Tag Archives: los angeles

A Southern California Life

3 Nov
This is the second installment by Marlene Duckworth (see the first post on September 22, 2012).  Drawing by the author.
I was seven when we became involved in World War II.  My earliest memory is of finding out that some of my friends had disappeared.  At the time my mom, dad and I were living in a one room apartment on Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles down the street from Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, later sold to Scientology. 
There was a small market on the next block where my folks shopped; one with a butcher on one side and a produce section in the front of the store like many markets in those days.  The produce section was run by a Japanese family who had a daughter that went to school with me.  Some days after school she would either come over to my apartment for a snack or I would go over to the market and have a snack in the back of the store with her family.
One evening I went with my dad to the store and I noticed the produce section had different people there that I didn’t recognize.  I asked my dad where my friends were.  He didn’t know so he asked the butcher.  My dad had lifted me up so I could talk to the butcher.  He told us that the Japanese family had been taken away.  I understood that we were at war but not why that would mean this family that I felt close to and had been very kind to me had been taken away.  I still don’t understand it.

Always Dance!

5 Sep

David Duckworth, Untitled, 1982. Charcoal on bond paper, 19 x 24 in.

It’s always a pleasure meeting a lifelong dancer.  That is how I felt meeting Julia Montrond, dancer, painter, poet, through my work at Expressions Gallery, Berkeley, where Julia is an exhibitor.  Julia will be reading a poem this coming Saturday, September 8th, at the 18th Annual Dancing Poetry Festival, where she among other prize honorees will present between noon and 4:00 p.m. (http://www.dancingpoetry.com/).  The venue is the Florence Gould Theater in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco.

Dance is my first love.  I studied ballet and modern dance at a school in Los Angeles under the direction of Sally Whalen.  I quit after almost three years of training, not knowing as a young adult how I could build a career as a ballet dancer.  I was in need of mentoring but only understood the isolation I felt at the time.  For years afterward I quietly dwelled on the regret of an unfulfilled ending.  I did not realize until much later in life that I had always danced and that this dance was not only my constant return to the joy of physical movement, but the uplifting of my soul.  This is how we stay young, by forever dancing.  Julia’s poem appears below.

Julia Montrond’s poetry has appeared in Blue Unicorn, Poetalk, Farewell to Armaments, and her chapbook: Steaming Radiators and Red Poppies.  Her poems have won prizes in the International Dancing Poetry Festival, the Ina Coolbrith Contest, and the Alameda Haiku Contest.  A BAPC prizewinning poem, the judged remarked, was so sensuous it made him reach for a cigarette and a pen!  A teacher for 45 years, she spent her last ten years teaching drama in Berkeley.  Her poems cover a variety of themes and moods, including identity, New York childhood, journeys, and aging.

David Duckworth, Untitled, 1982. Charcoal on bond paper, 19 x 24 in.

Black Friday Revisited

5 Dec

Steve Zeltzer, Protecting the Merchandise on Friday in San Francisco, digital photograph, 2011.

“When such men as these, together with the cheap college professors and still cheaper writers in muckraking magazines, supplemented by a lot of milk-and-water preachers with little or no religion and less common sense, are permitted to assault the business men who have built up the great industries and have done more to make this country what it is than all the other agencies combined, it is time that vigorous measures are taken up to put a stop to those vicious teachings which are being sown broadly throughout the country.” — Lamont Montgomery Bowers, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., October 11, 1913, (vice president, treasurer, and chairman of the board to owner of Colorado Fuel & Iron [CF&I]), quoted in Scott Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press, 2007), page 92

“…[the CF&I Primero mine was] probably caused by some miner smuggling in pipe and matches, the use of which is prohibited.  The mine was thoroughly ventilated, but, like most soft coal mines, has pockets of gas that are struck which causes explosions, and then the dust ignites and havoc follows.  The latest reports indicate that the mine is not damaged, and work will resume as soon as the miners get over the excitement.” — Bowers in a letter to Frederick T. Gates, a Rockefeller advisor, February 1, 1910, on an explosion that killed 75 workers, quoted in Martelle, page 45

