Review by Wesley Rothman
THE ORACLE OF HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD
by Dana Goodyear
W. W. Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110
2013, 69 pp., $25.95
Whether you’ve walked or driven down Hollywood Blvd. or not, there is a mysticism associated with it: vendors pitching plastic souvenirs at Hollywood and Highland, the behemoth Kodak Theatre with its mall shopping, the tinseled Walk of Fame, Scientology’s home base, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, sidewalk bucket-drummers, Grauman’s looming Chinese Theatre all red and gold, the homeless, the HOLLYWOOD sign, palm trees, burning hills, and celebrity impersonators. In short, an entire mythology of true magnitude. The poems in Dana Goodyear’s second collection, The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard, use this place as a starting point, the epicenter of a great earthquake and its network of aftershocks.
The collection opens with “Springtime in Hollywood,” the first line of which calls to us, “I returned: to the bleached light.” This first poem gives us a speaker, the speaker’s place, and a direction in which to head. As a kinetic, impressionistic glimpse of Los Angeles, we come to know the poet and the place with flashes of a “birdlife,” “afraid to stop.” We witness the “jacarandas/ getting naked in the street” and “Capillaries bursting/ in the leaf’s pink cheek.” And there is “an engine idling” somewhere “behind/ a closed white door,” which this first poem can’t help but parallel. Goodyear shows us the door and gives us the gurgling vehicle to find behind it. We’re off.
As we’re thrust into Goodyear’s cubist or collagist or combustible, compact lyrics, so many pack their own natural power—abrupt earth-shaking, fluid-rush of brushfire, or the immensity and wind-knocking power of desire. The poet brings together the sparkling excitement of the city, people living in or near it, and its disaster-prone landscape, from sea to shining desert: earthquakes, fires, marriage, mudslides, floods, sexuality, churning surf, high-velocity car accident fatalities, pregnancy, misogyny, overdoses, and homicide. Goodyear stitches these qualities together, but in doing so must challenge her readers to think, feel, and imagine beyond their own limited experiences. This challenge is where the collection really shines. Each poem is built of somewhat common images, familiar language and syntax, not incredibly acrobatic or confusing, but the ideas and emotions formed in each poem are not always easily accessible to the reader—we have to work for it. Not all that dissimilar from life in L.A.
Now a look at some particularly terrific pieces that contribute to this impressionistic profile of the City of Angels, and some pieces that wander elsewhere. “Separate People” toys with identity, with states of mind, and the role relationship plays in them:
I have been beside you
all night like soaped windows,
“That’s why I’m a mountain,
I am cold and pointy at the top,”
I said, asleep,
the Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard.
Your sad question:
Where were we?
Then, knowing that you weren’t,}
Was I there?
Not long after this mind-turning piece, Goodyear gives us the instructional “Kit for Civilization”:
Want hearts. Make a religion of sex.
Separate the sick. Teach the smart ones
greed. Decide small pieces are important,
and divide them (two for you, one for him).
Tell your story on a bowl.
Paint skulls and weapons; give them eyes
and smiles. Learn to deal.
Soften, grow more pompous. Exult
in the love between this and that,
or you and your god. Abstract. Talk peace.
When the enemy comes, eat this.
Compact yet eerily comprehensive, this poem is a perfect example of Goodyear’s manipulation of poetic craft, her intriguing strangeness that, in the end, doesn’t really feel all that unfamiliar. She breaks the line with purpose (“Teach the smart ones/ greed”) and builds a strikingly pertinent, ongoing ending: “Abstract. Talk peace./ When the enemy comes, eat this.” Every time I read this poem I spend more time than I should wondering, Why should I eat this? Who is the enemy? Who don’t I want to be part of civilization? Should I eat this to keep it my own and no one else’s? This is the poignancy of Goodyear’s poetry.
“Freeway” keeps us moving through the infrastructure of L.A. and, appropriately, of the book as we pass into the second section. She speaks of the river running alongside the freeway:
It begins with thought and ends with speech,
while the road just drains and drains, gray
nervous miles. I drive all day under a strike surface
scratched by skywriters’ mistakes …
As she does quite literally in “Freeway,” Goodyear travels in every poem and with this collection, and we can’t help but travel as her readers. Her lyricism moves like thought, erratic and improvisational, but always meaningful and well-considered. In “Conception” we see the full force of the poet’s cubism—it’s not a single story or view of conception, but a piecing together of situations that somehow weigh on the concept.
