Dorothy Barresi, Carine Topal and Doors drummer John Densmore map memory through poetry
By Bliss Bowen
Some might say all poems are about memory; it has certainly proved a fertile source topic for poets from Shakespeare to Maya Angelou. Sunday’s “Poetry and Memory” event, co-presented by Beyond Baroque and the Los Angeles Poetry Festival with the Skirball Cultural Center, explores that concept.
The afternoon gathering celebrates National Poetry Month with readings by poets Dorothy Barresi and Carine Topal as well as drummer of The Doors and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Densmore. Suzanne Lummis hosts. It’s the third in a series; in 2017 and 2016 the Skirball hosted “Wide Awake at the Skirball,” referencing the 2015 anthology “Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond.” Densmore expects to read some pieces from that, in addition to performing some poems set to music, but this year’s event has a broader focus.
“We did want to acknowledge the forthcoming Holocaust Remembrance Day,” explains Lummis, who edited “Wide Awake” and is editor of Beyond Baroque’s Pacific Coast Poetry Series imprint, which also published Topal’s new collection “In Order of Disappearance.” Holocaust Remembrance Day occurs next Thursday, April 12; it’ll be referenced specifically and obliquely by poems read Sunday — especially by Topal, whose previous book, 2015’s “Tattooed,” was a set of Holocaust poems about family members lost at Auschwitz.
That said, “Poetry and Memory” is thematically open enough to encompass various ideas. It could apply to the broader setting of Los Angeles, mecca for dreamers of the future, where history is continually built over and smoothed aside. Change is L.A.’s defining dynamic, which brings blessings wrapped in curses — a living poem if ever there was one. But that seems an accidental connection.
“For me, L.A. is the antithesis of memory, of nostalgia,” says Topal, a native New Yorker who now lives in the desert. “It’s a very instantaneous, very moment-oriented city — very immediate gratification. I’m much more thinking of history and memory and how I can bring it to the future and make it relevant.”
Both Barresi and Topal’s poems dig up the human costs to the present when history’s lessons are ignored. Barresi, who won an American Book Award for her 1996 collection “The Post-Rapture Diner,” plans to read from “What We Did While We Made More Guns,” published last month. Addressing acts of war overseas such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib as well as police brutality and violent tragedies on the streets here in the States, Barresi’s poems draw connections between the intimate and the foreign.
They traverse some of the thematic fields covered in her 2010 book “American Fanatics,” approached from a grimmer angle. The gut-punching end to the title poem is preceded by imagery alternating the wholesome with the horrible: soldiers digging mass graves, placing “war orphans in loving homes,” raping “the daughters of the enemy, who,/ in their terror,/ turned back into swans,” pinning “honorifics/ to field-dressed shadows,” and observing cotillion debutantes “in a glowing/ orange and red silk tent/ before an amputated audience/ of officers, some crying,/ some propped on tiny/keepsake pillows.” And praying — continually praying, despite their unholy actions.
In contrast, Topal, who identifies herself as “culturally Jewish but not religious,” infused “In Order of Disappearance” with biblical symbolism and memories. In conversation, she shares vivid stories of studying on fellowship in Russia and researching her family’s Holocaust history, and how those experiences shaped her as a writer. She describes “In Order of Disappearance” as a “book of incantations” and says she wanted to create “a meditation on life and death and identity, and make art out of loss, out of the unthinkable. I wanted to turn around these historical moments in my personal history and … bring it up to the present with hopefulness.”
Six of the book’s luminous poems were inspired by “The Key of Solomon” — purportedly writings set down by the biblical king for one of his sons, but most likely created in the 14th or 15th century during the Italian Renaissance. “Of the Water and the Hyssop” references “living water” and the “flow from the altar of the Temple to the waters of the … stony sea and its rocking darkness.” A humble, unnamed figure, thinking himself “draped in the color angels left behind,” cups his palms and drinks “until the stream emptied”: “it cured his wounds, the welts of his shamed years,/ stilled the trembling liar who bathed in the hyssop./ And the water was abundant./ … The rains fell/ and he named it living.”
The power of language is an undergirding fascination in Topal’s work, as it has been in her life. “Good poetry, meaningful poetry, poetry that’s accessible to the public crosses boundaries of language so that it creates moods,” she observes. As an “angst-ridden” child she found salvation and a future path in the writings and, importantly, the recordings of Welsh legend Dylan Thomas. “Out of sheer frustration and not knowing how to behave in my little world, I sat down and I would start to write … all because of this man’s gorgeous, mellifluous, musical language.”
Recounting instances when audience members approached her after hearing her read personal poems, she says poetry’s ability to articulate unspoken emotions is its great asset.
“That’s what poetry can do, more than novels, although I’ve been brought to tears by novels. Poetry is immediate and because of its length, I think it’s more accessible to people who would not necessarily pick up a book. It’s something you can put in your pocket and then walk around with all day, metaphorically or literally.”
“Poetry and Memory” begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday (April 8) at Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Brentwood. Tickets are $8 to $12. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org