-plus-foot dogleg into a formerly continuous streambed. This, I’ve come to believe, must be California’s first improvisation, the improvisation of a living planet as it changes, an organic process that exists independently of us. Deep ecology, or, as Robinson Jeffers once insisted: “a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of transhuman magnificence.” Nowhere have I encountered this more strongly than on the Carrizo Plain. It’s impossible to stand there and not be reminded of your insignificance, a feeling heightened by the stone and wind and emptiness, the silence and the sky. Not only that, but the human detritus; the day I visited, there were fire traces, broken bottles, a car stripped and overturned, its doors left open like gaping metal mouths. California is a history-less landscape, or so we like to think, but out here, time becomes elastic, open-ended, as if we had walked out into eternity itself. Imagination again, or accident, another form of poetry, a set of associations, of meanings, decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Accident. On Valentine’s Day 1980, my best friend and I set out from a small town in South Texas, where we had spent a few months working, San Francisco bound. He was nineteen and I was eighteen, raised in Manhattan. Our 1970 Plymouth Valiant (135,000 miles and a frame rusted from a decade of northeastern winters) had been damaged two weeks earlier when I’d driven through a pothole, hard, and the front left-side suspension had collapsed. The mechanic to whom we brought the car offered a temporary solution: a block of wood—oak? we were living at the time in Live Oak County—maybe six-by-six, to prop up the fallen end. That Valiant would get us across the northern expanse of the Chichuahan Desert, through New Mexico and Arizona and Riverside, California, and all the way to Haight Street, where, after one last side trip, up Highway 101 past Mount Shasta to Eureka and then back to San Francisco, we left it, not quite derelict but no longer drivable, parked at the curb facing Buena Vista Park. Looking back, it recalls to me the old Bob Dylan line, “we drove that car as far as we could / abandoned it out west,” although at the time, I saw it from a different point of view. A week or two before I blew out the suspension, my friend and I bought gold paint at the hardware store in town and covered the back windshield with the chorus of another song. As he etched a loose latticework of leaves and flowers, I calligraphed four lines from “Estimated Prophet”: “California, prophet on the burning shore / California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door / Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light / Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.” The glass was just big enough. I’ve often wondered what that mechanic thought of us, two East Coast boys, car tagged with lyrics from the Grateful Dead—and wondered what we ourselves were thinking, heading west from San Antonio to El Paso with that window like a red flag. Poetry, improvisation, a belief in magic, imagination yet again. There was a time when those lyrics resonated for me with the force of the poems I was moving to California to write, the promise of something, some vision of the future, or of myth. California, for me, meant a lineage: City Lights Books, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums, trading lines of verse like koans. I mention this to offer context, a sense of what I wanted, to highlight what California promised or implied. It was not the first time I had been to the Golden State—I had spent a year in Long Beach as a young child—but already, at eighteen, I was looking for reclamation, if not nostalgic then intent on projecting myself into a different world.

Golden State. The phrase is rife with contradiction, considering the landscape to which it refers. “This is the country of three seasons,” Mary Austin wrote in 1903 in The Land of Little Rain, describing the region between Death Valley and the Sierra. “From June on to November it lies hot, still, and unbearable, sick with violent unrelieving storms; then on until April, chill, quiescent, drinking its scant rain and scanter snows; from April to the hot season again, blossoming, radiant and seductive. These months are only approximate; later or earlier the rain-laden wind may drift up the water gate of the Colorado from the Gulf, and the land sets its seasons by the rain.” Such a passage brings to mind Joan Didion, observing six decades later in “Los Angeles Notebook”: “Easterners commonly complain that there is no ‘weather’ at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact, the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire.” In this same essay, Didion suggests that “to live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” I have always had a weakness for the apocalyptics—or perhaps this is one of the gifts, or sensibilities, California has bestowed on me. Either way, it was on Haight Street that I first read “Los Angeles Notebook,” as well as the collection that contains it, in the very neighborhood that the title piece, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” had deconstructed more than a decade earlier, presenting a vision of the counterculture as not transcendent but rather lost, despairing, a children’s crusade with no understanding of where or what it was, the embodiment of a culture outside history.