Indeed, the Colorado coal mining region at the time of Bowers’s writing was the site of a deadly class war, just as it had been in West Virginia.  Earlier union organizing struggles at the Colorado fields had resulted in the suppression of that effort in 1903.  The mine operators then imported labor from areas of Europe, including large numbers of workers from Greece and Italy, a payroll reflecting thirty nationalities, with the intent of replacing an English-speaking force of American-born workers and immigrants from Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales.  The purpose was, of course, to thwart unionism’s progress by “produc[ing] in advance a condition of a confusion of tongues, so that no tower upon which they might ascend the heavens could be erected,” according to what Edwin V. Brake, Colorado’s deputy labor commissioner, learned by admission from one of the coal companies in 1913.  Further, the newer hires were inexperienced in mining, “not conversant with the rate of wages or the conditions that prevail in this country, and they will submit to conditions that men will not tolerate who have had experience as practical miners.”  This second point is why mines were so dangerous when operated by owners who were virulently anti-union (see Martelle, page 26, for quotations and points).

With this understanding, it is clear why Bowers would rather wait until the “excitement” of his company’s workers subsided in order to resume business as usual, workers’ reaction in reality probably closer to shock and fear at the death of 75 others.  The Colorado coal companies at the time flouted state law regarding mine regulation and safety.  They also had the ability to prevent miners from seeking legal avenues of redress since these companies controlled local law enforcement and the courts.

Corporate business has always had the upper hand in this nation’s affairs.  As Robert Scheer observed on the recent dismantling of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment: “The bankers slept well. Their homes in Beverly Hills were not spotlighted by a noisy swarm of police helicopters, searchlights burning through the sanctity of the night, harassing the forlorn City Hall encampment of those who dared protest the banks’ seizure of our government” (Scheer, “You Can Arrest an Idea,” Nation of Change; http://www.nationofchange.org/you-can-arrest-idea-1322835690, accessed December 2, 2011).  Concrete barriers were erected following the eviction of tent encampment occupiers, Scheer surmising: “However, the result was the same as elsewhere; the bankers were protected from the scorn they so richly deserve and there will no longer be a visible monument to the pain that they have caused.”

The dominant rhetoric employed to dismantle Occupy camps across the country cites concerns for health and safety.  Corporate media safeguards the cover of this tone of language in order to further the corporate cause.  Dan Whitcomb and Mary Slosson, writing for Reuters (picked up by Yahoo! News), reported: “…city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems and property damage…”  City park workers were tasked with “rehabilitat[ing] debris-strewn ground whose landscaping was ravaged by campers…,” later “collect[ing] 30 tons of waste from the site…”  Mind you, police pulled down and flattened tents, so the reader cannot know from the text how much of the strewn debris was a result of police action.  A police lieutenant is cited to convey that “some protesters had been reported to be storing human waste at the site for unknown reasons” (italics mine).  Additionally, the article claims “police entering the camp had encountered a ‘horrible stench'” (see Whitcomb and Slosson, “Police take down Occupy L.A. camp, arrest nearly 300,” Reuters [http://news.yahoo.com/police-down-occupy-la-camp-arrest-nearly-300-015210061.html; accessed November 30, 2011).

The dependence upon portraying Occupy protesters as filthy individuals challenging public health and safety relies upon a formula of containment that runs deep in our history.  The logic behind such containment stresses the distance from the mainstream of elements of society, but in terms that avoid true ideological or political points of contention.  Much as Communists and homosexuals were constantly portrayed as infiltrating the American population, as if they were organisms entering the human blood stream, from the end of World War II through the end of McCarthyism, today’s protesters are portrayed as infecting the body politic.

