Julia Bloch’s second book, Valley Fever (Sidebrow Books, 2015), links language with landscape in tightly constructed poems that depict a rocky, paved-over, and unstable California. The title and cover image of the book, a follow-up to Bloch’s Lambda finalist Letters to Kelly Clarkson (Sidebrow, 2012), evoke the mood—a mix of humor and hopelessness in the face of environmental destruction—that is referenced in the poetry.
In the second section, “Haze,” dust takes on a particularly prominent role. The vision-altering power of dust is evoked in “Dinuba”: “tilted skies,/tilted dust kicking up/and against the valley.” We are in a dream-like haze in which the world around us has “tilted” and seemingly insignificant dust has accumulated physical power. The title poem ends with the following stanza:
Dust is like anger, it
can’t be rid
of and has
Dust is an apt image to convey irritation and persistence—it “kicks,” invades into our eyes and lungs, and can’t be got “rid/of.” Dust is also closely linked with California. The Central Valley was and is settled and worked by displaced populations, including those who fled the Dust Bowl. Now, drought is turning California to dust.
The word “source” that concludes the title poem is a crucial point at which Bloch conflates words with the world around us. Water “sources” are essential to providing relief from dust and drought. But “sources” are also crucial to the production of words and literature. Fragments of research and reading feed into these poems in the manner of rivers and tributaries. A number of Bloch’s poems emerge out of a range of literary source material, which she cites at the end of the book. Bloch incorporates quoted material thoughtfully, paying close attention to how her text envelops and absorbs the sources. Repeated reference to punctuation, citation, research, and quotation throughout the book call attention to the processes of thinking and writing, as well force readers to acknowledge context and origin.
The historical and environmental messages of dust express a frustration with the built-up geography of California—including California’s roads. I’m not sure any text before Valley Fever has voiced the experience of sitting in traffic with such eloquence and depth. The unique sensation of being trapped by freeway conditions resonates in lines such as “Los/Angeles is always moving. Los/ Angeles is never moving” (in “Chromophilia”) and in “Portorville”:
Each exit is a lie
yet you have to exit.
Each exit comes hung
low with thick-skinned fruit
worn out by the sun’s dull violence.
While the environment underlies and pulls together the collection, these poems are also concerned with larger linguistic and philosophical questions. Bloch uses and references grammar to deepen our understanding of how context—both in terms of place and in quoted language—shapes us. For example, in “Blizzardish,” she writes,
Say “I think in
cities,” but mean “I think about
Bloch uses this sort of carefully constructed grammatical twist to create some of the most layered moments in the collection. From this brief meditation on a prepositional change unfolds a wealth of questions; for example, ”in” is spatial, “about” is psychological, but “about” can also be read as spatial, as in moving “about” a city, inspiring us to draw connections between what we think and where we think.
With phrases such as “this/apostrophized valley” in “The Four Stages of
Dependence,” Bloch leads us back into the lived environment (in this poem we also learn that “Someone is always mowing in California” and “December twenty-second will be a long / haul even without a freeway”). Apostrophes are connected to quotation, and also to issues of possession and ownership. This an owned valley. Who the owner is is left unclear, but the haunting presence of ambiguous “corporations” in these poems, particularly in the stunning last poem of the collection, “Allison Corporation,” suggest a struggle to reconcile oppressive forces with real life, as in “your actual face, a not / corporate body.”
Valley Fever manages to infuse its language with political urgency in a manner that maintains subtlety and and avoids preaching. This is important poetry that both entertains and resonates with contemporary culture. I am eager to discover what Bloch will write next.