Counterculture. There is a quote I remember from Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead, who died in 1995 at the age of fifty-three after decades of self-abuse. I’m going to have to paraphrase because I can’t find a digital trace of it, although I know it’s not apocryphal. At some point in the early 1970s, an interviewer asked for his thoughts about the people’s music—the notion that the ethos of the 1960s, or Haight-Ashbury, had rendered ownership of art and culture moot. Garcia responded sharply: The people’s music? Where were the people when I was learning to play music? It’s not their music, it’s mine. As an adult, I utterly agree with him, but at fifteen, sometime around 1976, discovering this sentiment in a record store in Boston, I felt unsettled, as if a pillar of my being had been disturbed. At the time, I longed for California—and not just California but the Haight. I longed to be part of a moment that, I recognized, had already passed me by. In another interview, this one archived online at Grateful Ramblings, Garcia makes the point explicit, when he is asked if he feels dismayed about the rate of social change. “I never was that optimistic,” he answers. “I never thought that things were going to get magically better. I thought that we were experiencing a lucky vacation from the rest of consensual reality to try stuff out. We were privileged in a sense. I didn’t have anything invested in the idea that the world was going to change.” Reading this, I can’t help but think back to the penultimate scene in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” where Didion is introduced to a five-year-old girl on LSD. Even at eighteen, I could feel the bitter horror of the situation, that there was no explaining this away. It is the only moment in Didion’s work when her façade of cool detachment falters, when she doesn’t know how to react. “Our world certainly changed,” Garcia continues in the Grateful Ramblings interview. “Our part of it did what it was supposed to do, and it’s continuing to do it, continuing to evolve. It’s a process. I believe that if you open the door to the process, it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.” Here, we see the tension between despair and possibility that marks not just Haight-Ashbury but also any romantic bohemian movement, the lucky vacation for which we will feel nostalgia, even desolation, afterward.

Nostalgia. This is the lingua franca of California, as it is of any place that can be—will behas been—wiped out. I am nostalgic for the Grateful Dead; I listen to them in the car, on satellite radio, much to the chagrin of my wife and kids. I am nostalgic for Jack Kerouac, or for my image of Jack Kerouac, for the months I lived in San Francisco, although I could not live in San Francisco, city of the Google buses, now. But it is not just San Francisco, it is the entire state; not just the recent past, but all of it. “In those days,” Helen Hunt Jackson writes of the ranchos in her 1883 essay “Echoes in the City of the Angels,” “the soft, rolling, treeless hills and valleys, between which the Los Angeles River now takes its shilly-shallying course seaward, were forest slopes and meadows, with lakes great and small. The abundance of trees, with shining waters playing among them, added to the limitless bloom of the plains and the splendor of the snow-topped mountains, must have made the whole region indeed a paradise.” Paradise. That word again, source of our frustrations and our dreams. By 1848, when California was annexed by the US after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it was already fallen, had already shed, or altered, its identity. Twenty-six years earlier, the future state had broken from a fractured Spanish empire to join newly independent Mexico. In 1846, settlers captured the presidio in Sonoma and raised a hastily made bear flag, symbolizing the sovereignty of the California Republic. Short-lived (the republic fell to American forces after less than a month), it remains, in its way, a psychological creation myth, a symbol of California’s elusive and idiosyncratic independence. Stories from another era, yes, and yet, this restlessness, this independence, looking backward as a way of looking forward—all of it asserts itself in the double helix of the state’s collective DNA. 