Within the structure of containment, infection and political infiltration — read social infiltration as highlighted below in Lait and Mortimer’s exposé — are one and the same.  Rather than portray today’s Occupiers as representative of a more widely held view that American society is not functioning to the benefit of all, as some news agencies are willing to do, these protesters are presented by corporate media as infectious stains that must be removed from public spaces.  The one element of Zeltzer’s photograph that truly stands out are the hands of the police officer in the foreground, wrapped in rubber.  The first time I knew of police officers using rubber gloves to handle protesters was during the 1980s as AIDS activists took to city streets, corporate offices, and government headquarters to protest restrictive drug policies and pharmaceutical corporate greed.  AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) inspired a generation in its use of bodily occupation of space, contesting the boundaries between private and public (dates and actions can be consulted at: http://www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html).  On June 1, 1987, as ACT UP protesters staged an action of civil disobedience outside the White House, police wearing rubber gloves removed activists.  On June 23, 1988, ACT UP met with the homeless at a “Talk-In” at a tent city at City Hall Park in New York, “built to protest the city’s policy on the homeless.”  September 14, 1989: “ACT UP once again makes history by stopping trading on the Stock Exchange floor.  Seven ACT UP members infiltrate the New York Stock Exchange and chain themselves to the VIP balcony.  Their miniature foghorns drown out the opening bell, and a banner unfurls above the trading floor demanding ‘SELL WELLCOME.’  Other ACT UP members snap photos which they then sneak out and send over newswires.  Four days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowers the price of AZT by 20%, to $6,400 per year.”

Not only do the rubber-encased hands in the Zeltzer photograph make immediate reference to government policy regarding political and social infection, but they also act as figurative conductor’s hands, ready to orchestrate the movement of a phalanx of police officers guarding the entrance to Macy’s.  During these current tense days of provocation and suppression over the occupation of public space, relatively little has been reported regarding the health and safety of the occupation of outdoor and indoor space as Black Friday shoppers progress to point-of-sale.  Yet, clearly, the danger to public health and safety is greater at WalMart locations across the country on Black Friday than at Occupy sites currently being dismantled by city governments.  We can expect more of the same during next year’s holiday season, i.e., more maiming, more killing, because corporate America ultimately governs how public space is policed.  Nor, should we hope that the public take on the issue of health and safety on Black Friday, since the buying public, the mass of individuals who agitate to obtain goods of consumption, descend upon their destination somewhat akin to the animated zombie of the West African Vodun and Haitian Vodou, the hypnotized person “bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie).  The witchcraft involved here relies on the manipulation of markets by corporations and their tools: advertisers and merchandisers.

Scheer refers to a decision by U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff in a case against Citigroup for that company’s “sale of a billion dollars’ worth of toxic securities that were designed to fail and which the bank had bet against.”  While the Securities and Exchange Commission found Citigroup guilty of “negligence,” Rakoff points out that the company had already been fined for four similar scams, thus, one would expect far more serious charges to be leveled against such a repeat offender.  Rakoff is quoted from his case summary: “…in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.  In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers.  Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found.”

Page from Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, Washington Confidential (Crown Publishers, New York, 1951).

Planet Home: Part II

12 Nov

“…a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats rolled stockings ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.  Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“The negro [sic] has an artistic charm that the white man has not.  The negro has inherited the charm of music, the love of nature and the simplicity of life.” — “A Talk Given by Mr. Louis P. Wilson in the Salon of the Art Center Association,” typescript, 2 pp. Scrapbook 293: Exhibit of work of negro artists (first of two scrapbooks), The Records of the Harmon Foundation (Box No. 121, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

I have come to detest lawns.  My step-father decided that a rock garden with shrubbery was preferable to a lawn as he designed the front landscape for our home in Southern California.  Still, the back yard featured a lawn with lovely jacaranda trees and a border of mint.  Very few neighbors on the block understood that an arid climate would not naturally support the production of lawns, and so, also cultivated rock gardening with heat and drought tolerant plants.  With an unlimited supply of water diverted from and piped in from sources hundreds of miles away, what resident would think about their use of an absolutely precious commodity?  Los Angeles and the history of its misuse of water is widely known.  Still to this day, over a century since it exhausted its own water tables, the city and county consumes water from afar.  The battle for the survival of Mono Lake (http://www.itvs.org/films/battle-for-mono-lake and http://www.monolake.org/about/film) is epic in proportions, a water source that, quoting the second website cited here, underwent dramatic change: “From 1941 until 1990, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) diverted excessive amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.”  Activists were able to stop the death of this lake.

