(This is the third in a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light. TIL is currently on a West Coast tour.)
by Housten Donham
Poetry is language’s excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.
-Franco Berardi, from The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance
In a city where “the city” means another city, Oakland poets ironically possess an acute sense of self-perception. It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland is an anthology of Bay Area poets, many of whom have never before been published. While it is a broad sampling of the phenomenal poetry that is currently being produced in the Bay Area, it is by no means exhaustive, in representation or in depth. Among the 60 poets included in the book, 18 of them are queer and/or trans people; 3 of them are people of color. These statistics are included in the book’s introduction. And while power can’t necessarily be quantified, it may in some sense be owned. In that owning, the introduction here sets a theme, or moral, of the anthology: one not of elitism and ethical superiority, but of a constant re-awakening and maneuvering of awareness. These poets see themselves, though not always clearly, as part of a complex, changing, and troubling social context.
Appropriately, It’s sunny in Oakland opens with a poem about San Francisco, a place symbolized as a kind of evil twin or pathetic uncle to Oakland throughout the book. In “San Francisco Poem,” Amy Berkowitz immediately zeroes in on the gentrification that has now wholly consumed the city:
Right now a CEO is trying to see
if he can have a functional fireplace put in
and his fiancé is trying to scrape
the moped gang insignia off of the French doors.
Right now everything is gutted:
they’re scrapping everything
our slumlord slapped together.
Granite, stainless steel, strip the carpets.
Nonchalantly coupled with acute social critique is a playful sense of sound and connotative language. From the echo of “a CEO is trying to see” to the bourgeois Europeanness of “fiancé,” “moped,” and “French doors,” this is a kind of politically-engaged thinking that is formed within and around a profoundly nuanced sense of language. Berkowitz’s is the perfect poem to open this anthology: it is “political poetry,” whatever that means, but it asks the reader to move through content to a kind of understanding that is aesthetic and sensuous—and that is a thoroughly political move.
The work here is not didactic, affected, or pretentious. While much of this poetry does not hesitate to directly comment on disturbing social realities, it is the forms engendered here that are ultimately, deeply radical: they are rhizomatic, ambiguous, perplexing. For example, in “That’s When,” Elaine Kahn writes
There is nothing wrong
with being sensitive.
I just want to say that
there is nothing wrong.
I make myself into a line.
I have on no outfit
when I’m waiting for you
in the wings.
Intelligence is loose
like I’m a blind thing,
your baroque wet
lips are telling
me a number. One.
The feeling here is simultaneously direct and ironic, pivoting between heartfelt sincerity and an odd performance of theatrical sentimentality. Or, rather than pivoting, both registers are indeed being produced at once. Sincerity and irony are not mutually exclusive emotional vibrations. Sincerity and cynicism, yes, those are opposing tones. Like many poets, those included here may be heavy on the irony, but they are never lacking in their caring; above all, these poets care. In Kahn’s work, and in the work of most of those included in this anthology, there is very little that is cynical. After all, it is San Francisco that is dark and cynical and hopeless; it is sunny in Oakland.
The book also has a fitting conclusion (though it comes far too soon). It is from Zack Haber’s larger work “The Echoes” that the anthology’s title is derived.
If you don’t not wish you were mad mad mad–A
conceptual reading?–Go ahead, I ain’t mad at you: it’s night
in San Francisco while it’s sunny in Oakland–Can the city
be deleted?–Yeah, figuratively yes, now, literally no, but in
the far far future which is also now, so yes, that too, but at the
same time no–The instant I was born I died but there wasn’t
an instant–an exact instant I was born in–How must I dig
out of my grave unchained-throwing chains into the dirt–I’m
talking about zombie love–When the bulldozers came into
the plaza and more and more people came into the plaza and
the bulldozers all became soft and quite and disheveled and
purple and sexy and they all went afar afar away to be together;
I’m talking about bulldozer love.
The future is now in Oakland; it may even be a thing of the past. On a global and local scale are signs, if not of the apocalypse, at least of a movement toward one, an inevitable and necessary derangement of the social order. What that looks like, what that might look like, will and does hopefully resemble the kind of understanding that is produced and is emerging from this poetry. Most of the work here was written in the shadow of the Occupy movement. As in that moment, these poets continue to open forms, to look toward a political future whose evidence, in both necessity and possibility, is all around us. The broken pieces of an empty culture might be filled with something that we may as well call love: a vulnerable and exposed insurgency. It’s sunny in Oakland may be an indication of a new kind of political understanding that proceeds from poetry into the socius and back again, deleting the lines of demarcation that is often assumed to separate them.
It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland is available from Timeless, Infinite Light
Housten Donham is co-editor of The Volta Blog.