The Editors Write: G. Murray Thomas is the guy who’s always been there, the sort of tireless worker whose work underpins much of what makes a poetry community function. From his work as the co-founder and editor of Next … Magazine, the storied news periodical of Southern California Poetry, to his current work as an editor for the websitePoetix, and a thousand or more reviews, essays and poetry readings in between, Thomas has selflessly provided a context for poetry, both in California and beyond, connecting groups of poets that might otherwise have little to do with each other, and connecting poets to the community at large, who might not know the first thing about poetry anywhere in their vicinity. He’s produced a staggering body of work, almost all of it about other artists. But sometimes, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that Thomas is a poet himself, with a largely spare, plainspoken style that’s often filled with a sense of wonder and bemusement. With his most recent book, My Kidney Just Arrived, from Tebot Bach, Thomas kicked everything up a notch, chronicling is struggles with Polycystic Kidney Disease and his eventual transplant. Along the way, he struggles with dialysis and mortality, and somehow never loses his sense of humor. There’s a light, human touch in these poems, making them extremely accessible and moving.
“Your Kidney Just Arrived At LAX”
By G. Murray Thomas
The doctor told me as I lay in pre-op prep.
I envisioned a special chartered flight,
an entire airplane filled with organs.
Hearts with little heart shaped carry-ons.
They always watch the inflight movie
and cry all the way through.
Livers splurging on one last drink;
they don’t think they’ll be allowed
where they’re going.
The lungs eye the spot
where the oxygen masks drop.
Corneas stare out at the passing countryside;
they always get a window seat.
The spleens are always complaining
about the length of the flight
about the lack of leg room
(although they have no legs).
The gall bladder always gets in line
before his row is called.
And there’s my kidney,
no doubt reading a book to pass the time
something classic: As I Lay Dying,
or Great Expectations,
or The Stranger.
All of them wondering
about the journey ahead,
about their new home,
about their new life.
Thomas writes: Orange County poet Gary Tomlinson passed away in 2001, at the age of 47, leaving behind, as is too often the case, vivid memories and little published material. He was a huge influence, on myself and others, yet there is so little left to point to.
I remember Gary, at Alta Coffeehouse, in Newport Beach, reciting a poem that had something to do with meth addicts and a trailer park and a Chihuahua, which, throughout the poem, kept yap-yap-yapping. Unluckily, the poem was never published, which is why, despite my strong memory of the performance, I can only give the vaguest description of what it was even about.
Yet that moment encapsulates what I learned from Gary – the power of narrative poetry, and the essence of true performance. His poems told stories, so smoothly and efficiently you were sucked along, held rapt for five minutes or more. He was at once expansive and focused, following the various threads of his stories without once losing sight of the central theme. And they usually had a repeated hook, like that yapping Chihuahua, to keep your attention.
The power of the performance also sticks with me, as much as the poem itself. Although Gary often ranted about the weaknesses of “performance poetry,” he was a great performer himself. And he didn’t need flash or tricks to do it, he just put himself wholly into his poems.
He was an imposing presence, physically as well as metaphorically. He weighed over 300 pounds; combined with his long ponytail, that gave him the appearance of biker. However, he possessed both a tenderness and an intelligence lacking in that stereotype. Still, he put that bulk to good use, lending power and authority to his poems (somehow a poem about meth addicts sounds more credible coming from a guy who looks like a biker).
