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Experiments in Language : TRUTH AND LIES THAT PRESS FOR LIFE: Sixty Los Angeles Poets, Edited by Connie Hershey (Artifact Press: $12.95, paper; 215 pp.)

December 29, 1991|Nick Owchar | Owchar is in the graduate English program at Boston University

There is a tendency in every generation of writers to shrug off the paternal inheritance of an earlier style in pursuit of something new: It is an impatience with "standing still" in another age's achievement, which is hardly unique to this century.

John Dryden, England's poet laureate in the 17th Century, wrote numerous discourses justifying his use of the elevated "heroic" style in his poetic satires. It was a challenge that succeeded, helped by other masters such as Alexander Pope, and became an accepted addition to poetry.

What is pertinent in this to a review of modern poetry is the nature of Dryden's innovation, primarily concerned as it was with subject matter, while structure remained untouched. "Poetry" is something more of an umbrella term today, describing many things with vague affinities to one another, and the blurring of its distinctive qualities is partly because the challenge to poetry in the 20th Century, unlike Dryden's challenge, has been greatly directed against form.

"Truth and Lies That Press for Life" reflects the best and worst of this challenge as it has filtered down into the understandings of households and writing workshops--the two major habitats of its writers.

The volume's subtitle indicates an obvious bond they share, but this highlight is arbitrary unless it is used to draw some conclusion about the artistic integrity of Los Angeles. The poems are plainly about more than locale: They "press for life," suggesting the more apt themes of struggle and personal conflict uniting them.

In "One Day I am Thinking," Shirley Love undermines the comfort of middle-class life with a skepticism that finds menace in the ordinary:

There are wingless butterflies


over the doors of houses

that I hate

and elephant teeth bleeding

on the tables.

There are blue princess phones

that have died

from exhaustion.

There are tablecloths everywhere

and fluted purple tea cups and

wax beans

There are women here who will

kill from shame and terror.

Reminiscent of Adrienne Rich's style, the scene is complicated further when the speaker concludes: "Still I go on living serenely with my husband and children." The disturbing overtones of violence in her images insist that life is anything but serene.

In contrast to Love's quiet desperation, the speaker of Fran Berman's short poem, "Tiles," avoids such a fate in spurning the ideal mate, "who spent his days pimping patients/ And his nights studying for his MBA," for the unconventional but workable love of a younger man.

Caught between struggles such as these, between truth and lies, there are similar expressions of imprisonment and victimization throughout the collection. Some poets mix a stronger sense of the absurd into their experiences, creating a highly effective dark humor. Johnny Bender's poem, "The Ten Year Itchy Trigger," tells the story of a high school grudge and the revenge planned for the coming reunion. The violent reasons for the speaker's hatred are juxtaposed with a promise to his wife, once the grudge is settled: "I'll eat less red meat/ I'll forgive by then." The rationalization, given in the midst of a story of revenge, shows the absurd, contradictory circumstances of human behavior.

Lee Rossi has a different approach in "7-11," showing how even the grandest of commonplaces in the modern world, a convenience store, has its liberating moments at 3 a.m.:

I met the Buddha in the dogfood


and decided to ask him a question.

"Gaines burgers," he said before

I could,

"Egg and bacon flavor."

"Is that all?"

I asked but he politely kept


"The wind in your face," he said


"The wind in your face," he said

slapping the air. "I've thought

about that

now; you should too."

There are other poems with scenes familiar to a Southern Californian, especially the commuter:

The afternoon light angles across

a slow-moving tableau of cars,

four abreast. Thousands of

singular drivers struggle


under the flat indifferent sky.

The formal rhetoric of Carey Miller's vision of traffic, "Rush Hour," places one of Southern California's trademark phenomena in an unaccustomed perspective. A different kind of imprisonment is suggested. The speaker's later confession, that the journey home leads to a bottle of Scotch "with the anchorman," gives jarring impact to the poem's focus upon human loneliness.

In many ways the personal experiences filling much of this volume indicate the continuing popularity of confessional poetry, a style said to have begun with W. D. Snodgrass' book, "Heart's Needle," in the 1950s. The confessional style introduced what was considered unpoetic material into poetry: The poet's eye turned from external turbulence to make its material, sometimes more turbulent, from the tissue of private life. The heightened obscurity this poetry produces is characteristic of poems such as Susan Well's "Don't give me all of that diddly garbo," in which an intimate encounter, or just the idea of one, is given with a Plathesque cadence:

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