Freeway to Heaven
The Plain of Smokes By Harvey Mudd Illustrated by Ken Price Black Sparrow Press, $10.95, 90 pp
READING ABOUT a place one has never seen can be annoying oftenulienating Songs and books about Los Angeles are particularly frustrating in this way. Writers often proceed to glorify the city without explaining any of the images, assuming audiences know the place right down to its exist ramps A few works transcend this subject. The Door's "L.A. Woman" goes beyond the image of a city at night and imposes a sense of awe.
Another examples is Harvey Mudd's new poetry book. The Plain of Smokes, which translates descriptions of Los Angeles into universal messages. Mudd evokes from anyone who has ever felt strongly about a place a whole range of emotions, such as nostalgia and claustrophobia
And to enhance the readers understanding of the writings, the book is illustrated by Ken Price, whose stark, almost pop-art ink drawings of Los Angeles scenes celebrate the integration of beauty with modern city life
Los Angeles is to Mudd what Paterson, N.J. was to William Carlos Williams his sole source of inspiration, the backdrop against which time passes and the measure of change. Mudd even defines his own art by describing his hometown--he writes that poetry is a rambling jazz, spread out as lights are over the freeways.
The writing is almost laid back. Mudd's long poems progress mainly by dialogue and plot rather than by relying on lofty themes. The varied indentations give the works an easy visual appearance. And the images slip easily from small, concrete objects to abstractions. Describing a seagull kept in a carton on his porch, Mudd writes:
Scrape of feathers against the box. The self gathers bravely, before dispersion inland, burial in a cabbage patch
Mudd sometimes degenerates into blatant name-dropping. He uses Troy, the Pyrennes, the Spanish Coast, and London for effect, without giving any reason for choosing these places. Like Frank Sinatra in "New York, New York" booming, "the city that never sleeps," Mudd tends to thumbs his nose at us ill-educated boors who have never travelled to Europe or seen the Trojan ruins.
But when Mudd turns to Los Angeles, his message shines through. He drags us out the window and into the streets, through a seance a dialogue between William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, through the tortured wandering, of an artist in his home. The Wordsworth poem. "Lines Written After a Visit to Los Angeles," is an argument between the poet and his sister. Dorothy is resurrected by her brother's tantalizing descriptions of life on earth. She moves from wondering whether she is in Heaven or Hell to wishing she were back among the living, trysting with Somuel Coleridge. While she is said to be dead, Mudd's Wordsworth says:
Though not as sad to he among the living there Along the avenues I saw the poor and dark-shinned waiting shadeless in the level heat and metallic air. They seemed forgotten people waiting for the time to die.
THE BOOK'S last poem, "Searching for the Queen of Angels," soars the highest but at times falls the flattest. Mudd slips backwards from a love scene into memory, calling the past a "renewal" and detailing the history of the city. The poem start with a cleverly written but inherently dull account of everything from the founding of a city called La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles to a group of kindergarten students (Mudd remembers) planting black walnuts. The past is a history assignment that needs to be done before government can studied, Mudd says.
Eventually, Mudd embraces the city as a potential Utopia. Unlike Wordworth and his sister, who conclude that hell is life on earth, Mudd says it contains all the promise of heaven. In "Searching for the Queen of Angels," the poet actually finds the queen of angels--of says he does. His queen is the same as that of Williams, who writes in Paterson. "Say it, no ideas but in thing." Mudd's entire reason for living is the city's vigor the singular relish humanity takes in its own creations, Eventually, paradise can come on earth. Odes have been written to cities before, but never one so convincing in its optimism.