These five poems by some of L.A.’s finest poets are intended to help Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti look closely at our city and listen with care to its diverse voices, from janitors to sidewalk fruit sellers to donut shop insomniacs. They are also an antidote to the platitudes of the campaign trail, and a reminder that the best political speech – and acts – can tap into people’s deepest emotions and aspirations.
by B.H. Fairchild
It’s a bright, guilty world.
–Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai
But there is no water.
–T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
The oldest Mercedes in California adorns
the crowded foyer of the L.A. County Museum
of Natural History, and babies shriek like bats
in the elevator that lowers my daughter
and me to the basement. There, among the faint,
intermingled drifts of ammonia and urine
from the men’s room, phantom display lights
luring the shadows over the inventions of Edison
and Bell, and dusty monuments to a century
of industrial progress, lies the mock-up L.A.,
whose perusal has been assigned to my daughter’s
fourth-grade class in California history.
Fallen into ruin, its plexiglass sky yellowing
and covered with cracks, the fault lines of heaven,
it is soon to be hauled off with the duplicate
rhino horns and kachina dolls dulled with varnish.
Sarah circles the city, her face looming
large as a god’s over buildings, across avenues
and boulevards from Vignes to Macy, then back
around the to the borders of Beaudry and Eighth Street,
where in 1938 my father sat alone
in the Tiptop Diner and made tomato soup
from a free bowl of hot water and catsup.
Across the street was the office of the L.A. Times
where several upstanding Christian men had conspired
to steal the water from the Owens Valley.
Our farm became a scrap yard of rotted pears,
a bone yard, irrigation canals dried up
And turned to sage. A thousand lives in ruin
while L.A.’s San Fernando Valley rose
from desert into orange groves, and overnight,
made a fortune for the city fathers. One day
our hayrack caught fire and there was hell
in the air. On the roof, my father saw
in the distance a Hindu city with camels,
water buffalo, and four elephants: Gunga Din.
water gone, vultures circling, Hollywood
was moving in. We followed Mulholland’s
aqueduct south to L.A. and the cool dark
of the Pantages Theatre in blazing August
while my father hunted for cheap housing
shacks with swamp boxes near Echo Park.
Each day he rode the classifieds
until the bars looked better, drank warm Pabst
at Mickey’s Hideout where Franz Wefel
sang Verdi arias and told him stories
of Garbo, Brecht, Huxley, and Thomas Mann.
Later, he worked the rigs on Signal Hill
for a dollar a day, slinging the pipe tongs
and coming home smelling of oil and mud.
The days: morning light opening the streets
like a huge hand, then the bruised fist
of evening, that incredible pink and blue
bleeding into night, and the homeless
in Pershing Square claiming their benches again.
That summer he was shipped to Okinawa,
the Japanese trucked like crates of oranges
to Manzanar near Lone Pine in the Owens Valley,
and I wandered among the jacarandas
and birds of paradise at the Public Library
reading the Communist Manifesto
and plotting revenge. But I was a child.
Now I study Blake’s Songs in rare editions
at Huntington’s Museum and Botanical Gardens
and imagine the great patron and his pals
looking down on L.A. from the veranda
and sighing, Bill Mullholand made this city,
as the sun pales once more beneath a purple fist.
So, here is the Hall of Records, and Union Station
where my father, returned from the Pacific,
swore that we would head back north again.
Last night on television a man named Rodney King
showed how the city had progressed beyond
its primitive beginnings, how the open hand
of the law could touch a man in his very bones.
And there, staring back from the west end
of Spring Street, is my daughter learning her lessons
as she bends down for a closer look, pale blue eyes
descending slowly over the city, setting like
twin suns above the Department of Water and Power.
Author Note: Although the story of the Owens Valley/Los Angeles aqueduct is generally well known (and debated) in California, it may be less known elsewhere other than through the film, Chinatown, which is not, obviously, not a documentary but a drama loosely based on the incidents leading to the construction of the aqueduct. In 1905, encouraged by repeated headlines in the Los Angeles Times declaring a state of drought, citizens of Los Angeles voted for a bond issue to finance the building of an aqueduct from the Owens Valley 230 miles northeast of the city, a project of astonishing proportions successfully carried out by the brilliant, self-taught engineer, William Mulholland. But the aqueduct was brought not to Los Angeles but rather to the San Fernando Valley a few miles northwest of L.A., where a group known as the San Fernando Valley land syndicate—including the owner of the Los Angeles Times, Henry Huntington, Moses Sherman (a member of the L.A. water board), and other fabulously wealthy men—had purchased thousands of acres of cheap land that would now be worth tens of millions of dollars. Two years after construction was completed, the San Fernando Valley was annexed to Los Angeles (thus Noah Cross’s famous line in Chinatown, “Either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water”). Over the years, the effect upon farmers in the Owens Valley was disastrous, but the economic benefit to L.A. was beyond measure; it would be fair to speculate that without the aqueduct, L.A. today would be a small city about the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In my poem, the story is told from the point-of-view of a former resident (and victim) in the Owens Valley; Franz Werfel, author of Song of Bernadette and friend of Kafka, was part of the European émigré community in L.A. during the late thirties and forties, along with Mann and the others named here; Manzanar was a prison camp for Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II; the Rodney King beating, widely televised, culminated in the L.A. riots of 1992.
