Zora Neale Hurston
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HOW2, Issue 2 introduces a work/book section to the journal’s format. This issue’s work/book features two selections from Eleni Sikelianos’s drafts for her ongoing work, "The California Poem." A discussion between Sikelianos and Jo Ann Wasserman follows the text. Proposals for this section should go to work/book coordinator: Jo Ann Wasserman <twoswirl@aol.com>.


featuring: Eleni Sikelianos

Poem in Progress

from The California Poem

dialogue with Jo Ann Wasserman

from The California Poem


Melons and plums and peaches, eating and drinking, and the bugle, all the day long. These are the glorious occupations that engross a proud and thinking being, running [t]his race of preparation for the eternal world.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson




I want to tell you about the dream. 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

"in which Alexander the Great invented" the caterpillar "personally"

We were going ever so through the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus & shadow road in the "opposite of blindness" & "relinquished speech" & "focusing on my mother’s throat," like
taking a picture of it when it’s interesting thinking

The lake is to the left. On one side, a tall Pink bird invented by space and time called

Heron, & there, other small & medium birds shiny & loose
with pockets of Geryon-ash-gold. What can be lit I’ll light that I’ll light that for you dream


a kissing everything goodbye in the lyric pelt & an eye


of spit

a thoin gutterful of vowels
out of the battery & ground

in the teeth, death
in the bush, 2 in the hand

in the nape of the napalm of sun-shore-sun I am an orphan! I am still Ishmael! dream


… … Who was counting the ribs
in my grandfather’s ships? My Fist versus Coastal

margins of coconut novelties which recede
and advance upon the shelf like a carved animal army, Rosy
Razor clams with calendars on their backs, diatoms, wentletraps, the Owl
Limpet dueled viciously upon the sands, moving toward his enemy like a "bulldozer in extreme
slow motion," drifting

away from the dream of California

which is dust & light & dust

being tossed in the white


blanket besides the low white stucco barracks
with roosters between the houses scratching at the dust of light of the dream

thorny shapes that stand in the desert as tall as a house sticking up out of the desert part of
California absurd tiny flowers frozen in the tips Needles
birthed a poet, and goats heads

This poem
is therein, in my dream of Death
Valley a low
depression & gloss of surface lands,
mountains, of lava, their parent sea, removed to form this one great golden glossy
cake and plain of irregular form, valleys, coast, gloss of gloss
Angeles and & Inyo County is just
dusty in the bus station at the cold night shifting
from foot to foot in 1973. Tumbleweeds
go by.

In my sleeping nostalgia for the Streets
of San Francisco dream like seeing Michael
Douglas in an elevator in
California (not
that satisfying), or
my dream of a saguaro flower weather bath or California born in the shape
of Karl Malden’s nose as it appears in One-eyed Jacks.

In California we don’t say bodega except
for the bay, we say
market, which is what
it is. We don’t say buttercup
we say butter box or butter cut. If you say margarine, we bodacious
we don’t say you be we say I is
In California, fire hydrant is a way to say freeway which in turn turns to freely allie All ye in
come free into dusk motes

at Lake of our Lady, etc., by the sea shore & my right hand very close to the Earthly Paradise
California named for a tribe

of Ladies with Big Feet, Rose Bowl
football & the black hole
of Livermore where the flames and the tripods expired. It is

all of New York, New England,
Pennsylvania & New Jersey combined.

Laugh for the eucalyptus as an object of pity
The truth of Georgia is not to be found here in sushi dinners


but there is the dirt bike parade
in the mud behind subdivision A-3, Santa Maria,
Camarillo, & so on, near the lemon groves both beautiful & useful


In the deadyard at Dolores crumbling into dust & light is California and California’s
variegated surface forgets that dust which came
to bequeath them space & light, nudibranchs did I
say Cachuma’s foot
prints in the ashy mud of the bones of our forefathers ground
up like pellets did I turn to the bones of mice bones in the coyote fox eagle shit

A spine brought to the whole length of California was laid out like a golden wheel-veil of
cascades of oldest & largest living things and everything was crushed
in a Catherine’s wheel

At 13, I acquired a good tan in California
to brush with the gods & god squeezers & boring
and smiling compliments so much less
to rake and scratch the character on

as I too was raked along the bottom
feeders & surface
waters like El Niño doing a brody
through our air/hair at the Sunday meeting I was myself a dumb
dog who could not bark

At the sadness of early California, the sado-maso’s down from the hills and Sadducees, their
desire, denial of everything dead, and the existence of angels;
California and Sadie Hawkins;

& its meadows associated with human folly, its airs of superiority, knowing
the it and what
it is.