The only major publication of Gary’s work is in an anthology (long out of print) titled Five Orange County Poets, edited by Nancy Rayl and published in 1993 by Lightning Publications. Here is a poem from that collection:
Specimen Orange Grove
By Gary Tomlinson
The ranches are gone
Plowed and torn down
Burnt down by seductive children
By fearful accountants
By expansionist councils
By the lithe and young little round heeled wives that might come and
help suck an old man into his grave in those flushed and golden
orange blossom years
Afraid of the records and the wills
Afraid of each other
Afraid that the rumors about the incest and the beatings the drunken
The manic fits of caustic rage
They are corporate retreats
Ritzy golf courses
Hunt clubs that pride themselves on releasing caged birds
Trained and well fed
Flying on time to the feeders and the guns
There are parking lots for compacts only
Fake green spray glued gravel walks
They are flashing white
Built right into the hills as safely edging to this well
lit path of righteousness
No Camping Allowed
Park service showcases
With scrubbed and press crease Ricky Rangers
Armed with State enacted legislation
About how the
Are expected to behave
The bees are urged to suck the honey
From the county side of the fence
The mountain lions are encouraged
To quit snacking on the children
Left carelessly in the tall grass
By rich women unaware
Sprouting lawyers from their hair
And the tan pink houses are extruded
Like tiny bits of raccoon crap
Spread so secretly in the night
Obnoxiously and mysteriously
Broadcast onto the land
Fertilizing the tax base
For the cities that claim their inherent power
In the very act of the proclamation themselves
As to be so enlightened
That they want to include
In the accomplishment
And subsequent payment
For the fruition of their glorious visions
The blossoming of their planned and funded futures
On these fertile dark and
In the city of Orange
In the county of Orange
For its Oranges
Is a little tiny place called
“Specimen Orange Grove”
Where the trees are
Very small and
The oranges are very sour
The silent ones who
Lived in the river beds
Came and ate the oranges
Used the johns
Spare changed the
Chess Club and Tennis players and the Softball League
players and their wives
They grinned odd and toothless smiles at the precocious
little white kids waiting in the lot
They put up a chain link fence
Topped with concertina wire in the Park
And it sickens me
Like a caged bear
Smelling yellow urine
Not the Sweet
Ethereal Orange either
That invades me
And memories that
In my orange grove smudge pot past
I bury a thousand poems
And a thousand times of
RacingPoppingSmashingCrashing through the groves
Pungent loves and
Heady nights of sweet wine kisses
Coyote hunts and spot-lit deer
Pissin’ from the back of spinning wheel trucks
Hot sweaty in the dirt fucks
Clover dead leaves humus pussy
Nose deep stuck in the mud
And stolen beers
And more hardons in one month than I had all last year
It’s because we’re getting weak
We don’t walk we don’t breathe we don’t chew
We don’t shit worth a damn
Unless we eat fiber with instructions
We live in pastel boxes
We don’t grow our own food
We don’t kill our own food
We only kill each other
We only eat the dead stuff
That other people kill for us
Burgermeat from Brazil
Pork from Pretoria
Bananas from nice Nazi farmers
Still strong and hiding in Brazil
I’m not so sure we stack up anymore
We sniffed at the truth
But the feel of these
Day old silken hose have obscured the path to salvation
Our moral slip has slipped and everybody knows that if
they can get in our pants
We’re probably not wearin’ any underwear
Oh it looks good painted and permed
But under the dress
It’s a nasty wanton mess
And what if history
Chooses now to repeat
As it will
The smells of sulfur to remind you
That you pay the price today
For the prizes of yesterday
Winter of 1886
The cattle all died
Ranchers and farmers
Mule skinners and miners
For work and for pleasure
Froze dead without measure
Solitude reflects serenity
And in the storms of today
The vanishing could come complete
And the Blackfeet wait patiently
In the hills of Montana
Beating ceremonial drums
Negotiating stock options
Talking to the mother earth
With cellular phones.
Writes Thomas: Now I’m supposed to discuss an emerging poet I respect. But in a poetry world where reputations can take years to build, what qualifies as emerging? Does it have to be someone new to the scene, or can a poet who has been around for years, but not gotten the recognition (I feel) he deserves fit the bill? I have seen too many poets languish in semi-obscurity to not opt for the latter.
Therefore, my choice is Larry Colker, a poet who is a longstanding figure on the SoCal poetry scene, but is probably better known for co-hosting the long running Redondo Poets series than for his own writing. Even while hosting, he is more likely to read someone else’s poetry than his own. (In fact, he opens every reading with a poem by another poet he likes.) I find this happens quite often in the poetry scene, that those who spend the most time promoting other poets often find their own works neglected.
Larry writes subtle but direct poems. Often seemingly simple, they resonate far beyond the words themselves. His poems are polished gems. They show how an economy of language can create more meaning, not less.
The Mammals Who Returned to the Sea
By Larry Colker
We could come to see them as the smart ones;
they have a 50-million-year head start.
I’m ready to be sleek, to gleam, for voice
to dwindle to a click, to never have to sit.
I’ve switched to sea salt, often I feel soggy,
but my eyes, they’re still fixed forward,
in hope’s direction, capable of being
blindsided by your leaving. Since then
every breath’s been hard. I should thank you
for teaching lungs about pelagic pressure.
Maybe heartbreak sent the first ones back
to where today descendants are still weeping
the oceans of this disappointed planet.