Source: The Art of the Lathe (1998), published by Alice James Books.
The son of a lathe operator, B.H. Fairchild grew up in small towns in Texas and Kansas. He’s won numerous awards, including the William Carlos Williams Award, Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the California Book Award.
by Erika Ayón
As dawn breaks through the crimson curtains,
you rise, kiss Amá goodbye, the only time
I see you do this, drive away,
circles of dust and tire marks remain.
You return four months later with the trunk full
of crates of strawberries peaches, apricots,
grapes, and plums. The nectar seduces our lips,
seeps through our fingers. Our nights fill
with dreams of this Garden hidden
in the center of the valley.
Most nights you sit in the dark, whisper
about a scornful sun, of being forced
by a landowner to hold a blue whistle
between your lips so you won’t be tempted
to consume the fruits you pick. The sound
of whistles merged with the rustle of the wind
fills the fields like a bird song.
How the strawberries bleed onto your cut,
blistered hands. How people are plucked
from trees by the immigration police. How rows
of men lie down to rest at night with love letters,
photographs planted above their chest.
Erika Ayón emigrated from Mexico when she was five years old, grew up in South Central Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English. She was selected as a 2009 Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow and has taught poetry to middle and high school students.
by Lewis MacAdams
“If politics were the science of humanity.”
Dear American people, I’ve just got
to talk to you about your government.
You are the government,
the way we are the earth and sky, the way
we are the blood and the government
the branches of the tree. You and I
are the government and we need
no more amateur presidents, please.
Once again, if you and I are the suit,
the government’s the tie we wear into the world.
America, we are the fabric; and to knit that tie together
takes statecraft. Is it too much to ask ourselves
to pay attention?
To make of government a proper tool?
To make of governing a skill and craft to
steer the ship of earth into daylight?
Source: Dear Oxygen: New & Selected Poems, 1966-2011, published by University of New Orleans Press (2011).
Lewis MacAdams is the author of a dozen books and tapes of poetry, as well as The Birth of The Cool, a cultural history of the idea of cool. MacAdams is cofounder of Friends of The Los Angeles River (FoLAR) established in 1985 bring the Los Angeles River back to life.
by Suzanne Lummis
It’s late, so the late
Karen Carpenter comes off
the radio at 1 a.m. The diners
complain; she’s passé, she’s so
post-mortem. You see,
it’s Night of the Living.
Outside the sirens rise up
and home in. Now I’m upstairs
asleep, lost to this din,
but downstairs the Usuals
stake out a square
of linoleum, sit down and
Like the jailed I bet
they get the same damn thing.
They sip the rim. I bet
at this hour the donuts
lie face up, half
human. The walls are glass
there, so those guys can see
the fix they’re in: a block
of illegally parked cars,
laundries, liquor stores with
something for everyone who still
At a time like this who
drinks caffeine with cream
or black? They must have given
up. They must know
they won’t sleep again. I bet
when Macbeth set out
to kill it he thought, well,
here’s someplace to begin.
I may be asleep, but my insomniac
heart rides out to join up
with them, those late,
late bloomers at
The Donut Inn.
Source: In Danger (1999), published by The Roundhouse Press.
Suzanne Lummis is an executive board member of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, the California correspondent for New Mexico’s Malpais Review, and a longtime award-winning teacher for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Recent poems have appeared in The Rattling Wall, Hotel Amerika, and are forthcoming in Solo Novo and an important new literary magazine which will debut this fall, Miramar.
by Wanda Coleman
after the long day’s hustle, Papa returned
home waving fistfuls of Tootsie Rolls, wolfed down
his supper, changed from his suit into his long-sleeved
gray coveralls or blue cotton smock and slid out of
silky stockings and Italian leather loafers into white
cotton socks and well-scuffed All-American work shoes
for his night shift scrubbing and waxing corporation floors
we missed his loud full laughter
around the television and what company we had
wasn’t as interesting as the visitors
who came through when he hung around home
but we trusted Papa was doing his best
to become “healthy, wealthy and wise”
without shame over shameful wages—enough
indian head nickels to finance a scheme
(the men he worked graveyard with
always became buddies
and no matter whose car broke down,
there was always a ride to or from home
or a spot until pay day)
one night Mama had an emergency. she
bundled us into a cab and took us down to
the building and knocked on the glass until
Papa opened the door. he carried us inside where,
in jammies, robes, and slippers, we
curled up in blankets on a mahogany desk
in that giant office. then we watched Papa run
the long dustbroom across the black-and-white
squares of linoleum, our lids drooping to
a close as he rolled in a giant pail of
hot sudsy water and began to sling the
industrial mop, singing low Old Man River
at sunrise, we woke as he deposited us, one
child to a shoulder, onto the back seat
of the Pontiac for our dreamlike journey home
but first stop—sinkers, hot chocolate and smiles
Source: Bathwater Wine, published by Black Sparrow Books (1998)
Award-winning poet, essayist and fiction writer Wanda Coleman was born and raised in Watts. She’s written 15 books of poetry and fiction.