“Choose Life” says the hand-drawn sign
at the edge of the almond-pale, crystal-pink grove
on Interstate 5.
A pole of teenagers in Hollywood asks
“What is the opposite of youth?”
Overwhelmingly, they answer “death.”
Meanwhile, in the Magic Garden, the grass
begins to build a crusty yellow tip, ice forms
on the volcano’s lip, the cone hole yawns clean.
And as Goodyear leaps from physical (and metaphysical) place to place, she lunges somewhere new with each poem. The formally and topically diverse parts of “The Singing Bowl” could be considered the collection’s crescendo for its dexterity and completeness. Goodyear demonstrates her ability with different modes of poetry here, including poem- and line-length, stanza breaks, innovative image and scene, and constructing a believable, comprehensive “universe” for the poem. I would reproduce the entire poem here, but instead, here one part, and I enthusiastically encourage anyone to find it, and read it!
6. The Dreams of Pregnant Women
“Water, talking animals, tall buildings, sex…”
witnessed crimes, spilled fluids, falling down
an elevator shaft, seducing the interrogator,
his one fat finger pressed against my lips.
There I was, on my knees, wailing,
while my mother searched the bedding
for the baby and found stained lace
dresses and discarded china dolls instead.
Her recurring dream, she told me
later on the phone, was that she had a baby
she forgot to feed. Then, after a pause,
“I guess I’m the baby.”
Other dazzling moments of the book include “Lüsterweibchen” with its meditation on a German-style chandelier combining a pair of antlers and a wooden woman’s bust; the persona poem “Pornographer at 84;” the wrenching “At the Dildo Factory;” and the paranoid “Mirage.” And as this particular journey comes to a close, Goodyear arrives “Home:”
The furnace burnt the underbrush;
electricity shocked the pool;
dry as hands, the poison leaves
of the poison tree flew from the roof,
where one night, years ago, while
we watched Play Misty for Me,
wind played the fence wires’
anguished vocal chords, a lowing
loud as a mourning cow.
This imperfect world.
We are going, we are almost gone.
An accident: your globe dashed,
blue fragments puzzling the floor.
A cosmic question on your face.
While there is certainly inertia to the structure and organization of Goodyear’s collection, narrative is muscled out by lyrics and an emphasis that this is a collection of individual poems. In many books of poetry it seems narrative or a project dominates: series of poems, individual narratives, a theme. The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard may have an arguably loose theme, but more so offers glimpses of Los Angeles, its nature and anti-nature, its people and überstars, but the collection doesn’t only concern itself with this place or its people.
The collection is lyric, just as many of the individual pieces are. This is a powerful characteristic of the book for at least two reasons. Firstly, it reminds readers that these are in fact autonomous poems, pieces of art that stand alone, and, in this case, together. Secondly, it accurately constructs a concept of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas by not telling stories that connect to one another. In Los Angeles there seems a prevailing sense of being “miniature, coked, afraid to stop.” And I say “appropriate” because there is definitely a lyrical quality to the city and its sprawling domain. There are certainly other modes of living in the metropolis, but even as a native of the city I can’t help but remember and think of it in this way. There are wild fires and freeways and Mexican radio stations, coyotes and dirty wind and news, magic and pornography and suburbia and strange concoctions of life—all of which appear in The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard. Goodyear’s book contributes to what the term “collection” means for the art of poetry, and offers us visceral, strange, and seductive lyrics through which we can see some of our worlds.
Wesley Rothman serves as an assistant poetry editor for Narrative, senior poetry reader for Ploughshares, and a member of Salamander’s Board of Directors. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the 49th Parallel, McCabe, and Consequence Poetry Prizes, his poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including The Bellingham Review, Salamander, Ruminate, Newcity, and The Critical Flame. He has worked at Copper Canyon Press, and now teaches writing at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts, Boston.