back toJacket2

August 2003  |  Jacket 23  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Eleni Sikelianos

from The California Poem

Eleni Sikelianos is interviewed
by Jesse Morse in Jacket 33.

I want to tell you about the dream. The California is a paradise lake with colorful animals dream.  The when I go back to my homeland California is a paradise I am happy for you dream

in which Alexander the Great damager of farflung lands invented the caterpillar, ravager,

We were going ever so through the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus & shadow road in the “opposite of blindness” & “relinquished speech”

The lake is to the left. On one side, a tall Pink bird invented by space and time called

Flamingo, & there, other small & medium birds shiny & loose
with pockets of Geryon-ash-gold What can be lit I’ll light that I’ll light that for you dream

a kissing everything goodbye in the ballad’s hide & an eye

of spit

a thoin gutterful of vowels
out of the battery & ground

in the teeth, death
in the bush, 2 in the hand

in the nape of the napalm of sun-shore-sun I am an orphan! I am still Ishmael! dream

... ... Who was counting the ribs
in my grandfather’s ships? My Fist vs. coastal

margins of coconut novelties which recede
and advance upon the shelf like a carved humidor army, Razor
clams, diatoms, wentletraps, drifting

away from the dream of California

which is dust & light & dust

being tossed in the white


blanket besides the low white stucco barracks
with roosters between the houses scratching at the dust of light of the dream

thorny shapes that stand in the desert as tall as a house sticking up out of the desert part
of California    absurd tiny flowers frozen in the tips   Needles
birthed a poet named Alice and goat-weed

This poem
is therein, in my dream of Death
Valley a low
depression & gloss of surface lands,
of lava, mountains, their parent sea, one great golden glossy
cake of valleys, coast, gloss of gloss
Angeles & Inyo County is just
dusty in the bus station at the cold night shifting
from foot to foot in 1973. Tumbleweeds
go by.

In my sleeping nostalgia for the Streets
of San Francisco dream like seeing Michael
Douglas in an elevator in
California (not
that satisfying), or
my dream of a saguaro flower weather bath or California born in the shape
of Karl Malden’s nose as it appears in One-eyed Jacks.

In California we don’t say bodega except
for the bay, we say
market, which is what
it is. We don’t say buttercup
we say butter box or butter cut. If you say margarine, we bodacious
we don’t say you be we say I is
In California, fire hydrant is a way to say freeway which in turn turns to freely  allie All ye
in come free into dusk motes

at Lake of our Lady, etc., by the seashore & my right hand very close to the Earthly Paradise California
named for a tribe
of Ladies with Big Feet, Rose Bowl
football & the black hole
of Livermore where the flames and the tripods expired. It is

all of New York, New England,
Pennsylvania & New Jersey combined.

Laugh for the eucalyptus as an object of pity
The truth of Georgia is not to be found here in sushi dinners

but there is the dirt bike parade
in the mud behind subdivision A-3, Santa Maria,
Camarillo, & so on, near the lemon groves both beautiful & useful behind
the funnyfarm & more lemon groves. My grandmother’s ranch
was a small pit stop inside a lemon seed. My grandmother’s gas station was
two concrete slabs laid out in the Mojave. Her hair
a tumbleweed sprayed in the shape of a Kelp Limpet, Gilded Turban, & the lemon
leaves will brush one’s head, & the spiderwebs are fresh & dewy, the mouse turds can be found under the chaparral. My grandmother spends weekends in ghost towns looking for scorpions to cast in lucite. She collects California rocks, for she is a rockhound, and she collects California rattlesnakes, for she is a tailhound, and she will open a healthfood store and sell frozen buffalo meat for this is California and she will embezzle money from the local paper and live in a trailer plunked in the middle of the sands
with every salvageable imaginable thing from the shores
of the unshored Inyokern   a goat named Angel    guppies    her ladies in diners    geodes
cracked open at the door

In the deadyard at Dolores crumbling into dust & light is California and California’s
variegated surface forgets that dust which came
to bequeath them space & light, nudibranchs did I
say Cachuma’s foot
prints in the ashy mud of the bones of our forefathers ground
up like pellets did I turn to the bones of mice bones in the coyote fox eagle shit

A spine brought to the whole length of California was laid out like a golden wheel-veil
of cascades of oldest & largest living things and everything was crushed
in a Catherine’s wheel

At 13, I  acquired a good tan in California
to brush with the gods & god squeezers & boring
and smiling compliments so much less
to rake and scratch the character on

as I too was raked along the bottom
feeders & surface
waters like El Niño doing a brody
through our air/hair at the Sunday meeting I was myself a dumb
dog who could not bark

at the sadness of early California, the sado-masos down from the hills and Sadducees, their
desire, denial of everything dead, and the existence of angels;

California and Sadie Hawkins;

& its meadows associated with human folly, its airs of superiority, knowing
the it and what
it is.

And the echinoderms give up
their radial symmetry. The laughable echinoderms moving back
toward bilaterality like drunken teens

California in the lights of the trees
my hedon eden I rushed
to California with my eyes
closed. Bill or George, Sam, our president was there, fire rushed
down his snout like a dining rage & through
the pinelands of Banana Road, like three light fingers making waste across the ice lakes of Jupiter’s cow moons, Io.

