Saturday, June 16, 2012


Every Day is An Act of Resistance

I recently read Every Day is An Act of Resistance, selected poems by Carol Tarlen, published this year by Mongrel Empire Press. I found it a deeply powerful collection, tough uncompromising poems of the daily struggle of working-class life, the frequent hardship and bitterness, and the unforced lyricism and beauty that can also be part of such a life. Many of the poems in this book moved me in an immediate and personal way, speaking to my own daily experience in a way I haven't often encountered.

Carol Tarlen was born in 1943, and grew up the daughter of a truck driver father; her father had narcolepsy, which caused him to lose jobs periodically, and the family moved around a lot when Tarlen was young (mostly in California). She worked for a living as a secretary at UC San Francisco Medical Center, and was the mother of two daughters. She often took part in political protests for peace and on behalf of homeless people, and was active as a labor union official at her job. Over time she completed B.A. and M.A. degrees, though with children to support she couldn't afford to take adjunct teaching jobs, and kept her job as a secretary. In later years she had health problems (from diabetes, and she had heart bypass surgery), which made the routines of daily life more difficult, though it's evident from her poems that her determination and political resolve never weakened. She died in 2004.

Although she published her poems in a number of magazines and anthologies, and read her poems to audiences, Every Day is An Act of Resistance -- which was compiled by David Joseph (Tarlen's husband of many years) and Julia Stein, and includes an Introduction by Jack Hirschman -- is her only published book. All of the quoted passages below are taken from the book.

Here are some lines from the first poem in the book, "White Trash: An Autobiography":

We didn't have lawns, instead we shared the gravel,
the wash tubs, the showers, the toilets.
My little brother and I played in the fields
behind the trailer court.
We found an irrigation ditch to wade in.
I pushed my brother, he fell down,
stuck his hands in to the slimy water,
lifted his fingers to his mouth, licked.

That night he awoke with a belly ache and diarrhea.
It lasted a week. I watched from my bunk bed
as he sat on a pot in the middle of the room,
his shit turning to blood,
blood turning to a thin clear liquid.
His ribs protruded from his white skin.
His red hair shone luminous in the dark.
Sores grew on his lips.
He was all the time thirsty.

He went to the hospital.
After two weeks the doctors told my mother
to take him home to die.
Instead she took him to a university medical center.
He was given antibiotics and lived. [...]

[...] Summer came. The lettuce shriveled in the fields.
Daddy got laid off and we moved to Redding.
The trailer park we lived in had grass and oak trees.
In the evening, when the air cooled,
we sat with the neighbors under the oaks.
The women talked. The men played dominoes.
The children ran, pushed, shouted.
Lizards climbed our legs. Giggling, we shook them off.
Daddy lost his job. We moved to Folsom.
Hospital bills followed us up and down California.
We never paid.

In Tarlen's poems I notice again and again how the smallest slightest details (the cooling air in the evening, the men playing dominoes, the children giggling at lizards climbing their legs) bring the warm blood of humanity and daily life into the poems, and make the poems more than a mere journalistic listing of events.

What does it mean to find a true human connection, to find warmth and heart and love, amid the constant battle of military-industrial-technological life in the modern world? Where and how can we find the possibilities for such connection with each other?

Deer grazed meadow grass
sprouting from the hills above
Coast Camp, snakes flashed
underfoot and lizards combed
the tangled berry bushes hover-

ing against the narrow trail
that led us to the highway, back
to asphalt, cars, small failures
in the transit system, the cracks
in our politics, our petty aches,
our loneliness. We no longer
touched, our thumbs pleading
for a ride that would take
us home to strangers
waiting in bus stops, leaving
sun and quiet to hawks, lupine,
manzanitas, larkspur, the mute
hard ground, morning glories winding

over granite cliffs. They'll shoot
the deer at Pt. Reyes. Overbred,
unchecked, unafraid, they eat
too much. I can't feel
pity. What's one dead
deer? It was the Greeks
invented harmony and they killed
as well as any race. Tonight,
when I dream again of prisons,
barbed wire, searching lights,
I'll reach for your sunburned skin,
my fingers climbing your thighs,
digging comfort from human
soil, because I want to live
with myself. You will rise
to my hands. Celebrating one
another, we will learn to forgive.

(From the poem "Pt. Reyes Ode".)

One of the important things that Carol Tarlen's poems illustrate, almost in passing, is that political struggle can occur anywhere, that a sharpening of political consciousness can happen in the most commonplace circumstances. The timid debate that arises now and then in certain "literary" circles regarding whether political subject matter has any place in poetry is simply irrelevant, is a question that doesn't even come up, in most of the world.

In the poem "Derek Dabroski: The People's Hero," Tarlen tells of spending a day with her grandson:

He complains when I insist
he wear a bicycle helmet.
It's my only rule, I explain.
You forgot about war,
he shouts as he pedals
down the North Beach sidewalk,
his skinny legs pumping
faster and faster.

We sit on the grass
in Washington Square Park,
catch our breath,
watch three policemen
yank a man out of his sleep,
drag him to a paddy wagon.
I want to tell Derek
about a World War II photograph
of a boy, arms raised,
a rifle barrel pointed at his head,
staring into the camera,
horror imprinted on his small face.
I stroke Derek's cheek,
seeking explanations and comfort,
but he grins and says,
I whispered at those cops,
See you in hell.
Then he jumps on his red bike
and races me home.

One of the poems that moved me the most personally is titled "The Liberal Boss"; the poem begins describing a clerical worker who has retreated to a conference room at the back of the office, to find a few minutes alone in the middle of another day of bureaucratic numbness:

the privacy to shed tears
like undergarments
before embracing
a lover who politely disappears
when the alarm rings
wiithout demanding a cup of coffee

why are you in here
the chairman asks
and why are you crying
he clasps a bulging
manilla envelope

because, above my Premium II
386SX/20 megahertz computer,
there is a hole
in the ozone layer
the size of my heart
slowly opening up to heaven
which isn't all
it's cracked up to be

and besides, my friends
are dying of disparate diseases
my fingers no longer
grasp pleasure
or caress pain
I never sleep at night anymore
the sun is my enemy
I am an unwanted planet
without a moon, in fact,
without an orbit

I see, he says, is there
anything I can do
he waits the length of time
it takes
for the rhythmic contraction
of a heartbeat
by which blood is forced
onward, then asks

if she can transcribe the tape
he has placed on her desk
so that he can sign the letter
and she can get it in the mail
before noon

There may be people in the world who have never experienced a moment like the one Carol Tarlen described in the above passage; but of the people I've known personally in my life, I don't think I've ever known anyone who hasn't lived this at some time or other.

As I was reading Every Day is An Act of Resistance over the course of the past couple of weeks, I kept thinking again and again, "This is the best book of poems I've ever read." I'm not really trying to declare an award, or to contribute to the tangle of hierarchical rankings that run rampant in corporate media these days. And there are many truly great books of poems alive in the world; I've written about many of them in this blog.

But I've rarely found poems so uncompromising in their vision, so determined to tell what needs telling, so relentless in their life-affirming power. I'm sorry that I never knew or met Carol Tarlen personally. The poems she has left behind are a great gift. You have to read this book.

New stores are shooting up like
Wildflowers in spring rain.
Crazy Mary moves on,
The streets swept clean by her absence.
"It's not progress," she cries,
Her back receding down the street.
"It's lonely."
Wind whips her skirts
Around her thin legs.
The clouded sky turns gray.
Water puddles around my shoes.

The Transamerica building
Is turning cartwheels above my head.
My breath is jerking out of my lungs
My chest bumps and grinds its way across Broadway.
I grab a cab to Kaiser ER.
Oh my god -- I've seen
The best chests of my generation
Cracked and broken -- Mario, Allen --
I sign the papers. I volunteer.
It's by-pass time!

Fire in Waco! Explosions in Oklahoma!
Lethal injections in Texas!
The gurney slips me oh so steadily
toward the surgeon's saw.
And all I can think of is
I feel sorry for the worst minds
Of America. Pity the fool
Who in her last moments
Pities her executioner.

Three months later I'm still
Walking these hard streets.
Crazy Mary's gone.
Young exiles from suburbia
Wearing shorts and baseball caps
Block my way up the hill
To my one-room apartment.
Microbrew slurps onto their T-shirts
Advertising Nike slave wear.
Bill Gates leaks out of their half-dead eyes.
Escaped inmates from Phi Beta Puka.
"Get outa North Beach," I shout,
"Leave us poor and loony folk alone!"
But they don't see me.

They don't see the Chinese grandmother
Crossing the street with a baby strapped
To her back, her frail bones
Bending in the wind.

They don't see the three black men
Clapping desperately for coins,
Their voices do-wopping,
"While I was praying,
somebody touched me."
They don't see the Latino immigrants
Evicted from their North Beach public housing.
They don't see the Lusty Ladies holding
A union meeting in the Dark Horse Coffee House.
What do they see? Real Estate?
Another sports bar?
Oh, Crazy Mary, where have they buried you?

I finally make it past City Lights.
My heart is a pressure cooker.
My twisted breath cracks against my ribs.
My friend Jack steps out of Specs,
Crosses the street, takes me inside Vesuvios,
Gets me water.
"I've sold six People's Tribunes," he grins.

His gray hair, streaked with yellow,
Gathers around his red sweater's neckline.
"I'm tired of everything," I say.
He smiles and reads me his latest poem
About the city's janitors
And their giant mustache brooms
Sweeping San Francisco bright and beautiful.
I rise with the brooms.
I rise with the janitors.
My heart is quiet.
My heart will carry me
The rest of the way home,
My crazy, dancing heart,
My aching heart,
My breaking heart
My still beating
Red red heart.

(From the poem "Recovery for the Red-Hearted Masses".)

I will have to order this! WOW!
Thank you for this review, Lyle. I can't wait to read this book. I will do what I can to spread the word.
A Carol Tarlen tribute reading, featuring poets Jack Hirschman, Sarah Menefee, Louise Nayer, Aggie Falk and David Joseph, will celebrate the recent, posthumous publication of her anthology "Every Day is an Act of Resisitance" - Sunday, Sept. 9, 2 pm, Bird & Beckett Books, San Francisco (653 Chenery Street - 415-586-3733 -
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