Books One, Two & Three
Blue Press: unpaged, $15 paper
Danger on Peaks
Shoemaker & Hoard: 112 pp., $14 paper
ONE of the common raps against Los Angeles is that it is a city without history, in which the citizenry cares about little except leaving the past behind. Poet Lewis MacAdams acknowledges this truism in his latest collection, “The River: Books One, Two & Three.” But he knows that when you talk about a river, you’re talking about history and, ultimately, what civilization and civil society mean. When your river of choice is the Los Angeles River, paved over for most of its length, you need to be a visionary of another stripe. Fortunately, MacAdams is up to the challenge.
At the opening of a new riverfront park
I talk to a kindly homeless man who
wants to know the name of the duck
that looks like a chicken.
We all worship
the river in our own ways, some with stale tortillas
from the Salvation Army, others
with degrees in landscape architecture
from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
MacAdams’ poetry puts him in the forefront of the new urban environmentalism and the discussion of how people and nature interact in the city. These poems, then, are not just about looking at a forsaken river but about seeking out a different future for Los Angeles and its people. Running alongside several freeways, the Los Angeles River is an invisible wilderness. It may be the only river in the world on whose concrete-covered bed car chases are regularly filmed. Its power has not been harnessed but rather pacified, extinguished. There are few places where kayakers can navigate its eddies or small rapids, and there are no riverside cafes with pleasing overlooks. In short, it ain’t the Colorado or the Seine.
As a co-founder of the advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River, MacAdams has been at the core of a constituency attempting to bring the river back to itself. His poems describe meetings with City Council members, mayors and the Army Corps of Engineers, but he would rather hang out with blue herons. Early in the book, MacAdams recalls his first entrance into the river channel with some FoLAR colleagues. After cutting through a chain-link fence, they walk upstream to where the Arroyo Seco, flowing out of Glendale from its own concrete bed, meets the L.A. River.
This must have been
one of the most beautiful places
around here, once --
a thicket, a confluence,
an Avalon at the meeting
of year-round streams.
Much of Book One lovingly documents the early work of publicizing the river’s condition and the possibilities for its renewal and recovery. For those who know Los Angeles only as a glamour capital, MacAdams illuminates another side of Angeleno life.
We had to carry our friend
The Dark Bob -- who was wearing flip-flops --
across the meandering rivulets of slime,
the river’s only green
until we reached the scene
where the concrete ends
and the red-winged blackbirds began to sing
to the citizens of Frogtown.
In Books Two and Three, MacAdams pulls back to look at the river from multiple perspectives -- working in references to Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, as well as to the San Gabriel Mountains (where the river’s water comes from). He even invokes other writers, Thoreau among them, who have written about rivers in the past. An emotional handbook is what MacAdams offers, centered around a powerful and enabling dream.
Yesterday, we stood under the eaves
of the house watching the
warm rain sweep across the Valley
talking about politics.
Would there be, could there be,
a better world? The rain came.
The leaves pinged:
a dusky harmonics
There are no page numbers in “The River,” so read this book as if it were an ancient scroll written in a very hip language, or perhaps a river that just keeps rolling along.
If MacAdams has an aesthetic progenitor, it may well be Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder, who, since the 1950s, has used his work to stake out a similar territory integrating nature, verse and advocacy. Recently released in paperback, “Danger on Peaks” is Snyder’s first book of new poems in 20 years, and it’s good to know that he’s still the same poet, except now more personal and self-revealing. His poems here resemble journal entries or pages from a memoir, especially in the section titled “Daily Life.”
Snyder’s particular interest has always been the earth, and his poetics extend from there to the spirit. Like the Chinese poets who believed that the spiritual realm connects to the earthly one on the shadowy peaks, Snyder directs us to climb a rocky mountain to get a view of the world in which we live. There is, he suggests, something beyond: “But the big snowpeaks pierce the realm of clouds and cranes, rest in the zone of five-colored banners and writhing cracking dragons in veils of ragged mist and frost-crystals, into a pure transparency of blue.”
Snyder has spent his life writing poems that traverse that fine and misty line. His work here moves seamlessly between plain talk -- with its powerful created music -- and inspired revelations from a man who has spent a lifetime climbing mountains of the soul. Writing about the poet James Laughlin, he asks:
So recklessly bold -- foolish? --
to write so much about your lovers
when you’re a long-time married man. Then I think,
what do I know?
About what to say
or not to say, what to tell, or not, to whom,
The emotion is unmediated, unexpected, with the pacing echoing the uncertainty of Snyder’s words.
“Danger on Peaks” opens and closes on violent events. In the book’s opening sequence, Snyder recalls returning to Mt. St. Helens after the 1980 eruption that blew out its top and side. As a young man, Snyder was on the mountain when he learned that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Thirty-five years later, he sees nature’s regenerative handiwork overcoming the effects of an explosion equal to 500 atomic bombs.
The book’s final section, “After Bamiyan,” tracks the terrible devastation of 2001 -- first the towering Buddhas of Bamiyan blown up by the Taliban in March of that year, then the destruction of the World Trade Center. Snyder’s response is predictably terse and tender: “Take Refuge,” he writes, “in the dust.”
With so much at stake in the public life of this country, Snyder’s active return to poetry is a welcome sign. If, as Shelley told us, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, “Danger on Peaks” and “The River” provide exemplary talking points for how to think about the future of river, mountain and citizen alike. *