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Water Witching in Downtown Los Angeles

By Mersiha Bruncevic.

Robert Lindquist, After Mozart (Heroin on 5th Street) (New River Press, 2018)

The cover of After Mozart (Heroin on 5th Street) shows Robert Lundquist in the early 1970s shot by the iconic poet-photographer and Warhol disciple Gerard Malanga. It’s a picture of a good-looking young man, with a solid handlebar moustache and long blond hair. Malanga had travelled to Santa Cruz, California to document what was dubbed “The Santa Cruz Renaissance”, a group of young writers set on reformulating the state of literary expression. Among them was Lunquist, barely in his twenties. He was already showing such force that even the mainstream was listening—Rolling Stone Magazine named him one of the top one hundred poets in America. It was a rare literary triple threat: raw talent, budding youth, and Rockstar good looks striking enough to make Malanga look twice.

A dive into Lundquist’s biography is no less exciting. Born in Downtown Los Angeles he grew up in the 1950s with an undercover cop father who was busting dealers at a time when heroin was practically gushing down Flower Street. At home his mother was ill with tuberculosis, coughing up blood. His grandmother worked as a waitress at Union Station. Lundquist is a true Los Angeles poet, born, raised and shaped by those streets. He still lives there, most of the time he can be found not far from the corner of Fifth and Spring.

The poems in this volume were written intermittently over five decades and it’s the first collection of his work. The choppiness of output has been due to a mix of factors, alcoholism, uncertainty about form and influence, and his work as a psychoanalyst later in life. Also, it was in part due to Lundquist’s apprehension towards the so called “MFA culture” in American letters. A trend that has tacitly, for decades, exerted a need for defined, formal University instruction in order to call yourself a poet.

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Reading Lundquist’s biography of Downtown living coupled with that pop culture photo of him on the cover, it is easy to expect poems close in temperament to those of Jim Carroll or Miguel Piñero. Yet any expectation of raw visions of street life and spiritual brutality is a quickly dispelled mirage. These poems take the reader on a completely different ride. While the subject matter may seem familiar, Lundquist’s eye does not grandstand. He does not impose shock or pain in that way.

Lundquist’s poems are patient. They allow for the natural trajectory of events. In the way that spring waits for winter to pass or water waits for clouds to become rain drops. His poems leave organic chronology free to do its thing. He observes, he does not disturb or disrupt the secret logic of things.

A nature photographer won’t stop a beast tearing through its prey. In the same way, Lundquist never tries to stop what addiction or love or even gentrification of Downtown L.A. leave in their wake. Whatever such events unsettle, it is never sensationalised. There is an organic process to all events and Lundquist lets it unfold within his poems.

As a poet, Lundquist finds an organising myth in water. Water manifests itself as the giver of life, the bringer of death and the keeper of time, never taking on just one role and often embodying all three at once. It is a pretty formal move on his part, considering the experimentation and autonomy of form that otherwise characterise his work. Also, it is a strikingly consistent vision, given the five decades behind these poems.

Nevertheless, it is the many faces and shapes of water that inform his poems: sea water, shower water and tides; water’s bodily derivatives, tears and sweat and saliva and blood; its darker derivatives, waters that drown you, alcohol or heroin liquefying in a spoon; fermented or sugared water like Jack Daniel’s and Coca Cola. Lundquist is constantly seeking it, he looks for it everywhere and he sees it in everything.

The ancient practice of looking for a source of water in unlikely places is known as water divination, or water witching. The one who does it is called a dowser. And Lundquist is skilful dowser in these poems. He conducts his water witching among the stony buildings, the cracked pavements, the smoggy air of his neighbourhood, with patience and poetic steadiness.

The most striking poems are those where the search for water, in all its shapes, takes place right on the pavements of Downtown L.A. The titular poem “After Mozart (Heroin on 5th Street)” along with “Poem Before Valentine’s Day 2016”, “A Poem A Reflection”, “Five Street”, and “Spring Street” are moments when Lundquist’s voice and vision come through most clearly. Geographically, these poems have the same coordinates, they all take place near the corner of Fifth and Spring.

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The opening poem of the collection is “After Mozart (Heroin on 5th Street)”. It is controlled, without being rigid. Each stanza begins with the prayerlike verse:

Oh our majesty who condemns us all

All subsequent lines of this stanza and the other stanzas of the poem are without punctuation apart from one sole full stop at the end of each. There is a free flow for a few lines, before stopping abruptly. Five stanzas, five calls to the majesty of condemnation, five full stops in a poem about Fifth Street.

The repetition of this verse elicits a sense of prayer or chant and meditation. However, the overall shifts between flow and stop create a hesitant rhythm of uncertainty and disorientation which is the opposite of meditation and prayer. The atmosphere is hardly a pious one as blood, sweat, urine and heroin gush forth. Here a “fountain of blood/surrounding Fifth Street hotels the language of our despair”—this is a scene where childhoods are forgotten in the “moist smells of our addiction” while seemingly bubbling heroin is “cupped between our hands in prayer/the spoons of which/measure both our hours and days.”

