The Last Book of Poetry I Loved: L.A. Liminal
The week I decided to move to Los Angeles, I read a book of poetry by a woman who had lived there for four years, hated it, left it for New York, and couldn’t stop writing poems about it.
It seemed fitting. Except Becca Klaver came “back East,” leaving Los Angeles, whereas I’m about to set up shop there.
In L.A. Liminal, she examines Los Angeles with frenetic yet focused obsession. The volume opens with a poem deliciously titled, “The Mexico it would take,” in which the speaker warns the reader up front that her memory is not to be trusted: “I’ve treated it with so many mythovarnish coats by now.” If confronted with an alternate interpretation, “I would listen closely to your fiction,” she concedes, “I would drink it in.” The memory of Los Angeles becomes a box that “shook and whirled and edged along the sand, heave-ho-ing clothesdryer,” exactly what the book is about to do to the reader.
If there were a literary version of the film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Klaver’s book could find a place alongside Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler and Francesca Lia Block. Los Angeles becomes a character in these poems, as much a character as the young liminal speaker, the off-again/on-again lover, and the “friends of the moment.” Klaver attacks the “glitzy-glatz” metropolis from all sides, from all tenses, but never reaches a center, only sprawl. Los Angeles appears in her dreams as an IMAX documentary and a post-nuclear apocalypse prom; it’s Persephone’s underworld, it’s a “monomyth,” a fairy tale gone absurdist. She quotes Baudrillard, naming L.A. as “a town of fabulous proportions, but without space or dimensions,” then imagines how the city would be described in a textbook from Saturn.
The poems themselves have fabulous proportions, borrowing from formalism one moment (she manages a kickass sestina–eat your heart out, Elizabeth Bishop) and asserting their own unpunctuated enjambed freeverse the next. I personally was more drawn to the lyrical shortlined poems than to the talky narratives, but there is a compelling untitled prose poem threading through the book. The work is a pop culture goldmine (or landfill? Klaver claims both), chock full of nods to Lynch, Didion, Warhol, Arrested Development, and Buffy Summers. By the time I found the Neko Case epigraph, I was hooked.
Places stick inside us perhaps just as much, or more, than people do. Like lovers, they become symbols that represent our past and/or future selves, as they give sensual definition to our identities. Klaver’s speaker has not left Los Angeles unchanged; it crept under her skin– “you bet paradise haunts me,” she admits in the closing poem. Klaver is well aware of the cliché pioneer story in which the East Coast transplants conquer and rebuild the West. In L.A. Liminal, it is the speaker who is rebuilt, who is tossed a broken mirror that both enchants and repulses her enough to escape the city, but dwell on it in poem after poem. Steeped in the dominant cultural narrative, her work reads like the self-conscious cautionary tale of a woman who failed Manifest Destiny.
This is not exactly the California of white fantasy: “I woke from the dream where the West became innocuous . . . Gave up the dream of writing myself into a scene to be remembered by.” Klaver wrestles with what L.A. means, never quite landing on an answer, like an ex-lover who’s denied her post-mortem. The title poem warns us that “once you split your self, you do not get whole again.” The koan of a bicoastal upwardly mobile woman in her 20s, for sure. There is loss in what the speaker has gained, which makes her, like this collection, fragmented, multiplicitous and shining.