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Essay/Book Review Karla Kelsey

The California Poem and The Book of Jon
Eleni Sikelianos
Coffee House Press, 2004 ($16.00) and
City Lights Publishers, 2004 ($11.95)

This fall Eleni Sikelianos has come out with two new books, The California Poem (Coffee House Press) and The Book of Jon (City Lights). Sikelianos’s capacity to tune her writing instrument to greatly different projects is attested to not only by the genre of each work (The California Poem is a book-length poem and The Book of Jon is a (mostly) prose memoir), but also by the way that the two books look. The California Poem is, like its namesake states, large; it is 7 x 8 ½ inches in dimension, 200 pages in length. The Book of Jon, on the other hand, is quite small; it fits nicely into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. These differences are telling, for The California Poem is a great big epic, The Book of Jon an intimate family history.

* * *

In scope and mode The California Poem directly descends from the epic tradition carried so stunningly through the twentieth century in America, and the project could not have been written without Pound’s Cantos, Eliot’s Wasteland, H.D.’s Trilogy, Williams’ Paterson, Olson’s Maximus Poems, Johnson’s Arc, and Zukofsky’s A. Sikelianos continues the twentieth century epic’s exploration of the material, constructed nature of history by “sampling” various historical and cultural texts and stitching them into the body of her work. She inserts excerpts of such books of California lore as Edward F. Ricketts’ and John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez and December’s Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives into her California Poem. By incorporating such source texts along with works of visual collage into her project without smoothing over any of the seams, Sikelianos accentuates the rough edges inherent in historical knowledge. Her project tells the history of the Golden State, telescoping from past to present and weaving, much as her epic forbearers, events of the past onto the surface of the present, allowing her readers to digest vast arcs of time as well as pockets of static and change.
These vast arcs and pockets are nowhere so apparent as in The California Poem’s “Timetable” inserted into center pages of the book. This timetable stretches from the settling of California 12,500 years ago, noted for being the point in time when “The Channel Islands are settled, ‘fire-reddened earth’” to our current date wherein the “Vandenberg Air Force Base plans to enlarge its facilities to construct a rocket-launching spaceport at Pt. Concepción (one of the oldest non-Native place-names in the U.S.), Chumash name humqaq—strategic as the gates from which the souls of the dead depart.” (80). With its compact form and grand scope of ages, this timetable speaks to the epic concerns of the project: generation and destruction, evolution and extinction, and the ways in which the names of things weave into a pattern of change wrought by time and human volition.

In terms of sensibility and project, the H.D. of Trilogy and Helen in Egypt and the William Carlos Williams of Paterson are The California Poem’s modernist parents. Although occupied with historical and scientific fact, the lyrical qualities and cadences of The California Poem’s “I” take after their mother, H.D. Both poets are visionary storytellers writing from spheres of knowledge founded upon personal relations and individual experience of history, text, and humanity. Early on in Sikelianos’s book we get a personal invocation of the power of imagination and vision to help the author reach across the country from her current location in New York to write about her homeland, California:

Eleni, I
does not kill as readily
as other animals “to abstract from my one self love, to enter it
in generality”like all the relaxed hoplites
of Lydia, Eleni, float
out over the East
River (85)

Here, we are assured, much as we are in H.D.’s Trilogy, that this is an epic born of personal experience and thought; there is no manufactured “speaker” in this poem, the “I” of the project is one and the same as the author writing the project. And as vision and dream create the driving energy of H.D.’s long poems, dream generates and sustains The California Poem: “I want to tell you about the dream,” Sikelianos says in the beginning pages of the poem, “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.”
If The California Poem receives much of its lyrical DNA from H.D., it gets its subject matter DNA from William’s epic, Paterson, for both works take for their subject matter and hero a physical place in the American landscape. The California Poem shares Paterson’s treatment of location via concern with local geography, language(s), customs, and the lives and deaths suffered by each location. Both poems trace these local elements across time through changes in the landscape and through such written artifacts as diary entries made by gold diggers during the gold rush (The California Poem) and newspaper articles describing the discovery of valuable pearls in the Notch Brook (Paterson). Both authors have a stunning capacity to telescope from the particular to the general in sweeping arcs of language, rendering both projects exercises, each in their own particular ways, of Williams’s famous dictate: no ideas but in things.

It is, in fact, the way in which Sikelianos approaches the “ideas” and “things” of California that sets her work apart from Paterson, for Sikelianos’s relationship to her subject fundamentally differs from Williams’s relationship to Paterson, New Jersey. Indeed, this shift in relationship may be the difference of primary importance between a twentieth century epic and a twenty-first century epic. A history of American place written in the aftermath of postmodernism, written post-9/11 and after Baudrillard’s epical America is bound, if the author has learned anything from the twentieth century, to differ from histories written inside of the last century. The difference is this: where Williams holds a metaphorical relationship to his subject matter, Sikelianos’s relationship to California is not metaphorical, but revelatory.

