Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage is an exceptional book of poems by Penny Perry.  It is at once memoir, cultural and period snapshot and volume of compelling and grace-filled poems.  Here, in these autobiographical poems, Penny Perry shapes a coming-of-age story filled with abandonment and redemption (or the “disposal” and “salvage” of the title).

Penny Perry’s collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage, is set in sunny Southern California, “a place everyone wants to visit,” but the reader soon hears that not all is cheery here:

I learned early past every harbor
there is a line in the horizon,
a final swell, a last door you can’t open.

Dare to lift trash can lids in paradise.
Peer under dead palm branches
for body parts you’ve left behind.”

And it’s this “left behind” that is a major theme, captured first in the book’s title (which was the name of her father’s junk yard — “my mother, an English major, named it — “) and carried as the abandonment and survival which mark these poems.  

In addition to parental abandonment, which is central to the book:

After my mother died, [my father] disappeared.
We became each other’s refuse,
egg-shell reminders of a former life.
Like gulls, those unwelcome picnic guests,
we circled each other…

there is also her grandfather’s casting off his Jewish identity:

Blonde, blue-eyed, impeccable English,
he packed his prayer shawl and yarmulke,
changed his last name,
dressed in “Episcopalian clothes:”
white shirt, tie, black shoes.

Additionally seen are “old men playing cards” on the Santa Monica boardwalk by the beach, men who “escaped the Czar, Stalin, Hitler/and have come as far west as they could go.”

And, early in the book, when doctors first began to use ether,

The doctor glanced at his medical license
framed on the wall behind him,
said he was afraid to use ether.

her mother’s sister dies during a medical procedure: “It happened fast.  Ether, a busy housewife,/pulled down the shades.”

What, and who, has been left behind (as well as the feeling of being left behind) is one of the central motifs of this collection of poems.

But there is also salvage, and survival.  Here is one example, and one of my favorite poems from the book:


Three days after my mother died,
her hollyhocks tumbled down
under their own weight.  My father disappeared.
I had eaten the last

of her meatloaf wrapped in wax paper.
She had waved me out of her kitchen.
“No need to learn to cook.
You’ll be a professor.” She ground her own meat,

the red strings wriggling like worms.
Though I only had my learner’s permit,
I drove her old PLYMOUTH to the store.
There were whole aisles in SAFEWAY

she never went down. That first day I bought
BIRD’S EYE frozen broccoli,
macaroni and cheese. The mothers
of my friends told their daughters,

“Stay away from her.  Who knows
what’s going on in that house?
Parties.  Boys.”  There were no parties.
No boys.  Nights, I would call Time

to her a lady say it was three-oh-three.
I made JELLO and SWANSON’S turkey dinners.
I asked the gym teacher, perky Miss Butler,
a woman whom a month before I would never

have talked to, about salads.  Miss Butler
coached the girls’ marching drill team.
She told me she had polio as a child.
People could survive all sorts of things.

She said, “Wash the lettuce first.”
I fried hamburger meat, flames jumping
wildly under the iron skillet.  A month later,
my father reappeared, moved us to a dingy

apartment across town.  Nights, I would sit
in my mother’s car in front of our old house.
The new owner, a gardener, stacked
my mother’s hollyhocks.

I couldn’t see the pale pink, ruby, and yellow
flowers in the dark.  But I knew they were there.
(previously published in Contemporary World Poetry)

What impresses me most about Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage is the well-crafted way the book is put together.  Not only does this volume of poetry mesh two opposing conditions (disposal and salvage), a long-standing poetic tradition, but also, in her placement of poems, this talented poet links her poems, so there’s a unified bridge (another great tradition in American poetry) by which all the emotional and cultural perspectives bump up against each other.  For example, in “Noon under the Orange Trees,” she describes her mother, on her final afternoon, in a set of contrasts:

A California housewife —
blue jeans, hair in curlers
wrapped in a red bandana —
sits under an orange tree
eating a peanut butter sandwich,
reading Harper’s Bazaar,
studying models in LILY ANNE suits
posing on Park Avenue.

In the next poem, “Foretelling,” the grandmother arrives in 

… her stylish wool suit, a LILY
ANNE copy, she steps up our stone path
and opens the door

and is told of her daughter’s sudden death.  The small detail of the name-brand suits links the poems.  (The author uses specific store and brand names to ground many of her poems in time and place.)

This technique is also evident in the ending, and its images, of “Living in a Place Everyone Wants to Visit:”

Breathe in the scent of orange blossoms.
Count as lucky the waves in the sea.

which links to the final lines of the ensuing poem, “Floating:”

The doctor waved my mother in.
White face, head back, Leona was no longer breathing.
The ribbon in her dark hair floated in the breeze of the fan.

Penny Perry’s Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press) is powerful and captivating; her poetry, clear, gracious and graceful.  This is a standout book by a splendid poet.

Click here to go to Garden Oak Press.

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