Independence. And can I tell you how happy I was to be in California? I’m talking about the first time, San Francisco in the spring and summer of 1980, not the second time, when I came here for good. The second time, I came out kicking and screaming, but that’s a different story, or a different part of this story. And no, that first time wasn’t the first time either—there was that year in Long Beach, which I mostly remember for the black widow spiders and the oil derricks of the Inglewood Oil Field pumping up and down like pterodactyls along the edges of what I would later come to recognize as La Cienega Boulevard in Baldwin Hills. Also, an intermediate trip, in June 1978, a week at a friend’s house in Berkeley, to look at colleges, and indulge, for the first time and briefly, my San Francisco fantasy. By then, my Bay Area fascination was in full throttle, fueled by The Streets of San Francisco and the Beats. Earlier that year, I’d read The Dharma Bums while riding Amtrak between New York and Washington, DC, the opening chapter, where Ray Smith hops “a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955,” echoing to the rhythm of the rails beneath my seat. “Anyway,” Kerouac continues, describing what happens after he gets to San Francisco, “I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night.” The scene ends with the poets piling into cars and heading off to Chinatown “for a big fabulous dinner off the Chinese menu, with chopsticks, yelling conversation in the middle of the night in one of those free-swinging great Chinese restaurants of San Francisco.” One more illusion, and yet I’d be lying if I said it didn’t move me still. This was the engagement to which I then—to which I still—aspired. That week in 1978, I trailed my friend, so eager to take the city in. I remember one night, riding in the back of a long convertible, Cadillac I want to say, black with fins, early 1960s model, pulling up to a building in the city, visiting a low, concise apartment inside. There was a party, men and women mostly in their twenties, blues on the turntable, weed and wine. A scene straight out of Kerouac, and in that moment, I felt my world expand. Later, on the evening I flew back to New York, my friend chided me: “You seem,” he said, “less independent here.” We were kids, what did we know, we were trying to be grownups, but what he meant is that I was intimidated: by possibility, yes, but also by the weight of distance, by having gone so far away.

Distance. William Burroughs, himself no lover of California, once put it like this: “I am getting so far out, one day I won’t come back at all.” This is, has always been, a signal lure of California, even in the modern era, when, as Didion reminds us, “It is very easy to sit at the bar in, say, La Scala in Beverly Hills, or Ernie’s in San Francisco, and to share the pervasive delusion that California is only five hours from New York by air. The truth is that La Scala and Ernie’s are only five hours from New York by air. California is somewhere else.” Somewhere else, yes, “west of the west,” in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous designation. You have to travel through the West to get here, and if the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made the state accessible on a certain level (by the 1880s, a fare war had driven rail prices from the Midwest to Los Angeles down to a dollar for a ticket, helping feed the real-estate boom, the oil boom, that legendary cycle), it remains inaccessible, or at least exotic, on another one. Exotic, how I resist that word, and yet, wasn’t that what drew me in? For years after I moved here, my mother would offer to buy me shampoo and toothpaste anytime I went to Manhattan to see her, as if these items might be difficult to come by in Los Angeles. Even now, the New York Times seeks to explain California—“a grown-up version of Williamsburg,” a May 2015 Style section feature tells us, “without the gray cloud”—as if the place had no real culture of its own. The truth, of course, is just the opposite, although truth, too, is a word that I resist. Let’s start with Buddhism, popularized in the United States by Alan Watts, the British philosopher and writer who moved to the Bay Area in 1951. Or the preservation movement, which traces its roots to the founding, on May 28, 1892, in San Francisco, of the Sierra Club, by the protoenvironmentalist John Muir. Bioregionalism, immigration policy, tech innovation, emissions standards, reproductive rights; if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, California will remain a haven for safe abortion, thanks to the Reproductive Privacy Act. The influence cuts both ways, of course: Just look at Times Square, which in its current incarnation is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Grove. “Scripted spaces,” L.A. social theorist Norman Klein calls them, offering the illusion of urban serendipity when they are elaborately controlled. And speaking of scripted, don’t forget celebrity and politics. In 2003, during the gubernatorial recall, my aunt insisted that only in California would Arnold Schwarzenegger be a serious candidate. “Really?” I responded. “If he were running in New York, he’d be winning there, as well.”

