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.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Arizona recently selected its first poet laureate (Alberto Ríos), making it the 43rd US state with a post of poet or writer laureate.  Ríos was the unanimous first choice of an expert panel (which sent three nominations to the governor) after a selection process outlined by a law passed by the Legislature.

Alberto Ríos was born in Nogales, a small border town in southern Arizona, to a Mexican-American father and a British mother (whom the father met as a soldier in World War II and brought back to Arizona).  He received his MFA from the University of Arizona (in Tucson) and teaches as a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University (in the Phoenix area).  

Ríos is an award-winning poet, novelist and memoirist.  His first book, Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982), was chosen by Donald Justice as winner of the 1981 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.  The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart, winner of the 1984 Western States Book Award, was published by Blue Moon Press.  He was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for his Poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body.  His memoir about growing up on the US-Mexican border, Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), was chosen for the OneBookAZ reading program in 2009.  Ríos also has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

In the 1970s, as part of Poets in the Schools, he traveled all over the state doing workshops in schools and libraries.  When his memoir was selected for the OneBookAZ, he again traveled around the state, going back to many of the same places as he’d been to for Poets in the Schools.

In 2002, a public-art project “Words Over Water” was installed in a series of granite tiles around Tempe Town Lake (in Arizona), each tile inscribed with a thought composed by Alberto Ríos and meant to represent the history of the Salt River.  These single lines are philosophical aphorisms, often humorous, based on the Hispanic tradition of greguerias. Here are four of my favorite ones:

We have rain but it’s a dry rain.

In the desert, water is the only thing that doesn’t taste like chicken.

A lake is a river that has retired.

A lake is a hoof-print of the mighty water-horse.

But Alberto Ríos is a fine poet.  Here are two of his poems:


In the old days of our family
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera — the Land of the Lime —
And her days were happy.

But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bare-back, and sit there
As he held its face in his arms.

And then he did the unspeakable deed
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse’s rear leg.

The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.

When they reached the tress and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.

The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.

But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother
Wore her hair short, like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.
(published in The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body,       Copper Canyon Press, 2002)


Tonio told me at catechism
the big part of the eye
admits good, and the little
black part is for seeing
evil — his mother told him
who was a widow and so
 an authority on such things.
That’s why at night
the black part gets bigger.
That’s why kids can’t go out
at night, and at night
girls take off their clothes
and walk around their
bedrooms or jump on their
beds or wear only sandals
and stand in their windows.
I was the altar boy
who knew about these things,
whose mission on some Sundays
was to remind people of
the night before as they
knelt for Holy Communion.
To keep Christ from falling
I held the metal plate
under chins, while on the thick
red carpet of the altar
I dragged my feet
and waited for the precise
moment: plate to chin
I delivered without expression
the Holy Electric Shock,
the kind that produces
a really large swallowing
and makes people think.
I thought of it as justice.
But on other Sundays the fire
in my eyes was different,
my mission somehow changed.
I would hold the metal plate
a little too hard
against those certain same
nervous chins, and I
I would look
with authority down
the tops of white dresses. 
(published in The Morrow Anthology of Younger 
          American Poets, 1985)

Click to read an interview of Alberto Rios.

Click to see video and hear Alberto Rios.