Dennis Schmitz’s “The California Phrasebook”

Dennis Schmitz’s poem “The California Phrasebook” has one of those similes in the first stanza that will make you forever look at an everyday object differently, in this case stop lights:

West of the Sierras where
the Central Valley drifts on its crusts of almond
orchards, the fields
die in a holiday accident,
the freeways snapping
back in the dust like severed
arteries while the accomplished
doctor of silence stitches the evening
closed with stoplights which
never hold.

The doctor of silence; stoplights which never hold; the fields dying in a holiday accident — I mean, wow! And this opening California-as-corporeal image is only the beginning of a whole string of images which illuminate how you can look at something regular from another perspective, a perspective expanded, made both immediately recognizable and strange, and complicated.

Schmitz’s poems, at least in the collection I have (which is About Night, his 1993 Selected and New collection) consistently serve up an thoroughly vivid image and then swerve with it to somewhere not weird exactly, not gothic exactly, but somewhere that borders all the dark and twisty places. The line breaks are caesuras of a big breath to finish out the thought, of emphasis in the rhythm of a master storyteller who’s telling the story by looking at what you’d say are all the wrong/tangential details, but there the whole scene anyway, the whole main point of the story told anyway.

In “California Phrasebook,” there are Italian uncles who sit in the arbors, sit in the body of California,

[…] stirring anise-flavored
coffees, red bandanas
over their knees pulsing
with the sweating
body’s rhythm like an open
chest in which the transplanted
organ of the homeland has not yet
begun to function.

That one takes a minute longer to parse. Grammatically it’s the red bandanas over the knees which are like an open chest, but of course that also means the Italian men are like transplanted hearts, now in California which has not yet accepted them (and, it is implied, might or might not). But it’s also the “organ of the homeland” and though overall the body within the poem is California, within the sentence the uncles also have bodies, have knees — so their heart is their homeland, what they have of it, which they have brought with them, transplanted into their chests, but not yet functioning as a beating heart should, now that they’re in California.

After more and more body images across the state, the third and final stanza is addressed to “You who arrived late / from some forgotten Kansas / laminated of wheat & the sweet / alfalfa wasted with incurable winter […].” In California, though, “the only / winter is overweight with rain” and the fallen, wet fruit of it is an “early unearned / bitterness —like the bum who drowses / under the indelible azaleas scrawled / against the capitol’s white walls.”  That image, as they all are, is expanded and complicated. The bum (who is like the California winter in the Valley), is

a fragrant perennial.
He is less foreign than you,
but you must learn his difficult
language full of inflections for another
self palpable as the stone in spoiled
fruit. Another self! […]

The progression there, from winter’s description, to winter who is like a bum, a bum who is like a perennial, a perennial bum who is a foreigner whose language you must learn, learn for another self (your self?), and that self is palpable as the stone in not just fruit but spoiled fruit (winter is overweight with rain and with fallen, wet fruit…) — it makes no and perfect sense and is both deadpan and heartfelt. There is no building towards a single image in these poems — think of how many writers would hit upon the very first body image, the highways as arteries and the stoplights as stitches that do not hold, and stop there. Or the Italian uncles with the transplanted hearts — these are absolutely images that in a workshop we’d say are a poem entire, the end, you’re done.

But here we are not quite halfway through the last stanza of “California Phrasebook” and two more body images are yet to come. Last, but not least, given that this is a poem about California, earthquakes show up. After this revelation of the other self,

[…] The cheap
foundations of love shift—
before you always built in the quake-
proof plains where small rivers
pillow their heads in poplar
roots & turn all night
in the drought’s persistent
insomnia.

“Small rivers / pillow their heads in poplar / roots”! The last two and a half lines of the poem follow up this earthquake idea, with “cellarless houses sway[ing] at the slightest / tremor.” But between the quake-less drought’s insomnia and California’s earthquake-prone cellarless houses, there is a cellar of dirt

still alive with roots
from which your father cut
your life in rigid board walls
incredibly steady
on the rippling floor of yellow
grain. […]

We can see the father cut the boards, and then Schmitz raises them to a house with rippling grain fields for a floor. And this house is not the cellarless houses which end the poem. Those houses sway. But the house built in the quake-proof plains where the small rivers pillow their heads, those houses are rigid. But, it is implied, the rigid house is not where the speaker of the poem lives anymore. He’s in California, with all the other transplants.

They’re unsettling, these poems of Dennis Schmitz’s, but the kind of unsettling that makes you want to keep reading them. (Though, perhaps, only one a night.) And I don’t think I will be able to get far from the idea of California as body now. I had “California Phrasebook” dog-eared from the last time I read it, which was for a class in college in approximately 1999, and I had remembered Schmitz as sort of fun/collage-y image/peculiar quirky poet. And I didn’t remember “California Phrasebook” specifically. Which just goes to remind me that I too sometimes skimmed English assignments right before class and paid too little attention at the time and waited 10+ years to go back to it; that I too was dumb when I was young. But now that I’m [ahem harrumph age] I will not wait so long to revisit “California Phrasebook” and the other poems in About Night.

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