Recall. Speaking of influence, how can we forget Upton Sinclair? In 1934, the progressive author—whose 1906 novel The Jungle had inspired passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act—won the Democratic primary for governor, running on a platform known as End Poverty in California (EPIC). As Greg Mitchell has written in the Nation, Sinclair “outlined a classic production-for-use plan, where all of the unemployed would be put to work in shuttered factories or on unused farms, with goods traded, providing necessities. No one would go hungry or homeless. The elderly and infirm would get relief or pensions. Co-ops would receive state aid.” The very model of progressive government, his plan echoed and boosted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the general election, William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler ridiculed Sinclair in their papers, while Hollywood studios made anti-EPIC fake newsreels and put their considerable PR machinery behind the Republican incumbent, Frank Merriam. (A third-party candidate named Raymond L. Haight also peeled off 300,000 votes, or almost exactly Sinclair’s margin of defeat.) The result, Mitchell tells us, was what Carey McWilliams would come to characterize as—sound familiar?—“a new era in American politics—government by public relations.” Sinclair never again ran for public office, although he lived another thirty-four years. In 1935, he gave his account of the election in I, Candidate for Governor—and How I Got Licked. His political descendants include not only Gore Vidal, who lost the 1982 Democratic primary for Senate to Jerry Brown, California’s then and future governor, but also Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, who finished fourth (of ten) in the 1979 San Francisco mayoral election, and Abbie Hoffman, who traced his political roots to May 1960, when, as a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student, he was radicalized first by the protests over Caryl Chessman’s execution at San Quentin and, ten days later, when police turned fire hoses on protestors outside San Francisco City Hall during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings. 

Roots. I am that cliché, the eastern transplant, the one who came to get away. “Part of the thinness of California,” Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1915, “is not only its youth, but the result of the physical fact that the human race is there spread over so many acres of land.” What he’s describing is a certain paucity of population, but if that’s no longer accurate, the larger point remains. California was a place where I could be an outsider, a place where I could get lost. Reductivist? Without question, but in a certain sense essential, as well. I think of Lorser Feitelson, a Los Angeles painter of the 1920s, who found it freeing to discover that “there wasn’t any art appreciation [and] therefore the artist had to paint for only one person, himself.” I think of my experience as a young writer, both the first (or third, or second, or whatever) time I got here, and also the most recent, which is among the reasons that I stayed. I would have never written the books I’ve written without the freedom California offered, the freedom to hide, to lose myself, the freedom to fail. This is the lesson of those artists I admired, the Dead with their improvisation, Snyder with his unpredictability, his insistence that a poet must remain accident-prone. Here’s Garcia again, recalling the Acid Tests: “The thing that was fun about those days was that nothing was expected of us. We didn’t have to play. We weren’t required to perform. People came to acid-tests for the acid-test, not for us. So there were times when we would play two or three tunes or even a couple of notes and just stop… . Also we weren’t required to play anything even acceptable. We could play whatever we wanted. So it was a chance to be completely free-form on every level.” There’s no way to overstate how much such a sensibility has come to mean to me. I don’t mean in terms of self-indulgence, which is ultimately what turned me from the Dead, or even drugs, although I have mostly enjoyed, and benefitted from, my experiences with them. I don’t mean “first thought, best thought” (thanks, Jack Kerouac), for my first thought is rarely my best. What I mean is this: the thrill, the febrile excitation of not knowing where you’re going, of trusting, or stumbling, or finding your way through the accident field. It is this to which I aspired when I moved to California to become a poet, although I did not know how to access it, was too afraid to appear foolish, vulnerable. Now? Perhaps I don’t care any longer, or maybe it’s that I’ve come to realize all is folly, that to be human is to play the fool.

