Eleni Sikelianos — The California Poem

Crossing over the border into Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem is like watching an epic biopic with lots of cameos by many known and unknown actors. One goes through the various scenes playing the game of name-that-face, continually familiarizing and defamiliarizing oneself as the movie continues. Mostly the actors are aspects of California’s flora and fauna, its physical landscape. At times the images appear in such rapid succession that the eye is quickly sated and the mind is overwhelmed. Kind of like Peter Greenaway is the director. Like Greenaway, Sikelianos uses many ornate multi-syllabics and the technical language (genus and species names proliferate like the animals they describe) of biologists and geologists. However, her California also inhabits the fanciful nature of the place by extrapolating the sober references and creating very imaginative Hollywood-like spaces. There is history of all sorts too. All of these are brought together via a playful sounding that is often rhyming or alliterating itself across the expanse of the page. It is a wild place one might hear someone say from the Midwest who has come to visit.

The textual variety within the book is impressive. Not only is personal autobiography present alongside of the copious amount of material on the natural world, but there are photos, the backs of old postcards, sign language demo graphics, collages, small little diagrams [see page 47 on Google Preview above] that look like they are crude representations of networks or patterns of growth among sea slugs or winged insects. Sikelianos is an avid collector of Californiana throughout the book, a hoarder of every word that washes up on the beach. Through it all though, one particularly strong current running through the book is a sense of loss, a sentimentality for the unfettered California of the past. One senses nature is being encroached on everywhere, and Sikelianos is trying to reimagine the script for its players, sometimes in chronicling the goings-on in the neighborhood of the tidepool, sometimes with a deflating gesture toward the artificial world that has been created by the humans around it.

any peasant with a dumb
cow can make whipped
cream but it takes a chemical factory
in California to make Cool Whip

Also, there is ample quotation in the piece, sometimes attributed, more often not. There are a lot of people talking, creating a strange cacophony that enforces the notion that Sikelianos seems to embrace “Suddenly, everything belongs in California.” The residents since birth are forced to be generous hosts. They accommodate by clearing more space.

The language that is used to negotiate the natural world in The California Poem is dense and profuse. Surely, there is a prodigious talent for naming and describing the natural world in the piece, so much so that it seems almost unnatural to carry around that much language about flora and fauna in one’s head. Frequently, I wondered if all this “language about nature” wasn’t a construction from scientific texts as they were applied after the fact of an experience with them. In her Jacket interview with Jesse Morse, she reveals:

Early on, I loved leafing through biology, oceanography and science books. I’ve always loved that language and its richness.

Yet, Sikelianos takes such great care to ensure that the reader is witness to the author’s experience that I was curious about how much was experienced and how much was come to afterwards, constructed in a language game. Indeed, it is not entirely impossible that where many of us see “a pretty blue shell” she is seeing radial symmetry. In fact, we are told, “At Monterey, I collected 136 hermit crabs to uncover the mysteries of population dynamics.” Is this the work of a budding marine biologist who was thwarted midstream with a growing realization that she was a sensualist? [The ecstatic Whitmanesque language throughout the piece suggests that her transformation to sensualist is complete.]

Sikelianos has mentioned in her 2005 “Live From Prairie Lights” reading at the University of Iowa that she did copious amounts of research for the book which took her some 7 to 8 years to write. She looked at the history of flora and fauna and also the rich linguistic history before the conquest of the indigenous peoples. The density of language in its Whitmanesque swirls makes it hard for me to believe that these passages are coming off the top of her head as per Ginsberg. They often feel constructed because of their density. Yet Sikelianos’s ear is so adept that rhythmically a seam never appears. The flora and fauna do seem to erupt out of her in a long effortless flow of source. The conversation is exhausting, but one is taken in by the breadth of it, the way it darts here and there after more prey for the intellect to feast on.

Her breath is Olson’s, but the absurd and surrealist-tinged turns are Ginsberg’s.

