Book Review

Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles by Charlotte Innes. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2009.$14.

Reviewed by Kathleen Eull

Charlotte Innes weaves multiple legacies through her collection Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles. The first is the very personal legacy of her grandfather, who died in a German concentration camp and who is represented by the 3-volume set of the 1902-edition of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, from which Innes draws her title and which she identifies as her only “tangible inheritance.” The other is the larger human legacy of loss, including the horror of war, the need for salvation and the possibilities of transformation. These weighty themes wend through the strongest poems without ever being more than the reader can bear. Her sound and images are too captivating, too hauntingly beautiful not to compel.   

Figuring strongly in Innes’s poems are symbols of journey, including the recurring and iconic image of the train. The train is a figure both romantic and tragic with connotations of freedom, loss, death and spirit. In no poem is it more essential than in “Child With Suitcase.” The poem opens with a child, a girl, standing in a field surrounded by images of innocence and spirituality: a white ribbon, a clutch of flowers described as “froth.” While the initial images are of the long grass, flowers and the white ribbon, this girl is frowning. It is the reader’s first clue, a signal that all is not as it should be:

In a field of long grass, flowers,
a girl in a striped dress, frowning.
Her white ribbon. At the gate,
among the weeds, a black suitcase.

Dear God! What am I saying?
That I still breathe this breath?

God’s breath. A froth of flowers
in the girl’s hand. White, lacy.
Hems of angels. Call them that.
Why not? How serious she is,

But why the weeds at the gate and why the startling image of the black suitcase amid all that wavering white? Again, notice the foreshadowing. Quite simply, weeds are noxious and flourish at the expense of more desirable plants. They smother and kill. They also are often indicative of neglect. The black suitcase is located there among the weeds. It is an important detail as the poem pushes forward into the fourth stanza:

as if she might tell of steam rising
from the wheels of trains in stations
or the forced embrace between air
and air that’s not air but black
phlegm, a choking unto death.

Those flowers. I couldn’t lose myself
even then. How far I’ve come,
still carrying my black suitcase,
to breathe the air of that field again.

With a sense of growing dread, we arrive at the train, to its darker image of loss and tragedy and meet the specter head on. In five lines, Innes returns us to a collective and cultural memory we have been grappling with since the collection opened, but here we realize the full horror of it: the loss of life on an unbearable scale, all represented by this one girl. Is the poet writing about a photograph? A story retold? The poem certainly has a photographic quality. In the end, it doesn’t matter. In our collective memories, we have all seen this girl, and Innes wants us to remember her. In the final stanza, the girl becomes the poet, the poet becomes the girl, and the girl becomes the witness and the memory. The black suitcase, death or mortality, now firmly in hand is the only thing closed, still and certain.

Often, when addressing the past and stories handed down, Innes is very straight forward as in “The Moon in Theresienstadt,” but when she wants to take us into the past, we journey on the train. Her more present journey uses a different vehicle, literally and metaphorically. In discussing the near past, travel happens in the car. This is true of several poems, including “Syzygy” where we first meet the recurring figure of “my friend the philosopher.” This figure not only assists in moving the narrative, he begins to function as an alter ego or second voice, allowing for fuller discussion of the inner and unseen. Made known first in “Syzygy,” the fourth poem of the collection, he makes named and pointed appearances in four others, including the poem titled “My Friend the Philosopher.” The word syzygy has its root in the Latin for syzygia or “yoked together” (OED) and though it has applications and is subtly redefined in nearly every discipline, it is that yoking or combination of elements which remains constant. Innes’ use is no exception. The voice of the philosopher defines this for the reader early:

A friend, driving home East from Utah,
saw an immense orange and pink sunset
reflected on the Eastern sky, as if
the sun were setting and rising at once,

a fine yoking of opposites, he said,
or a sort of doubling, light for two days,
two choices, one beneficial, one not…
and so on—my friend’s a philosopher.

What the poem establishes is not just casual musing about meteorological effects, but a yoking of these two persons, poet and philosopher, and these two voices. A dialogue wends its way through the collection, trying to provide a human context for the grief and sorrow which threaten to overtake us in war time or in peace. As “My Friend the Philosopher” opens, the philosopher himself is heavy with losses of war, the loss of innocence to life and the cool, business-like way modern conflicts are conducted:

My friend the philosopher sees his brain as a map
some nights, with all the grief in the world
laid out inside, little pink and blue
countries, like candy wrappers, waxed papers
laced with poison  meant to kill a child.

The poem moves on with the philosopher increasingly isolated in his pain and the speaker reaching for him. Her need for him to return is as poignant as any of his grief:

He turns. His pain
smokes and curls to silence. And my world
stops. Why go on and on when his world’s
dead to mine?

The poem returns to that “fine yoking of opposites” to link loss to life and reclaim her friend and those he mourns. Her salvation is inextricably linked to him and his to her. As the sequence of poems progresses, we become connected to these two persons, these two voices, as they circle each other in exposition and inquisition, perhaps ultimately attempting to resolve their own relationship.

