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Dale Smith reviews Lewis MacAdams
The River: Books One and Two
by Lewis MacAdams

48 pages, paperback, saddle stitched, no ISBN, published by Blue Press, 436 A 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA, or via Small Press Distribution, email through this link:, or call by 1341 Seventh St, Berkeley, CA 94710-1490, or phone 1-800-869-7553



"It is very beautiful to feel the rhythms that hold a man together," notes poet Michael McClure on a small book of poems by Lewis MacAdams called News from Niman Farm. The poet, activist and journalist who authored that book played a prominent role in New York city's avant-garde poetry scenes of the late 1960s and early '70s. Later, moving west, he settled in the Northern California village of Bolinas, where poets such as Robert Creeley, Donald Allen and Joanne Kyger retreated to participate in an experimental community isolated between a marshy lagoon and the rugged coast of the Pacific Ocean. MacAdams' first book in many years, The River, continues an exploration of the rhythms noted by McClure. This new book, however, shifts focus from the Bolinas Mesa of Northern California to that desert metropolis of Los Angeles where MacAdams has lived in recent years, active in the struggle over that city's water resources.
      The River: Books One & Two shows the combative rhythms of political and personal activism: personal, that is, in the Socratic sense of knowing the self and its transformations encountered through confrontation and personal contradictions. An attentive compression of language in The River sharpens the geographic perception into a focus that is pitched through the guiding character of the activist-poet. For a book that is politically motivated on one level, it lacks theoretical argument. It is charged instead with pulses of indignation, respect, courage, self-criticism and humor. The River is a meditation on the personal act of political activism.


Chinatown movie posterMacAdams introduces us to the complex history of the Los Angeles River, with its political web of brokers who have mongered its resources throughout the century. The L.A. River was also the focus of Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), where elite interests controlled the river's wealth through extortion and political corruption. In that movie, Jack Nicholson's character discovers that the river's water is being diverted into the ocean. MacAdams reminds us also that "there used to be / enough water to / irrigate with / nearly all year-round / around here." But more than fifty years after the setting of Chinatown, the poet is left with only a question that echoes the movie:


Where did it go?
Literally, where did it go?
Now there's just the
Technical Advisory Board
of Friends of the Los Angeles River
trying to figure out
how much of it
has been lost.

The Friends of the L.A. River, a group actively concerned with the river and its management, combat an environmental catastrophe that has been encouraged through years of political corruption. The waste, pollution and drainage that plague this river are symptoms also of a potentially larger environmental disaster for MacAdams. "Very intense dreams," he writes. "I must be coming / down with something. / I hope it's nothing / nearly as intense / as my vision of Earth / as the New Mars- / red dust storms rolling / around a planet / that died a long time ago."


      Although political corruption, industrial pollution and other causes contribute to a global environmental crisis, MacAdams pursues local and specific causes to begin an active process of change. As a local activist leading a controversial environmental group, MacAdams acknowledges his impassioned, but limited ability to work within the well-placed walls of the politically savvy.

I was editing videotape
when the Times called up and asked me
What did I think of
Assemblyman Katz's idea
of putting a freeway
in the L.A. River?
I felt like my forehead was exploding.
I spit out my words in Anger:
"Over our dead bodies."
The reporter made me repeat it.
After he hung up,
I was mortified.
I tried to call him back.
I knew I'd been
carried away in a cloud of
fiery, self-righteous Anger!

