The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos. Coffee House, $16.
Reviewed by G.C. Waldrep
Eleni Sikelianos established herself (in Earliest Worlds, 2001) as a poet of ecstasy, that is, of sensual epistemology. The human body mediates between a sensual intelligence and a phenomenologically verifiable exterior world; poems create fields of resonance between an objective, even scientific natural world and the subjective, lyrically charged perception of the poet. The question to which Sikelianos returned again and again in Earliest Worlds was what, in such a fearfully expansive universe, might constitute grounds for hope, joy, love? In the context of Sikelianos's deployment of language--her formal intuition vis-a-vis those lyrically charged perceptions, and the generous skill at which that intuition was deployed (the inimitable formal shaping of her poems)--such questions seemed not only fresh, but also perhaps even answerable, at least in some subjectively specific way.
The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls picks up where Earliest Worlds left off. The poems of the first section of the book, "Captions for My Instruction Booklet," continue the poet's quest not only to render ecstasy but also to communicate (via that rendering) beyond the charmed circle of the poet's Blakean rapture. To quote from the tapestry-like sheets of Sikelianos's verse deprives the excerpts of the exquisite texture afforded by context. Here is a shorter poem in its entirety:
FIRST GREEK POEM
I the roses love in the garden of Adonis
I the salted fry of marguerite love, the one chamomile, the
tiny white that snaps
dancing in the gutter with funny
I reddest poppy painted in blood love
Love I the final columned crown
Ever a flower inventory wept, I dreamt
Of death, wedding flower; treading
purple will I go
Into that drowning house
With wet little lambs one-day old (amakia), white horses
at the heart-knobs
When the slave pumped the handle, and the water rose
In this poetics, nothing exists apart from ecstasis, not Science, not airplanes, not even Alice Cooper. From "The Cooking Stove Has Thoughts":
Real math shimmeringly swimming somewhere
on a plane high
above the head--Nothing
ever came from heaven, not even
mouth, child, unleashing
Alice cooper's brutal planet--Does he know the
of taking an M-16 apart?
"This is a subregister of a larger field," Sikelianos writes in another poem, "perhaps / of a desert hunt with wild dogs." In rapture, even failure is beautiful: "Will I fail // in a brittle manner, like glass, or will I fail / in a ductile manner, like gold?" These are astonishing poems.
In the second and third parts of Monster Lives, Sikelianos's lush language and peculiar investment in the physical world remain constant, but the locus of the poet's voice shifts. The book's middle section, "Summer at St.-Nazaire," is a poetic sequence chronicling a season in France. Whereas Sikelianos's earlier poems had described events in space--the dilation of event (time) inside a larger, shifting theater of location and from an ever-shifting point of view--the poems in "St.-Nazaire" constitute a dilation of space within a larger, shifting confabulation of time. The poet's voice, in its role of conveying point of view, remains more constant. In the third section of the book, "The Bright, The Heavy," the focus is on neither place nor event but on the poet's own subjective intelligence: these are the most recognizably lyrical poems in either Monster Lives or Earliest Worlds, at least in terms of an "I" that seems relatively fixed. In both sections, the poet's syntax is more relaxed, more standard than before; less pressure is placed on the mechanics of the language, and there is a greater unfolding in terms of the affective content of the poems. The net result is a slowing, or calming, of the manic electricity, the intellectual rush to wonder that characterized Earliest Worlds and the opening poems of Monster Lives.
Sikelianos followed The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls with The California Poem, a book-length lyric meditation on her home state. As the title suggests, The California Poem builds most obviously on "Summer at St.-Nazaire." The lush language, the poet's subjective eclecticism, the lyric "I" are all yet present but are subject, here, to a larger design. That design is the place, or rather Place: Sikelianos's California is a cynosure, an object of attention and reverie, if at times a troubling one.