I suppose how the lines are constructed doesn’t really matter (except to a wonk like me who is perpetually interested in such technical matters). The rich, dense language, no matter how it was arrived at, serves what she says is the purpose of the piece:

mythologizing the landscape beyond recognition
like some simulacra of Saturday Night Fever

The various opossums and nudibranchia are the stars of the piece though. [Picture them beneath a mirror ball if you have to.] These and the hypnotic and expansive language that always seems to branching off to form another dendrite (symmetry be damned!). One might experience a good bit of frustration as I did when I first started reading the poem. I was lingering over each line, expecting it to deliver its weight. I read it like it was a scientific paper. When I realized the rhythm was more “Beat”, that I needed to read it like I read Ginsberg, skimming over the surface of the language, I began to settle in and enjoy Sikelianos’s topsy-turvy California where it seems

California // is the palace where we’re making continents up

          (sand, sand dollar, rock . . .) Your job is to

tell the history of each & every piece

Hers is a “Beat eye for the ethologist guy.”

The great inclusiveness is reminiscent of Whitman, whom Sikelianos mentions in the Prairie Lights reading as someone she considers to be a California poet as well. Unlike Uncle Walt, though, Sikelianos commingles with gastropods, mesa cliffs, hummingbirds and sea-hares, those citizens whom Sikelianos has deemed worthy of taking up residence in California. Whitman’s eye turned to the human activity of all the people taking part in the great democratic experiment that was the United States mid-nineteenth century. Sikelianos’s nod to the human realm is largely concerned with her personal experiences in California. She recalls where her friend Adam Davies went down in the King River. The memory of Adam Davies is then projected on a metro busker shortly afterwards, but the human chain ends there. At one point she even muses aloud:

What do I have in common with my fellow humans?

Her reverence stops short because “There [in California] reverence is a kind of fear.” One is awestruck and afraid by the complexity and multiplicity that is the many heads of California, some with jaws that bite.

Another personal bit that is dropped into the mix is a short and affecting section that seemingly sums up her teenage years in California:

reprisal:

I was a waitress in a white dress,
an avocado goddess in the land of Phocis
Queen of the Drought in the kingdom
          of Prop. 13
I set forth
It was four blocks to the beach
What did I see there?
    a kegger with lots of young men
          preparing to drink

Go ahead. Say “avocado goddess” three times. That’s fun, isn’t it? Six staccato bursts followed by a hissing “s”.

The sound of the line is very often generative for Sikelianos as she moves through her disparate images and kinds of texts. I’m reminded of Anne Waldman’s work whose blank spots on the page do not measure erasure (like with Cole Swensen) as much as they are rests in a musical score. This kind of presentation is a grateful reminder that the poem, at least many of the more lyrical parts, is still intended to be read aloud. It is not just an artifact bound to the page, which sometimes when I’m reading Paterson or The Maximus Poems, I get the sense they are only alive on the page. The Waldman influence would be perfectly understandable as Sikelianos cut her teeth at Naropa and was probably familiar with how Waldman could expertly perform difficult texts, her graphic presentation directing the page. Perhaps the most significant contribution that the Beats made to American poetry is the development of bop prosody, which allowed American poetry to escape the rhythms of the marching band and the ballad, and begin to explore the explosive multi-syllabic runs which allow complicated language to fit snugly inside of a line. Here is a bit for effect:

bathing bathers of the big black lake, SPACE, bodies like golden
apples hanging on the dark branch, EARTH, like
Great Alexander or Eleni or little children finding the ripest apples, last places to be within;

kissing mystical ventral surfaces, occiscles; rise up
for arboreal views
          of passionate showy brittle stars (Ophiuroidea), mirror or watery earth & sky;

Uncle Aristotle’s lantern, urchin, my mouth remains close to the rock
while the shell falls
off; enter the

sun, such the masseur bully sun
big fiery fruit in his rhymes of ray-on-stone, pounding
the flesh, the one, one, the one
sun was the
melancholy team sun in
matrices whose elements are birds
(words) whose elements are branches,
ladders, shadows, shadders, birds

Each stanza is a distinct musical thought, a complete musical phrase. Between “enter the” and “sun” (that starts the next stanza), the short caesura signals the horn solo is about to head off in another direction a la Sonny Rollins when he cuts from one recognizable melody to another or to a flurry of scales during one of his long and intense solos.

The “School of Disembodied Poetics” (as Naropa is less familiarly known) is also an influence in how Sikelianos likes to remove the speaking voice in the poem from her self. The speaker is invoking mightily throughout, the imagination careening off of the tangible minutiae of the golden State, and this expansive state of the speaker lends itself to an extraordinary amount of inflation which must be regarded as the souped-up construction that it is:

Cilia, spirochete, composite beings
          born of symbiont meanings
(humans) fall apart         Are you speaking of molecules
or cummunity interactions?     I’m speaking here
only of the heart

This direct address to the speaker and challenge to the speaker reminds me of what might be the central project of the Beats, of Whitman: to expand one’s self so that it is no longer a part of you. It has moved on without you, moved on to engage the world and to circle around and check back with you from time to time. It floats disembodied, an almost comical balloon that is so precious one cannot let it pop.

