Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles
An Accidental Memoir
Graywolf Press: 222 pp., $15 paper
IN an interview appended to the Seven Stories Press Reading Group Edition of her 1988 novel, "Palm Latitudes," Kate Braverman delivers a trenchant and revealing statement about poetry:
"Poetry is my natural state.... Instead of publishing forty poems as poetry, as a document only several hundred people will read, I publish four hundred poems disguised as a novel that thousands read.... To be an intellectual, one used to have to know a bit of poetry. Now such knowledge is no longer expected or even tolerated. The mainstream of intellectual culture has amputated poetry from its collective repertoire. Even literary novels barely survive."
Like poems, literary novels do have a tough time in today's marketplace, where memoirs seem to enjoy a distinct edge (a situation that has even induced some writers -- and publishers -- to mislabel what are essentially novels as such). In our impatience with "mere" fiction, our times recall Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" and the dour pedant Mr. Gradgrind, who has no use for anything but "the facts."
Having published four collections of poetry, two volumes of poetry cunningly camouflaged as short stories and four more books of poetry masquerading as novels, Braverman has now arrived at another "disguise" for her poetry: to wit, the memoir.
Poetry and autobiography are a combination neither far-fetched nor unprecedented: What poem could be more autobiographical, and what autobiography more of a poem than William Wordsworth's "The Prelude"? But if Wordsworth's subject was the growth of a poet's mind, the chief subject of Braverman's "accidental memoir" is her ever-changing perspective on the city where she was raised: Los Angeles.
"Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles" is full of prose that's far more poetic than much of what passes for poetry these days -- for example, this marvelous glimpse of Santa Monica Bay:
"Morning was a sequence of tamed waves like a legion of miniature aqua bells, turquoise castanets. The bay suggested bolts of silk you might choose for an opera gown. Clouds lift and the harbor turns vivid and bold like Bohemian crystal, glassy cobalt and charged garnet. This is why we buy vases and flowers. This is why we compose."
There's poetry of another kind in the sardonic, disenchanted voice of Braverman's Aunt Sarah, who is decidedly not thrilled at being sought out by younger family members in belated search of their "roots": "They come for information, like I'm the identified repository, a clandestine library. The old aunt and last one standing. Maybe I have scrolls in the drawers, maps, charts. They say they're gathering ethnographic data. Irving's kid, a boy so disturbed the government pays him to just stay home on the sofa, wanted to make a film, no less. A documentary."
Braverman's memoir would not pass muster as a documentary. Parts seem fanciful, exaggerated, as when she claims that all girls of her socioeconomic background in the late 1950s were shunted into secretarial and home economics courses once they reached high school. Nor by any stretch of imagination is it true that by the last part of that decade, "Los Angeles, the destination city, capital of film and media, did not yet exist." What Braverman means, evidently, is that the L.A. she knew as a girl was nothing like a glamour capital: "My Los Angeles was a second-rate southern fishing village ... an enormous trailer park on sand, something anomalous storms had brought, and we were beached and stranded." This nowhere city was conspicuously lacking in culture, history, even the right kind of trees and weather, she complains, her cliched roll call of L.A.'s defects a tired echo of Henry James' petulant plaint about America's lack of castles.
In 1995, when her scientist husband takes a job at Alfred University, Braverman is transported from all this soulless shoddiness to the wholesomely traditional rootedness of an 1849 farmhouse in upstate New York. Here, surrounded by an apple orchard, splendid autumn foliage and serious weather, she waxes lyrical about the joys of family life.
Yet from her new vantage point, she's also able to see Los Angeles with new appreciation: "After generations of gray stone cities, we were a riot of magenta bougainvillea ... a sudden onslaught of purple jacaranda, rampant eruptions of renegade divas in silky petals, arias and pearls.
"In retrospect, it's inexplicable that the sheer dazzle of this city could have been so curiously and perversely misunderstood. Rather than recognizing Los Angeles as breathtaking and original, a Mae West of cities, brassy, seminal, brilliant, and boldly defiant, we were considered vulgar, common, and deficient."
Fact or fiction, diatribe or dithyramb, Braverman's poetic memoir can be irritating, even banal at times. Yet, like the metropolis that reared her and continues to engage her imagination, "Frantic Transmissions" is a colorful, multifaceted creation: alluring, elusive and often dazzling.
Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.