And the echinoderms give up
their radial symmetry. The laughable echinoderms moving back
toward bilaterality like drunken teens

California in the lights of the trees
my hedon eden I rushed
to California with my eyes
closed. Bill our president was there, fire rushed
down his snout like a dining rage & through
the pinelands of Banana Road, like three light fingers making waste across the ice lakes of
Jupiter’s moons, Io.


From the center of rice I do remember California
stitched up twice
in my memory of sleeveless shirts &
Ocean A, D or Q
behind the not tall buildings


            I know nothing of Northern
North California therefore
there is none, Arcata, etc., yet I
would like to sell [you] [send] you California
& its industrial wastelands, & the Cryps

& the Bloods, the
ACTION! CAMERA! and fully armed cactus. Each studio is a nation-
state of its own under the cloudless blue
neon & the bright
stucco Draco
of sun
of tile
of bottlebrush
of lovely picture baby
Tree, home
of John Steinbeck, & Mrs. McGroaty





It’s o.k. here but we don’t have any sourgrass
not so many happy lizards in the sun
seaweed sliding back toward licking the sea
sandflies, sandfleas
jogging men nasty naked along the beach, Joakim’s oily eucalyptus combusting up toward heaven

I was swimming in the black water under-
neath my breath & then
dragged by the seaweed vines and belts

the water is yellow with sand and ecology, my friends

are being punished by off-duty fathers in tract houses they are not allowed to leave
             after dark

Wily, we live in Ladera derelict apartments are government
subsidized, go
at night
on shore

Oil rigs out in the water like lighted bird-palace places

In the dream of dying cephalopods

Cuttlefish feathers & things
invented by sound & light like
the Great Spangled Fritillary monarch, and magnitude
of scales, what lies in inner and outer margins of such
wings "that came with soft
alarm, like hurtless light," and the numberous thunder
of veins

Bluebellies in strange arrangement break their tails
in weedy nooses and grow back new ones
Backs bend in the rows between crop-dusted plants, the little singing seeds sting the
fingers & stain them: red, red


Eagle shells crumbling under the eagle’s weight croaking at Cachuma Lake


California did not hold its shape
when [ the condors ] were laid end-to-end
to form a replica of California
with photographs & balsa wood & glue
which was later
beamed to space
as a message off the coast (Big Sur). The message is
from the gardens of the sea: graphed in the intelligent
& learnèd scallop’s eyes (bright), amid its tentacular
fringe: writ

in the fossil guts of hermaphroditc oysters hanging
out in kitchen middens, a theatre

acted out on land-
masses and by motoring pairs of "self-
powered castanets," molluscs, in
zigzag arcs. This heroic

fantasy is set
in an ominous landscape, a dark world that mirrors out watery arms
& legs, but not our muscular


Everything I know
occurred in California and everything
I know later, everything I know of California
is shaped like a piece of cardboard
and smells like the black plastic pitch that stretches between Bakersfield & apricots

blue & green & the penny arcade, my dream is just like that:
a thousand miles
long & deep into the otter ice water cliffs

almonds Fresno when I was nearly blond & knees straight
as an arrow & my name
was Dylan-in-the-grass-blue-grass, when my home-
stead read: Mary-of-the-villas
Mary-of-the-beautiful-vocables-of-conch Jalama ice plant and Spanish
moss at its Eastern Boundaries of the Ear
Without answer key or blue fig California
at its goldest gold, brightest bright hues
of citron, sun when the blazing pollen falls all, all California blooms
pornographically, hysterical loyal
daughters of the revolution horses whinnying
up State Street stamp the independence of California into the tarmac Chumash
dancers with fancy feet but
no state.


In One-eyed Jacks Marlon Brando and Karl Malden will escape
on steaming ponies, and the beautiful Mexican girl, and roar
into that sleepy village just north of Salinas with its beautiful low Chinese dwarf
cypress in a shady glen & the village is
of Chinese fisher people with grey eyes railroad coolies who bent their backs & did not break in
filmy black & white

Salinas rises from its
valley like a huge dusty mutt mottled
with lettuce and chemicals not of trash in the state’s hallways I want to make you dream this just
as you
made me dream you in a beginning
of bundles and other beginnings

(slash) endings.


"Get up you scum-suckin' pig," growls Brando and plays/
a wild card.






