where river meets ocean, by Devorah Major

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Devorah Major is a past poet laureate of San Francisco, and this slim volume, published by the City Lights Foundation in 2003, begins with her inaugural address from April 2002.  In it she expresses her love for poetry, ‘a warrior for truth and passion that takes no prisoners, only converts’, and ties this to the fabric of her city.  She traces the history of poetry there from its original inhabitants to the present, waves of settlers expressing their individual perspectives.  San Francisco is clearly a good place to be a poet, with a strong oral tradition and receptive audiences.  It has though a tough poetic heritage to live up to considering this book is published by City Lights, a name which inevitably brings the Beats to mind.  As Major puts it, it is ‘A City of Poets’, its complexities mirrored in the variety of the poetry made there, the beauty and vibrancy but also its less salubrious, ‘difficult’, aspects, including occasional gunfire.  These are all part of the resources upon which she draws.

Political engagement runs throughout the book, touching on the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination, violence, drugs, women’s rights, and, particularly asymmetric relationships between cultures.  In ‘terrorism defined’ she talks not primarily of Islamic terrorism against Americans, but white American terrorism against black Americans, then she cuts to Nazi anti-Semitism, then American terrorism against the Vietnamese, dead Iraqi children, equivalent to a World Trade Center every month, domestic violence, police brutality against black men…  The United States, the poem concludes, has not been immune from purveying terror during its existence (and ‘to bomb’ alludes to the US’s role in assisting those who would later use terror against it, presumably a reference to the role of the US in arming the mujahidin against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan).

While ‘terrorism defined’ reminds us that Islamism does not have a monopoly on terror as a political instrument, as is too easy to assume these days, it feels as if it could have come from the ‘70s, with a slightly self-indulgent feel:

but as for this American-born woman
grown strong and free inside
your rotting belly
America
terrorism has been a regular part of my world
for all my life and i have been fighting it
long as i can remember
saying no as loud as i knew how

Terrorism a regular part of middle-class life in San Francisco?  Tell that to a homosexual in Raqqa.  You almost expect to see ‘America’ written ‘Amerika’.  The hyperbole detracts from the valid points she makes.

Not everything is about big political themes.  At times she is intimate, focusing on the personal but finding even so that the personal is political, whether talking about mixed ancestry, alienation, or her ambivalent relationship with the words she relies on.  The poems are loosely structured with an improvised jazzy feel, by turns tender and strident.  They can veer to preachiness, yet they carry the reader with their sincerity, railing against injustice while hoping for a better world.  There is a symbiotic relationship between Major’s self-confidence in herself and the self-confidence of her poetic message, and she sees herself and her work as positive calls to action, particularly for the wretched of the earth.

In her address Major vows to use her tenure as laureate to build bridges between different segments of the community.  To her San Francisco is a microcosm of the planet, with all its strife yet desire for peace, and poetry a force for good, by helping us to see clearly and know each other better.  There can be no worthier manifesto for the poet.

Where River Meets new cvr

The cover of the copy I read presents a small puzzle.  The edition on the publisher’s website has a different photograph of the author and other minor alterations, shown above, and this is the version to be found online.  It would appear that the original one has been quietly dropped and another substituted.  The cover heading this review is a scan from the edition which I read, now sunk from view.

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