“Rat Among the Pines”

Poet Roger Reeves at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival

As I have mentioned before, the highlight of my visit to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was the Poetry Pavilion, where I could sit in the cool shade on a hot spring day and listen to some outstanding poets. One of them was Roger Reeves, an Associate Professor of Poetry at the University of Texas in Austin. The following poem, entitled “Rat Among the Pines” comes from his collection Best Barbarian, a finalist for the National Book Award. It tells in terse poetic language the violence of life in America.

Rat Among the Pines

Terror, tonight

Is the moon
Slipping from a rat’s gray grasp,

Finding its way back
Into the sky, which is America—

A white moon
Leaning on the night’s neck

With its hand in its pocket,
Moon hung calm above

Catastrophe, the police
Breaking the neck of a man

Who had just brushed summer’s
First bead of rain from his eye-

Lashes. Who—knocking a Newport
Against a wrist, watching smoke

Break its head against a brick
Wall—is preparing to die

Unaware they are preparing to die.
Heavy the moon, silly the tasking

Of a rat with delaying death.
Terror, tonight

Is the candor of the earth
Where someone is preparing to die

And the earth receives that dying
With its hands in its pockets.

And the moon that once burnt the silk
Hump of a rat, back in the sky.

And my daughter hiding in the rose
Bushes, asking who, who the sirens

Have come to kill. And someone calling
It beautiful—summer, moon—

And someone dying beneath that beauty,
Which is America.

LA Times Poets: Eloise Klein Healy

Former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Eloise Klein Healy

As I mentioned in my previous post, what I enjoyed most at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival were the poetry readings at the Poetry Stage sponsored by Small World Books of Venice. One poet that impressed me for her sheer cojones was the 80-year-old Eloise Klein Healy who clawed her way back from aphasia. Let the introduction to her poetry collection Another Phase tell the story:

You cannot understand what you hear or read. You cannot speak or write and be understood. Your use of language has been lost. You speak and write words in a nonsensical manner. You hear what people say, but it makes no sense.

Her post-aphasia collection entitled Another Phase consists of haiku-like five-line poems that discuss her triumph. Below is one of them, entitled “Another Phase,” which lends its title to the collection:

Another Phase

It’s hard for me to read the L.A. Times.
I want to relearn, to refine part of me.
How did my brain twist?
How did the whack of it phase me?
Every page. Every word blank.

The subject of her rehab in the world of poetry is also covered in a poem entitled “Problem”:


When first I wrote a poem,
I couldn't change anything.
Didn't plan to edit or write another.
“Brain fry” was my reality time.
Step two wasn't there yet.

What I learned from listening to Healy read her poetry and then reading the poems in Another Phase was the woman’s courage and persistence in the face of calamity. She is still a little unsteady on her pins, but I find her to be an inspiration to me. And that’s not something I say about a lot of people.

You Can’t Stop the Change

Walter Mosley, Author of the Easy Rawlins Mysteries

Yesterday afternoon, I “attended” the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books symposium entitled California Dreamin’: Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Actually, the event was virtual, so I tuned in with my computer for what turned out to be an excellent discussion. The moderator was USC Professor David L. Ulin, and the guest speakers were novelist Walter Mosley and political analyst Ron Brownstein.

One of the most interesting points made was about political mobilization against cultural change. Irrespective what the hippies tried to do in the 1960s, enough voters were freaked out to elect Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. As Mosley said at one point, the voters’ response was along the lines of “T don’t want to hear the truth; I want to hear what makes me feel good.” However, cultural change eventually wins out. For example, today’s youth do not tend to oppose homosexual marriage or transgender identification.

The Atlantic Editor Ron Brownstein

This was an interesting conclusion to someone like me, who is amazed that a shrinking demographic like that of the Republican Party can still win elections. For now, anyhow.

After the one-hour discussion ended, I immediately ordered the featured books by Mosley and Brownstein shown in the above photographs.

I arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1967. One would have had to be deaf and blind to recognize the ferment that was taking place—only to be replaced by the 1970s and the onrush of a paranoid political conservatism.

10 Years Ago…

Sarah Silverman at the L.A. Festival of Books April 2010

One of the events I miss the most during this grey endless quarantine is the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, particularly when it was held at the nearby UCLA Campus. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind going again to the USC Campus, where it’s always considerably warmer than Westwood.

I always liked Sarah Silverman’s comedy. I even thought she was pretty sexy—as well as uproariously funny.

Of course, now we all have to stay away from one another because of this ghastly coronavirus outbreak, which seems to be getting worse all the time. With luck, I will survive a couple of years of a monastic existence; but in going back over old photographs, I deeply miss events like the Festival of Books.

I even miss going to the library and walking through the stacks looking for books to read.

Eventually, the world will open up again. But I will have wasted two whole years in disgruntled loneliness.

“Tell It Slant”

Poet Marsha de la O

It was my day at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Yesterday, I went with Martine and two friends: All my time was spent in coordinating when and where we should meet, eat, and greet. At such a large, centrifugal event, people tend to separate going to different locations based on their various interests. So today I returned—but this time all by my lonesome. It was an altogether different experience. I bought several books, and for sheer enjoyment attended two poetry readings at the Festival’s Poetry Stage, sponsored by Small World Books on Venice Beach.

