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LoVerne Brown and Ed Ruscha

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by | Jun 9, 2021

Steve Kowit (1938-2015), author of one of my favorite books about poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poets’ Portable Workshop, was a big fan of writer LoVerne Brown (1912-2000), the subject of this month’s Lines of Thinking. (Ed Ruscha, the LA painter, works into the story shortly). About her he wrote:

“Her poems are brilliantly made, often bitingly incisive portraits, often politically engaged. She had a wonderfully sharp wit and a keen sense of the underbelly of human behavior. Her poetry, like her life, was full of love, but her poems were much more sharply edged and never sentimental or simplistic.”

Brown and Kowit were transplants to the San Diego area, he from Brooklyn via San Francisco and she from North Dakota by way of Alaska. They came to know each other through poetry workshops and activist circles they supported and developed in the area. Kowit included three pieces by Brown in Palm of Your Hand. I was reading that book and those pieces coincidentally on a bench in La Jolla just north of San Diego. It was a favorite retreat for me—La Jolla not the bench—back in the days when I lived in smoggy Southern California. The bench overlooked the ocean, just outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, and it was also in sight of the Ed Ruscha mural of a ship tossing in high seas, captioned “BRAVE MEN RUN IN MY FAMILY.” Thinking back on it now, I suspect Brown saw that mural before she passed away and approved of the principle as both honest and wise for all concerned. A former journalist she once noted, “Journalism is often factual but not always honest; poetry is not necessarily factual but should always be honest.”

Here are two of the poems by Brown I read that day while seated between art and the ocean.

A Very Wet Leavetaking

Comrades, I regret to inform you
I’m about to abandon this project.
The city cannot be saved,
does not want to be saved —
since our warning cries went unanswered,
since, though the night was clear
they chose to remain
with Merv and Johnny and carcinogenic beer.
Our own involvement was simple,
a matter of timing.
These holes appeared in this dike
and we were here.
We remembered that big-thumbed kid,
the hero of Holland,
and thought we could hold back the sea
till the townsmen came.
Well, the night’s half over;
it’s plain that they’re not coming;
the tide is high and
the holes in the dike grow larger.
My arm is too small a cork
and floats in the flood,
and I must tell you
with shame but in all honesty
I am not yet fully committed
to sticking my head in.

Meeting of Mavericks

Milkweed grows by the fence.
Don’t ask me to pull it.
Weeds were my friends in childhood —
emerald explosions
in the dull cinders of train track,
green lace at the sleeves
of our water trough.
Eyes starved for color
were well fed by fireweed
elbowing tin cans aside
to take over the dump.
I live in the city now,
but claim kinship whenever
the uncombed head of a dandelion
pops up like a gopher
in the midst of a groomed lawn,
or a purple thistle —
remembered from roadside ditches —
looms insolent
in an enclave of roses.
Today a prickly thing
I don’t know the name of
is exploiting a crack
in our sidewalk.
I greet it as friend:
“Hello I too
like to challenge the fissures
in my firmament,
squeeze through, sometimes,
more often fracture my skull.”
My new acquaintance braces his spine
along the crack, and shoves.
Cement crumbles.
I think tonight
I will sneak out and water
this one!
About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.