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This is the original, longer version of a review which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter.
“I’m going to try to tell everybody everything”
— Lews MacAdams, “Poetry & Politics”
Lewis MacAdams has been in and about various ‘scenes’ of American poetry for the last four decades. Now, as he enters his sixties he has come upon subject matter for a major-length poem which continues to merge his innate political activism with his poetical skill. In the late 1990s, MacAdams became involved with efforts to work towards returning the Los Angeles River to a more natural state and a poem continues to evolve as an organic outgrowth of his labor. With the finest turnings of line, The River is a masterpiece of American poetry that places MacAdams directly in the line of descendants from William Carlos Williams, securing his place in the upper ranks of poets writing for, and of, place.
The River deserves to be placed in the company of other American Epic Poems grounded by location. Williams’ Paterson and Olson’s Maximus are obvious forebears, but MacAdams’ precision for day-to-day documentation no doubt also borrows partially from Lorine Niedecker. Her focus on the relationship between herself and the immediate environment, the water surrounding her and her Wisconsin neighbors, grounds her poems in a similar immediacy of locale. MacAdams continues the concerns of these earlier poetic projects (several years long commitments of the poets) and further opens the possibilities of poetry engaged with effecting change in the world about.
MacAdams’ activism dates back to at least the early seventies when his involvement with the water resources for Bolinas, CA led to his election to the Water Board. He spoke about his experience during a talk at Naropa in 1975:
my first job was to oversee the rebuilding of the road up to our little dams on Arroyo Hondo, the Bolinas water source. I got up there, and I could barely read the engineers drawings, so obviously my first task was to learn, and then the head of the maintenance crew handed me this big wrench and asked me to help him at the dam, and I found myself walking along with this wrench and it’s like I’ve just been handed the fascicles that rule Rome — you know, the actual tools of government. The keys to the water system are the actual tools of government, just as the now-ceremonial “keys to the city” were once used to open the city’s gates. But it’s also A WRENCH. So I learned what to do.
It’s of little surprise that two decades later MacAdams finds himself taking part in “The Founding of Friends of the Los Angeles River,”
Pat Patterson, Roger Wong, and me
meet Fred Fisher
at the old Challenge Dairy on Vignes Street
for an early morning
cup of coffee.
We are on our way
down to the river
for the first time.
We carry heavy duty wire clippers
to cut through the fence beside the
1st Street Bridge courtesy of Gregg Gannon,
climb down the steep,
cement covered bank
to the river.
We don’t know where we’re going exactly.
Just as while working on the Bolinas Water Board, MacAdams continues to learn by doing; in the writing of the poem he discovers what will work and what doesn’t by trying out various options. This is a successful approach in that it allows the opportunity to be at hand for the accidental, or possible over-looked occasion which when attended to furthers the accomplishment of the task. MacAdams understands that only by committing himself to action does he accumulate the necessary knowledge to bring effective change, whether it be for the water resources of Bolinas or for the current and future well-being of the Los Angeles river. He doesn’t fail to wonder at the continuity of his roles from Bolinas to L.A.
The Bolinas Community Public Utilities District
Why did I name my
Why am I standing
at the juncture of
the Rio Hondo
and the Los Angeles
as Gunfire crackles behind me
at the South Gate Rod & Gun Club
vowing to plant
the next sycamore?
He has dedicated his life, and not so coincidentally his poetry, to figuring out solutions to problems faced by the communities in which he lives. At the present moment, it is the disappearing flow of the Los Angeles River.
There used to be
enough water to
nearly all year-round
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.
As a poet, MacAdams pays close attention to how language is used. As he puts it — discussing his insistence that the sign to the sewage site in Bolinas read “Sewage Resource System” instead of the standard Federal wording “Sewage Treatment Facility” — “That’s why I’m a poet.” Language matters. MacAdams does the responsible research and learns that sewage is a resource to be utilized and wants that to be clear to the community and its visitors. Paying close attention to the passing events of daily living, he embeds an unrelenting concern for the environmental surroundings of his body at the heart of his poetics:
I like what Bob Creeley says, which we put as an epigraph at the beginning of the Bolinas Plan, now part of the Marin County General Plan: “The Plan is the body.” And I believe what Olson says in the last Maximus volume:
I believe in God
As fully physical
And I understand what Olson means by a human universe. “It is a human Universe,” says Ted Berrigan in his book The Sonnets, “and I is a correspondent.”
A few lines later, MacAdams adds, “Politics is the precision with which we live our lives. ‘Politics is eyes,’ Olson says, and I’m looking.” Two decades before he begins the work, MacAdams here lays out the mixture of poetics as politics which fuels the writing of The River. All that’s missing is the right subject.
Book One of The River documents MacAdams journey towards becoming active in the public fight to change the city’s custodial role towards the waterway, the poem captures his first experiences of getting down to the riverbed past the fences and away from the traffic zooming past along the endless maze of Los Angeles asphalt. His exploration of the full length of the river affords him striking sights.
At the overflow ponds
between the river and the
Virginia Country Club
I saw a Great Blue Heron
regurgitate its lunch, a
foot-long carp that was
still struggling for its life,
as he beat it to death against
a rock. His wings raised,
his shoulders hunched,
(At an early reading of the poem at New College of California in San Francisco, in a lovely bit of reading theatrics, MacAdams hunched up his own shoulders at this point and raised his hands, mimicking the movement of the Heron.)
the Blue wards off a snowy white
that’s jabbing its beak
into the back of the Blue’s,
trying to get its food.
What would lunch-eaters at the nearby Virginia Country Club make of this sight? Or, for that matter, any typical resident of Los Angeles County, ever-busy with their daily and endless commutes?