My favorite of he two readings I attended was by a Ventura County poet named Marsha de la O. With her husband Phil Taggart, she published a poetry journal called Askew. Under the masthead, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson, “Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant,” based on the title of the following poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Marsha de la O read from her latest collection, Every Ravening Thing, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. In the cool of the morning, it was nice hearing powerful verse in the dappled light of the Poetry Stage. The audience wasn’t as big as some of the sessions of more “general interest”: The people who were there were there because they wanted to be, and because they loved feeling those frissons caused by the magic of poetry.

Marsha de la O’s Latest Collection of Poems

Following is one of the four poems de la O read this morning:

Space-time Tsunami

If most of the universe is dark energy,
why should we be any different?

Pick a wave, any wave—it’s just energy in motion,
shock, or plasma, or the wide ocean shrugging
its shoulders when space becomes time
and ‘time is not the root of our problem’.

The good ship Charon’s anchored offshore, laden
with otter pelts—soft gold they call it.
Our tsunami strikes during the Napoleonic wars,
but what’s California to Napoleon
that he should weep for her otters?   Nothing.

I had a friend who raked her fingers through my hair, gathered
a hank in a great knot, Hey, Strange Attractor, she used to say,

my binary star, my pristine, my flammable—how we orbited,
each to each.
I had a friend who convened the dead. When we spoke,
water seemed to leave the beach—the sea scrolling backwards and her,
strolling right out onto newborn land—that reckless.

Hey ferryman, come on over here, ferry, ferry, ferryman …

We now exist as thirteen egrets in the canopy of a tree
so far from water that at first they look like
paper lanterns
to the observer who has no place to stand

and still I walk through the great hall of swallows swirling
like Valkyries, like volute, like alley oop,

we do not speak, I’ll trail after for a hundred years.




Among the Night Witches

A Young Adult Novel About Women Night Bomber Pilots for the Russians in WW2

I don’t usually read Young Adult fiction, but circumstances dictated that I read Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz. First of all, my friend Bill Korn recommended it to me and suggested that I visit the author at last weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The which I proceeded to do last Saturday. Gwen was there in a shared booth, and I purchased a hardbound copy of her book.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to start the book. Given Bill’s recommendation, I expected it would be interesting. It was actually written well enough to almost qualify as standard adult fiction. The book was about what the Wehrmacht troops invading Russia called the Nachthexen, the Night Witches. The term referred to young women who flew primitive old bombers at night behind enemy lines. The heroes are Valka (Valentina) and Iskra, a pilot and navigator who knew each other from childhood. Valka corresponds with Pasha, a friend from her home town who is conscripted into a rifle company.

Almost half of the novel consists of letters between Valka and Pasha, which gradually turn into love letters as Valka begins to realize how much her childhood friend means to her.

Valka (Valentina) , the Heroine

Many of the events described as well as many of the minor characters are taken from real life. Although I do not know much about the women flyers in the VVS (short for Военно-воздушные силы, or Military Air Forces), I felt that Gwen Katz did a creditable job researching her book. Added to that were interesting and diverse characters and well-plotted-out action that was exciting without being too subject to shallow wish fulfillment.  The ending, in which Valka and Iskra fly to rescue Pasha in German-held territory might be a bit much; but it is well within the standards of YA literature.

Author Gwen C. Katz at the L.A. Times Festival of Books

I am curious to see what Miss Katz will do for her next novel. And I will be looking out for it.


A Gathering of Readers

Looking Out from the South Entrance to the Festival of Books

For the first time since the event moved from UCLA to the University of Southern California campus, I attended both days of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It was exhilarating to see so many people in one place who were united by the simple fact that they liked to read. Also, many of the attendees brought their children along because they wanted them to read as well.

Based on what was on offer, many of the books were not to my taste. I did buy titles by Jeddu Krishnamurti, Gabriel García Marquez, Magda Szabo (a fellow Magyar), Gwen Katz, and Dorothy B. Hughes; and I will probably read all five within the next couple of months.

On Saturday, I attended two panels by Times reporters, one on world travel and one on homelessness. Because the seat next to me was vacant at both panels (was it my deodorant?), I found myself answering the inevitable question as to whether I was saving the empty seat with something obscene in Hungarian.

Times Panel on Editorial Policy

Most of the time, I was in remarkably good temper. I didn’t like buying my lunch from food trucks, as there is a certain mediocrity built into the delivery medium. Three of the best remaining bookstores in L.A. were represented with interesting selections: Vroman’s Bookstore from Pasadena, Book Soup from the Sunset Strip, and Kinokuniya from Little Tokyo.

There were a lot of booths manned by authors who were using the Festival to push their books. I felt a little sorry for them, but I can understand how they felt, dishing out so much cash for so little return. (I make one exception: Gwen Katz, who was recommended along with her book by my friend Bill Korn).

It’s great that the MetroRail Expo Line is now fully operational, as I would much rather pay $1.20 for public transportation than $12.00 for parking in a distant structure. I am already looking forward to next year’s Festival.