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Under the Sign of the Sun

THE GEOGRAPHY OF HOME: California's Poetry of Place;\o7 Edited by Christopher Buckley and Gary Young; (Heyday Books: 446 pp., $16.95)\f7

June 27, 1999|JAMES LONGENBACH | James Longenbach is the author of "Threshold," a collection of poems, and "Modern Poetry After Modernism," essays on contemporary American poets

"I know San Francisco like my own face," said the greatest poet born in California. "It's where I came from, the first place I really knew." That this poet--Robert Frost--became famous as a poet of New England is a historical accident. After the death of Frost's father, the family moved East. But Frost never forgot the landscape of his childhood. A sense of the vast, inhuman otherness of nature is the signature quality of his greatest poems about New England, and one could argue that it derived from his early experience of hiking in the Sierra and swimming in the Pacific. "Once in a California Sierra," he wrote in the late poem "Auspex," "I was swooped down upon when I was small / And measured, but not taken after all, / By a great eagle bird in all its terror."

In "The Geography of Home," Christopher Buckley and Gary Young have brought together a wide selection of contemporary poems about the California landscape--poems by established poets (Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Carol Muske, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder) and by an impressive range of newcomers. Place functions more as subject matter than as metaphor: The anthology focuses on poems that are literally about "the place--the mountains, rivers, deserts, ocean." But by simply assuming the centrality of place to poetry, Buckley and Young dissuade us from asking what might be important--revealing, perplexing, contradictory--about poetry's relationship to the California landscape. They evade the question of what poetry has to gain--or lose--by advertising its associations with any particular place.

Many poets have been tied to landscape; think not only of Frost but of Wordsworth or Virgil. But it is nonetheless difficult to explain how that association is registered in the texture of poetry--in metaphor, diction, design. Does a poem taking landscape as its subject tell us more than a poem incorporating the language of that place? The danger in putting too much emphasis on subject matter is that poems rehearsing what we already know ("mountains, rivers, deserts") might wrongly seem to be more authentic, more genuine. Like any poem, a poem of place ultimately lives or dies on its language, not the subject matter on which it happens to hang its metaphorical hat. Frost made us see the little hills of New Hampshire more vividly than ever before because he made us see them differently--not merely as they were.

The best poets in "The Geography of Home" make us see California differently. No fog. No sidelong glances at suburban sprawl. No winsome catalogs of oleanders, redwoods and pepper trees.

radios barking disco

dogs mute in the face of poverty

old white ladies with shopping bags as wrinkled

as their necks, in tattered wigs, black high-fashion

eyelashes and green mascara

crisp starched sagebrush narcs crawling campuses

for children dealing illegal drugs . . .

These lines by Wanda Coleman, who was born in Watts, do not simply avoid commonplace invocations of the California landscape by turning our eye to an urban scene. Her use of the word "sagebrush" to describe the narcs makes us re-imagine that landscape's traditional significance. Landscape exists in this poem not as subject matter to be recorded but as metaphor--a language of possibility rather than circumstance.

Dorianne Laux goes further, challenging the very metaphor of place. In "If This Is Paradise" she asks why, if the landscape is enough ("trees, beehives, / boulders"), we bother speaking about it at all:

Why not lift into each day like animals

that we are and go silently

about our true business: the hunt

for water, fat berries, the mushroom's

pale meat, tumble through waist-high grasses

without reason, find shade and rest there,

our limbs spread beneath the meaningless sky,

find the scent of the lover

and mate wildly. If this is paradise

and all we have to do is be born and live

and die, why pick up the stick at all?

Why see the wheel in the rock?

Why bring back from the burning fields

a bowl full of fire and pretend that it's magic?

The very fact that we're driven to write poems about places suggests that the places are not enough. A landscape as such--unchanged by language--could never be paradise.

Yet many of the poets collected in "The Geography of Home" seem afraid of language; they posit a world in which landscape and language are simply identical. For instance, Buckley dreams of a place where he will "leave / most of the talking to the trees," a place where he will say goodbye "to that arrogance which asks if there can be meaning / without first arranging the padded folding chairs of theory." All he requires is "a few pines / speaking simply in the resinous language of the only world / there is, immediate and meaningful as your next breath."

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