The California Poem (and The Vermont Poem?)

covered bridge

I’ve put this photo I took of a covered bridge here because I’m posting (after the jump) an annotation I wrote about Eleni Sikelianos’s book, The California Poem, and since I’ve never been to California, I did some thinking about what her book would be like translated into Vermont language. Vermont is my home state. And Vermont is very proud of its covered bridges.

The California Poem Annotation: The Delights of Cross-Genre Literature

In The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos, the use of cross-genre/ multi-genre methods becomes a way for the boundaries of the work to expand beyond the words on the page, beyond the bindings of the book, and beyond the reader’s expectations. There is a feeling of extreme largeness to this book; this largeness is necessary for the book to be true to the largeness (in both size and personality) of its subject, the state of California. Reading The California Poem, I got the feeling that Sikelianos would have included, if it were possible, singing voices broadcast from between her pages, the smell and temperature of a Pacific Ocean breeze, and hands that could reach out to touch or pinch or tickle me. But of course these things aren’t really feasible in a book made of paper and ink, so instead there are words that flow across the pages in a manner that feels kin to Walt Whitman, and these words are supplemented with collages, photographs, reproduced postcards, and line drawings.

And the words themselves are not just in the form of expansive lines scattered across the pages, but also in quotations, charts, footnotes, endnotes. This could be termed scrapbook poetry, I think. Words, this book shows, can be a visual medium as well as a manifestation of language. As Sikelianos herself says about words in one poem, “RISE UP—–phonemes/ cum genomes, let/ language disintegrate, tiny/ technology in the compost heap; gumdrops; I mean/ our species; the ovicidal moonfish slips/ into Sirius, Canis Major-bright my words dive-/ bombing swallows angry at my hair & slip/ new gods// into the sky…” I’m not sure if I could dissect the exact meaning of those lines, but to me they create an impression of language as something organic, alive, and active.

To return to the idea of a scrapbook: I would define a scrapbook as something similar to a collage, a statement of self formed from fragments of both your own and other people’s creations. A scrapbook can draw from both the very personal and from the very public. A love letter next to a newspaper clipping, etc. So, too, with The California Poem. The book addresses both the author’s personal experience of the state of California and the public history and geology of the state. There is a photograph of the author as a child in 1972 and there is a photograph of earthquake damage in 1925. There are quotations from widely varying sources. Perhaps the inclusion of visual art is another sort of quotation. In any case, the effect is to tell the reader that this book doesn’t just have one thing to say-it has layers and layers of things to say. The inclusion of footnotes and endnotes especially supports this layering effect. And layers, of course, add to the book’s feeling of largeness.

I couldn’t help wondering, while reading this book about California, what a sister book about Vermont would be like, in the same style. I’ve never been to California, but I live in and grew up in Vermont, so it helped me in my attempt to understand Sikelianos’s techniques to imagine applying them to my own home and experiences. It seems to me that you have to truly know a place, to love it and to also know exactly what its dirt looks and smells like, to write a poem like this. What would a book-length Vermont poem be like? Just the idea of it half makes me want to write it right now. It would have to be packaged a little differently-a taller, narrower book to match the tall peaked roofs that Vermont houses have to shed snow in the winter.

The word Vermont comes from the French, means green mountains, which are really more like rolling hills. There’s a strong sense of shelter to this landscape. Perhaps the pieces of poetry would have to be smaller. It is not a land of extremes like California. No Death Valley here. Just narrow dirt roads to get lost on. And I don’t know much about the native Americans who lived here before European colonization, the Abenaki. I would have to learn more about them, and also refresh my memory of the revolutionary war history. Samuel de Champlain. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. Whereas California has the gold rush, western expansion, a sense of horizon. There’s no connection to the ocean here in Vermont, just Lake Champlain, which is shared with New York. I think there was a campaign a few years ago to register Lake Champlain as one of the great lakes but I really feel that the lake is something else, some other special category of its own. There’s legend of the Champlain monster, “Champ” or “Champie.” In the winter most of it freezes over. And I imagine the winter landscape here in Vermont as having something kin with haiku. The snow as a blank page, and the bare trees as brushstrokes forming characters forming poems. And the people of Vermont are different from the people of California, or at least I’m lead to believe so from movies. Hollywood. Vermonters see themselves as independent. Stoic, resourceful. The importance of privacy. The state motto is “freedom and unity.”

But I am starting to write that Vermont book right now, which isn’t necessary. What I meant to say was that looking at my own state as if it were the main character of a book-length poem helped me to understand Eleni Sikelianos’s undertaking. The California Poem is something quite impressive and enjoyable to read, all the more so because of all the directions it draws its material from.


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