Poems to an Imaginary Friend: On Collier Nogues and David Hernandez

Categories: OC Bookly
Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series
Stood in line with all variety of art lovers for the Richard Diebenkorn show at OC Museum of Art last Sunday, a long line, eager fans, and admission free that morning. We are meant to understand that RD's work is elaborate construction, puzzling out of forms, and that living in Ocean Park, CA has less to do with the bright color and rectangular composition, but of course his amazing, complex multi-dimensional canvasses were not painted in Bismarck, North Dakota​ or East Timor. They struck me all week as less narrative than verse, so that I count it serendipitous to have been reading poets at the same time, and those for whom some of life happens in our own county of Orange, of all places, studying and teaching and listening and thinking while composing here. Imagine!
"Halfway Down the Stairs" - Saturday mornings
And why not? Wallace Stevens worked as a lawyer for an insurance company. William Carlos Williams had a day job as a pediatrician. Thomas McGrath, fired for being a Red (back when that meant something) from Cal State LA, wrote poems and screenplays and labored in a woodworking factory owned, as it happens, by the late husband of KPFK children's radio show host (and all-around creative force) the legendary "Uncle Ruthie" Buell.
Tom McGrath (1916-1990)
​Her beloved Stanley Schwartz sympathized (to coin a phrase) with the blacklisted Marxist poet, teacher and author of the classic Letter to an Imaginary Friend, and so Stanley hired McGrath, one of ​the country's great poets, to carve the figures of animals out of hardwood when he was not writing his long, class-conscious Whitmanic lines--stylistically quite the opposite of two poets I consider here--but a story worth sharing by way of one's longing for art and the struggle for the legal tender.

It is difficult to find the news in a newspaper. Hell, it's difficult to find the newspaper. It is difficult to get the news from poems yet you and I and Dr. Williams know that women and men and children die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. So it's nice when poetry comes to you, or at least to me, at work, with a celebrated poet sitting right there in a teachers staff meeting or walking the arborial showplace that is the UC Irvine campus, or observed cheerfully meeting students for office hours at a table in the terrarium-like commons, with its pleasant din of intellectual labor
Blue - in a good way

One such poet is Collier Nogues. Here she is, smiling. It's a lovely, generous smile perhaps because Nogues has a lot to be happy about, and yet unhappy, too. Happy because her collection, On the Other Sid​e, Blue is a remarkable book and because she is so blue, by which we mean so thoughtfully, carefully, whimsically and syntactically immersed in the color and apprehension and purposeful noticing of experience. The work here is whatever the opposite of introspective is, perhaps outrospective? Which is to say that the place of the line in her short, intense poems is a place to linger, to go back to after reading the poem the first time. In poems recalling, summoning her dead mother to considering broken and tender love, it is in the short line arranged nearly as epigram, as caption of scenes, with the killer line:

"Once a plane goes down, the cause is something else,      No matter how rough the flight was"
     "Nothing is a warning sign because there is nothing coming requiring
Short, fragmented story-poems with dialog and scene, rendered so economically as to suggest dictionary word usage examples, here about lovers and the vulnerability and embarrassment of love, family genealogy,episodes of memory reconsidered. One of the shortest and most powerful finds Nogues interrupting herself, knowing something so immediate that saying it is impossibly both useless and necessary, just to get through:

"Widow ---
Echo ---
There is no proper name
For the daughter left without a mother."

​Then there's David Hernandez, another UC Irvine Lecturer, and author of a Young Adult novel (Suckerpunch) and, more recently, Hoodwinked.  He is one smart, mean, funny guy. This award-winning book comes with the recommendation of Amy Gerstler (Dearest Creature), who wrote the intro, pointing out the "whiff of mischief about the title." For sure, so much here is about making mischief, making the deadpan alive, like an old joke finally gotten.

     "They didn't trust the other country's water..."
And yet Hernandez writes generously, as in the poem "Remember it Wrong," in which he hoaxes us, hoaxes the hoaxer, too, responding to James "A Million Little Pieces" Frey, famous shamed/celebrated teller of tall tales: "Memory is a murky thing, always changing its mind." The message, as it were, is instructive, adding more subjective to subjectivity in a house of mirrors, which fools and taunts here, and in another poem one about the war(s) called, yes, "Victory Song": "Soon as we captured the flag we didn't want it anymore." Ha!
Or in "Head Case," where Hernandez plays a game of free --- or perhaps feral --- association with unlikely circumstances needing, somehow, even more unlikelihood:

"The biologist who carried the severed
      head of a harbor seal to the airport
      was without a permit to carry
      such a thing. To carry such a thing
      his head was somewhere else
      besides the mantel of his shoulders.
      elsewhere is where his head was
      like the head of the seal he carried..."

And so on, messing around formally with the premise, and messing with, for sure, our heads, and finding a way to confront the biologist, the seal, his own poet's head game.

​So who knows what artists and poets can be thinking when they write and paint and otherwise make up their minds about the rest of us. Or where they might be doing it. It is as if, finally, they are writing to the possibility of all of us, as well as the us of us. Thanks for that! 

Next month, April, is National Poetry Month.  
​Here's a reminder, not to mention two recommendations, toward celebrating.  Don't say I never gave you anything.

On the Other Side, Blue, Collier Nogues, Four Way Books, 80 pp., $15.95
Hoodwinked, David Hernandez, Sarabande, 71 pp., $14.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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