The problem of natural resources is not confined to the illogic of pumping water to a naturally waterless terrain.  Communities across the planet are now fighting against the incursion of global corporations that have usurped local rights to water, begging the question, “Is water a human right or a commodity to be bought and sold in a global marketplace?” (http://www.thirstthemovie.org/).  Waterways have been besieged for decades by pollution at our hands.  When I was a child growing up, the use of natural gas seemed absolutely benign.  It is only now, in very recent time, that I understand that the extraction of natural gas through “fracking” pollutes water tables and waterways (http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking).

My interest here in the extraction of resources, though, cannot be separated from man’s desire to transform environments into aesthetic and fashionable enclosures for the pursuit of comfort and pleasure.  Man has separated himself from nature during a very long history.  The separation between civilization and wilderness, between communal ecosystems and forest and other natural ecosystems is age old and universal.  Man’s fear and abhorrence of nature runs deep.

Within the United States, the encroachment of industrialization produced an irrational formulation of a pre-industrial man representing a oneness with nature.  By the 1920s, finding a symbol for this mythic being was directed at African Americans.  Observing the effects of the industrial age, Daniel Gregory Mason, in his book The Dilemma of American Music, wrote: “Perhaps the  most insidious one is the jaded emotional state…The fatigue-poisoned mind and body, too dull to enjoy quiet beauty and true thought, crave the crude excitements so abused among us; restless speeding in motor cars from nowhere to nowhere;…violent plastic arts using harsh angles and garish colors; noisy, mechanical, over-accented music.  The ‘jazz age’…is a joyless age, incapable of the happy serenity of creative leisure.” (William Heard Kilpatrick quoting Mason in Our Educational Task As Illustrated in the Changing South [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1930], pages 61-2).  Thus, the Negro, to use the term applied extensively at the time, long before popular usage of Afro-American or African American, was singled out for being an emotion-centered being, childlike, “primitive,” and, so, as close to nature as man could be.  The evidence of this belief could be found in the extensive writings of the period praising the qualities of Negro spirituals.  Never mind that popular music such as ragtime and jazz were also cultural products of African American creativity.  Music critics and musicologists before 1930, such as European American song collector William Francis Allen or European pianist and folklorist Albert Friedenthal, predominantly found in this output of musical creation another type of the “primitive,” an expressed belief by some in a “savagery” that could be linked back to Africa.  African American writer Benjamin Brawley perceived even in the spiritual something akin to the primitive.  Critiquing London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Brawley found his music based on Negro folk-songs to be “characteristic of the melancholy beauty, the barbaric color, and the passion of the true Negro music” (Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States [New York: AMS Press Inc., 1971; reprint of 1930 edition published by Duffield & Company, New York], pages 164-5).

The modern Western mind has been searching for the primitive font of wisdom for several centuries.  Frances S. Connelly’s book, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725-1907, is a good source for reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to derive inspiration from “primitive” cultural sources.  The cultures of Archaic Greece, Gothic Europe, even European folk cultures, served towards this end.  By the advent of Cubism early in the twentieth century, the artifacts of non-Western cultures were already being aggressively plumbed for aesthetic borrowing. Two occasions in New York during 1985 redirected my thinking about the use of cultural artifacts.  With the occasion of Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, an exhibition organized by The American Federation of Arts, the process of interpretation was no longer a Western enterprise.  Maori writers and spokesmen shaped both the exhibition and catalogue.  I saw this incredibly beautiful show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Through the catalogue, I learned of a Maori oral tradition, which accomplished the feat of recording Maori history for posterity over centuries.  By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offered “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, with a team of cultural analysts seemingly replaying the tropes of Western cultural appropriation and manufacture.  Although both exhibitions were breathtaking, MoMA’s show stirred considerable controversy, with criticism, such as Thomas McEvilley’s now classic essay, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” questioning the very basis of placing Western and non-Western cultural objects within a comparative analytic framework.  The entire enterprise of colonialism in a post-colonial world had become suspect, and the narrative of great Western artists deriving inspiration from the forms of colonial subject manufacture had become hollow.  As much as I love African art, I knew then that, taken out of cultural context, objects considered art by Western standards did not speak for the culture from which these objects sprang.  The standard art history textbooks at the time relegated African art to a minor chapter.  These objects were described as fetish objects without any clues to the nature of the spirits they supposedly represented nor the character of the ancestors they supposedly worshipped.  The only obvious factor involved was that Westerners were fetishizing objects from outside their realm of experience.

