by David Henderson
California, North Atlantic books
Umbra poet/founder and editor of the long-defunct East Village Other and Jimi Hendrix biographer David Henderson does not push the envelope as much as he opens it and with his feet planted firmly on the ground, makes sure the reader gets the message of Neo-California, a collection of his poems recently published by North Atlantic books. Born in New York of African-American parentage, Henderson informs us in his acknowledgments that these poems are'meditations on his Third World America'. The fourth collection to be published by this baby-boomer is a telling look at the permutations of the American landscape as the poet moves us through it from New York to Berkeley with his wry observations.
The view is from its hotel rooms, its bars, its beaches, its universities, its restaurants, its cities and desserts, places that appear on a map and disappear, offered in a narrative style that can become incantatory when reflecting on the Mezoic cultures that proceeded our present, reviving the ancient rhythms through repetition, or as droll as a cloud, as in "Diagonal," where the poet drifts along the diagonal lines of a small California town towards a shopping mall.
Not individually dated for the most part but grouped under the headings "Berkeley Trees", "Blackgangster/Orisha" (Orisha as in'saint' in the West African Yoruba religious pantheon), "Cali/Aztlan" ('Cali' being the black woman, Califa California is supposedly named after, and'Aztlan', the spiritual nation of pre-Colombian, pre-Mexican times), and "Neo", there is a chronology of thematic concern that forces a review of history versus contemporary politics and social attitudes while never allowing itself to become mere propaganda. "Mexico City Inaugural", in "Berkeley Trees", touches on the plight of an Indian woman in traffic off the Zocalo who has only Holy Water to sell. There is the recounting of a tale of a great stone head of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain that had stood in a village for centuries being bartered for modern conveniences and services like public education to the Museum of Anthropology. Back on this side of the border, the motif of the Berkeley Trees' serves as a proscenium through which Henderson eyes the Bay Area when speeding through it in the company of his friend and colleague, the great Puerto Rican poet Victor Hernandez Cruz, offering us a hilariously jaundiced view of the area as he pays homage to his friend and to the Mission district.
What comes through in all of this is a sense of alienation, a sense of restlessness that must look for its inspiration to a somewhat mythic, perhaps idealized past that can never find comfort in the present and so must always hope for some future redemption, where in the hands of a lesser poet than Henderson platitudes might abound.