I was drawn to California by its poetry. I mean the Beats, but also the nature poets such as Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, as well as Gary Snyder, who bridged the gap. I mean Wanda Coleman and Quincy Troupe and Eric Priestley; Luis Alfaro, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Robin Coste Lewis. Almost the first thing I did when I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 was to visit Beyond Baroque. For me—then, as newcomer, as well as now—poetry is personal and communal at once.
Why is this important? For one thing, poetry offers a sense of scale. California is vast, and it is sprawling: nearly 164,000 square miles in area, with more than 39 million residents. How do we approach, let alone encapsulate, such geographic and human amplitude? The answer is that we cannot. This is where poetry asserts itself, as a mechanism to encompass both the broadest distances and the narrowest intimacies.
As Courtney Faye Taylor observes in her debut collection, Concentrate, “I was often nagged by the haint of reluctance. It was driven by an insecurity surrounding my proximity to the subject—I was writing about a city I’d never been to, fumes I hadn’t witnessed, a span of years in which I wasn’t even thought of yet. Girl, reluctance said, all you got is secondhand.… So I head to LA to handle the archive, to stand at the foot of every place I talk up, to earn the facts and its phantoms firsthand.”
Concentrate is astonishing: a conglomeration of dialogues, documentary materials, Yelp-style reviews, visual collages, narratives. Its subject is the March 1991 killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, a Black high school student shot in the back of the head by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner in South Los Angeles. (The same events inform Steph Cha’s 2019 novel, Your House Will Pay, a California Book Club selection.) Yet Concentrate is also about Taylor’s reckoning with her own experience as a Black woman facing America’s tortuous history of race. “Boys ain’t the only cause of chalk-/lines. You got that allergy to sixteenth birthdays too, understand?” her Aunt Notrie reminds her, in a conversation recalled from adolescence. Here, at the very start of things, we confront the ground Taylor means to cover, the back-and-forth of societal and chronological space.
The chalk lines in question, after all, are those drawn around a body; her aunt’s statement is meant as a caution. And yet, what is caution in a world where a Black body can be targeted for any or no reason, where a visit to the store for a bottle of orange juice on a Saturday morning can end in violent death?
“Normalcy devastates,” Taylor writes. “Stillness lies to me.” It’s a sentiment reminiscent of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which Concentrate resembles in some ways. Like Citizen, it is a book-length project rather than a collection, and like Citizen too, Concentrate records the lingering effects of trauma in the body. Where it differs is in the figure of Harlins, who, three decades after her death, remains something of a ghost in the machine.
Taylor discovers this when she visits the neighborhood where her subject lived and died: the convenience store, on 91st Street and Figueroa, which is now a market; the school Harlins attended; the park in which she played. In one particularly vivid moment, Taylor finds the dead girl’s name written in the cement of a sidewalk. “Latasha was here,” the inscription reads. It’s faint enough that you could almost miss it, a reminder that Taylor means concentrate in two ways: first in terms of the density, all that information, and second in regard to the necessity of paying attention, concentration as survival skill.
Like Taylor, Vickie Vértiz is writing from the crossing point of history, where the individual and the landscape intersect. “Have you / noticed,” she asks in “Anther,” a poem in her second full-length collection, Auto/Body (she is also the author of the chapbook Swallows), “how the / strobe light is also / a searchlight. The same / way we are surveilled is how we / celebrate.”
Vértiz is among my favorite Southern California poets—I’ve followed her work for years. In Auto/Body, she picks up where her first, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, left off; the epigraph, from Adrienne Rich, is a conscious link to “Out of the Wreck,” the closing poem in that earlier volume, also inspired by Rich. It’s an acknowledgement that while these poems have been written to stand alone, they also exist in a continuum. Such a continuum belongs to the author, to her thinking about identity and place.
As she did in Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, Vértiz focuses in Auto/Body on the interplay of individual and broad concerns. She excavates her secrets in the context of what feels safe or unsafe to share. One poem is called “This Is the Kind of Shit I Can’t Talk to Anyone About”; “But what if someone sees us,” she wonders, “the eternal // Question that keeps me from myself.” Indeed, Auto/Body is rife with indirection: moving between English and Spanish, using blank spaces to represent the words the poet cannot write. It is also, like Concentrate, a book in conversation with its influences, which include Coleman and Terrance Hayes (the title of one poem borrows their coinage, “an American sonnet”), along with Sally Mann, Cherríe Moraga, and Celia Herrera Rodriguez, who are cited in a note introducing the poem “Do You Know What Time It Is?” And then, of course, there is the most constant influence: family. Auto/Body takes its title, at least in part, from Vértiz’s apá and his cars.
Family, however, can be a wound that cuts in more than one direction, as B.H. Fairchild highlights in his first collection in nearly a decade, An Ordinary Life. Fairchild, who lives in California, grew up in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The book opens with a poem titled “Welder,” written from his father’s point of view. The real suspension, though, the real grief, has to do with the death of the poet’s adult son.
“I stand in the Punk Rock aisle of Rhino Records,” Fairchild confides in “On the Sorrow God Pours Into the Little Boat of Life,” “…and I can’t stop it, my son died last week, until the young woman standing next to me / bends down quickly, reaching to help pull me up.” Here, we see what a poem can do, to capture or evoke a moment so fraught it can barely be articulated or withstood. Language as reflex, language as gesture, language as an utterance that cannot be controlled. The most essential poems, I want to suggest, operate like this, revealing us even (or especially) when we are desperate not to be revealed.
Throughout the book, Fairchild works both sides of the territory; An Ordinary Life is not quite an elegy. At the same time, we never lose sight of his late son, Paul, who appears as the ghost he has become. In the exceptional “Home,” Fairchild imagines or dreams himself a baseball hero, greeted as he crosses home plate by “my wife, no longer arthritic,…two-stepping / with my daughter,” as well as by the unlikely vista of his extended family—mother, father, and the sister “who has somehow escaped the coma that was / her home for so many years.” The last two lines of the poem refuse to leave me: “and I say, hi mom, hello father, hello my excellent / sister, hello my doomed and incurably sad son.”
I don’t want to call this a moment of redemption. How could it be when the dreamer must wake up? But for a brief breath, anyway, he is allowed to forget…or more, to revisit. He is allowed to see again, to touch almost, everyone and everything he’s lost. “The house he was raised in,” Fairchild writes in the closing stanza of the collection, “sinks slowly into dusk. / His parents chat in the orange chairs. The dust bowl of / Kansas darkens. Somewhere, oceans spill onto beaches.”
There it is, the whole of it together, grief, memory, and movement. The holy trinity. All we are is what we are.•