Folly. After I arrived in San Francisco, I hooked up with an outfit called the Haight Ashbury Literary Quarterly. This was a newsprint publication, run out of a third-floor walk-up on Oak and Schrader, looking out onto the Panhandle. I walked over with my best friend one afternoon from our apartment on Haight and Lyon, bought a bundle of issues (250 copies) for twenty-five bucks. Since the cover price was seventy-five cents, we only needed to sell thirty-four copies to make our money back. I didn’t know any of the poets in the issue, although I hoped I might. Our investment got me invited to participate in a reading at a café on Haight Street, the first time I’d ever done anything like that. I had a poem, a new poem, a long poem called “The Lord’s Prayer,” and if I’m not cringing to remember, it’s because I still recollect how it felt to be that kid. I was younger than my oldest child is now, alone in a city, on a coast where I knew almost no one. I was an accident waiting to happen, although the accident, when it occurred, went unnoticed by anyone other than myself. The night of the reading, my best friend and I, along with a couple of others, smoked a joint in our apartment and shared a bottle of Chablis. Then, suitably fortified, we walked the three or four blocks west to the coffeehouse, where, when my name was called, I got up and read my poem as fast as I could. It was about as far from the Six Gallery reading as could be imagined; no one cared, no one attended, no one sent a telegram, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti did to Allen Ginsberg after hearing him read “Howl,” declaring, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” And yet, what does it matter? In his late poem “The Choice,” William Butler Yeats writes:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

I came upon these lines in an interview with Snyder, for whom it is “a touchstone … a reminder of foolish dualism and of the need to get away from the false choice of either ‘life’ or ‘work’—and the miserable lure of the idea of perfection. Art is never perfect.” Art is never perfect. Later, he expands the argument, stretching it into the world. “I’m nothing,” he says, simply. “My ancestors’ bones are not buried here. What do I know? If you want to talk about place, the sense of place, or the placedness of human beings prior to the mid-nineteenth century, you’re talking about something entirely different that we have almost no idea of.”

Place. None of us has deep roots in California—if we’re referring, that is, to Anglos, to americanos, the substance of the state’s enduring myths. But what do these myths mean, what do they tell us, how long can they still promulgate? “To speak of San Francisco as land’s end is to read the map from one direction only—as Europeans would read it or as the East Coast has always read,” Richard Rodriguez has written. “To speak, therefore, of San Francisco as land’s end is to betray parochialism. My parents came here from Mexico. They saw San Francisco as the North. The West was not west for them.” And this: “I have never looked for utopia on a map… . The point of Eden for me, for us, is not approach but expulsion.” California as land’s end, world’s end: It collapses underneath the weight of such a reading, as it must. It reveals the limits of our history—demographic history, social history, history of technology, our sense of this place as final landscape, last territory on the continent, where we face ourselves because there is nowhere to turn. And yet, what of its elemental history, its geographic history, which operates independent of our aspirations, as if we were never here? This is the secret story of California, not its instability so much as its implacability, a blank slate upon which we inscribe our dreams. “There are rocks / On the earth more durable / Than the configurations of heaven,” Kenneth Rexroth observes in “A Lesson in Geography.” I am reminded of my afternoon on the Carrizo, where I first encountered (although I did not then possess the language to understand it) what I have come to recognize as deep ecology. 

Deep Ecology. Does this suggest that I think of California as an existential landscape? Well … I do, and it is. Not, however, in the way we generally conceive of such landscapes, which is to say: not in a way without possibility. Instead, its existential nature is the source of its identity, both as state of being and state of mind. “Scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through,” Bertolt Brecht wrote in his journals on August 9, 1941, just a couple of months after he arrived in Santa Monica in exile from the Second World War. A great line, perhaps the finest ever written about Southern California, and, in the fourth year of the worst drought in more than a millennium, as relevant as it has ever been. Still, is the drought an existential crisis? It depends on how we define the terms. “In the cities of a changed California,” Timothy Egan wrote in the New York Times inMay 2015, “brown is the new green.” High time, I want to say, thinking about Los Angeles’s Landscape Incentive Program, through which the Department of Water and Power offers incentives to Angelenos willing to replace their lawns with native plants. Native plants instead of transplants, the changing face of time, of landscape, of this place. I don’t know anyone who believes the drought will wipe out California, not in the existential sense. No more than a catastrophic earthquake, on the San Andreas or any other fault line, would cause the state, as Myron Brinig imagined in The Flutter of an Eyelid, to “toboggan” into the Pacific, “the shore cities going first, followed by the inland communities; the business streets, the buildings, the motion picture studios in Hollywood where actors became stark and pallid under their mustard-colored makeup.” The apocalypse has been part of the California psyche since there was a California psyche, land’s end again, the collapse of civilization, eclipse of history. But that’s a story superimposed from the outside, schadenfreude or ignorance, misreading or countermyth. More accurate is Egan’s take; “The Golden State,” he argues in his essay (titled, tellingly, “The End of California”), “is an invention, with lives to match. If the drought continues, California will be forced to rely even more on what has long sustained it—imagination. Not a bad thing to have too much of.” 

