Let Us All Be From Somewhere

A Review of The Place That Inhabits Us

The Place that Inhabits Us:  Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed
Sixteen Rivers Press and Robert Hass
Small Press Distribution 2010, 160 pages
Reviewed by Molly Spencer

In 1999, a handful of San Francisco Bay Area poets founded Sixteen Rivers Press, named for the sixteen rivers that flow into the San Francisco Bay. The press runs on a cooperative, shared-work model — poets whose manuscripts are selected for publication by Sixteen Rivers Press become members of the collective for three years, and help run all aspects of the press. Originally founded as an alternative publishing avenue to give voice to Bay Area poets by publishing individual collections, Sixteen Rivers Press turned its attention in 2010 to creating a curated volume of poems that gives voice to the region, its landscape and history, and to the poetic conversation happening here.

As a newcomer to the Bay Area I was thrilled to find The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed. It is at once index and map: an index of the landscape here — which ranges from rough oceanside cliffs, to squared-off farmland; from hills that seem to roll and swell as a person curled into sleep might, to the improbable rash of peninsula towns built one on top of the other; and map of the Bay Area’s vibrant literary scene. Beyond that, the anthology becomes a guide for inviting a landscape into our lives and spirits, for allowing a landscape to shape us even as we attempt to shape it with our plans and plantings, our many small comings and goings on this planet.

As Robert Hass points out in his foreword to the volume, “the first anthology of a regional poetry was probably the set of words that the first members of the human species said to each other….” This call to our origins is the perfect sentence with which to begin this anthology, as the landscape here is varied and awe-inspiring enough to be an everyday reminder of primordial forces that have shaped, and continue to shape, this region. By now we are far past needing words for a bowl or a spoon, far past seeking a shared code for a cry for help or the blooming of love. What we need now is a vocabulary for the amazing contrasts of topography here, the sometimes bewildering juxtapositions of ocean, valley, wetland, desert, and mountain. For chilly fog and hot sun and snow all on one May afternoon in a place we call Northern California. For the patchwork collection of historic missions, a world class city, and a jumble of suburban towns crowding together at the base of the hills. For the excitement of wild lands, a new frontier, a rush toward whatever gold — nuggets, computer chips, touch screens, or local organic peaches — is most recently discovered. For the waves of migration, and the grafting of innumerable nations, languages, and histories onto one 7000-square-foot piece of terrain. For the fault line’s whisper, Someday. For the roar of fire on tinder-dry hillside, again. And, of course, for the grand expanse of the Pacific, the reminder that here we are on the edge of it all. The Place That Inhabits Us gives us that vocabulary, and also weaves a thread of the region’s history through its pages, with poems exploring shared histories — such as the AIDS epidemic, the lynching of two Mexicanos in 1877, and the 1991 Oakland - Berkeley Hills fire — and personal histories: a late night trip to a gay bar; a particular Mother’s Day in a Chinese-American family; an armed robbery in the Tenderloin; the unfolding of grief on Thanksgiving Day on the Sonoma Coast.
As a literary echo of the many landscapes, languages, and histories unfolding in the Bay Area today, this anthology includes work from a broad range of poets. We have Adrienne Rich reminding us, “These are not the roads / you knew me by. But the woman driving, walking, watching / for life and death is the same” (from “Atlas of a Difficult World”). Gary Snyder tells of a journey through landscapes on the way home from the mountains that ends with “Cool fog / smell of straw mats / cup of green tea / by the Bay” (from “Home from the Sierra”). Walt Whitman stands on the Pacific’s edge facing west, seeing “the circle almost circled,” wondering “...where is what I started for, so long ago?” (from “Facing West From California’s Shores”).  We have Cezlaw Milosz’s perfect day in Berkeley memorialized in his poem, “Gift,” and Kay Ryan trying to convince us in “Green Hills” that:

Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the languor of their
rolling over.

Yet even amongst these well-known names and poets (and more than are mentioned here beside), we have many voices that, while lesser-known, are just as skilled at evoking this region’s lives and landscapes, as with Melody Lacina’s “Rain in January,” when, during the rainy season, a grieving lover grows “tired of trying to stay dry. / I close my eyes and remember / how you opened me as if I were all / doors and windows, your fingers and tongue / unlatching me to let the weather in.” As with John Savant’s poem about a group of elders playing bocce ball at North Beach:

when they do well,
        and the balls come
                daringly close
to the center of light,
        their eyes do not smile
                nor do they cheer
as young men might;
        but their bodies, it seems,
               on those scimitar legs,
with their arms bent
        like brackets — their bodies
                grow rounder for knowing.
(from “Bocce Ball: North Beach”).

And here is Molly Fisk’s meditation on the Hunter’s Moon and the varied elements it shines down upon:

…              Its pale gaze caresses
the lovers, curled together under a quilt,
dreaming alone, and shines on the scattered
ashes of terrible fires, on the owl’s black flight,
on the whelks, on the murmuring kelp,
on the whale that washed up six weeks ago
at the base of the dunes, and it shines
on the backhoe that buried her.

(from “Hunter’s Moon”)

Reading through this anthology, we sense that the Sixteen Rivers editors curated and grouped the poems into sections carefully and intentionally. This allows the poems, and the landscapes they evoke, to converse with one another. The first section begins with that which is all around (This Air). Subsequent sections consider the idea of place as refuge, moments of spiritual transcendence brought forth by nature, cycles of life and death, and the experience of living out time in a liminal space, both physical and metaphorical. The anthology begins at Lands’ End — where August Kleinzahler reminds us that “this air, / … feels as if it hasn’t touched land / for a thousand miles” — and ends on a stream flowing “away, out / Of the mountain, towards the bay, / Bound on its long recurrent / Cycle from the sky to the sea” (from Kenneth Rexroth’s “Time Spirals”).

At the conclusion of this gathering of 100 poems, we feel both that these poems couldn’t have been written amidst any other landscape than the San Francisco Bay watershed, and that their rhythms and wisdom, their varied vocabulary of place, can apply to every single life regardless of geography. It brings to mind Bob Hicok’s poem “A Primer.” Although that poem unfolds in a different place and a very different landscape, its concluding lines are, I think, an apt comment on The Place That Inhabits Us: “Let us all be from somewhere. / Let us tell each other everything we can.”

Molly Spencer's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX, Cave Wall, Linebreak, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. She writes about poetry, the writing life, and parenthood at mollyspencer.wordpress.com. A native Michigander and erstwhile Minnesotan, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their three children.

Make a free website with Yola