The Blue Line train
rumbles by overhead
with its passengers
pointed toward Los Angeles.
No one even looks up from
their newspapers, the
Press-Telegram and the
MacAdams knows he may be engaging in a losing battle, but his determination to carry through propels him, and thus the poem, onwards.
As he pursues the political goals, reaching out to city officials, “I walked along the river with the Mayor / and a few city councilmen. It was a pure / photo opportunity.” MacAdams doesn’t fool himself or take to grandstanding. The river reminds him that his role is to be a catalyst for its needs.
The first thing
I ever learned about the river
Was that it wants to wend.
He isn’t riding so high on ego that he’s not able to appreciate nature’s subtle reminders.
My sunglasses flipped off my head
and fell into the river with a splash
while the cameras whirred.
What did I learn at the Water & Power meeting?
Don’t be cool.
It’s not Us vs. Them.
The lessons MacAdams bears in his work are the same ones that have been coming down for centuries through poetry and other arts. It is the longing for an ever-engaged experience of the world, flashing glimpses into a larger living whole. For MacAdams, sustaining natural environments for future generations is vital work, encouraging a larger sense of the world beyond the rushed haze of suburban neighborhoods and arching freeway-overpasses. It is the work of the poem.
It’s the wind
as it bends ’cross the river.
It’s the cottonwoods
as the garbage festooned their branches
at the end of the rainy season
disappears beneath their delicately curling
by the middle of Spring.
Most striking about MacAdams’ progress on The River is that it has continued to grow. Book One led to Book Two, and here is Book Three. Within the editions that have appeared so far, MacAdams hasn’t as yet made any declarations concerning the development or direction of the poem. He’s letting it gather organically, each of the books taking on its own tone in relation to events of his life and the success/failure of the effort to alter the city’s future treatment of the river. Book Two opens with a direct, strong aligning of MacAdams’ ongoing commitment to the river with his life’s dedication to poetry.
I belong to the smoke
from a wood fire,
to the river bending south,
to the hills of earth,
and to the imagination.
Extra-galactic poetry lovers
yet eons hence, remember me as one
who called himself a country boy
yet wrung his song out of the city.
There is the beginning of recognition for the importance this poem is coming to take, not only for MacAdams himself, but for projected current and future readers of poetry as well. The poet isn’t grandstanding, merely recognizing the value of the work at hand, his vital role as the voice of the river.
As Book Two continues, the poem is enlarged by both subject-matter and location as MacAdams’ his self-appointed work on the river takes a central position in his life, mixing with his personal affairs. There’s a “wedding song” and a poem written for the “Santa Clara River Summer School for the Arts,” along with poems located in Washington D.C., Tokyo, and Humboldt County. His political activism on behalf of the river becomes inseparable from his work on the poem. This is due as much to the fact that he must spend more of his time to meet the needs of a growing organization as to that his work on behalf of the river engages him as a poet in the present moment as the poem continues to arrive. After all, the “wedding song” is for fellow activists, who he envisions,
roaring over the Atlantic on your honeymoon.
I can see you dozing underneath a thin blanket
in your narrow seats, while a report on the hydrology
on the Los Angeles River slips to the floor unread.
and it is “the first American Rivers conference” which brings him to Washington D.C. He is continually focused on the river as much as on himself:
I feel poisoned, scourged,
a citizen of a penal colony.
I set out to be a hero and
a legend, and ended up a lobbyist.
Book Three increases the appearance of daily details from MacAdams’ personal life entering into the poem. He is as much awash in finding his way into a new romantic relationship and locating himself within his daily routine as he is dedicated to waging the ongoing battle for the river. His actions on behalf of the river compliment and encourage his attention towards the lyric beauty inherent in the everyday. The poet in MacAdams, that essential core of his identity, is fully tapped and brought to bear in every occasion.
“We sit and talk,
quietly, with long lapses of silence
and I am aware of the stream
that has no language, coursing
beneath the quiet heaven of
-Wm. Carlos Williams
Paterson: Book 2
I recognized you the minute I saw you —
something about the way you were your jeans
and talked about your kids,
something in the way storm waters
slid together, their confluences
sluicing in and out of each other
in the April flood, rushing
in the coffee colored froth
and the cream colored waves
Everywhere MacAdams looks the river is, in its constant flow, a part of all he witnesses, trigger for the beauty of all living things. In this song for his lover, the river shares her place for him as a constant muse, guide, and companion. To speak of one, for him, is to address the other. Every page shines with the freshness of new love, continually discovering the river anew as his subject, MacAdams nails the poem throughout Book Three, line by line. He fully emerges with something to say and the skill to release it in subtle and clear song.
Discussing his own epic, Paterson, William Carlos Williams notes that, “The concept of the beginning of a river is of course a symbol of all beginnings.” MacAdams’ approach is from the opposite end, as if saying, ‘the death of a river is symbolic of death in general; if the river goes, we all go.’ His poem lifts up and speaks for its continuance, a plea for an accord with natural orders in the heart of a city at the center of 21st century sprawl. It is to be hoped that it does not to go unnoticed.
At the center of itself
the river is silence,
and that’s where I come in:
with the sounds in my head
and the words in my heart.
MacAdams, Lewis. “Poetry and Politics.” Talking poetics from Naropa Institute : annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics V. 2. Ed. Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb, Boulder, Colo. : Shambhala, 1979
Williams, William Carlos. I wanted to write a poem : the autobiography of the works of a poet / reported and edited by Edith Heal Boston : Beacon Press, 1958
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at the library of USF. Poems and reviews have appeared in Artvoice (Buffalo), Blue Book, Chain, Galatea Resurrects, Pompom, and are forthcoming in Cannibal.