Welcome to the Neighborhood

First things first, I offer apologies for not having posted anything new for a while. Today’s poem touches on part of the explanation for my long absence: February saw me moving for the third time in two years. There may be those out there who have mastered the art of the seamless transition, but apparently I am not one of them.

Anyway, this latest move took me from Pasadena to (shallow) South Los Angeles, where I encountered a rather unusual welcoming party, as described below. (For any of you inclined to worry, please rest assured that this experience seems to have been an anomaly.) In the weeks since the move, I have begun to settle into my new community, and I eagerly look forward to seeing how the next season of my life will unfold…

Welcome to the Neighborhood

The darkness seems to deepen every moment
as I drive slowly down
what has just today
become my street,
gearing up to spend my first night
in unfamiliar
and reputedly dangerous
territory.

Reaching my new lodgings,
I inch along a narrow driveway,
then wiggle into a muddy parking space
at the edge of a bedraggled
and foreboding
courtyard
in the back.

As I step gingerly from my car,
my nameless, shapeless anxieties
take startling physical form,
as I am immediately accosted
by a swarthy young fellow
bleeding profusely
from one hand.

He tells me that he gouged his palm
trying to scale a fence
(a claim I see no way
either to verify or disprove)
and wonders if I would be willing
to help him clean his wound.

“I don’t mean to frighten you,”
he hastens to assure me,
and while I appreciate the sentiment,
the part of my brain still capable
of rational thought
wonders whether his repeated assertions
to this effect
ought to do more to extinguish
or to fuel
my smoldering alarm.

Although the entire contents of my residence
are in a state of boxed-up disarray,
from the jumble I manage to procure
a bottle of drinking water
a tube of Neosporin
and a roll of Charmin:
just enough in the way of supplies
to establish a fly-by-night first aid dispensary
on the sidewalk.

Before my minimally treated patient
takes his leave,
he politely inquires whether I have any objection
to his hopping the fence
that borders the rear
of my landlord’s property.

I find myself taken aback by the request—
certain that if I were he
I would now make every effort
to stay as far away from fences
as humanly possible—
but I muzzle my naïve astonishment
and simply tell him that as far as I am concerned,
he is free to make his own choice
in the matter.

Then, too flustered to wait and see
how the youthful hurdler fares
against his chosen obstacle,
I ensconce myself within the fortress
I will learn to call my home,
replaying what has just transpired
and hoping I have done enough
to earn a passing mark
on this first test
of neighbor-hood.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Seismic Shifts

Since I last posted, the promised “moving poem” has been completed, revised, almost completely rewritten, and revised some more. Turns out summing up the transitional history of a life is trickier than it sounds! I could probably go on editing forever, but at some point one must just call a thing finished, so here it is. As the piece itself is rather long, I won’t preface it with much except to say:

1) I’m extremely grateful to have been able to call such diverse communities (San Francisco; western Massachusetts; Jackson, Mississippi; and the greater Los Angeles area) home for seasons of various lengths, and I wouldn’t trade my meandering road for an interstate to any destination (which is not to say there aren’t ever days when such an exchange, if offered, would be tempting).

2) The poem is “set” just prior to my most recent move, and while I don’t yet know my newest place of residence well enough to have gotten over all the anxiety surrounding this latest transition, I am beginning to find pockets of this vast and complex metro area that feel “homelike” to me, and I trust that a deeper settling will come with time.

3) I started work on this before the Bay Area experienced a series of earthquakes in the 3.8 range–while I don’t believe I had anything to do with that, let me take this opportunity to apologize, just in case.

Seismic Shifts

California born and raised
as I am,
I really ought to be accustomed
to the way life can change
in an instant
as foundations lurch beneath our feet,
the world sways all around us,
and—when the dust settles—
some things long taken for granted
are gone
while others, though still standing,
are changed forever.

Truth be told, the temblor now beginning
likely won’t register more
than a 3.8 or so
on the relocation scale,
for what do a mere 400 miles along I-5
(or the 5, depending at which end
one begins the journey)
signify, really—
especially when compared
to those displacements
which have come before?

