January 25, 2011

Review by Alexa Mergen

THE PLACE THAT INHABITS US
Selected by Sixteen Rivers Press
Foreword by Robert Hass

Sixteen Rivers Press
P.O. Box 640663
San Francisco, CA 94164
ISBN 978-0-9819816-1-1
2010, 160 pp., $20.00
www.sixteenrivers.org

Every good poetry anthology starts with a necessary or an original organizing principle; The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed collects 100 poems linked in some way to one place, and does both. The carefully arranged poems follow an artful pattern intrinsic to the editors and also beautiful to the reader, like a Cornell box where the juxtaposition of items heightens their meaning. Five sections (and the book’s title) draw their titles from poems within. So, the reader starts with the section “This Air” and August Kleinzahler’s poem “Land’s End” concluding:

because when what has become dormant,

meager or hardened

passes through the electric

of you, the fugitive scattered pieces

are called back to their nature—

light pouring through muslin

in a strange, bare room.

When reading The Places That Inhabit Us, it’s best to surrender to the form, appreciate its meticulousness and enjoy it. The poems can be read straight through, though the book includes a clear table of contents and an author index. The physical design is beautiful. Poet’s names run vertically along pages’ outer edges and page numbers are centered on the margins. The design recalls the three-dimensional topography of a place defined by hills, valleys, rivers and sea. On the cover, a print of the Bay by native Californian Tom Killion sets the meditative tone of the collection. Robert Hass provides a forward that surveys the environmental and literary history of the region—a useful and lovely essay in itself. The book is so striking I looked—to no avail—for information on the designer and a colophon.

The poets–ranging across time and circumstance, from contemporary poet Marilyn Chin to old favorite Walt Whitman–write about places and people, rural and urban. All the poems are commendable; some capture the quintessence of northern California. Tung-hui Hu writes of the disorientation most newcomers feel to the Golden State in “Balance”: “Soon after I moved to California/I felt tremors everywhere. It made for/headaches and a vivid idea of how/delicately each thing was balanced….”

In “North of San Francisco” by another transplant, Yehuda Amichai, the reader experiences the gentle beauty of Marin County.

Here the soft hills touch the ocean

like one eternity touching another

and the cows grazing on them

ignore us, like angels.

Even the scent of ripe melon in the cellar

is a prophecy of peace.

Along with the light, the anthologists included the region’s shadows. Many who live in California know of someone who has jumped—or considered jumping—from the Golden Gate Bridge. In “Golden Gate” Julia Levine asks heartbreakingly, “Tell me, what is loneliness,/if not the strain of standing at the edge of all you know?”

Even in the most populous state in the nation protected places of solitude can be found within the Bay’s watershed. Jim Powell describes an unnamed lake in the Sierra, “WL 8338”; Larry Levis recalls memorizing poems “above the engine’s monotone” while driving a tractor “through the widowed fields.”

“Gift” by Czeslaw Milosz and “For Czeslaw Milosz in Krakow” by Robert Hass exemplify the rhythm of the poems’ page-to-page exchange. In the former, Milosz celebrates “a day so happy./Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.” Hass’s newsy poem starts, “The fog has hovered off the coast for weeks/And given us a march of brilliant days/You wouldn’t recognize….”

The Place That Inhabits Us invites the reader into a conversation of place through the people who have embraced it. The collection is valuable for anyone curious about how a local press and the poets they selected interpret the Bay Area; it would be a brilliant gift to entice a friend to the area for a visit. Mark page 120 for them, where your friend will find the stunning “The Great Blue Heron” written by Carolyn Kizer for her mother. When Kizer, as a girl, encounters a heron in a “hunchback’s coat,” “shadow without a shadow,” she runs to show her mother “the spectral bird.” Years later she asks

Why have you followed me here,

Heavy and far away?

You have stood there patiently

For fifteen summers and snows,

Denser than my repose,

Bleaker than any dream,

Waiting upon the day

When, like gray smoke, a vapor

Floating into the sky,

A handful of paper ashes,

My mother would drift away.

Places, and the lives they hold, give generously to poets. How wonderful that with this anthology the poets and their readers can give back to this region by applying their attention to it for the space of a poem.

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Alexa Mergen is a poet in Sacramento. She can be contacted at alexamergen@yahoo.com