Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Port of Los Angeles, Jane Sprague (poetry)

I have to confess that I have a huge crush on San Pedro, part of the Los Angeles docks near Long Beach. I love everything about the town. For one thing,there's the large Croatian population that makes words sound beautiful to me (I love me a Slavic accent!). But the main draw is the docks and waterways themselves. I’ve always stayed in the same hotel five times, and have watched it go to seed (truly a dump now!), and will still stay there for the incredible view.  The port retains a sort of romanticism for me. At night I can barely sleep for watching the cargo ships enter and depart, silently in the very black waters. The lights and cranes lit up at night make the water sparkle. Who needs sleep with that outside?  It was with this in mind that I was eager to read Jane Sprague’s The Port of Los Angeles, which I assumed would be a tribute to the dark mysteries, unnamed travelers, and the strange sort of thrill of long-distance, but old-style, slow travel.

I was wrong. The poetry itself is still lovely but its theme is far different. Instead of romanticizing the mechanics of it all, she analyzes the concept of consumption and the rabid activity of consumers to have more material objects, even at the risk of pollution and damage to the sea. Her style is unique, as the enjambment is unpredictable. In doing this, she makes the reader pause to consider the significance and the placement of just the right word. For example, in the excerpt below, her placement of ‘waves’ on its own line reveals another meaning. Setting apart the one word, having just read ‘California’ a few words before, creates a mental picture of California’s beaches, with the powerful waves beckoning to tourists. And yet she shows, through further verses, that California’s appeal is just as much in danger as the sea itself: crowded, polluted, and a commodity to exploit.

California insinuates itself through our veins through our beds
through our children through the constant hump and suck of the
as the derricks continue to drill
we find ourselves called to IKEA again and again
strange comfort Scandinavian curves
our child falls in love with IKEA and wants to move in
our child finds comfort small beds small nesting places
we wonder bunks of the port small spaces for ships small pockets
for junk...

we worried
we were vexed
were we merely imitating at best
were we making cheap concessions for our impending descent into the
mass bourgeoisie
consumers being consumed
was they any way to escape it
was asking this question too much in light of ships

The image she creates here is the ideology, so popular in California and elsewhere, of the efforts people make to simplify their lives, live green and lessen their carbon footprint. Yet in doing so, they’re actually creating another industry and only changing their types, not habits, of consumption. She cites IKEA often as an example of this desire to minimize and streamline a lifestyle, but often simply consuming more or the same amount of different things. People go to IKEA, or any store really (she's not just picking on IKEA), to change their lives through products, rather than change themselves. Her frequent use of the adjective 'small' contrasts with the reality of how modern people live.

She refers to consumer habits often, and considers what is contained in the ships, the cargo destined for Costco and the mall: “hundreds of plastic things shaped for fixing mending catching all manner of debris.” She doesn’t back down from her poetic assertion that the sea has become a highway where only the beginnings and endings of the journey matter. She transcends this by recognizing this is how many people live their lives: too focused on destinations rather than the journey itself.

In another poems she uses the analogy of shipping and travel to discuss the state of a relationship:

How we I
became strange to one another
became container ships moving into and out of the same ports
the same ports all over

we became directed and flowed
became our bilge water and ballast also
we became the containers
tipped stacked together commiserate
containing, contained
so many ships together
utterly separate

In this case, rather than consumerism, she illustrates the way modern life makes people compartmentalize their feelings, cutting their emotions up and placing them in various rooms and spaces,  no longer able to connect the pieces. Sprague’s style is unflinching and bold, and there is no sentimentality or romance to her version of what the port symbolizes. Sprague doesn’t change my love for San Pedro, or the port. I’ll still have that fondness for the black water and the busy docks under starlight. But her collection here does reveal how meaningless good intentions are if people remain resistant to change.

Special thanks to Chax Press for the Review Copy.

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