What SoCal Poets Are
Edited by liz gonzález
we review Whore by Sarah Maclay,
by Terry Wolverton
Displeasures of the Table
by Martha Ronk and
Shadow of the
Plum by Carol Lem.
University of Tampa Press, 2004
(2003 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry)
is Sarah Maclay’s first
full-length collection. The author of three chapbooks, Ice from
the Belly (FarStarFire Press), Shadow of Light
(Inevitable Press) and Weeding the Duchess (Black Stone
Press), Maclay grew up on a ranch in Montana, received degrees from
Oberlin College and Vermont College, and currently teaches writing
in Los Angeles.
Reviewed by Cecilia Woloch
Whore is bound to shock some readers —
its arresting cover image (a photograph by Rocky Schenck) and title,
alone, are enough to startle us out of our preconceptions. Here is
haunting beauty married to a gash of a word we’d believed was a
condemnation, a slur. That juxtaposition holds out a promise on
which the poems within deliver, stunningly: that something like
light seeps from the wound; that sexual love might lead to a sense
of loss so deep that it’s luminous; that that by which we’d believed
we were damned might be a blessing, after all.
“Let it be a
blessing,” the poet prays — she seems to be praying — in the opening
poem. It’s twilight; “the blue shadows/pull themselves across the
hills.” We’re in a landscape of grief so delicately rendered that it
might be hope; “where the field intersects the sky” — which echoes
the epigraph by Louise Gluck, “I couldn’t tell/my solitude from
love.” Such echoes and resonances reoccur throughout this
collection, so that it becomes more than a collection of individual
poems— more an assemblage in which each glittering fragment is part
of the gorgeous brokenness of the whole.
The imagery is
fragmentary but lucid — “The air is ripped ... Sunset spreads like a
bruise;” “The boxing ring of his heart is vacant.” The language
manages to be both elegant and raw; in some places lush, in others
stripped to bone and shine. And the speaker of the poems seems to
stand before us both naked and veiled. By the time we get to the
title poem, at the physical center of the collection, an explanation
of the collection’s title hardly seems necessary, but there it is:
an etymology of the word “whore” that traces its roots to
“precious,” “dear,” “pitting charity against law.”
is dedicated “to the beloved.” As Sarah Maclay tells us, “All
contradictions can live in one place.” In her first full-length book
of poems, the contradictions are radiant.
Cecilia Woloch's most recent collection of poems is
from BOA Editions, Ltd.
Three poems from Whore
comes from hore in Old English,
Latin references charity –
root it's carus – dear,
Hello, whore. Hello, dear.
loved one, sweetheart, precious,
rare – therefore expensive, dear,
cheri, a luxury
charity against law.
version of "Whore" appeared in Solo)
let's call them something other than clouds –
shell, flame. The sky's idea of hair.
know the way the voice sounds
it's cried all day:
could comb stones.
Imagine, then, I'm driving to this sound
is its own kind of rough velvet
an amber sky, and the dj
jones for just this sort of thing tonight
circle the block, looking for parking
must circle several times
of the gray, lithe limbs,
though a body had many arms –
each was nearly satin, raised,
after tree, with its endless
offering of leaves.
the way I walked into our rendezvous,
carrying a miracle
inner lining of my pocket. So don't ask
those kisses under the streetlamp,
borrowed moon, under the arms unable
retreat from their suspension, permanent
gift, don't ask why everything that followed
your mirror, shell, flame. I will tell you:
sugar fell all the way to my ankles
had to eat.
the air is October.
night-swathed maples linger in mid-breeze
everyone seems to be sleeping
belly, the whole middle of my body
as when I carried you –
later, like your body
passed into night.
night passed through me, into night.
can touch me.
can touch me.
Maclay and Julia Levine, who also won the '03 Tampa Prize, will
celebrate the release of their new books at Poem.X on Friday,
February 27, 2004 at 8 PM at Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade
(at Wilshire) in Santa Monica. Admission is free.
Red Hen Press, 2003
In addition to the recently issued Embers, Terry
Wolverton is the author of four published works: Insurgent
Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building, a memoir published
in 2002 by City Lights Books; the novel Bailey’s Beads; and
two volumes of poetry, Black Slip and Mystery Bruise.
