I've had occasion to rely, happily, on the guy with the crazy hairdo on top of his wonderful crazy head, memorialized at right. Not to mention Henry David Thoreau's funny beard and radical politics of liberation and ecological wisdom. First, I quoted him to my Composition students, as I did often in the Sociology class I team-taught for many years with people's lawyer and all-around activist-pal Bob Myers. Indeed, “I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance,” as should we all. And, then, I heard myself repeating his perhaps more literary-appropriate but also kinda anarchist quote from “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” gently arguing that “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake,” which has sort of been my experience of appreciating all kinds of challenges and triumphs, terrific writing and writers and comrades in the months of late April, very busy, and May, that favorite revolutionary and flowering and fecund springtime month of garlands and martyrs and dreams and, yes, fresh fava beans and new music and books, books, books, where the dreams are written for those that want to find them.
So, in no particular order, I had the chance (or took it!) to reread much of Gary Amdahl's debut novel, aggressively recommended by Mr. Bib to readers whenever he gets a chance. Its title, Across My Big Brass Bed, references of course the unshy if also gentle Dylan love ballad, and is a 400-page mock-memoir of fluidity and charm, impossibly perfect fictional reconciliation with memory and politics, eros and intellect. The smart-ass cover, of the naked high-heeled silhouetted lady you see on the back of pick-up trucks and semi tire-flaps speaks to its humor and wit, and yet is perfect totem for the story of a sad life told by a late middle-aged man, a musician (of course) about his sexual and philosophical and existential growing-up with girls, women and, yes, his sexy high school teacher, a seductress who introduced him to the politics of liberation. He was only a boy, if precocious, if naive too. “This was a top-drawer brain, fourteen years old, heavily and recklessly used, it is true, but capable of registering on seismographs even so, coming up out of ordinary alpha-waves. Was this a consequence of what I had glibly termed sex and violence? Was my brain, which might have developed into something good and useful, deteriorating under the assault of sensations?”
Hey, here's another favorite writer named Gary, this one the, yes, legendary Gary Soto, kind enough to share a few stand-out essays in the most recent Santa Monica Review (just bragging!) many more of which appear in his newest and perhaps most gorgeous if unlikely collection, five or six dozen short to very short meditations called What Poets Are Like, which is just a very funny title, on top of all the rest. Soto has been reading and writing poetry since 1972, but been a poet since he fell in love as a toddler with the Sun Maid Raisin girl in Fresno, noticed little bugs and a cat with a sliver of glass in its eye, and sat down a few years later, famously, in a community college class. Decades later, he lives and writes in Berkeley, where he plants daffodil bulbs in otherwise unacknowledged public boulevard median strips, then waits to see what happens and, of course, writes about it, lucky for us. He's won every award there is for his poetry and YA novels, serious (by which I mean sincere) grown-up poetry, and still lives with his wife, whom he loves. These short pieces, written over a few years, are full of classic Soto melancholy, but of the helpfully, inspired and funny-mean kind, as if the the cartoon devil or angel on the poet's shoulder could easily switch places, depending on Soto's impatience with stupid institutions or his genuine devotion to readers. His favorite subject is, again, lucky us, himself, and the odd miracle tale of a poor Mexican-American kid growing up to become one of our nation's best writers, Chicano or California or Young Adult, all of it, a story which never, despite Soto's feeling-sorryness for himself, gets old: “I can't remember today's breakfast, but I can recall my youth – when I spoon-fed a sick dog. The dog didn't live more than five hours after I administered my prescription. But the spoon, washed and shiny, went back into the kitchen drawer.. I tried to doctor that unlucky Fido – what the heck happened? Will this kindness mean a checkmark on God's tablet? Or, because my sins are many, will He return to the river's bank for more mud to shape into more tablets? Or will he just haul off and throw the mud at me?” Gary Soto, please, for our next California state poet laureate, Jerry!
Dig those writers, as Soto, who ignore completely the expectations of everybody and live and write as they please, among them the young composer of perfect small prose-poem short-short stories, if that is not a useless or distracting description of the writing of Ashley Farmer. She has a previous chapbook called Farm Town, thanks to the good work of one small press and, lately, a collection called Beside Myself, from another called, charmingly, Tiny Hardcore, which has fallen into my hands, where it is, at about 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches, a perfect-glove fit. Farmer seems to belong to a community of writers experimenting (and succeeding) at playing 'round with voice and perspective, the frugality of their narratives speaking loudly to the perfect economy of just the right embrace (not too hard, not too gentle) of idiom. These are dreamy, mythic, micro-fable invitations to enter the story with as little encumbrance as possible, yet to feel full and satisfied when done, just a few hundred words later. Here's the beginning of the parable-like “Consider the Blind Fish.”
Everyone married in July. I didn't know the guests I danced against. Certain gestures of wildlife are called “endemic.” Locales: spot-on, exotic, waterlogged with sunset. On someone else's post-wedding-day trip, I trekked toward freshwater springs with bathing-suited guests. We scrabbled down a ladder underground. We stood there sogged. Can you imagine materializing like water, volcanic with surprise?
The guide flashlighted toward a slim fish, absent eyes. He said, “Looked, his body is as harmless as a butter knife.” I, too, might have been named for what I lacked: soft hull revealing the dull blade in me.
The writing is evocative, aphoristic, but bigger and suggestive of a confidence, faith in language and idiom and the smart people who are hip to a kind of unspoken connectedness of association and, if you are looking for this week's through line, of dreams! No secret that Farmer is married to another innovator, written about here and recently a guest on everybody's favorite community radio books show, Ryan (Hunters and Gamblers) Ridge. Will I just never stop about this guy? No, especially since he's also got, besides a terrific writer-comrade wife, a newish chapbook himself, called 22nd Century Man, a collection of answers to questions offered in Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood (a great novel, of questions, yes), the device and organization of these aphoristic one-liners by smart internet chatbots (whatever they are) and the author-editor Ridge himself, if any of this is really to be believed, or not. John Cage meets www.Gertrude Stein.com, I guess. But creating short dialog-meditations philosophical in the way Americans speak, whether or not they know it, or hear it, something like a sampler that is excerpts and the sampler which Granny embroidered and hangs on the wall.
I read Ridge's work first in Faultline, that most excellent literary journal from UC Irvine, where he later served as an editor when he and Farmer were not editing and collecting and boostering over at a terrific little online zine called Juked. Do check it out, as it is full of new and dreamful and innovative work, and maybe mark your calendars now for a new issue launch reading-party for Faultline on an early evening in the first week of June. No kidding, both Ridge and Yours Truly have work included and will, yes, be reading for anybody clever enough to show up for a fun time.
Gary Amdahl, Across My Big Brass Bed, Artistically Declined Press, 425 pgs., $
Gary Soto, What Poets are Like, Sasquatch Books,199 pgs., $15.00
Ashley Farmer, Beside Myself, Tiny Hardcore Press, 73 pgs., $8.99
Ryan Ridge, 22nd Century Man, Sixth Finch Books, 57 pgs., $8.00 (from publisher)
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.