In his preface to Paterson, Williams tells us that “The thing was to use the multiple facets which a city presented as representatives for comparable facets of contemporary thought thus to be able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and hate him” (preface xiii). He is not interested in Paterson as a place in and of itself; his interest is in the extent to which the place can be made to serve as a map of man’s mind. In contrast, Sikelianos does not use the place, California, as a metaphor for a higher structure. Rather, she uses the metaphors and thoughts created around the Golden State and the idea of California that resides in our collective consciousness (the California of strip malls and dreams, the iconic California of the Hollywood sign) to uncover what California, in its radical essence, is. California “is thawed from its cryogenic state, born/ from a divinely created eater of granite” (24), is “Fancy hotels with eyeless, edgeless polls and all/ rotting piers ripped out” (108) is “at its goldenest gold, brimfullest bright/ of citron, son, when the blazing pollen falls all, all California blooms/ pornographic, hysterical flowers” (52). Here California is, and is revealed by, the metaphors constructed around it. It is memory, physical location, history, dream, and, above all else, a place inhabited by, a home for, animals, plants, and humans.

In this very twenty-first century shift in relationship of a poet to her subject matter, Sikelianos uses language in a way foreseen by Heidegger’s late essay “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” wherein he investigates the task of philosophy after the demise of metaphysics, a demise completed with the close of the twentieth century. This investigation maps nicely onto the predicament of the twenty-first century poet, equally adrift after having been released from the grasp of metaphysics. Heidegger tells us that the task of philosophy after metaphysics is that of thinking in a way that illuminates and creates a clearing for the people and things in the world around us, for “Only by virtue of light, i.e., through brightness, can what shines show itself, that is, radiate. But brightness in its turn rests upon something open, something free” (441). This light we may equate with the powers of language, essential to the presentation and knowledge of the world around us after the knowledge-forms of metaphor and metaphysics have been dismantled, for “Wherever a present being encounters another present being or even only lingers near it...there openness already rules, the free region is in the play...We call this openness that grants a possible letting-appear and show ‘opening’...or ‘clearing’”(441).

Heidegger’s call to openness can be read into a radical extension of William Carlos William’s famous credo “to the things themselves,” a rallying cry for language and thought to work as such brightness, uncovering and opening the world and ideas before it. In the language of The California Poem we witness this brightness illuminating a land concealed and created by its history. The task of the poem is, as the poem’s opening tells us, “to let go what we knew/ to not be tight, but/ toney; to find a world, a word/ we didn’t know”(9). In the weight of these unknown words, the world of California resides, and in The California Poem we are introduced to this world through the words that inhabit it.

We can find a prime example of this introduction in the use of the scientific and common names of California plants and animals prevalent throughout the book. In the poem on “(Hollywood, La Brea)/ (Man moves in; animals/ and plants move out)” we receive the following work with names:

Ages-extinct fires near tiny dragon-headed lakes
Chewing the fat fire-side & touching up a wooly mammoth, mastodon,
mini-horses, chasing
ground sloths the size of tanks Giant shining
armadillo roll over (silver wheels crushing tender grasses)
Edentata belonging to the (inhabited) Earth, edacious at the tooth of Time
nibbling some sweet thing, fiery
Hymenoptera edulcorated by their history with menTold jokes in the clean-flaked keen-flint
glowing coal ice-age night-wind
roared songs at hapless herbivores high moon near wet
meadow sedge (41)

Here we get common names (wooly mammoth, mastodon, armadillo), casual names (mini-horses) and scientific names (Edentata and Hymenoptera). The taxonomical “Edentata” rewards looking up, for we learn that the order of animals classified as Edentata are characterized by an absence of front teeth. This knowledge, revealed in a name, renders the poem’s “edacious” armadillo, nibbling at the “tooth of Time,” both humorous and meaningful. The futility of a toothless animal gnawing its advancement through time draws a tragic and comic picture; though absent of front teeth, the armadillo has persisted. It is in such persistence and, ironically, in species’ “deficiencies,” that the patterns of evolution carry on. And might we not see our own, human plight, wracked with the destructive creation of a landscape of malls and perpetual war, in this armadillo’s tenacious, edacious advancement?

The names of The California Poem, however, do not just provide us with a genealogy of persistent creatures, for the names and languages of life that have not been carried on fill the epic, revealing the ebb and loss inherent in all entities. The book’s timetable usefully illuminates this process of loss. Reading the timetable we learn that in 1542 there were “an estimated 100-120 languages spoken in what will be called California (adel’tsuhdlv in Cherokee, ‘where they find money’); an estimated 20-30,000 speakers of Chumash languages” (80). By 1965 the last fluent speaker of Chumash has died. The California Poem monumentalizes this death by including it in its timetable on equal footing with such events as Drake’s landing on the shores of California and by scattering Chumash words throughout the text. But such monument recognizes the death of the living language. With this death of the variety and plentitude of language, a fundamental constituent of California has changed.

