by Elsa Frausto and Alice Pero
87 poems, 40 pages
Publisher: Shabda Press
To order: Amazon
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Two Sunland / Tujunga poets decided to write poems in Sunland Park, California. They met on Tuesday mornings on warm spring days under the sheltering branches of a pine tree and an oak tree. Now we have a book in which we can share with them those transitory moments of peace and beauty in the park. In the words of the preface, the book ‘is dedicated to the park with its visitors and quasi-residents, squirrels, sparrows and one lone saxophone player’.
Sunland-Tujunga is a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of the city of Los Angeles. In the past the area has been noted for the beneficial qualities of its pure air and was seen as having a setting not dissimilar to Switzerland. The word "Tujunga" in the native Tongva language means "the old woman", and refers to the concept of a nurturing "mother nature".
Elsa Frausto, who hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina and now resides in Tujunga, is a bilingual poet and translator. Between 2014 and 2017 she was Poet Laureate of Sunland Tujunga and has been a coordinator and host for the Camelback Readings held at the Sunland-Tujunga Library. She is a member of the Chuparosa Writers and is poetry editor and translator for the Spanish language literary magazine la-luciernaga.com.
With few exceptions, Elsa’s poems are untitled and in some cases follow on from one another forming continuous sequences broken only by pause lines. Right from the start, she takes us into the heart of the park where ‘the poem dances. / Fact, no simile or metaphor.’ The metaphor, however, ‘can’t help itself’ once she looks up into the trees and lets her imagination soar.
Readers quickly become aware of their surroundings through her carefully chosen words. With Elsa, we are conscious of the breeze, of birdsong, of ‘footsteps on a sandy pathway,’ a horizon where the mountains meet the sky, a small world where ‘we learn to conjugate our life’. The word ‘conjugate’ occurs more than once in this sequence. It is a word a translator would be familiar with being a means to communicate, among other things, person, aspect, mood, or voice, something that Elsa does so well in these poems.
And then there is the lone saxophone player:
Saxophone plays, moves the still air,
brushes around palm trees, then stops.
Other sounds take over –
a car’s horn, someone’s voice at 11 a.m.,
distance also a voyage of consonants and vowels.
Only two miles away from home but further.
Good to travel like this
without effort, through sound and air.
Returning to the present, sharp observation brings a moment of humor:
Alice sits in sunlight.
Green grass around her
like an island.
An ant crawls up her leg
and not until her bare arm
does she notice it.
Let’s see how far it goes.
And if A. blows it away,
I’ll keep it
in these lines.
Come, ant, ascend the poem.
Alice Pero is a teacher of poetry and a member of the California Poets in Schools. She is also an accomplished flute player and founder of the Windsong Players Chamber Ensemble. She created the reading series Moonday in 2002 and has been a Sunland resident since 2006. Her first collection of poems, ‘Thawed Stars’ (Sunlink, 1999) was praised by Kenneth Koch.
Most, but not all, of Alice’s poems have titles and they range in length from a few lines to a whole page. Some of them echo those of Elsa’s poems. The saxophonist and the fly put in another appearance, for example. There are nods to other writers and artists: Bukowski, Wallace Stevens (where Alice comes up with a 14th way of looking at a blackbird) and Matisse.
Once more, we become aware of ‘noises off’ – the sax player who ‘carves a song in the air;’ movement: a mail truck that ‘eases itself / onto the roadway / unconcerned / with the weight of junk mail;’ the natural world in miniature: ‘industrious squirrels’ and hovering gnats, but, principally, we are aware of stillness. I like the idea of trees ‘holding poems within their bark’ and succulents ‘that hold juicy stories’.
Some of these poems relate to the act of composition itself: the sheer effort of conjuring up sparks of inspiration from familiar things:
shouts the sign
on the park BBQ
We try to get them glowing
with our eyes
Other poems contrast the stillness of composition with the frenetic pace of everyday life:
The ambitious runner times herself
with a little machine, gauges her heartbeat
I sit on a bench, with an old pencil,
quietly exhaling a small poem
In an interview with Kathabela Wilson for Colorado Boulevard, Alice says ‘I look and see what is around me and I write about that…I am trying to put a different spin on things that lifts the perspective out of the ordinary and into illusion.’ This is precisely what she does in Sunland Park and she does it extraordinarily well.
In this collaboration, the two poets range from the philosophic to the playful as they conjure words out of the air and offer us an insight into the life of Sunland Park. Recommended.