This is why I greeted the film Oka! with mild concern.  That I wanted to see it was certain.  I just did not want my enthusiasm to be distracted by the burdens of representation.  The film was recently playing here in San Francisco for a very short time.  Based on ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s more than twenty-five years among the BaAka, or Bayaka, (“Pygmy”) in Yandoumbe, Central African Republic, the story tells of one Larry Whitman, played by Kris Marshall, who travels to Africa to record the music of this community.  The BaAka play the characters of this story, characters who represent people in Sarno’s life from an earlier generation.  Directed by Lavinia Currier, and co-written by Currier and Sarno, the film is filled with rich acoustic and visual textures.  The performance by a group of non-actors is excellent.  I am reminded of earlier attempts to film stories within traditional cultures using non-actors.  Director F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931) advertised the fact that only native-born South Sea islanders, “half-castes,” and Chinese played the roles portrayed in the film.  Michael Powell directed The Edge of the World (1937) at Foula on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, focusing on two families that are torn between preserving their native island culture and younger members leaving for a modern world.  Powell did use professional actors but drew the acting corps from true islanders.  Salt of the Earth (1954), directed by blacklist victim Herbert J. Biberman, involved actual Mexican American miners and their families in telling the story of the 1951 strike against Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico.  Director Gillo Pontecorvo strove for realism in The Battle of Algiers (1966) by employing Algerian non-actors.  Rolf de Heer’s production of Ten Canoes (2006) involved an Arnhem Land, Australia community casting themselves as actors based on a 1936 photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson and shown to director De Heer by actor David Gulpilil.  The BaAka are master storytellers, as Sarno relates in his memoir, Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993).  The acting demanded of them for the film ushered in a new dimension of story telling and required a different understanding than their familiarity with the documentary film process (refer to http://okamovie.com/).

My only experience with Pygmy music was through Deep Forest, Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet’s 1993 debut album.  The musicians combined New Age electronics with UNESCO field recordings of music from Zaire, the Solomon Islands, Burundi, Tibesti and the Sahel.  The vocal recordings of the Pygmy on the album are enchanting.  In the film Oka!, the title taken from the Benjellé meaning “listen,” the music of the people and the sounds of the forest merge and separate in subtle ways, an orchestration that makes this film an aural pleasure.  Steeped in the love of music, having once had the boyhood ambition of later becoming a composer, Sarno was reawakened by a song heard on a Flemish radio station.  Leaving from Paris with a one-way ticket and what remained of his savings, Sarno traveled to Bangui in Central African Repulblic.

The journey that Sarno (and Whitman) take is problematic for its exploration of an exotic people.  Sarno’s first impression at the camp where the BaAka live, is that “the Pygmies of Amopolo had strayed far from their roots and had degenerated into a decultured people” (Sarno, 46).  But, like the narratives within Tabu and The Edge of the World, there are forces from the outside world greater than a people can merely deflect.  Amopolo is a government-directed community, the BaAka considered uncivilized by their Bantu neighbors.  They have been forced to leave their ancestral home in the forest in order to live a civilized life, which also does not permit them to hunt.  Amopolo is near the Sangha-sangha village Bomandjombo, where the BaAka depend on a steady supply of manioc, cigarettes, marijuana, and mbaku, a locally produced moonshine.  In exchange, the Sangha-sangha depend upon the BaAka for meat (illegally hunted) and raffia.  Sarno’s relationship to his hosts is problematic for the fact that from the beginning he provides money and other goods in exchange for the privilege of living with and recording the music of the BaAka.  As Sarno himself muses, “Yet what, I now wondered, could I have brought such a culture but corruption, jealousy, and rivalry, with my cigarettes and gifts?  What could I have been to them but a kind of Pandora’s box, unleashing hungers that could never be satiated?” (Sarno, 291).

