MARCH 15, 2021
A friend phoned a couple of months ago to say she’d finally decided to consult her physician over the somatic angst the President’s post-election “alternative facts” were evoking in her. Along with a hopeful prescription for something there’s really no pill for, she left the office with “doctor’s orders” to limit her news consumption to an hour a day. Commiserating, it occurred to me that while lies from on high aren’t tangible sticks and stones, they’re hurtful nevertheless and don’t need to bruise to sicken. The body reacts with its visceral fight or flight response, and neither option has any bearing on a relentless official perfidy; the only opponent left to flail at is oneself — the only refuge, a world your assailant doesn’t concede exists.
I. The Elusive Existence of Los Angeles
It was with the backdrop of these December thoughts that I began to read Paul Vangelisti’s Motive and Opportunity. This is a new slim volume of four lyric sections that sandwich a political meditation on secret United States government agency operations. Although Motive and Opportunity was published by Shearsman Books in the United Kingdom, Vangelisti is a prototypical Angeleno and what he offers here are “various attempts at poetic language trying to settle in this metropolitan sprawl of contradictions. Or as Cary McWilliams called it … ‘very much a city that refuses to know itself.’”
The first segment, “Driving Platitudes,” consists of ten short poems that germinated while driving the streets and freeways of the City of Angels. It begins:
A sliver of a moon given way to gibbous.
The blue hour leaves dusk with a tinge of ending.
And of course a labyrinth with a bad boy
at its center and the ungodly habit
of consuming uninvited and invited guests.
What in the puzzle relishing a traveler’s flesh,
what half-queen or anointed bull enforces
this contorted way to offending knowledge?
Here Vangelisti’s minotaur metaphor points not to an alternate, non-existent reality, but to some vaguely dangerous animality just around each turn, which barely catches the eye before it flits past, as in the third poem:
And in this world a furled shadow
sublime, beckoning in obscurity.
There’s no message. The message is that
love too would eat the red wheelbarrow […]
The sequence tells a story, but one covertly whispered in its own code, omitting what’s not meant for our ears. It ends:
Come traveler, lay back in your armchair
with the faintest of melodies and
missing words. Cradle the book
on your left, puzzling the rise and fall
and who may hear simple phrases
and sometimes facts lingering in the tweak
of a dusky breeze on the hillside.
The moon returns underwater
rising to you in greeny choruses,
bubbly labyrinth, a boy at its core.
Lyric and secrecy go hand in hand. The poems provide only clues, but their pleasures — like a blind-shaded blue hour tryst — have little to do with hermeticism. What we enjoy is the tantalizing mixture of seclusion and danger, the very essence of Los Angeles.
The “Driving” poems are followed by an 11-poem sequence titled “The Grid,” where, at least as I read it, the road is replaced by under-perambulated sidewalks. These are Los Angeles blocks laid out over desert that’s only provisionally reclaimed. In most cities, nature reasserts itself with green weeds that grow through the cracks. In Vangelisti’s Los Angeles, aridity and emptiness are primal. Its denizens appear to await some unnamed judgment for their encroachment on a landscape that wasn’t meant for human habitation. Consider the following images:
Beware the ever constant moon,
and the first thing coming
like the Mojave Desert
or the appalling name
Red Rock Canyon […]
[…] And an
even smaller arroyo
from where I speak.
In this wayward basin
it’s mostly emblems […]
And the scraggly palm
glimmering on the hill
above the car wash […]
But who lives in a place like this?
At stale summer’s end,
most brutal of seasons,
skill and technique repeat
the drunken forest.
Out here the con’s always on:
with jaded syncopation
and a tattered back beat.
Stale. Summer. Drunken skill […]
III. The City Itself
The book was originally conceived as a three-section sequence, with the last section, titled “Motive and Opportunity,” narrated by a contemplative detective musing on an unstated crime. That section opens:
Scene of the Crime
Hallway lights likely burned out
and the faintest whiff of ocean
coming this way. You stop in a doorway,
check on cold plaster, and wait.
You sense the story has no ending,
the heart shadows whom it will,
turning right or left in the gloom.
And what’s probably about to happen
is it part of the intrigue or
just the kind of coincidence
you’ve learned to distrust? There,
something dragging, and a warmish
sensation before the tang of salt air.
As the investigation progresses, the detective notes, several poems later, that:
The crime always feels like yours.
That you’ll gamble happiness,
your own and everyone else’s,
just to understand, to uncover
some mysterious combination
of thoughts, images, commonplaces,
adding up, you hope, to nothing less
than a confession. As for motive,
one might as well question the point of
dereliction, or evil itself.
The 23 poems in this final sequence read like straightforward narrative verse, but at a certain elegant distance. What happened and who did it? The answers aren’t understated but almost-stated, like things understood by people too civilized to talk about them. In one poem, “Long Streets,” you might almost be led to suspect that the crimes and the criminals are alternate identities of the City itself.
The latest break in the case just didn’t pan out.
Sketchy evidence and a last minute alibi
(fed-up wife of a to-remain-nameless politician)
ruled out our suspect, another city hall hot shot
it would’ve been so sweet to nail […]
[…] Looking southwest
across the city, mapping left to right the three longest
streets in the world. Figueroa, Vermont, Western,
endings hazy out there in the evening sun.
Maybe something will come up as you eat your sandwich,
take a sip of beer, considering how much of
your life in this lost city begins to make any sense.
IV. Circling Back
As originally submitted, the manuscript was made up of only the above three sections, comprising under 60 printed pages. Tony Frazer, Shearsman’s estimable editor-publisher, liked the poems but asked for more material to flesh out the finished book.