Such loss extends to the section of the book titled the “Endangered, Threatened, & Extinct Interlude” wherein Sikelianos lists the names of animals that have faded or are fast fading from the California landscape. These names range from the familiar such as the “California Grizzly Bear” and the “California Condor,” to the strange, such as the “Least Bell’s Vireo” and the “Riverside Fairy Shrimp” and read as a funeral litany for variety. In the presentation of these names Sikelianos performs an opening onto the life-processes of California. How many of us know what the “Least Bell’s Vireo” looked like? How many of us knew that it lived and breathed in the California air? Here we learn to look at California as a place made up of its plenitude and its absences, a “big blue composition where we see/ the sea in its big blue/ bleeding green hat/ big square cadre-or-the-never-/ ending big blue bleeding green/ sea [flat heaven]” (125).

* * *

While The California Poem sweeps through history epically, The Book of Jon intimately centers around stories of Sikelianos’s tragic and beloved father, Jon. A musically talented, incredibly well-read high school dropout descended of Greek nobility, Sikelianos’s father knew and trimmed trees (his specialty was the 100 foot tall eucalyptus) and communed with bears. He lived in a world of never ending pipe dreams and was, for much of his life before he died of an overdose in an Albuquerque motel, a heroin addict. He was also physically absent from much of his daughter’s life. This absence makes Sikelianos’s tenderly told stories of her father all the more dear and the project of the book all the more necessary. The Book of Jon operates not just a remembrance of shared moments but works as the author’s attempt to piece together a picture of the father she barely knew through family lore, questioning, dreams, and the “scenery and sounds that unfold to make up” (11) the time spent with her father.

Though we get a good sense of him from anecdotes (when visiting the Louvre at 17 Jon falls in love with a Rousseau and pulls from it a chip of paint, keeping the tiny piece in his pocket until it disintegrates into nothingness; when his daughter is a child, Jon works at the Childs Estate Zoo and sneaks in after hours to swim with the seals; Jon dies alone in a motel room, his only possessions 2 packs of cigarettes, 2 black combs, 5 books of matches, and 3 pairs of glasses) he remains throughout the book an enigmatic figure, as slippery as light. The flickering nature of the most tangible of things like fathers, families, and love makes the fragmented forms of this work necessary and beautiful.

Although each work stands on its own, reading The Book of Jon in company with The California Poem is rewarding; by doing so we experience the way in which similar formal devices work to serve different ends. Like The California Poem, The Book of Jon employs visual images, but the images here are all photographs of family members. While the images in The California Poem serve to hi-light the creative-constructed nature of history writing, the images in The Book of Jon serve to concretize the narrative. Jon feels all the more real and tangible when we see his lanky body leaning against the hood of an old car. We search the face of the photograph for his secrets, we empathize with the author’s task of trying to uncover the essence of something right in front her. How universal the sensation of staring at a familiar face, wondering if you ever really knew the person, after all. And, like The California Poem, The Book of Jon employs fragments of source-text writing and journal entries. While the source texts for The California Poem are historical documents and scientific works, Sikelianos plumbs her own archive of letters written to her father, diary entries, and family members’ written testimonials of dreams they have had about Jon. Through these fragments we, along with the author, begin to form a body of knowledge about the man.

These similarities in formal decision trace back to a more fundamental similarity in the author’s relationship to her subject matter. Although more intimate, the position in which Sikelianos places herself in relation to her father embodies the same sense of “opening” as her relation to the subject of California in The California Poem. She puts herself in a relationship of openness to her father, inviting him to appear, as himself, by showing us as many sides of Jon as she can uncover. This openness becomes apparent when we consider the extent to which the book is devoid of judgment. Nowhere does the author blame her father for his drug addiction and the difficulty it has brought to her life; in no sense is this a book of self-pitying investigation of the damages errant parents produce upon their children. Sikelianos stands back from the easy brinks of judgment and retribution to let the watery, flickering image of Jon appear to herself and to her readers. She tells us that “The moral is not forgive and forget (though in this story neither is a moral lapse). The moral is the story, and the story is a life” (63).

It is perhaps in the memoir’s form of personal knowledge that the ethical implications of an author’s relationship to her subject matter becomes most evident. Where an “opening” use of language in The California Poem leads Sikelianos’s readers in an exercise of seeing a location clearly through language, The Book of Jon shows us a way of seeing the people who are most dear to us as clearly as we can. What we arrive at may be fragmented and contradictory, but the process of arriving brings care-full knowledge and generosity towards “truth.” Sikelianos shows us a way of seeing that both lets in the emotions involved with such looking and clears our vision of obscurities, and we learn that it takes many versions of a life story to know a life, “For the world like Sappho was either/ small, dark, and ugly/ or small, dark, and beautiful” (59). In the end, both books offer us non-didactic instruction: The California Poem and The Book of Jon teach us that the world is small, infinite, bright, dingy, lovely, detestable and, in the end, very much worth the work involved in a true seeing and experiencing of it.


Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New Directions: New York, 1992.

Heidegger, Martin. “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.” Basic Writings. Harper Academic: San Francisco, 1964.