The reporter uses the quote, "Over our dead bodies," in the morning's paper, revealing the intense passion felt by The Friends of the Los Angeles River. But as any modern politician knows, caution and innuendo structure the language of power. So, in this instance, MacAdams sounds like the stock 'radical environmentalist,' so easily reduced to the butt of conservative jokes. Still, there is deep pleasure in anger and speaking one's mind against the polite defenders of waste and corrupt bureaucratic structures. MacAdams does not hesitate to remind his reader of William Blake's epigram: "The Tigers of Wrath more powerful / than the Horses of Instruction."
Book cover 
      Further attempts by the press try to discredit MacAdams with the typical methods of a smear campaign, writing headlines that read: "With friends like Lewis MacAdams / the Los Angeles River doesn't need any enemies." But with a paradoxical understanding of political nature, MacAdams, "mulling over William Blake again," reminds us that "Your friends on earth / are your enemies in heaven."
      The political power of this poem is gained by its lyric balance. MacAdams expresses a vision that is not deluded by the force of his own desire. "Whether it's ugly or beautiful, / poisoned and imprisoned, / or flooding fresh and free, / the Los Angeles River / will always flow; / and lovers will always walk / along its banks holding hands." The song of a vulnerable idealist rises from the crafty focus of a realist still within range of his dream.
Cover: News From Niman Farm 
MacAdams possesses also a focused, journalistic eye for detail and often reveals deep human insight while narrating non-human events. In News from Niman Farm he examined his own sexual arousal while witnessing the mating of pigs. He wrote of the attempted rutting with exquisite reserve while yet being moved deeply by the violent struggle of this natural event. The same sharp eye for the strange, closely felt suffering of alien beings surfaces again in The River. In "Hymn To The Bottom Feeders," he writes:


Open up a storm drain manual
to characters out of Joe-Peter Witkin - flabby,
masked, and naked; staring up at us
from an undersea tableau of ooze.
Pieces of body parts float
to the surface, the
whitish bellies of the bottom feeders:
catfish, tilapia and carp.
Thousands of their bodies
bump gently against the foot of the Sepulveda dam,
keeping time with the current,
suffocated in caustic soda
courtesy of Anheuser-Busch.

The eye for startling detail, expressed through a lyric energy of confidence and optimism, balances the otherwise dreary circumstances facing The Friends of the L.A. River.


MacAdams photo 
And MacAdams' nerve to address powerful interests presents a classic example of American dissent, surfacing again in this desert city. Although MacAdams objects to "the 1000's of storm drains / that carried our garbage / down the river to the sea," he struggles with being carried away "in a cloud of / fiery, self-righteous Anger."  


A styrofoam cup spins
          in a dust devil at my feet.
I am as fanatical as a mullah, and twice as obsessed.

Although his enthusiasm can be limited by an equal weight of depression, MacAdams continues to surface his own deeper rhythms. The lovely, the truly human and courageous strength of this small book is his struggle to preserve, clean, and care for a river while fighting against his own self-righteousness, so great it threatens to overwhelm him.

You are hated - you can feel it
in the TV eye - by idiots and assholes,
slump-shouldered time servers and County weasels;
and their hatred is a cool, stiff breeze.
You struggle with self-righteousness
and you lose. Like your enemies,
you have your hate to keep you warm;
so your wife buys you a little laughing
Buddha down in Chinatown
to pop on your computer.
You are bent over with the pressure
of simply being a moron. You are shrinking
from the weight of your own gravity.
You are becoming your old man
as the chain-saws in the background noise
start to fan out. First they will school you in your errors.
Then they will squash you like a bug.

MacAdams' determination in the face of rotten odds and his strength to face himself in the poem make this a fascinating book. The poem's lyric pulse and the poet's stoic honesty form an inward relation of environment, accountability and prophetic urgency. The River is a rare accomplishment, both for its emotional balance, and for its dignified expression of an active dissent.

. . . Dale Smith

Dale Smith 
Dale Smith
Bolinas, California, 1997
Photo copyright © Hoa Nguyen
1997, 1999
Dale Smith is the editor of Skanky Possum
Photos of Lewis Macadam, from the front and back covers of his book, NEWS FROM NIMAN FARM, Tombouctou, 1976 - cover photo by Ilka Hartmann copyright © Ilka Hartmann 1976, 1999, back-cover photo by Tranchina, copyright © Tranchina 1976, 1999; all rights reserved.



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