"For my part I know of no river called Ocean, and I think that Homer, or one of the other poets, invented the name" The sun, therefore, I regard
as the sole


Follow the foot-
prints inside the nerve cell; they lead to a bright
door: a tiny patch of memory

a fiery trailer home amidst earlier construction
action heroes collapsing into dust the bus stops
here; there is no buck in this story, not for this hero
except in purely silver quarters smuggled out of the house in the mouth, king snakes
caught in jars

Shields are up. Come the
collectors into the vast coma of our tiny house. We are collecting
dust. They want money. They want to tell us we are not allowed to live in fields in the black
thorax of the bull-infested land

In this dream I will make you take the train
to you dressed up as miles of wooded ocean and coast-
lines with no one on them. You can’t see
old people here because of the sunlight.

Earlier, I had my elbow in the yellowest CA, we talked
about the coin-shaped trapdoors on gastropods, as the possible
version of California slipped away from me
into the geranium, virgin, scraggly
nasturtiums on the fire escape. Here in this living-
room there is no sea. Who

cares about the sea?

I do

because the sea
makes us land-like but think
sea-like to us because I can only ever think

about things swimming there; Dolphindae, Delphinus, herald love
and swiftness

(and the constellation delphinus in the sky)


Issuing from the mouth of this animal is a flower: jessant, of a
jerkwater town at the back
of a branch-line train

where runny stars rain by
like eggs, golden
& locked, a hometown is a waiting place, a waiting place is
static inside the heel

I therefore developed longer toes for walking on floating vegetation (jacanidae)
the ancient celadon-and-shining agave lining the path all the way down to the sea

• • •





gives sqwooshy kisses one by one

the liquid shimmer over the sandpapery surface of the earth

above: hang gliders: huge ribonucleic rubber birds do not remember

Feed me
my archaic needs nights, no truck with

the mysterious curve of the
pulling into
the golden cities


and the waves flattened & the waves rise up & increase
their drag & the shore receives them: wave and wave and wave and wave
"And so on and on to the shore…if you think from the sea
and if you think from the shore, it
touches and breaks." Torsion
in the first moebius strip cannot compete with the waves’ amoebic figure 8
and as the course projects happily hypothetically straight from the wave and around
the world mathematically, perfectly ragged the unified-field of wave
and wave & water & pull creature/tide
work out that ideal
the drift of it everything



NOTE: A small section of "The California Poem" will appear in the forthcoming issue of Verse.

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Dialogue on work process: Eleni Sikelianos and Jo Ann Wasserman

JAW: When we had lunch in New York, you spoke about feeling a renewed need to communicate in your poems. How are you feeling right now about making something known in the poems?

ES: I like the idea of the poem as a variably open or closed vessel, written and read by variably open or closed readers who are not predetermined by a particular course of study. Maybe I am curious about the generosities/asperities one offers the reader, and the poem as a variably communicable (like a disease or joy or sex) or incommunicable (like death) body.

What is being communicated, and how this occurs is, of course, potentially very diverse, and, here, you would not want to be confined to a unilateral form of articulation. I guess I’m interested in the shifting spectrum of communicability/ incommunicability within which a poem can exist, which means, maybe, that I’m interested in its public and private nature.

In communication, there might be something about the poem’s economy. As a reader, I look for yield: this is "good for me," or it’s pleasurable–sometimes it’s both. If I am my own implied reader, what are my rewards? As a writer, I have become more and more engaged in the communication between me, or some part of me, and the poem. The California poem feels like the closest I’ve gotten to a certain part of me. While there seems to be a general trend towards the savvy use of artifice, I’m developing an interest in the artless part of the art.


JAW: I know you have worked on longer pieces and in the accretion model of the series. Is this a comfortable way for you to work?

ES: I seem to have trouble conceiving of an individual, short poem. I think this is partly because I often have some form of narrative project or impulse involved (with a very wide definition for narrative). I have almost only ever worked, with any success, serially; the trap there seems to be that you find 64 different ways to say the same thing. I wanted to try to extend my sense of continuity, to write a continuous piece (as California is continuous, as time is, etc.), a novelistic or epic approach. There are interruptions (as time is interrupted, as memory is, etc.) in the poem (I’m still trying to figure out how to handle them), but there is, alas, no hero. I am trying to add the vestigial tailbone of one now.


JAW: When you speak in the poem of "A spine brought to the whole length of California," are you grappling with the size of this poem’s project (or in a sense, any poem’s project)?

ES: And the vertebral structure of the Sierras laid out along the state, trying to connect that to the outlying areas (where I was) and, yes, trying to find some way to unify or give structure to the poem through that.

JAW: I was just reading the new Jack Spicer biography (Poet Be Like God by Kevin Killian and Lewis Ellingham) and Spicer who, like you, was a Southern Californian, was quoted as saying, "I want to write a poem as long as California." Do you ever think of Spicer when you think about your California poem?

ES: No, maybe I should.

I do think of other poets, and writers, who were born in or spent significant time during childhood in California, especially Southern California. There’s Joanne Kyger, Carla Harryman and Barbara Guest–Basil Bunting taught a few blocks away from me when I was a kid, although, of course, he wasn’t from there (Isla Vista), and I’d never heard of him at the time. Hugh Kenner was around, as well as Rexroth. I think of Duncan, up north, and I think about Martha Graham, and her statement, something like "I couldn’t have made the kind of dance I made, had I not grown up in such a hedonistically beautiful environment." (Graham moved to Santa Barbara as a child.) I think a lot about the landscape, the flora, the colors. I think about the length and variety of its environments. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the mountains, on the beach, days and nights outdoors. It really was a kind of Eden, a pre-Raphaelite paradise, and that was the context for these rather brutal activities that occur in families, my own and other people’s, and in the politics (don’t forget Reagan had–is he still alive?–his ranch near my hometown) and in class and race distinctions and distortions. Steinbeck was an early love. But the landscape is probably more of a local influence. It occupies that pale, fuzzy homeward lost paradise in my mythography.

JAW: I love when the poem says that no one in California says bodega, because that is a reference to a way of speaking that is New York City vernacular and this sets up a kind of foil for California. Do you feel that there is a translation issue in the poem? I mean you now live in New York and base your writing life there. Does living outside California give permission for this poem to exist? Does the poem exist for you in both places or some third "California of the mind?"

ES: I don’t think I could have begun the poem in California. In particular, being on the East Coast, and all the kinds of binary thinking that brings in, helped to trigger it. I keep wondering what Californians will think, but also what will those who have never been to California make of it?

Where does the poem exist? This troubles me (when I think of readers), but the truth (or something like it) is that it exists both places (here and there) and neither, because its logistics are really also a lost American (my American) past. The area in which I grew up (Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara) has changed drastically in the last twenty years. The poem takes place in an era that is not pre-strip mall, but pre-preponderance of strip mall. A belief in the endlessness of fields meets the endlessness of subdivision mushrooms.

JAW: Does the poem begin to locate both in space and time for you? When I speak of time and space, I am thinking about how the poem can bring me to a growing up time in the 1970s. Particularly the line about dirt bike races. God, that triggered a whole tableau. It seemed like all the kids I would want to be who were on TV lived, decidedly, in California at that time (i.e., "The Partridge Family," "Family," "Eight is Enough"). It is as if this was the first generation of characters who pointedly resided in California and not in Anytown, USA. For me, living on the East Coast, California seemed like the perfect, best place to be young. Do you feel that what I am describing as a sort of Californiafication of our youth is a part of what your poem is encountering?

ES: I went to visit my cousins in Detroit when I was eleven, so I could tell, I could tell that California was the center of the universe. Some poeple say it’s Paris, others Delphi; I know it’s not Detroit. But it was a kind of oblivious/obvious thing. On the other hand, no one I know ever feels in the center at all, and there were all the ironies of living in a housing project just outside of Santa Barbara, of being poor and attending a school with affluent children, of living in a family of freaks in a very conformist environment. Conformism was an extreme pressure on many levels, from the physical demands of beach-bunnydom to a kind of bland anti-intellectualism and soft-core spirituality (usually all in cahoots, i.e., to be anatomically correct was to be spiritually correct, etc.). So there was this feeling of being really out of it–physically, financially, class-wise–basically of being, at the axis of all good things in the universe, very off-center; and I suppose that really entices me as a point of exploration and as one impetus for the poem.

The time thing comes into it in that Proustian sort of way, where you’re trying to gather and re-collect and reinvent a time, but more than that, or through that, a self, which is quite elusive. How does time past configure, become or not become a part of, a present self? Writers invent themselves. I am intrigued by the interrupted and continuous arc through time that is or is not me. So much of that passed through a particular locale (the northern edge of Southern California)–I simultaneously try to deny and am flabbergasted by how much place does indeed work its wiles upon us. Here, we could replace "place" with "place and time," a single entity.



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Eleni SkielianosBIO: Eleni Sikelianos is the author of to speak while dreaming, The Lover's Numbers, The Book of Tendons and, forthcoming, Crimson Coat/Crimson Coat Narrative. Sikelianos was recently conferred the James D. Phelan Award for California writers, and a Fulbright Fellowship for a writing project that will take place in Greece.


BIO: Jo Ann Wasserman’s work has appeared in journals including The World, Grand Street, and Blue Book Poetry. From 1992-1997 she worked in multiple capacities at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, including curating the Wednesday Night Reading Series. Wasserman’s first chapbook of poems, what counts as proof was published by Sugar Books in May 1999.

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