From the center of rice I do remember California
stitched up twice
in my memory of sleeveless shirts &
Ocean A, D or Q
behind the not tall buildings

I know nothing of Northern
North California therefore
there is none, Eureka, Arcata, etc., yet I
would like to sell [you] [send] you California
& its industrial wastelands, & the Cryps
& the Bloods, the
ACTION! CAMERA! and fully-armed cactus. Each studio is a nation-
state of its own under the cloudless blue
neon & the bright
stucco Draco
of sun
of tile
of bottlebrush
of lovely picture baby
Tree, the home
of John Steinbeck, & Mrs. McGroaty


      Yo, self
Soy something but not a hill  (beans)
Soy self
Self:  say something (child killer) (little bird)

      Does your skirt still light up? Is it

I say: Is is definition by division, or is
is definition by clumping

“No identity can any longer stand forth
which is only itself”  Yo, thou thouest

                little bird in the earth black back
                of the car         —         Oh, what’s this — the
                car is an earth! the bird is a self! the
                mask is human!  & shows the
                insuperable nest next to the second
                ago, shattered, saying, “What, friend?” “What
                precision” “What art” in proper names we repeat
                tea habits over complex
                centuries in      gold =  discovery,   gold =
                luminosity,  gold =  grief, greed, the
                killer at the back of the sea, killer, say, says
                words do describe my aversion to drag rag-
                dolls down to the river, a river
                sibling over the middle waters

                        It cleans “you”

                Now I’m planning on not being that person that I was

Yoyo, out of my hair! So you, so you go
                toward the music, human

It was distant & luminous beyond
an 8-year old of my position to move across
it down toward the sea.
                          the sea.          or
                that is how I remember it, what
                I remember I believed


It’s o.k. here but we don’t have any sourgrass
not so many happy lizards in the sun
seaweed sliding back toward licking the sea
sandflies, sandfleas
jogging men nasty naked along the beach & Joakim’s oily eucalyptus combusting up toward heaven

I was swimming in the black water under-
neath my breath & then
dragged by the seaweed vines and belts

the water is yellow with sand and ecology, my friends

are being punished by off-duty fathers in tract houses they are not allowed to leave
                after dark

My family is wily, we live in derelict apartments, are government
subsidized, go
at night
on shore

Oil rigs out in the water like lighted bird-palace places

In the dream of dying cephalopods

Cuttlefish feathers & things
invented by sound & light like
the Great Spangled Fritillary monarch, and magnitude
of scales, what lies in inner and outer margins of such
wings “that came with soft
alarm, like hurtless light,” and the numberous thunder
of veins

Bluebellies in strange arrangement break their tails
in weedy nooses to grow back new ones
Backs bend in the rows between crop-dusted plants, the little singing seeds sting the
fingers & stain them: red, red

Eagle shells crumbling under the eagle’s weight croaking at Cachuma Lake

California did not hold its shape
when  [  the condors  ]were laid end-to-end
to form a replica of California
with photographs & balsa wood & glue
which was later
beamed to space
as a message off the coast (Big Sur). The message is
from the gardens of the sea:  graphed
in the scallop’s eyes (bright), amid its tentacular
fringe: writ

in the fossil guts of hermaphroditic oysters hanging
out in kitchen middens, a theatre

acted out on land-
masses between  bivalves (motoring pairs of “self-powered
castanets” fluttering in
zigzaggy arcs) / hungry
bipeds. This heroic

fantasy is set
in an ominous landscape, a dark world that mirrors our watery arms
and legs but not our muscular

                                                Have I been shaped like
                                                an animal, god, or
                                                have I been good?

Everything I know
occurred in California and everything
I know later, everything I know of California
is shaped like a piece of cardboard
and smells like the black plastic pitch that stretches between Bakersfield & apricots

blue & green & the penny arcade, my dream is just like that:
a thousand miles
long & deep into the otter ice water cliffs

almonds Fresno when I was nearly blond & knees straight
as an arrow & my name
was Dylan-in-the-grass-blue-grass, when my home-
stead read: Mary-of-the-villas
Mary-of-the--vocables-of-conches Jalama ice plants and Spanish
moss   At its Eastern Boundaries of the Ear
Without answer key or blue fig California
at its goldenest gold, brimfullest bright
of citron, sun, when the blazing pollen falls all, all California blooms
pornographic,  hysterical flowers loyal
daughters of the revolution   horses whinnying
up State Street stamp the independence of California into the tarmac Chumash
dancers with fancy feet but
no state.

In One-eyed Jacks Marlon Brando and Karl Malden will escape
on steaming ponies, and the beautiful Mexican girl, and roar
into that sleepy village just north of Salinas with its beautiful low Chinese dwarf
cypress in a shady glen & the village is
of Chinese fisher people with grey eyes railroad coolies who bent their
backs & did not break in filmy

Salinas rises from its
valley like a huge dusty mutt mottled
with lettuce and chemicals not of trash in the state’s hallways I want to make you dream this
just as you
made me dream you in a beginning
of bundles and other beginnings

“Get up you scum-suckin’ pig,” growls Brando and plays
a wild card.

Photo of Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos's previous books include Earliest Worlds, The Book of Tendons, and, most recently, The Monster Lives of Boys & Girls. She is currently at work on a hybrid family history, part of which will be published next fall as The Book of Jon (City Lights). As of late 2003, Sikelianos makes her home in Colorado, where she teaches at Naropa and Denver Universities.

The California Poem, excerpted here, will be out in book form in the fall of 2004 from Coffee House Press. Parts of this section of the poem have appeared previously in American Letters & Commentary, Verse, and Ecopoetics.

August 2003  |  Jacket 23   Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Eleni Sikelianos and Jacket magazine 2003
The URL address of this page is