Terry has taught creative writing for over 25 years and is a
certified instructor of Kundalini Yoga. She has lived in Los
Angeles since 1976 and is the founder of
Work, a center for
creative writing in Los Angeles.
Reviewed by Carole Carp
a novel-in-poems by Terry Wolverton, is intimate, epic and cosmic—a
juxtaposition that might have proven unwieldy in lesser hands.
Wolverton not only meets the challenge, she is its brave originator,
seamlessly weaving three conceptual levels into this story of the
rock-hard life of Marie Girard.
In 1919, at the age of twelve, Marie is thrown into
the streets, the consequence of her stepfather's abuse and her
mother's indifference. She learns how to earn her meager keep by
selling sexual favors to "working men who trudged in, shift-weary,
August caked into grime at their collars, butcher's blood or axle
grease wedged under fingernails." Marie has a son with a man to
whom she is not married and a second son with another to whom she
is. Still, she leaves her husband for a third, Adolph, a man who
"belonged to the world of daylight" and who brings the possibility
of a more genteel life. Abandoning her younger son to his father,
excommunicated from the church and altogether too quickly reviled by
Adolph for seducing him away from the soft, knee-bending life of a
shoe salesman to the crusted, gritty work of construction, Marie's
descent into madness is inexorable. And we are pressed intimately
against each stony step of her journey; privy, too, to the innermost
thoughts of Marie's husbands, her three sons and, in Book II, her
Yet as close as we are placed to these most personal
moments, Embers is, as well, the story of the human
condition, of a society in which every abuse, every degradation, can
be visited upon a woman without a word of protest from that society,
without the least offer of resource or recourse. In that sense—in
the sense that it transcends specific time and place, defining the
human experience against a societal backdrop— it is definitively
Despite the cruelty and ultimate loneliness of her
life, Marie is an inextricable part of the universe, neither alone
nor disconnected. Indeed, the cosmic in this story is
multi-dimensional: Marie is tied to both past and future. We see
her as she walks along Woodward Avenue in Detroit.
"Four million years
An ocean died, blood
Salt is its bones,
interred by glacier.
Marie saunters over
those bones; they crunch
beneath her worn
heels …. "
(from “City of
Even more monumental is the movement forward that
comes with Wolverton's concept of present repairing past—that Terry,
by putting Marie's story into the world, can repair the tattered
lining of Marie's past. This is a huge spiritual concept, and
"Who among the
living might take up
her cause, unlatch
the bolt on
limbo's heavy door?"
As for Wolverton's
poetry, it is both beautiful and brutal - just as all of life is
both beautiful and brutal. And Wolverton pulls no punches on
either end of the spectrum—equally unafraid to be soft and lyrical
as to be tough and coarse, as is displayed in this passage from
“House Afire" where Marie has, in her madness, set fire to her own
"Here at last was
enough to hold her
a thin vein of red
along the dim
orange and blue.
Faces spit from
and she grinned
as curtains leapt
to lick the ceiling
glass panes burst
from their tidy
is a work resonating with the eternal, universal brutality and
beauty of human life.
Carole Carp is a freelance writer, transplanted from New York
City to L.A. in 1990.
by Martha Ronk
Martha Ronk is also the author of Why/Why Not (University
of California Press, 2003), Eyetrouble (University of Georgia
Press,1998), State of Mind (Sun & Moon Books, 1995),
Desert Geometries (Littoral Books, 1992) and other works. She
resides in Los Angeles and teaches at Occidental College.
Brought to Table
Of course I thought at age nine,
anyone would chose poetry. I loved it from the get-go...
In her multi-faceted work, Displeasures of the
Table, Martha Ronk is able to weave the central themes of memory,
philosophy, the craft of writing, along with biographical elements
surrounding the importance, or non-importance, of food. Ronk
examines America’s affinity for eating and the preparation of food
and fuses these elements together to create a series of compact,
delicious prose poems. Many of Ronk’s poems are testimonials to the
act and craft of writing as she is able to bring up the questions,
dilemmas, and choices writers face with the written word—especially
poem “Christmas cookies,” Ronk interchanges the need for adjectives
with the act of decorating cookies:
We always made rollout cookies
cut into shapes and decorated.