Sarno’s place within his adopted community gradually changes, so much so that he enables the BaAka to return to the forest.  In the film, shaman Sataka and wife Ekadi, played by Mapumba and Essanje, respectively, live continuously in the forest, refusing to partake in the Bantu’s terms of civilization.  They function as a mythic ancestral couple.  Unlike Adam and Eve of the garden who did not know their god, they know the forest and the spirits within.  It is their wisdom that draws the BaAka away from conditions that are unhealthy.  In Sarno’s narrative, the forest-cleared, sandy encampments that the BaAka live in are rife with mosquitoes and chigoes, sand fleas that burrow into human flesh.  Malaria kills a number of people.  Excessive mbaku consumption and other forms of aberrant behavior are rampant.

Another thread within both Sarno’s narrative and the film’s focuses on the destruction of the forest by non-African logging interests.  When Sarno first arrived in Bomandjombo, the logging company was run by Yugoslavians.  Their business eventually failed.  An attempt to revive the sawmill failed in 1989.  In the film, the Chinese businessman Mr. Yi, played by Will Yun Lee, who manages the mill, has a keen interest in hunting animals, and hopes, through a corrupt Bantu mayor, to implicate the BaAka in an elephant hunt, forcing them permanently off the reserve for the crime of poaching and, thus, opening the land to unlimited logging.

I recently attended a SF Debate event hosted by the Commonwealth Club.  The resolution posed to the group was: “This House supports the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”  Opening pro and con arguments were formally presented by two members.  Thereafter, discussion was opened to attendees.  One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street Movement was that the movement’s concern over income inequality was misguided.  A young person, by my consideration, of little practical experience or knowledge of history, offered his insight to correct this.  Outside of the homeless, a “miniscule” portion of people in our society (those apparently dispossessed of possessions), people in poverty still had many consumer goods, including flat screen TVs.  Obviously this was a sign that our economy was healthy.  Of course, as a person who is temporarily housed, but still homeless, I challenged the ability of anyone present to accurately assert the number of people homeless.  But I also challenged the notion that wealth could be measured in terms of the production of consumer goods.  Where is our moral compass when a health prognoses upon our society is based on common access to  a select group of goods within a steady stream of consumption?  The poor in this context are so much like the BaAka under the civilizing terms of Bantu supervision.

I often think in mythic terms when questioning the viability of an earth mastered and run by a human population with an unlimited appetite for its resources.  In San Francisco, I see signs of engagement with the earth that envisions a symbiosis not based on exploitation for the material consumption of plastic goods and electronic gadgets.  During many Sundays in 2010, I participated in communal activities at Hayes Valley Farm, a volunteer-run farm on land temporarily leased by the city (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).  The push there is to regenerate soil through practices that do not take healthy soil from other areas of the state; the products of the farm are simply handed out.  There is a green movement afoot that I want to see succeed, that will take us, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “back to the garden.”  A garden conceived in our own moral health and the health of the natural world surrounding us.

Untitled, digital photograph, Felton, California, 2006.

Silent Stone

6 Nov

Memory piques my nostrils with pine scent and tars my fingertips with resinous stickiness.  The focal silence of stones recaptures and expands myths of self, long ago hunts along sandy bottoms.  A river fed from pine-belt mountain lakes scuttling the motherly hips of arid foothills.  Breaking upon a denuded plain of sand, rail rubble and asphalt.  Making its course to the sea.  But this is dense memory, pungent and warm.  Rarely plumbed; as precious as your occasional visits once were.  This was language heard in the long pause of night.  The whisper of water over stone.

Quarry machinery dominates our eastern view of the sky.  Asphalt roads circumscribe the breadth of the riverbed.  Everything the hand builds diminishes the valley’s native force, even the gifted direction by which my father speeds us through the clearing of rock and pebble from bulldozed land.  Our gardens of permanence are swiftly transforming, yet foreign to its temper.  The river only bears life upon the grace of distant winter snows.  Saturating the ground deeply enough to sustain chaparral and grizzled dwarf oak.  Retreating to the belly of evening sound under cricket and wind.  To this voice I cradle nightly.