Unlike Dorothy, I began in Oz,
growing up in a Technicolor world
in which diversity and eccentricity
were not only accepted
but celebrated.

Leaving the colorful confines
for an education in New England,
I soon learned that an ivory tower’s sepia tones
do little to soften
the common pains of humanity:
deception, betrayal,
loss, death,
and the ever-dreaded fear of failure—
for tragically, to some,
not even a U.S. News and World Report
seal of approval
can provide the confidence required
to face life after graduation.

From there, a tectonic disturbance
of perplexing proportions
thrust me deep within the bastions of the Bible Belt,
where life still largely unfolds
in black and white.
There fellowship with others who refused
to stay within the lines of color
provided a sketch of heaven
here on earth—
and the generosity and grace
extended by one such friend
as she lay destitute and dying
radically redefined
notions of wealth and blessing,
even as the baleful glares
of anachronistic antagonists
who had not yet discovered
that beauty may be found in shades of gray
spoke to a poverty of spirit
that still shakes me to my core.

And then…
a click of the heels,
a dream of home,
and I find myself once more
in my beloved, rainbow-hued
City by the Bay.

But only for a moment,
for now I propose to step behind the curtain
trading one fault-line for another
as I set my sights on Hollywood,
where the boundaries between reality
and projection
are often blurred—
where color can be corrected
and natural imperfection airbrushed away.

Is that what causes my heart to quake within me—
the conviction that my innate inability to conform
to traditional standards of beauty,
style
and success
will place me on shaky ground
in this image-conscious town?

Is it the fear of falling short
in the pursuit of a dream widely acknowledged
to be virtually impossible to attain—
or the anxiety that, like so many before me,
I’ll lose my grip on the things that matter most
while grasping at the stuff that glitters,
but is not gold?

Or is what I feel simply the perennial foreboding,
common to those who dwell in quake-prone zones,
that the next shift could be “the big one”:
that jolt of such exponentially increasing magnitude
that, retrofitting notwithstanding,
whole lives are wrenched free
from any semblance of moorings
and all pretense of stability?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

It Rains in Southern California

This isn’t what I planned to post today, but I’ve been led to believe such a piece won’t be timely very often…

It Rains in Southern California

The rain in southern California
made the news last night.

Weather forecasters
and anchors alike
offered detailed analysis
of the storm’s projected path
as well as helpful hints
and earnest exhortations to drivers
to respect this show
of nature’s force.

The man-on-the-street
from Michigan
mocked the locals
for their seemingly disproportionate fear
of inclement weather.

They, in turn, derided him
for bundling up
against a sub-seventy-degree
chill—
the entire exchange
serving to prove
in pithy, sound-bite fashion,
that while climate may change
human nature
does not.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Watts Towers

I stumbled upon the Watts Towers several years ago, and it was love at first sight. This amazing large-scale work of art is a perfect illustration of the profound truth that there is great beauty to be found in things (not to mention people and places) that have been discarded or written off by a society that likes the shiny, the new and the whole.

My hope for my own art—and for my life, for that matter—is that I will develop the kind of eye for potential that Mr. Rodia exhibited. If I can recognize, embrace and celebrate unexpected beauty—and reflect back just a fraction of what I find—I will have done well, I think.

Though it feels presumptuous to attempt to describe something I admire and appreciate so much, I had to try…

The Towers of Simon Rodia

silver spires rise
stretching toward heaven
as though striving
to brush the cheek
of God

unwieldy scraps
of abandoned metal
have been coaxed into shape
fashioned together with utmost care
and precision
secured with mesh and wire
then cemented into one coherent
and breathtakingly lovely
whole

fragments of tile and glass,
dishware and seashells—
detritus of earth and ocean—
salvaged
polished
and situated just so
absorb the rays of the sun
soften the light
and reflect it back
in a glowing declaration
that one person’s trash—
indeed, an entire society’s refuse—
may, in the right hands,
become
another’s treasure

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers