A review of 'The Port of Los Angeles'
As Frank O’Hara wrote, “You don’t refuse to breathe do you.” As he implies, life in an urban environment requires a person to be absorptive, to breathe it in, to absorb all forms of toxicity into ourselves. Of course, O’Hara would be quick to remind us that the toxicity is precisely what we come to the urban environment for, because toxicity is exciting. Emotional toxicity is dramatic and narratively engaging; many forms of toxicity are pleasant to inhale, imbide, swallow, snort, or otherwise absorb; and the second-hand smoke of mass transportation and mass electrification is pernicious, pervasive, and essential to our evening plans. The insight that toxicity is the price of pleasure is what makes O’Hara’s poetry so characteristic of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s: O’Hara describes a world where our dearest attachments are a little bit poisonous, and all the more charming for it.
But Frank O’Hara never lived in Long Beach, California, where a new arrival might get advice like this:
when you get lost, just orient yourself by the refinery
when you get turned around, look for the port
you can see the cranes from just about anywhere
The poet Jane Sprague’s first full-length collection, The Port of Los Angeles, immerses the reader in the sights and signs of a city dedicated to throughput, a city where trucks and trains exchange containers with cargo ships. Whereas New York is presided over by monuments to commerce, civic life in Long Beach is overshadowed by monumental transportation infrastructure. Despite its nominal independence from Los Angeles, Long Beach is the site of LA’s port, where kilotons of goods from China and other Pacific Rim nations enter the US and are shifted to land transport.
We all might want to live in a city that was designed and administered for the benefit of human living, but how many of us do? Most cities (and certainly all large ones) are administered with the cash value of commerce in mind, and the urban population are either incidental or subordinate to these concerns. Jane Sprague’s poetry manifests anger and grief at this state of affairs. She meditates on the precarious lifestyle of incidental people, as well as on the commercial infrastructure that shapes her city’s public space. Oil derricks, cranes, yachts, and (of course) Ikea serve as symbols of alienation as well as economic facts that explain the indifferent landscape. Sprague grieves the city’s failure to be responsive to fundamental human needs, the toxic indifference of its administrative agenda. She writes:
the goods waited in their precious and stained ways
their ways of chipped edges and past fights
Sprague describes these same goods as “parsed into sectors or boxes of labeled and specific function or rooms of / disbursement.” Central to these descriptions is an assertion that the goods flowing through the port are “not indifferent.” This assertion springs from a need for connection, to find some way that our surroundings care about us, and by that means to dramatize a meaningful relation between citizens, their city, and the city’s business. In O’Hara’s work, this collective relation is figured in terms of toxicity; to him, urbanites were connected by a common willingness to be exposed to pollution. In Sprague, the connection is found in the underlying human value of goods. But this should not be misunderstood. For Sprague, the value of goods is not that they satisfy human need (human need is more like a constant, a sign of life, in these poems). Rather, goods announce the priority of human needs; each good represents a need which it is (in most cases) unable to fulfill.
Building on her equation of goods with needs, Sprague writes:
were we we or were we
mingling and all within our each
our metal porous borders
remembering almost nothing of what we told ourselves
whether we were Los Angeles Seoul New Orleans Beijing
whether we agreed or did not agree with the expansiveness of our we
The problem with this “expansiveness of our we” is its nonconsensual nature. The web of commerce imposed on her forces Sprague to recognize the humanity of distant others caught in the same web. And yet this recognition grants no power of action, is a form of conscience without agency.
Ultimately, Long Beach is a place of entrapment for Sprague, a place where human need is shortchanged or deferred. It is a place where the goods emblematic of human need arrive and depart, in a series of exchanges that damage the quality of life while providing little benefit to the residents. Of course, some consolations are available. Sprague writes:
California insinuates itself through our veins through our beds
through our children through the constant hump and suck of the
as the derricks continue to drill
we find ourselves called to Ikea again and again
strange comfort Scandinavian curves
On the very next page, Sprague adds “our child falls in love with Ikea and wants to move in,” reminding us of the limits of comfort, since, like the port itself, Ikea is dedicated to throughput. Above all, Sprague’s poetry is haunted by a sense that contemporary life can only be moved through, never inhabited, that imperatives of commerce take precedence over “our narrow beds full of sweat” and “our goods broken by anger and drunkenness.” Sprague suggests that we ourselves are the goods (in other words, that our collective need is the measure of what is good). In her analysis, our ability to conceptualize value has been frustrated by the very systems designed to satisfy us.
In response, The Port of Los Angeles seeks to define “the necessary / emotional architecture” to respond to a place where dead animals wash up on the beach each day. Other daily sights include:
a long thigh a long thick
finger of grease
spill leak from something …
eke out a living at the edge of such
layers of oil
one shiny magenta yellow blue
Refusing to become accustomed to the damage done, Sprague’s poetry is that of a reliable and demanding witness.