We danced in the arms of a river wild spilling around granite barriers in the luxury of fat, black inner tubes, a river since tiered in concrete levees.  So enervated, we watch for bloodsuckers in its stagnant pools as it shrinks from its banks through the enduringly dry summer.  Boulders release the flaking filagree of dehydrated moss.  Bamboo shoot bunches near the heat prickly sand.  A gray and black speckled retriever trots.  Skin shimmies along protruding ribs.  Heat lifts shingle roofs above sheets of vaporized haze.  On moonless nights their porch lamps hover above the border of the riverbed’s solid black mass.

The river disappears to the south below Huntington Drive.  The road connected orange groves, dates, palms and town in a string of oases, which glittered in the days my great aunts drove miles from Los Angeles for canasta and gin.  You find a way station close to the mouth of the river road turnoff.  Perhaps you have been there the night you sit half in shadow on the edge of my bed, examining the boy enjoined to you godson at the baptismal font.  The street’s lamplight clothes your lips in hesitancy, rims the alcoholic wetness of your eyes in wistful sparkles, surrenders us to the darkness of a brief kiss.  In this chamber currents whisper forlorn praise to the manchild so named by desire.

The gullet of this valley is now an elevated freeway feeding many swollen communities.  Huntington Drive ossifies through commercial neglect.  Lone, stubborn weeds cling to the soft, fissile rock of empty lots.  Your stop was razed long before Mom spoke of it.  Yet I seek clues to your identity along the shopworn face of the drive.  A greasy spoon manager serves dripping chicken and fries to the chef from the adjacent steakhouse.  Clyde teases about the traditional honor accorded mountain oysters.  I watch the sports tavern gulp in sunlight through its swinging door, formulating questions which vanish as it closes, leaving me in the glare of a parking lot sequinned with the dust of sand and glass.

I’ve often wondered how the oldest gay bar in the county could have operated in this town, hidden along the dividing line of a polarized community; whites, black and chicanos appportioned to either track homes or “Rocktown.”  We race along the drive in a beat-up joy van.  Raiding a motel room, shock rebuts our movement.  Brad and Jimmy both lay in boxer shorts on the bed.  Strands of Brad’s long hair fall in meddled profusion screening terror within smoke-glazed eyes.  Shouts fill the room as I stand transfixed by their nakedness.  The group is mollified when the word “faggot” shoots through their confusion.  Its sting burns my cheeks as I break through the grip of everyone’s arms.

I am on a pilgrimage of pearls, continuing the journey that connected you to Mom twenty years ago.  Los Angeles, Band-Aid mecca for those healing themselves of former place.  I join both of you evenings at the Frog Pond.  The centers of fanning cactus petals in silver print hang opposite the forest green wall.  Indonesian frogs prance beneath parasols alongside Kahlua and Irish Creme.  You bring a colleague from your days in East Los Angeles community theatre.  Artifice distills Carlos’s narrative Pietà-of-self.  He describes the poacher Time with the deft strokes of a confectioner’s funnel, coaxing the merciful touch of youth by pleading my desire.  My flush of vanity infuses a pink hollow within this artful structure.  But I am led in the end to questions of you.

You once suggested we talk soon and said good night.  The long distance calls had been too infrequent since I left, prompting me each time to consider if we would penetrate the silence.  Perhaps the  murmur of unsettled currents had accompanied us in the Silver Dollar.  I wouldn’t listen along cramped corridors in the cloak of towels and a low blue fluorescent light, nor acknowledge our common need while on wooden bleachers under a video screen.  I wanted the years between and their story.  To know about the only person Mom spoke of as someone you deeply loved.  To know how you learned to live without him following the motorcycle accident.  I dial the phone sensing another opportunity for a beginning not realizing you have filled my lungs with your last breath.

Memory has been an act of defiance.  I’ve left signposts behind at the perimeter of former events: loading dock or gas station attendant were roles to escape from; the meanness and smallness of community attitudes to abandon.  Relationships end and begin, perhaps.  The silence of stones dislodges my denial.  Its focus is resonate of the richness of inner experience.  Memory piques my nostrils with pine scent and tars my fingertips with resinous stickiness.  There is a language I sometimes hear under the coverlet of night.  Whispered by a river.  Perhaps you have listened to it too.

Note: This was originally set in verse when it was composed in 1994.