In the German man-
ner the cookie sheet was
covered with anise seeds and
after the baking the cookies
were spread with white
icing and sprinkled with green
and red colored sugar.
The seven minute sugar icing
cooked in the top of a
double boiler and the kitchen
smelled of steam and
sugar as the icing was got on
quickly before it hard-
ened into crystals and stuck to
the sides of the pan.
What to do about adjectives
perplexes many a writer I
know. Others reject them
outright, altogether, and
always; others pile them up as
if the ornate prose of the
last century could be
maintained by will power and
skill. The Christmas cookies
were clearly too rich and
gooey and these days I make
them plain or no one
would eat them at all.
The address and tone changes as Ronk draws
attention from the decorating of the cookies to the actual
construction of the poem. Inserting a self-conscious shift in
subject gives the reader insight into how Ronk fashions the written
word. The conversational tone allows the poem to become a more
personal experience for author and reader. In “Christmas Cookies,”
Ronk comments on how adjectives, icings, sprinkles are indeed all on
the same plane: too much excess and you are left with an inferior
poem and cookie. This same technique is at work in the prose poem
“Creamed tunafish on toast.”
problem with syntax is that is so demanding,
demanding of explanation, of meaningful connection
between the past and present, of causality and drama,
art and belief. The problem with giving it up alto-
gether, as much contemporary writing does, is that it
asks us to take that which is missing on faith, as if it
were more complex and compelling because unsaid.
(“Creamed tunafish on
Through the first line of the poem, Ronk
self-consciously wields words to her will and makes the case that
rules should occasionally be broken. The opening line also implies
that sometimes a thing or an event does not require explanation.
Ronk illustrates that sometimes the frills, “why” and “how,” are not
always the point or necessary.
The first two-thirds of the “Creamed tunafish
on toast” describes an autobiographical account of a moment Ronk
experienced in college:
minister and his wife didn’t eat I don’t think; they
were gracious in ways I couldn’t then see. I was young.
hated grace. I hated religion. He climbed the
belltower and we all sat leaning on our palms in the
grass watching as if it were and were not happening
the sun went down. It had the stillness of going on
on, as we watched him inch his way up, not only
because it took so much time, but also because it was
potently and embarrassingly symbolic. The grass
August brown and warm.
(“Creamed tunafish on
Although stirring, there is no way to know
exactly what happened in this scene or what it means in the larger
context of the poem. While the reader might be inclined to attach an
interpretation, Ronk-- in the final stanza—advises against this:
“that which is missing on faith, as if it were more complex and
compelling because unsaid.” Just because the luncheon scene is
unexplained doesn’t mean there is a “compelling,” hidden meaning in
it. Here again Ronk’s conversational tone and constant engagement
with her audience is apparent.
Ronk admits that we need food, even though it
may be an interruption: “Cookbooks seem to me as preposterous as
poetry, the imaginative leap as great.” (“Rappini”). Like food,
words are also necessary, and throughout Ronk’s poems, she addresses
this need for these different elements. She distills the bare
essence of concepts in spare, rich portions spread out like a
five-day feast for the reader.
like yoghurt in small cardboard containers, also for-
poems, especially sonnets. Most everyone I know
likes process art and the unedited, run-together de-
tails of daybooks or lists. The vanilla is cold and as
easy as babyfood and nostalgia. The shape of the spoon
as delicious as if it were silver and one could eat
Christine Zembal received her B.A. in Creative Writing from the
University of Southern California. She is currently studying with
Suzanne Lummis through the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and
lives in Los Angeles.
by Carol Lem
Carol Lem, who lives
in Temple City and teaches creative writing and literature at East
Los Angeles College, has recently published poems in The
Chrysalis Reader, Red Rock Review, and Runes. A reading of
selected poems from Shadow of the Plum may be heard on her
CD, Shadow of the Bamboo, with music by Masakazu Yoshizawa.