The Eleni narrator becomes an affectation throughout the piece as well. While the collected bits of personal narrative indicate that this Eleni is a marker for an experienced life, especially towards the last quarter of the book, that Eleni becomes unhinged and ready to fly away from its moorings from that experienced life. Eleni is other, one more piece of the mythologized landscape that circumscribes the California.

Like any assemblage the size and scope of Sikelianos’s California, as a reader, one is forced to do violence to it by trying to make it cohere, by trying to insert Tab A into Slot B. Sikelianos’s California is really quite resistant to this readerly impulse though. Besides the autobiography and the persistent references to the natural world, there are not many glaring motifs which are rekindled. If there are motifs, miniature stones resurfacing through the sand on the beach, they become subsumed within dream. Sikelianos’s California is a dream as much as a place to dream:

From Jacket 23

Any dream that includes/ends with Marlon Brando growling, “Get up, you scum-suckin’ pig” has got to be reckoned with.

The “filmy Vistavision” model of California that Sikelianos has created is an experiment in narrative that brings the disparate home to lodge in the self. It interrupts the stable psychological state (mirrored by the instability of the Golden State), which indicates the ego-self as more fluid than solid. Or perhaps an entity engaged in a hundred phase transitions in a single minute. The result is a surfactant able to exist in one realm while clinging to another. More modern chemistry. And like so much modern chemistry, there are many residual byproducts to negotiate within the racemic mix. California is the perfect laboratory for such an experiment. Its space is essential to sort out the chiral sprawl, the radial outgrowths of successive dreams.

Sorry. I got taken up in a little bit of Sikelianos’s verbiage, trying to extend a good hard science metaphor into the world of galloping verse. It’s easy to get carried away by this book.

I found that I was cheering for the language more and more as the book wore on. The impulse to parse all the information was stripped away. However, as I mentioned above, it was not my first impulse to read it that way. Perhaps as time goes on I will want to pick out sections for a deeper reading, do my homework on all of the obscure words found there (I’m still looking for “occiscles”). Is reading Sikelianos’s The California Poem what reading Pound would be like if he had lived in a trailer park and visited the beach?

Another point of reference for The California Poem might be Philip Lamantia’s Meadowlark West. Lamantia, also associated with the Beats, tends a little bit more to the world historical like Pound, but there is a significant amount of California flora and fauna that exists between the covers of Meadowlark Wet. The same hyperbolic language exists, and it works the same way in mythologizing the West, which leads me to wonder if it is always the case that hyperbole and myth go together. Is myth a form of hyperbole? What about writers like Robert Hass who are also trying to mythologize the West to a certain extent, but do it with a very burnished rendition of the quotidian? Would someone challenge that a poet like Hass is not mythologizing the West as much as he is documenting it? Can the documentarian and mythologizer exist in the same room together? And if they can, would they take their clothes off?

All in all, as I go back to The California Poem (and I expect to visit again over time . . . if for no other reason than to help me parse what I’m looking at in the tidepools) I expect that more of its “sense” will leak into me. I will be able to track down more and more of its paratactical moves. However, I suspect that I will be dipping into The California Poem more as a reminder of how ferocious the language can be, how intense its curvatures. I think I will pick it up to help me jumpstart my lines when I feel they are getting too stale, when I resist keeping bodies in motion for keeping them at rest. It’s a primer for how to juggle. The California Poem has so many interactive particles within it that it is a veritable cyclotron of activity. Despite the missing gluons, the particles whirl and swirl like they are in a popcorn maker, the more time spent with them, the more likely it is for each kernel to open. The bodies in motion ricochet off of each other at exaggerated speeds that make each one begin to sweat a little, cry a little, bleed a little. There’s a lot of body sauce flying around.

Other excerpts from The California Poem

From Cento Magazine

From Octopus Magazine

Originally posted on Nov. 28, 2007

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2 Responses to “Eleni Sikelianos — The California Poem

  1. nice!

  2. thanks for this helpful analysis

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