Review: Judy Gahagan, AMBIT 168, Spring 2002
This poetry is addressed elementally to its title theme — becoming (and remaining) human. It is poetry unabashed by sensuality and feeling, by declaring authorship of them, by setting ‘beauty’ as the prima materia of the work of poetry, by insisting on the profound and writing it large and with intensity. It is poetry that is untroubled by sincerity versus concealment and irony. It is poetry that is disconcerting — not a modern voice but rather a voice beyond epoch and cultural baggage yet rooted in his territory of that most modern place, Los Angeles. (Away from there I sensed the loss of intimate connection with place.) Reading this collection made me challenge my prejudices against the personal/biographical in poetry. Here I had to re-learn that the world starts with your own heart, and the only question is one of scope — for his poetry is rarely cluttered with literal detail and surface anecdote. In this poem of childhood play and drama, ‘Sledding Time in Carl Schurz Park’, he says:
I have lost childhood’s greatness.
Even so I know time is more
than stony markers: it is these films
we run back and forth at once:
just now I grasp my sled’s handles
and launch down the freezing slope...
...Not yet trained to march
lockstep to step to my own decline.
And from the vastness of the city he never loses his intimacy with nature and therefore his feral self:
That feral nature I
always knew was mine
overwhelms my heart
(From ‘Running with Thoreau’)
The tour de force of the collection is the ‘Dante in Los Angeles’ sequence. These are versions of lyric poems by Dante addressed to a “woman of stone”. They are poems of impossible love — that other prima materia of soul-making and therefore poetry. They speak of the eternal yearning, the foolishness, the humiliation and helplessness, the holy folly of impossible love. And here he mingles the mountains, weathers, skies, seasons, stars of California with those of images of Hollywood divas who furnish the Aphrodite myths of the modern world. Even if there were nothing else to recommend it these poems should send you out to buy and keep the book:
More often we burn in false summers
when winter winds press through our
canyons from the desert: or Mexican
rains drift north and drench us warmly
until a storm from Alaska rolls
down the green wave of the coast
to clear the air with almost frozen rain
and dress our mountains in white.
Such tumults should distract me from
my private Monroe or Harlow or Stone,
but hot cold wet arid, these polar reversals
echo my own moods as I pursue this woman
who doesn’t care if I am false or true.
My enthusiasm for this collection only waned when he left the USA and came to Europe. It was not that he lost energy, fluency or poetic imagery, it was that his passion and reverence seemed to overload passing experience where he responded to briefer glimpses of places and histories visited and known about but not really lived. Again, I can only recommend this post post-modern classic.