For more information, contact her at email@example.com or visit her
Reviewed by Gary Soto
A Review that Ends
with “and …”
I gave up reviewing
poetry books several years ago, but this week I received in the mail
Carol Lem’s Shadow of the Plum, (Cedar Hill Publications) and
began to admonish myself for my failure to display more affection
for reviewing. I beheld a wonderfully designed book and fanned the
83 pages so they created a breeze that smelled of ink and glue—it
was hot off the press, as they say. I read these poems in their
rightful order, from first to last, and over again. I make no bones
about it; I know Carol Lem, a much-loved instructor at East Los
Angeles College. She has invited me numerous times to campus, and
she and I have put our heads together to try to make her students—my
students, indirectly—readers and, thus, wiser and more fulfilled
Before I review her
book—actually, only a single poem will be addressed, a poem titled
“Didn’t They Tell You Stories?”—let me give you a picture of Carol.
She is Chinese-American, born in the 1950s and raised in Los
Angeles, and has been for many years an instructor of English at
ELAC in the heart of Aztlan. Most of her students are Latino, many
of them recent immigrants. Her favorite language is Spanish. Orale
pues! Her favorite food? Mexican, of course, with a penchant
towards enchiladas. She plays the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, and
likes wine. In the photo on the back cover, she’s holding a glass of
red wine that has circulated to her cheeks—she’s on her way to a
Now the poem “Didn’t
They Tell You Stories?,” which operates as a preface to the
collection and which sneakily negates her inability to tell a story
while telling a story. The poem begins with Carol and a student
walking across the college campus lawn littered with “broken
blossoms of East L.A.”—a lovely image that suggests the students are
broken yet still flowers in their own right. This student at Carol’s
side naively asks if her parents told her stories (presumably
Chinese, thus exotic and mysterious) when she was a girl growing up
in the 1950s. The question startles Carol. She doesn’t know how to
answer. Did my parents tell me stories? she wonders. Then she
realizes that she can only provide facts about her family, not
luxurious details about growing up in a Chinese household where
there were plenty of cultural references at her fingertips—language,
food, customs, music, religious, tea, incense, superstitions, etc.
Her family was more prone to tense silence. The reason becomes
evident as the reader delves into the book—her father, for instance,
liked betting on losing horses. He was also not careful at Las Vegas
For Carol, then,
there were few stories, only occasionally remembered moments through
the lens of memory—the sweetness of her early life was rock candy
after an evening bath and the babble of the television that kept her
parents from arguing. This is what startles her. The question
(Didn’t They Tell You Stories?”) from the student is perhaps idle
chatter on the way to class, but for Carol a profound shocker. Did
her parents pass on a story for her to tell? Does she have
something to say? This reviewer believes so, and it’s a familiar
story for those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and shared names
like Deborah or Gary or Carol—god, how ethnic families wanted their
young to assimilate.
It’s easy to ask a
simple question, but often difficult to answer it—or so Carol
discovers. And it’s the simple question that often provokes us, and,
as a result here, gets us going if we’re introspective, if we’re
soul-searching, if we are poets and writers. I will even argue that
“Didn’t They Tell you Stories?” is about “art.” Consider the line,
“[I] tell a boy there’s a life in the sky . . .” In some regard this
phrase has a religious connotation—i.e., heaven and the
afterlife—but I believe Carol is saying that the life of writing is,
well, up there, in that sky a poet sometimes touches and pulls down
onto the page. She is telling this student, her other students, her
future students who will walk at her side, that the art of writing
is life and—
published on Gary Soto’s website:
www.garysoto.com in October, 2002
is the author of numerous books of poetry, including New and
Selected Poems (Chronicle Books, 1995); Canto
Familiar/Familiar Song (1994); and Neighborhood Odes
(1992). He has written two novels, Poetry Lover (University
of New Mexico Press, 2001) and Nickel and Dime (2000). He
also wrote the memoir Living Up the Street (1985), numerous
young adult and children's books; and edited three anthologies:
Pieces of Heart (1993), California Childhood (1988), and
Entrance: Four Latino Poets (1976. He lives in Berkeley, CA.
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