The meditative mood is repeated in “Poem Before Valentine’s Day 2016” and “A Poem A Reflection”. In the first one, Lundquist meditates on poetry as he tries to see his own familiar scenery through the eyes of another American poet, James Wright. He is at home, again “on Fifth and Spring”, wondering what Wright’s subject would be if he wrote in Downtown L.A. The poet concludes that Wright would probably write about the “calvary” within the “tents three blocks from here”.

James Wright, as a poet, is an interesting interlocutor, because he is one of those “MFA” poets who is known for his formal brilliance. Wright did explore experimental and formally less deferential verse but never fully shed the trace of form and metre. The speaker of the poem suspects that Wright “would part the bloody trash/between the tents” and “bless each bottle of relief”. He would try to bless the blood and the urine, and would disturb the organic order of the tents three blocks away. Wright’s intervention would seem to render “The sky seemingly still – /For a moment – /Only.” But, trying to disrupt the natural order will only affect things momentarily. Things will revert to their own chronology, their own process. They will not be moved by blessings or attempts at stilling them.

Lundquist triumphs over Wright here, because he knows that the supposed order the Wrights of this world bring to poetry is illusory. A poet may not disturb nature. And in Downtown L.A., there is no “parting the bloody trash”, that red sea of tents, there is no blessing of urine in a bottle, that water cannot be made holy.

“A Poem A Reflection” comes right after “Poem Before Valentine’s Day 2016” and it reads as a response to the latter, although it is not indicated in what order they were written. Still on the same corner, still on Fifth and Spring, he looks at the same place through his own eyes. His point of view bouncing from “hands/two lonely hands/cupped/around/a/glass/” to the Onyx Lounge that he sees through the window, to the reflection of the Alexandria Hotel reflected in the windows of the Onyx Lounge to the reflection of the Onyx Lounge in the windows of the Rowan Building. Then all of it reflected back into the glass once more.

It is a melancholy reflection of the stones of Downtown L.A. The history of the place weighs on the speaker of the poem whose hands cup the glass, like the spoon “cupped between our hands in prayer” in “After Mozart”, which then multiplies all the windows and reflections before him. The Onyx Lounge, the Alexandria Hotel, the Rowan Building whirl in his cupped hands. Whatever he is looking for, he is looking for it at the bottom of that drink, that drink transformed into reflections, as he asks in the final lines of the poem “Where in the windows/are you?”

The poems discussed above are shorter, between one or two pages in length. Later in the collection the poems grow longer and become musing explorations of Lundquist’s Downtown corner. Two particular poems focus on abandonment and guilt: “Five Street” and “Spring Street”.

In “Five Street” a recovering alcoholic now lives a good life with his wife. One night as she sleeps next to him, he recalls making love to another woman he left a long time ago. He cannot sleep and has a sort of lucid dream about roaming Fifth Street at night. Past and present entwine. He is haunted by two things, alcohol and the blood of the woman he abandoned:

I loved her as though she could not bleed.
and when she bled,
I left,
simply
of her mortality.

The bottle and the woman swirl about him like ghosts. Shadows real and imagined “curl and shake” around him. Images of alcohol, blood, urine (this water of the body he always returns to), along with memories of being hosed down with cold water in a drunk tank, interweave and overwhelm.

The last poem in the book “Spring Street” is a prose poem in five parts. A father searches for his wayward daughter among the tents of Downtown L.A. guided through this strange world by a shady street character called Tip Toe. The father recalls the night when he was busy working and she was raped. After this, the daughter descended into the maelstrom of heroin.

The speaker of the poem refers to both the father and daughter as “you” while strangely recounting the events through the eyes of both. The narrative tone of the poem seems at odds with the use of a lyrical you which tends to indicate either an inner monologue (but here the you is external) or detached observation (in this poem the you knows their innermost thoughts). The you here is someone else.

What connects father and daughter, apart from the shared pronoun, is that they both have the mystic ability to hear water speak: “Eventually, you learned water could speak”. Water talks about “time and the colour green” and “without water, time will stop trying to wake you”. Water is time and water is death because one day, when your blood stops, it will no longer wake you. And water is life because it knows the colour green, the colour of spring, the colour of life. At one point, the uncertain you picks poppies for Mother’s day, the ones that bloom in California each spring. Yet, as is known, poppies can become heroin. Poppies bloom in spring and poppies bleed on Spring Street.

Ultimately, the poem ventures that “The problem has always been water. Whether finding a way to live next to it, or just finding it”. Looking for water has been the goal and problem all along. The you of the poem unites father and daughter, but the all-seeing speaker remains anonymous. And there is an inclination to allow for the possibility that here, perhaps, the speaker is water itself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer and literary scholar based in Paris. Prior to writing a PhD thesis on the representation of sleep in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, Mersiha lived in London working in film production for Disney and Miramax Films as well as in book publishing for Hyperion Books. Twitter @mbproust

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 17th, 2019.