The poem, Sikelianos has said, began with lines written in a dream, and it retains a spacious, dreamlike quality. In part this is the poem's sheer length (196 pages), in part the expansiveness of stanza and (especially) line, in part the inclusion of black-and-white photographs that heighten the visual registers of Sikelianos's discursive text. The work is panoramic on multiple levels. Some of Sikelianos's frames of reference exist wholly within the imagination; othe¬rs thread the poet's childhood, or else that (peculiarly Californian) space between imagination and reality, the cinema. And then there are moments of pure collage, from history textbooks, guides to endangered species, etc. In The California Poem there is not so much a dilation of time as a multiplication of times: the poet's personal and familial histories, historical time, geological time ("A spine brought to the whole length of California was laid out like a golden wheel-veil / of cascades of oldest & largest living things and everything was crushed"). And of course what Mircea Eliade called sacred time, "the Big Time" in which Virgil and Descartes, Herodotus and Karl Malden, General Patton and Evel Knieval coexist. There is a California of the soul.
Which leaves us with the present, the contemporary moment. "Now: to let go what we knew / to not be tight, but / toney; to find a world, a word / we didn't know." This could well have constituted a charter for the ecstatic verse in Monster Lives, but to my reading it's an imperative that falls curiously flat in The California Poem. There are, to be sure, moments of ecstatic recognition:
Mob rule of toxic monarchs & desert Queens, fiery brushfoots burst forth
from parti-colored caterpillar feeding on backlot milkweed
jewelry for a ringfinger
The tobacco hornworm eyes me from a tomato plant, its threatening spike veered north
Instars of my larval life running
through poison oak & toothed coyote brush, tethered to mountainsides & falling
for the honied romance of names
But there are also moments, indeed entire passages, where the images and the rhetoric slacken, where the gesture seems too easy--where the poet's hand merely mimics the donnée, rather than drawing a tuned landscape to itself. At one early point, California is described as
all of New York, New England,
Pennsylvania, & New Jersey combined.
Laugh for the eucalyptus as an object of pity
The truth of Georgia is not to be found here in sushi dinners
but there is the dirt bike parade
in the mud behind subdivision A-3, Santa Maria . . .
There is nothing exactly wrong with these lines, except for the listless way they cycle through the standard cultural lexicon. The California Poem will eventually invoke cactus, film sets, John Steinbeck, Crips & Bloods, jacuzzis, Hollywood, LaBrea, the Spanish, Jayne Mansfield, Death Valley, condors, Big Sur, Marlon Brando, earthquakes, avocadoes, "a lot of pot," the gold rush, the effacement of Native American cultures, smog, Haight-Ashbury, Evander Holyfield, Junipero Serra, the San Joaquin, Ronald Reagan, redwoods, Lana Turner, Tom Hanks, Chinatown, the San Andreas fault—but too often in such a cursory way it feels as if the poet, in wanting to cram everything California into this one poem, was merely crossing tropes off a list. (I kept waiting for the Manson Family, the Donner Party, and/or Altamont, though it's possible I missed them in passing.) Ultimately, The California Poem is less a successful whole than a brilliant congeries of moments, some lyrical, some descriptive, some affective, some biographical. I wished for more distillation, in terms of both the thought and the language--for a more insistent precision of language, for a more indelible whole.
To say that The California Poem makes an attempt at the epic is to place the book less in a league with its Greek or Roman predecessors than with such modernist classics as Hart Crane's The Bridge and William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems and Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend. "Who is / the hero in / this dream?" Sikelianos asks at one point. In the most persistent of American myths, the heroic figure at the heart of the landscape is always the landscape itself. At the level of engagement, however, the poet's gaze is distended over simultaneities of space and time that threaten to swamp the specificities of language. "Memory can be anyone's shimmering / Albion," Sikelianos writes at one point, "bathyspheric hellhole hideout trop sevère / in such a book of sun I like too much . . ." The best of Sikelianos's work constitutes an electrifying phantasmagoria of exquisite moments. For all its pleasures, The California Poem is a book of sun the poet likes too much: she is not always able to see clearly on account of the glare.