End of California. And yet, the apocalypse is coming—not only for California but also for everyone. This is one of the touchstones of deep ecology, that the Earth will get along fine without us, an idea reinforced by every flooding city, by every drop of fear the drought provokes. What to do about it? Nothing. “Old age, sickness, and death?” Snyder cautions. “Enjoy it while you can!” Or, as Rexroth urges: “The world / Is going to be destroyed / Any minute now, so live.” I think about San Francisco, which has become (perhaps it always was) a heightened version of Manhattan; it is a city I don’t recognize anymore. I think of Los Angeles, in which I have lived for more than twenty years now, and with which I have come to my own complex accommodation, with which I have come to terms. Initially, I found stifling what I now find vibrant; I have adapted myself to my surroundings as they have adapted themselves to me. When I first got here, it was hard for me to see beyond the sprawling emptiness of the boulevards, but now I recognize the subtle shifts of neighborhoods. When I first got here, it was hard for me to imagine my way beneath its fluid surfaces, but now I recognize its depth. Consider the subway, light-rail, the downtown trolley, the growth of pedestrian corridors. Consider the rise of the food trucks, another act of the imagination that has turned back across the country to become a broad phenomenon. When Roy Choi created his first Kogi taco truck in 2008, it was a guerrilla operation, parking outside nightclubs, using Twitter to alert its customers. Now Choi runs five restaurants, and the food truck—not just his but all of them—has become such a fixture on the local landscape that a dozen or so park every day on Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Iteration, evolution, improvisation, food as source of cohesion, of community, certainly. But even more, the resilience of a city, of a state, that has been written off so many times in the last two decades, it’s become another kind of cliché. Yes, the state is different, more diverse, more solvent than it was a generation ago, different than when Schwarzenegger crept from office in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Imagination again, California as multipart improvisation, a song cycle, a crown of sonnets, sequence of takes on a theme.

Crown of Sonnets. I did write other poems in San Francisco, at times even more than one a day. It would be a stretch, however, to say I knew what I was doing, or that I in any way became a poet. Mostly, I produced tone experiments, abstract in the places where I couldn’t bear to reveal myself, assonances and alliterations, teenaged wordplay. I did write one poem I felt to be successful, so much so that I held onto it for years. Fourteen lines—a sonnet, I liked to call it, not Shakespearean but Petrarchan, eight lines to set the problem, six to bring it to a close. I’d quote it here but I don’t want to, or maybe it’s more that it would be beside the point. Either way, I’m less interested in the contents than in the effect. What I’m suggesting is that the poem emerged through revision, through being written, and rewritten, again and again. This is the flip side of improvisation, that it is often after the first flush of impulse, the imaginative revelation, that, as Snyder suggests in “I Went into the Maverick Bar,” we come back to “the real work, to / ‘What is to be done.’” For me, this meant a lot of wandering in the desert. It meant trying on a lot of costumes, creative and otherwise. A decade later, when I was no longer, and also not yet, living in California, a friend told me about the “crown of sonnets,” a series of seven sonnets linked by repeating last and first lines. My favorite variation is the “sonnet redoublé,” or heroic crown, in which two crowns, or fourteen sonnets, are fitted together, and a fifteenth recapitulates the lines and themes. This seems an appropriate metaphor, since the sonnet is about the raising and addressing, or reflecting on, of problems, which gets to the heart of what this landscape means to me. From the Island of California to deep ecology, from the Golden State to the state of drought. From the burning shore to paradise. It’s been years since I felt California had to live up to any of this, that it was anything more than another place, another location, with its own benefits and ills. But then I think about that kid, living on Haight Street with his best friend, desperate for poetry, and I can’t deny that he is why I’m here. 

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading