PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
Western Practice by Stephen Motika
(Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine 2012)
“California. Did you ever see anything so amazing?” then-governor of the state Pat Brown is reported to have enthusiastically rasped during an in-state flight between re-election events as the landscape so full of soft browns and hard blues of ever remarkable variety spread without end below. California is amazing. There’s no doubt about it. The light itself really is just different compared to locales to the East. The light manages to give off this vibe which being mellow mellows you. Not everyone is as bound to be equally bowled over by it. Some may feel this is to overly romanticize the State. Yet one way or another, to be raised in California and/or spend any significant amount of your youth here leaves its unique mark on you. There’s no escaping it.
With Western Practice Stephen Motika pays homage to his Home State. This is a book full of his California. Yet this is no sentimental or broad overview. These poems are richly imbued throughout with the closeness of his personal experience and interests. The titles of shorter poems are full of California place names extending from the Los Angeles area up to San Francisco Bay, such as “Near Los Osos” [Morro Bay], “Via Bixby” [Bixby Canyon, Los Angeles], “Temescal” [Oakland], “Ocean Park” [Santa Monica], and “Tea Palinode (18th & Sanchez)” [San Francisco]. This textual mapping of localities is one key subtlety of the book, easy to overlook especially for those unacquainted with the State who may not think it worth a bit of digging via Google.
The poems themselves are just as subtle and low key: nothing splashy, no big declarations. Motika writes slow-going, sparse lines which move round the page, allowing only what has been absolutely identified as ‘the poem’ through. They are admirable ambient textual environments. The total impact only accrues with time.
salty heat of
stewed in derelict measure
climbed, naked, on board
each body, a mosaic in sand
drift, sea rind, carapace in hand
to which we, a fire
red carved, each tissue ripped from small purse
The bulk of the book is comprised of two long poem-sequences. The first of these, “Delusion’s Enclosure: on Harry Partch (1901-1974)” is an investigative poetic commentary upon the composer’s life and work. Motika easily moves between several source texts about Partch, as well as drawing upon Partch’s own words, re-shaping the material byway of weaving favored highlighted riffs together anew. Partch’s eccentric yet groundbreaking obsession with discovering music all over again receives glowing attention. From local, popular forms ‘in the air’ surrounding him:
What early music?
Yaqui Indian puberty rituals
Edison cylinder records
(working the vineyards)
On to dissecting tonal structures back of how music makes sound work:
study : history of tone
fifty-three tone system proposed by the Chinese in the first century
by Nicolas Mercator in the 17th
- microtonal mishaps in the west -
As if to say
Motika offers a great guide to Partch, always stringing in biographical elements: family, living locales, friendships, and travel; successfully managing to use the presentation format of the poem to punctuate his discussion, propelling along those readers without any previous knowledge concerning Partch.
The second long poem-sequence, “City Set: Los Angeles Years” offers brief poem vignettes featuring various artists, art works, and art scenes, one per year from 1955 up to 1977, the year of Motika’s birth in Santa Monica. Moving from reportage upon early assemblage artists “Berman, Herms at the Baza shack. old oils drenched.” (“1955”) and “Jazz days, we saw Mingus, day before last in tan trench, coasts and cats, Art Pepper walking hills” (“1956”) all the way up to directly citing a relatively obscure independent film by Charles Burnett reflecting social conditions in Watts “KILLER OF SHEEP / on the marquee” (“1977”). Motika fills the poem with notable figures and artworks of substance. This is his representation of the art occurring in the specific place and time which has drawn him. Obviously not meant in any sense as definitive it comes across as being the generous gesture of acknowledged debt which it’s intended.
Motika’s book delineates his own sense of amazement over the State he has the benefit of calling home. Locality impacts development of the artist every step of the way. These poems are testament to California’s eternal draw.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His joint translations, with the author, of Ava Koohbor’s poems from Farsi into English appear most recently in Spring 2013 issues of Amerarcana and OR.