Vangelisti responded with two unrelated pieces. One, “Eyes Closed,” was editorially inserted just before the above “Motive and Opportunity” segment, like a short nap before the finale. It consists of 16 short stanzas that feel as if they’re set in the amorphous doorway between wakefulness and sleep, or maybe more aptly in that fluttering instant when language disassembles into froth. These quiet fugues are both accessible and ephemeral. And if desert Los Angeles is still the setting for this sequence, it becomes a city in which angels might quietly alight. Was this, perhaps, the refuge from Washington lies my body wanted? An escape from the clutches of wakeful unreason into the singular logic of dreams? At least so I sensed when I read them in December.
the last thing seen
as one would
sometimes in a dream
like a rose
in a guessing game
You go to my head
see the tower
see the steeple
leaving the night
to crowd this room
shut windy sky
palm fronds tumbling
and more sky
and this at the end of the mind
dreamt I was dreaming
and woke in sleep
going unusually fast
on the slipperiest of breezes
where it meets Beverly
says the blind pup
by angels pronouns
and most unwilling
and above what
might the sound
of your hello
among the grace now
of one or two honks
in far salmon sky
IV. Circling Back Politically
Inserted just before the dream sequence, is a longish prose meditation Vangelisti contributed to Santa Monica installation artist Michael McMillen’s 2011 Oakland Museum exhibit. The San Jose Mercury News headline for the event proclaimed that McMillen’s mixed-medium collages “construct alternate realities with sculpture, film.” And in this case they do so with an engaging narrative Vangelisti titles “Louis IX Recalling His Crusades” — a weighty historic recounting of espionage agency deception and its perpetrators, hiding in plain view. Tony Frazer placed it, rather appropriately I think, smack in the middle of the book.
The piece opens by citing Harry Truman’s practice of rising early to “visit the Old Masters”.at the National Gallery before opening hours and his disdain for modern art: “It’s a pleasure to look at perfection and then think of the lazy, nutty moderns…” Truman articulated a view held by many Americans, linking experimental art to degenerate or subversive impulses, with this attitude culminating in attacks on the floor of Congress. But Vangelisti goes on to lyrically explore the exact opposite clandestine reality: the CIA’s cold war cultural crusade to promote and fund its own “popular front” American “revolutionary art” movement.
“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I’d love to be able to say that the CIA invented it all,” CIA agent Donald Jameson joked. “Of course, for matters of this sort it could only have been done through the organisations or the operations of the CIA at two or three removes, so that there wouldn’t be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for example, or do anything that would involve these people in the organization. […] If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.”
It was an ingeniously counterintuitive concept. America had its own versions of Socialist Realism with, say, Norman Rockwell, but why compete on Russia’s own playing field? When Van Cliburn won the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, it just confirmed the glories of Russian music. Many of the Eastern Bloc modernist painters were already exiles or expatriates. Why not court them with a new artistic homeland? And what’s not to like about being seen as an avant-garde culture by funding a politically harmless American revolution in painting? And along the way help fill the walls of New York’s nascent MOMA with absolute bargains?
But it had to be as clandestine as any Cold War operation. And, of course, the beneficiary artists couldn’t be let in on the secret of their success either. Vangelisti quotes MOMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller saying (in defense of Diego Rivera) that the Reds would stop being Reds “if only we could get them artistic recognition.”
Meditatively meandering through the Agency’s gilded spider web of artistic deception, Vangelisti disapproves — as would any self-respecting detective. Aficionados of crime novels know the true detective despises nothing more than those who buy and are bought. He quotes Saul Bellow: “So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.” Ditto the true detective.
But was that covert patronage really so awful? Whom did it hurt? And whom did it help? The related covert funding of various literary journals is of course more problematic. But when compared to the non-stop transparent malice of our once and would-be-always President’s calculated disinformation, these fibs of omission seem almost quaint. The spooks were trying to keep peace with, not blow up Congress.
The detective, however, remains constitutionally unable to overlook and forgive. As he ends this prosy section, so oddly central while so different from the sculpted stanzas comprising the rest of the book, Vangelisti wonders: “Where to begin? How to restore a history most aren’t even aware is missing? A badly amplified crackling blues echoed around the arroyo just after dark. Dogs howled. A car was whining up the hill. […] Shadows grappled in something looking like a tango when he heard the shot.”
The CIA’s unofficial motto is from John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” In an old Saturday Evening Post article, the CIA’s Tom Braden observed: “The choice between innocence and power involves the most difficult of decisions.” Of course, in that labyrinthine world of covert operations, “truth” and “innocence” are slippery terms. The minotaur ruling those murky caverns is a creature born of fable and has no conscience.
That’s why the true detective story isn’t after truth or even guilt, but (as with Sergeant Friday) “just the facts.” And in Vangelisti’s city of protean facts, there’s no final discovery. For me, the “shot” the detective hears at the end isn’t from a climactic pistol — it’s a drum rimshot accenting the ongoing shadowy tango. The fact is: “There’s no message. The message is that / love too would eat the red wheelbarrow.”
That wheelbarrow image is Vangelisti’s riff on Jack Spicer’s long riff on William Carlos Williams, but it is also evocative of a placard gracing the door and business card of his cousin’s restaurant in the ancestral Tuscan village Vangelisti was wont to spend pre-pandemic summers in. He quotes it in his recently published Detours: A West Coast Memoir:
L’orco mangia tutti
L’uono mangio anche l’orco
The ogre eats everything
Man eats the ogre too
A motto, I hope, as applicable to minotaurs as ogres, whether lurking above or below.
Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward. His Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone — versions of the sixth-century CE North African Roman poet Luxorius, published by Otis Books — won the 2013 Northern California Book Award for translated poetry. Mea Roma, a 130-some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018. His Etudes, a Rilke Recital appeared from Shanti Arts Publishing in 2020.