Innes is at her most powerful and developed in the longer “Habitable Space” where she seems finally to allow herself the freedom of uncensored release. In this poem, Innes brings together all those themes she has been developing in the collection, weaving them together: the war images, the personal struggles with loss and legacy and the need to define a relationship, to describe the unique place that each person occupies. Still, if you had read nothing else in Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles, this poem would stand on its own and stand apart for its remarkable use of sound. The poem opens:

Mackintosh.      Marzipan.     Tamarind.
The space between the thing and the thing said
seems immeasurable. So much for wading.

Those first three words are no shrinking violets. They are words that unfold slowly but powerfully in the mouth and in the senses. The deliberate pauses between each word of the opening line are exaggerated—not just periods and not just multiple spaces separating the words—Innes uses both. She wants us to take our time. She wants these images to specifically explode. The opening line naturally leads the mind to a careful consideration of the next thought. We locate the spaces. So much for wading, indeed. Now the language becomes more clipped and fragmented. The thoughts are coming faster, threading in Innes terms. Innes touches language itself, the excitement, the ambiguity and the realization that language is the best we have. We hit a knot. Like a refrain, the first three words recur with less space between them, but still broken by periods: “Mackintosh.  Marzipan.  Tamarind.” She fingers each word like a rosary bead.

Finding a home for the unsayable,
unsayable. Back then, the excitement
of the dictionary. Now, grit. But I keep
trying.  Mackintosh.  Marzipan.  Tamarind.
If I break this thread, if I keep knotting
and tying it, maybe it will make sense.

Soon we are awash in images that are both overtly sexual (described in the male terms, “stamen” and “cocks”) and the subtly sensual and female. Innes builds the poem deliberately, adding layers of sound and alliteration to heighten the auditory experience. In the speaker’s memory and in the fifth stanza, it doesn’t just rain:

Riding my bike to school. Water pooling in the brim of my
velour hat, trickling down my neck, though I put the collar of
my mack up. My leather satchel gleaming wetly. My books
dry, but their secrets already seeping.

Words. Let’s try cache. Let’s try cadre. Oh, I’m bursting. Do
you feel it? It’s like stirring hot chocolate with brown scented
sticks. Words pouring and swirling and dripping.

Or the secret sound of you. Gritty, raw. London, was it?
New York? Los Angeles? Darlin,’ you said, in none of
These places. Darlin.’

Like the water, like sexual stirrings themselves, that first secret excitement of language pools but cannot be contained. It is something illicit. Language allows the speaker not just an expression of that sexuality, but a way to own it. Plainly stated, words are a turn on and there is an urgency in the need to share it (“Oh, I’m bursting/Do you feel it?”). However, the poet twice acknowledges something else, something beyond that first energy and something older, twice making reference to “grit” (later as “gritty or raw”). It begins a turn in the poem toward the questions that begin in mid-life and persist as we struggle to reconcile our past and present selves and look toward a more imminent future. It is echoed as Innes recalls the word “marzipan” from her earlier refrain, now using various forms of the word, tracing its etymology as she begins to look into her own history one more time. What she finds there, she still describes alliteratively, but the tone has dampened among words like “stones,” “shouting,” and “stinging.”  We arrive finally at the critical word and the critical turning toward acceptance:

The word honest

Consider the tamarind tree.  The long
stamen, ovary, the veined red flower.
All the sexual organs displayed as one.
The unassuming brown pod, its sweet-sour
essence culled for sauces, drinks, jams, medicine
for sore throats.  One old story says this paste
enhances women’s sexual pleasure—
such joy distilled from one dull, brittle pod.

So it must be with us.

As the language becomes more plain, the speaker becomes more fully rooted in the present and as the poem concludes, names and accepts the fears that persist, reaching  an understanding that ultimately  her peace and redemption lie in that “habitable space, mid thought,/mid sentence, where we might be together.” It is language, the recognition of all its aspect and power, that is both her safety and her salvation. Whether it is a young girl’s bold first leaping into the possibilities language represents, the ability of language to evoke and place, the power of storytelling and the ability to transmit history, or the poet trying to find a place for all these things within herself, in the end, craft is her redemption. It is here, in words themselves that she seems finally to reconcile the past and accept her presence in this moment.  

While the poet reminds us throughout the collection that what is lasting is not the corporeal self, she returns us to just that place with the sort of earthy details that can only be written by the senses and in doing so links us to Ruskinian sensibility. With images of maps, trains and automobiles combined with rich, exotic and sometimes erotic images, Innes takes us on her journey and keeps us suspended between life and an Otherworld. We ride the edge like a rail, able to see both.  Still, we are never allowed to get lost in the ether. It becomes, for us, our own “habitable space.”

Kathleen Eull holds a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She has served as an advisory editor for Emergency Press. Her work has appeared in The Emergency Almanac, Echoes, KNOCK and pith. In addition, an interview with NY-based poet Scott Zieher appears in his second book IMPATIENCE (Emergency Press, 2009).