Southern California’s stereotypes — endless sunshine, balmy ocean breezes and the glitter of Hollywood — are unquestionably cliché. To recognize the area’s vast contradictions may be even more so. The very idea of a city’s “gritty underbelly” was practically born in Los Angeles — think T. C. Boyle, Raymond Chandler, even Joan Didion. Local poet Marsha de la O is not the first writer to immerse herself in the peculiar darkness that writhes so ominously south, but few see through it with such a personal lens, or with such a yearning for the something better that must be on the other side.
De la O’s latest collection, Antidote for Night, does not exactly pick up where her first book, Black Hope, winner of the New Issues Press Poetry Prize in 1997, left off. But there is a common denominator: the pain, sadness and loss of everyday living, and the flickers of joy that somehow sustain us. De la O does not walk in dappled sunlight; for her the sun is “ . . . the furnace . . . the viscera where atoms split apart.” And the night is not a wonderland of stars so much as the edge of an abyss, where sleep won’t come, and neuroses well up. Her poetry is a dark journey indeed, but it never stops striving for the light. Set against the backdrops of Los Angeles, Ventura County, Riverside, the Mojave and Sonora Deserts, and covering decades that start in her childhood in the 1960s and run through today, it’s a trip through familiar territory, on both a physical and an emotional level.
Antidote for Night is visceral, often looking squarely in the eyes of death and violence. In particular her musings on certain young men of color — some she knew growing up, others her students during 25-plus years as a bilingual educator in Los Angeles and Santa Paula — stand out, if only for their timeliness, being published as they are in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Walter Scott at the hands of police. It’s sobering to realize that “Sanchez,” “What It Takes” and “Nobody Knows” were written in the 1990s. “This has been going on for a long time,” notes de la O, who vividly recalls the Rodney King riots. “There are risks that young men of color run in coming to adulthood, how many lose their way or their lives before they come into their own as adults.”
Experiences of a more personal nature are mused upon, too, and indelibly connected with the Southern California landscape: deserts and citrus groves, freeways and neon signs, streets, neighborhoods and landmarks that locals in particular will appreciate. “I believe there is a connection between geography and psyche,” she says. And it shows. In “Northridge Quake” the tremors of 1994 stir up remembrances of grisly fairytales (“They all have a trunk large enough/to wedge in a child’s body) and the need for release from an unhappy marriage. (“The way each shockwave lifted the barge of our marriage bed . . . I knew I would have to leave him.”) Chinese lanterns in a Los Feliz restaurant reveal the mystery of sex. Every location breathes with the memories it holds and the marks (or scars) it leaves on the author.
Yet despite these delvings into loss and fear and mortality, there are glimmers of hope. Being unmoored and thrown off is a terrible thing, but it is also a liberation: “You are that child/and free because you finally/reach the sea.”
“I do feel that poetry is an affirmation,” de la O says, “No matter how dark the subject matter, it is still an affirmation of how I want things to be. Hopefully that’s true for the reader, too.” F
The Antidote for Night book launch will take place on Oct. 18, at 3 p.m. in the Topping Room at E. P. Foster Library in Ventura.