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Western Practice (Alice James Books) is a homage to California and its artists, but it is also a movement of history and geography, and what the west has meant (and still means) to the writer. Packed with images of its bays and fowl, cities and bridges, hills and valleys, Stephen Motika (program director of the Poets House and editor of Nightboat Books) has beautifully cataloged his birthplace in his first full-length collection of poems published by Alice James Books. The first section’s epigraph by Lyn Hejinian (an important American poet born in San Francisco), clearly takes you there: “You can tell by the eucalyptus tree, its shaggy branches… the light coming through…. That doesn’t say it all, or even the greater part of it” and suddenly it’s as if you can see and smell the medicinal gold coast. After he lures you in with the epigraph, Motika then — with opening poems “Night, In The Oaks” and “Pacific Slope” — saturates you with elliptical imagery, “bowls of dahlias,” “passion fruit vines spilling through windows,” and “salty heat of abalone,” making it hard to tell whether the poems are simple metaphors supporting an autobiographical collection or a theme-based project about California…. Whatever the case may be, as I read Western Practice, the notion of a 20th century California state atlas map kept springing to mind.
If embarking on a journey is not evident in its imagery, then it is also clear in the spacing of the poems on the page (the typesetting alone moves like water and land):
expect to be nervous in the beginning,
I meant to burrow under it and sleep
But it’s not just the poems’ typesetting and enjambments that move like water on the page, it is also the musicality of the language that seduces. There is a Whitman-like quality to Motika’s rhythm, not to mention both writers often grapple with time and place and the impact of geography on art, and on language. And though the poems in Western Practice look nothing like Whitman’s (on the page), except perhaps for “Night, In The Oaks” and “Tea Palinode (18th & Sanchez)”, they do sing with a certain air of confidence, enthusiasm, and simplicity, that summon Whitman.
With that in mind, it’s comes as no surprise that one of Motika’s central characters in Western Practice is Harry Partch. Partch was a hobo, an instrument builder, a musician (who bought land in southern California), and a man who mostly had romantic relationships with men; coincidentally, Partch happened to look just like Walt Whitman:
Partch built a great lyre of 72 strings.
Orpheus’s lyre had three strings.
“These days, when someone does something different, they ignore him to death.”
Motika’s writing looks and sounds different then his contemporaries’, yet there is no denying the way the light shines on these poems, particularly the one ‘On Harry Partch’. Motika gives a voice to the desert’s voicelessness, and to its people, and each poem feels like an important figure in the choir— like characters in a Hockney L.A. pool scene.
the first picture, plastic trees, smokes and eats and drinks.
EK here, all here, Hollywood Hills here, always, dried laminates, here.
swimming in water pool.
Western Practice does for the west coast what Leaves of Grass did for the east: it reveals art in everyday life.
By Stephen Motika
Alice James Books
Paperback, 9781882295913, 80 pp.