The Latest: 'Garden' digs deep; 'Ghost' stories echo

Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia)

Grant Hier

The Poetry Press; 110 pages

There's a famous shot in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in which a prehistoric ape hurls a bone high into the air. As the bone descends, the camera cuts to an object with a roughly similar shape: a satellite cutting a solitary path through space. Over the course of millennia, we have certainly grown to understand nature more. But we can only bend it up to a point, and in our need for shelter and sustenance, we are not much stronger than our forebears.

Grant Hier's "Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia)," a book-length poem, takes a similarly whirlwind view of the history of time — an alternate title might be "2015: A Suburban Odyssey." Instead of Kubrick's celestial travelers, it focuses on an Orange County dweller who does his best to maintain his childhood home, even with signs of impermanence all around him. At one point, he imagines the roots below the house pressing up against it, "relinquishing / the bind of nail in wood."

This premise may sound like the portrait of an everyman, but it's really the portrait of an academic. Hier, the chairman of Liberal Arts and Art History at the Laguna College of Art and Design, devotes a considerable portion of "Untended Garden" to describing his own research process: studying maps of his region, brushing up on history, even flying a plane to view the coastline. Placing himself in context, he compares his writing to an ancestor's pursuit of prey:

all unseen beneath and before

contributing to the story of here

blunt residue of night colors

coating the hunter's mouth at dawn

my lead shaft scratching paper

wearing shorter with longer lines

With the book's narrator so often captured in a state of solitude — writing, exploring or simply pondering — those forebears serve as more than simply a link to the past. They're also company, in a way: an imagined presence that chips away at the loneliness of existence. From a poet's perspective, they also provide the roots of language; Hier, who mentions in the book's notes that his wife is Tongva, scatters words from the tribal tongue throughout.

In one memorable passage, the author describes sneaking out of his bedroom at age 13 and taking a moonlit walk that leads to a crawl through a concrete pipe. Then, in the present day, he imagines a tribal woman years ago taking the same path:

our footfalls lacing now

odd dance partners in perfect step but for

centuries between

One of the blurbs on the back cover of "Unintended Garden" equates it with Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." It may take a century to vindicate that comparison, but Hier, like Whitman, works on a canvas that is both grand and pulsingly specific. As the milky way and the roots of civilization flow through the book's three sections, the poet lights down constantly on images of the moment: fruit falling from the vine, birds twittering, classical music playing two rooms down as the narrator bathes in his tub.

Fittingly, the central metaphor of "Untended Garden" comes down its title — the home garden, our attempt at order in the face of transience. Describing his narrator after a hard day with the spade, Hier writes, "Tonight I will lie with the ache / of today's futile gardening / still thrumming in my limbs." It may be futile, but we ache for it regardless. In our brief time, in our small place, that is how we live.

—Michael Miller

*

Ghost Town Girl

Echo Sparks

Leapin' Llama Records; 10 tracks

Some records evoke a sense of place, creating palpable images of 1960s Belfast, 1920s New Orleans or points beyond. Some few records just create their own place, an imagined or idealized world apart from this one, but bordering it sufficiently for its gravity to pull you in.

Such is "Ghost Town Girl" by OC's Echo Sparks. The album's 10 tracks use every gear on the roots-rock stick shift, yet even the trio's most upbeat tunes are laden with an eerie, fogbound mood. The place it evokes feels like California, but a California haunted by the scent of orange groves long after the groves are gone; where the Bakersfield sound is supplanted by the whine of tumbleweeds caroming down abandoned boulevards; and where the Hotel California has some decidedly Overlookian overtones.

Little of this creepy vibe is spelled out by the lyrics, which for the most part offer only slightly skewed stories of frayed and disconnected love. Instead, it is the music, and especially the vocal harmonies between the trio's CC Kinnick and DA Valdez, that propel the songs into Outer Limits territory.

Kinnick and Valdez's voices stand well on their own, in a ballpark with the likes of Emmylou Harris or the Byrds' Gene Clark. As for their blended sound, only fans of the 1990s gothic country band Tarnation might be prepared for Echo Sparks' disquieting harmonies. Their voices lay atop each other like Pendleton blankets, muffling the edges and meanings of words, but you can tell they're telling ghost stories under there.

The album was produced by the trio — rounded out by acoustic bassist Cindy Ballreich, who delivers sturdy, empathetic backing throughout — and was recorded for the most part in power pop king Walter Clevenger's Costa Mesa studio, Brewery Records. The result has garnered a glowing review in the alt-country bible No Depression, and it will most likely glow on your home stereo as well.

"Ghost Town Girl," the title track, is also the album's standout. Kinnick and Valdez's harmonies here have a circular quality, like a hymn circling the drain, while the lyrics seem wrapped in mist:

In your shadowy mind, I was panning for gold

I would stake my claim, but it has all been sold

We kicked up some dust and we tumbled some weeds

It's so haunting my love, living in a dream…

I could give you my love, you're so out of this world

Things just don't work out with a ghost town girl.

The aptly named "Torch Song" gives Kinnick a chance to raise her expressive voice to a sultry strut, while Valdez's keening guitar darts between clouds.

The band's website, http://www.echosparks.com, hosts a bogus bio claiming, "Echo Sparks was formed in 1923, deep in the mines of Cerro Gordo." It further asserts that Valdez — who wrote nine of the 10 songs, along with providing vocals, guitar lines, drums, banjo and percussion — "was born during the strife and bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution."

But the mystery here is that the guy is no great mystery. Valdez is hardly the type to go loping through the desert, brushing his teeth with a creosote bush. No, he's a mild-mannered musician who drummed for years with the OC's venerable Pontiac Brothers, and who, by day, managed Orange's Pepperland Records and today runs his own shop, Beatnik Bandito Music Emporium in Santa Ana. In a short time, the small store/venue has become a mainstay in the downtown arts scene, in large part because Valdez acts as a tireless promoter of other people's art and music. Who knew he was bubbling over with words, licks and a reservoir of noir of his own?

If you're ever lost in a dirt road canyon on the way to Brawley in a '64 Plymouth, "Ghost Town Girl" would be an ideal soundtrack. It will probably sound just as good in a Duffy boat in the bay, so long as the fog is in.

—Jim Washburn

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