Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Place Poems, II: "Dreaming America" and "Boca de Tijuana"

"What is the literature of Southern California today?" moderator Shadab Hashmi Zeest asked at a recent panel discussion at The Carlsbad Library. 

For me, the roots of literature in this area go back to the stories embedded in the bird songs of indigenous people. You won't find any bird songs in Erle Stanley Gardner's or Raymond Chandler's books. They got the weather into their writing. But if literature is a text that a culture finds significant, then the diversity of SoCal's migratory ebb and flow--especially where birds, animals, fish & plants are included--makes Zeest's question difficult and worth trying to answer. But diversity is difficult enough just in the context of people, so let's start there.

When I was a boy, my grandfather took me to Mission Valley to see the late San Diego Chargers play the then-Cleveland Browns. The crowd was cheering the Browns loudly, and when I asked my grandfather why that was, he just shook his head and said, "There's no such thing as a home field advantage in San Diego." 
Because he attended the same elementary school as my cousins
and because one of his childhood homes 
was on the the street I drive to work, 
Juan Felipe Herrera has always been my poet-elder.

The same holds true of literature. At a bi-national poetry conference in Tijuana, just months before Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed poet laureate of The United States, the audience asked a California State University (CSU) professor about the poetry of Juan Felipe. 
"I don't know who that is," the professor said.
The literary crowd seemed to fidget as one in their seats.
"He's California's poet laureate," someone from the Tijuana home-audience said. 
"I don't care about things like that," the professor said. 
Maybe there is no home-team literature in So Cal.

Another professor from The States leaned over to me and whispered, "I am not impressed."

It was a sober moment. Of course that CSU professor would later bemoan why attendance at his east-coast dominated reading series was poor and why more students avoided majoring in his program. Meanwhile, the vice-president that same CSU invited Juan Felipe to a standing-room-only reading in the college concert hall. The home team, apparently, had become so rare at home, it's an exotic example of "multiculturalism."
Raymond Chandler's cameo in Double Indemnity.

So Cal is the kind of place east-coasters come to get tenure on their way to a job at a liberal arts college in The Midwest. I've heard it called the "scorched earth career path," work like hell in overcrowded classrooms on the way to better job in Iowa, Ohio or some other state with only four letters. Since there's no home field advantage, So Cal lit has a strange rep. Raymond Chandler, for example, was an out-of-towner. Perhaps the most famous California novel written by a Californio is about emigrating here: The Grapes of Wrath.

Roberto Costillo receiving  the Felino Prize.
But there is more to contemporary local literature. Roberto Costillo's friendship with the late Robert Jones has been and enduring story of literary love crossing the border. On the commemoration of Jones' birthday, Costillo sent a poem to el norte to be at a reading in Jones' old neighborhood near University and 30th in San Diego. On the centennial of LoVerne Brown's birthday, the late Steve Kowit--himself a San Diego treasure--gave a lovely overview of her work for the Ocean Beach Historical Society. But what seems to characterize the best-known California poets is that they were from elsewhere. 
Steve Kowit, whose many poems
remain San Diego treasures.

The current poet-laureate, Dana Gioa is the exception. He often introduces himself as being from Hawthorne, home of the Beach Boys, setting for several Quentin Tarrentino movies. And he does have a poem about a Beach Boys song; it might not be Southern California today, but his roots are undeniable. 

For my MFA thesis, I credited storyteller Rocinda Nolasquez as an inspiration. Nolasquez was the oldest living survivor of the removal of the Cupeño tribe from Warner's Springs. While working as a research assistant on the documentary So My Grandchildren Will Know, I had a chance to hear Nolasquez talk. Her stories were an incredible work of survival. She set the standard.

Although Nolasquez didn't write literary theory, I think she would have agreed with N. Scott Momady's "Man Made of Words" in which he said, 
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind on the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions in the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. (164-5)
Although Momaday wrote most famously about the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, his tribe, The Kiowa, traced its origins to what is now Kansas. Once while in Greensberg, I went into the Kiowa County Library to look for Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn. That branch of the Kiowa County Library had no copies of the most famous novel by a Kiowa. When a tornado destroyed the library along with most of the town a few years later, it was more evidence for the aesthetic of the survival and the oral tradition... in other words, living to tell.

So, here are a couple of place poems I've lived to tell.

Dreaming American

Trying not to be the white ring around the sun,
I circle slowly like a raven over Mt. Soledad
where you sing down the sky.

The man thinks a disguise of beads and weavings,
but I think otherwise, and being like a raven,
I want to call out but have the voice of adobe bricks stacking.

On this morning after a winter storm,
let your eyes follow my turn away from the Pacific,
you'll see the Cuyamcas rise higher than I can fly.

You have a voice that would make a man fall from the sky,
so I try to be a raven to follow your sound
east to Tempe or Albuquerque,
into the desert where you will work your life
like an olla, the mouth pouring
the precious water from the cool, quiet dark
and into the dry light. I would be the man
who waits with the patience of a boulder in
the gold desert light for water to bring
out the flecks of mica in my skin.

One world slams into the other so hard.
I can hear the rumbling from the quarry
and under the river’s surface. In the Next World,
I want your voice to crease this desert where we know
who we are, and a black freeway
hisses east to west, and we love nevertheless.

La Boca de Tijuana  
for Francisco Bustos y Michael Cheno Wickert
Cuando la boca del Rio runs into the ocean,
when it rises onto the delta
and you hear its united tributaries undercut the sets of waves,
when this Tijuana River meets this Pacific Ocean,
its mouth says "I know both sides of the border."

Antes de la lectura en el faro,
caminé a la boca donde las palomas y la migra estan de pie
y caminé a la boca del rio que cruza la frontera,
antes de la línea it made the same music but sang different words.
It said “Gravity is my God and
‘here we are, here we go’ and
we couldn't stop if we wanted to."

There are no roads to la boca.
So I walked and listened before returning to the monument
where I said whatever words with whatever music I carried back,

boca a boca.

Works Cited
Momaday, N. Scott.  "Man Made of Words," The Remembered Earth, ed. Geary Hobson.  University of New Mexico Press, Alberquerque, 1979.