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City of Angel : POETRY : NEITHER WORLD, By Ralph Angel (Miami University Press: $9.95;, 94 pp.)

February 25, 1996|Mark Doty | Mark Doty is the author of "My Alexandria," which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry in 1993

A fully realized book of poems--which is just what Ralph Angel's award-winning new volume, "Neither World," is--performs a strange feat of magic. It both evokes a landscape that's already there, describing some chosen portion of the outer world, and takes us to a new, interior dimension of that landscape. The poet's city is a real place--full of cafes and traffic, alleys and shops--but it is an imagined one as well, and one of the pleasures of urban poetry is seeing the ways in which a poet makes a city his or her own. The New York of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, for instance, are both vivid, bustling places, but they're different cities--one brawny and optimistic, alive with the democratic energies of the poet's vision, the other mythic, shadowy, opening from the Brooklyn Bridge into heaven. Federico Garcia Lorca and Frank O'Hara built their New Yorks as well, performing the feat of both describing a city and imagining it at once.

The Los Angeles that Angel's poetry occupies and creates is never named, and for good reason, since it is not local but broadly American, a version of the psychological landscape of any American city today. It is a place very far from Whitman's democratic vision or Crane's transcendent one: This is a capital of failed connections between people, of isolation and powerlessness, of despair interwoven with the ordinary hum of day-to-day life. Angel's L.A. is a city full of holes, its fabric riddled by gaps in sense and meaning, the little disconnections and lacunas in language, the spaces in ourselves and in our exchanges with others. It is also a strangely lovely city, almost unearthly with its "weird expanse of parking lots, / glittering, peopled with loneliness" (from "Like Land Crabs"). The buildings in Angel's city

are dust on the parched lips of a storm,

a shimmering ribbon,

an indelible, radiant, haze.

(From "Subliminal Birds"

There's more going on--and going down--in these streets than anyone can ever know; in them, we feel our own powerlessness, our own vague complicity. The voice we encounter in Angel's beautifully made lines is full of confusion, exhaustion and uncertainty about just who he is in all this unreadable activity:

. . . Money gets made.

And the small shocks one undergoes for no reason,

the bus driver handing you a transfer, a steamy

saxophone ascending the jungle. The city

lays down its blanket of rippling

lamplight as though exhaustion too

was achieved by consensus, and what one does

and how one feels have nothing to do with one's self.

(From "The River Has No Hair to Hold Onto")

These are the poems of a casual, down-to-earth philosopher who's been spun around and turned inside out by loss, by the desolation of life in the late hours of the century. He wanders this human and physical landscape, trying to hold himself intact, struggling to understand what he can. This is about as far from the Romantic tradition--the poet recollecting emotion in tranquillity and making claims to insight on the human condition--as we can get; this is more like a kind of triage. The poet's trying to stop the psychic bleeding long enough to stumble through the ruins of the day:

I only know what people don't tell me,

how it's difficult to be a human being,

that the complication begins inside

the way loneliness can't be

located in any one part of the body,

that it rises from the surface

where the soul should be

and rears its ugly head

In the face of anything tender. . . .

(From "Leaving One")

And nothing seems to deliver us from isolation, Angel asserts in "How Long Can We Go On Winning?": ". . .

Nobody saves us. / Not the job, or its salary, or its house and car."

In a stunning passage in a poem called "Breaking and Entering," Angel points to the origins of this crisis, how we've gotten ourselves to this condition of diminished humanity:

Only two people

survived the Warsaw uprising, and the one

whose eyes are paths inward, down into the soft grass,

into his skeleton,

who chain-smokes and drinks, is camera-shy,

wears short-sleeved shirts, manages to mumble,

"If you could lick my heart, it would poison you."

Despite the desolation of Angel's vision, "Neither World" is not, finally, a book of unremitting darkness. This is because of Angel's bracing and energizing refusal to take himself too seriously; his language and ideas are always veering off in new directions, suggesting that play and freedom are also part of this poet's sense of the world. But Angel goes further than his jazzy word-riffs might suggest. He wants us to see that who we are is--in the world this book delineates--up to us:

There is a place, I swear it,

where sadness fits, but with all this blood on our hands

we choose what to do and make ourselves up.

Ask anyone, and get an answer.

The salsa's on aisle five, next to the dust mops.

(From "The Blessed")

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