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By Stephen Kessler

From Poetry Flash (February/March 1997) and

Kaya: a publisher of asian/diasporic

literature and culture

On Native Grounds

City Terrace Field Manual by Sesshu Foster (Kaya)

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie (Norton)


Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler through Charles Bukowski and Joan Didion to Wanda

Coleman and Mike Davis, among various lesser knowns, Los Angeles over the last six decades

has bred an increasingly diverse and distinctive range of literary expression. It also

seems only poetically just that Henry Miller and Anais Nin. those consummate

egomythomaniacs, both found their way to L.A. in their later years just as Bukowski’s star

was rising as the new low-budget bard of the self-made self. Historian Carey McWilliams,

in his classic study Southern California: An Island on the Land, observes that the L.A.

region is a cultural exception within the larger exception of California as a whole, a

geographically and psychologically isolated realm–and thus a microcosm of America–where

escapist and adventurous individuals have traditionally migrated for the sake of

reinventing themselves.

Idiosyncratic Los Angeles artists such as Sam Rodia and Ed Kienholtz, musicians like

Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell, and authors like some of the above have engaged that

tradition in their own ways by reinventing their respective forms. While the spectacles of

the entertainment industry, celebrity scandals and natural disasters all lend a mythic or

legendary air to mass-mediated versions of the Southland, equally vital in a wide-angle

view of the city and its multiple cultures are narratives of the urban and suburban

enclaves housing the people who work in the factories or wash the dishes in the region’s

restaurants. In recent years, the voices of these less visible communities have been

rising to take a significant place in the L.A. literary landscape. Anthologies have

proliferated, and books by uncelebrated local writers have found their way to the margins

of the


In a barrio called City Terrace in East L.A., Sesshu Foster was writing and assembling

pieces of his recently issued City Terrace Field Manual, a book which in its recombination

of literary traditions begs the question of genre and extends the boundaries of existing

poetic frontiers. In an intensely personal form of documentary prose poetry Foster offers

a vivid

picture–or collage, or kaleidoscope slide show, or smashed-glass mosaic–of the territory

where he spent most of his boyhood and to which he’s remained connected both physically

and emotionally ever since.

In their mixture of imaginative and nonfiction techniques. their blend of narrative and

lyric elements, their musical forms and unconventional structures, even their almost

identical lengths, Waldie’s and Foster’s books have much in common. Both are

extraordinarily effective in conveying the texture and atmosphere of a very particular

geographic setting; both narrator-protagonists are unheroic self-effacing recorders of

local day-to-day life, even as they reveal their most intimate responses to what they’ve

grown to know as normal; both exercise a crafty formal control, an economical compression

which gives their writing tremendous resonance. In the days while reading and after

finishing both these books, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

And yet in other ways Waldie’s and Foster’s books could hardly be more different from

each other. While both writers have remained close to home (Waldie in the very house where

he’s lived since he was born) and made their living as public servants (Foster as a

teacher in the public school system), their respective experiences and attitudes and

systems of belief are worlds apart. Waldie is a practicing Catholic whose religious faith

suffuses and informs an otherwise dispassionate account of his own

and his community’s development; Foster is a political activist who dreams of and works

for some kind of revolution that would correct the countless injustices so excruciatingly

recorded in his book. Waldie serenely accepts the limits of his world and the tragic or

pathetic failures of average humans to realize some greater accomplishment than quotidian

survival, indeed,

perceives the pattern of that ordinariness as evidence of some greater, sacred order.

Foster protests a social order thnt condemns his friends and family members and students

to lives of poverty and violence and substance abuse and racist degradation even as he

celebrates the near-miraculous vitality that enables the fortunate ones to endure and

thrive. Waldie’s style is cool, measured, almost detached in its commitment to an accurate

factual representation of his material; Foster’s is charged with furious heat, a spiky

verbal salsa of percussive rhythms and cinematic jump cuts, sometimes restrained but

always rippling with fiery energy.

(I should note here that in Foster’s acknowledgments he thanks me, along with several

other poets, "for supporting his work," by which I guess he means that in the

course of our intermittent correspondence over the years I responded with admiration and

encouragement to the pieces he sent me from the book in progress. My response to the

finished product would be the same with or without that acknowledgment, or if I’d never

before heard of the author.)

As its title implies, City Terrace Field Manual is a guide to survival in a combat

zone–less a ‘how-to’ set of procedures than a record of experiences from which the

writer/witness has somehow managed to emerge alive. Others he describes are not so lucky,

having succumbed to or been gravely wounded by bullets, car crashes, incarceration, drug

addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, police violence, on-the-job accidents and other

forms of urban despair and mayhem. Yet this is not a

work of sociology. Foster’s eye and ear and nose for the looks and sounds and smells of

the city are attuned to the specific sensations and personalities encountered and

remembered in his tour of duty; he leaves it up to the reader to draw more general

conclusions. The portraits he offers of high school buddies, girlfriends, students,

neighborhood characters, parents and grandparents are fragmentary, anecdotal, not

‘developed’ as in a work of fiction, but the people in his pieces of stories are invoked

with totally convincing vividness. These are not characters but human beings, drawn with a

few quick strokes–emblematic individuals, figures in a bigger picture.

Cindy didn’t get any respect. The other kids didn’t know she had already been shot

three times. She was

twelve, and they called her "Bumperhead" because she had a big forehead above

such light blue eyes. She had

a friendly smile, though like most gangbangers she paid no attention to me. The day she

was kicked out of

school, she went down the hallways threatening other students. I stood at the door to the

corridor, calling her

name. It was like she couldn’t hear it. Later on, someone caught up with her, and she

showed up at my desk with

a transfer form for me to sign. "Cindy, Cindy, Cindy," I said. But she didn’t

look at me or say anything. She

just fidgeted, waiting for me to sign her out.

Structurally, Foster’s Field Manual is an assemblage of fragments, untitled,

unnumbered, that can be read in any order and which exhibit a great variation in tone,

mood and mode, ranging from fairly straightforward narration to feverish lyrical delirium,

from smoldering rage and baffled grief to tenderness and nostalgia from invocations of

Lenin and Che Guevara to affectionate recollections of hapless cholos whose only

revolutions were those of the rounds their cars made in the varrio. Whatever the mode,

though, and whatever the length of the fragment/paragraph–from seven or eight lines to a

couple of pages–Foster’s writing sustains a relentless intensity that renders the texture

of his world in a way that feels physically and emotionally

exhausting, oppressive and exhilarating at the same time. Saul Bellow once said of Dreiser

that while his style was clumsy his attention to difficult detail gave his writing great

"lifting power." Foster’s style has a terrific agility–it isn’t clumsy at

all–and it’s the seriousness of his unflinching vision combined with the snappy grace of

his prose that lifts the heaviness of his material into a realm of almost giddy


I was the needle in the rain. I fell through years like a character in the Mayan

calendar. I was the Chinese woman a floor below the street, bent over her machine in the

dusty half-dark. I was the only white guy on the Mexican railroad crew, I was the breed

who caught it from three sides. I was the one always on the out. I was the government

worker piling slash after the logging

company had gone, knowing I was laid off when the job was done. I was the unknown artist

sweating out images in a neighborhood garage. I was the guy whose only call came to sweep

up at the factory, and I hurried to take it. I listened to the radio in the boarding house

when everyone slept and heard a seagull calling in the middle of the night. At noon, I was

the spots I saw high in the sun over the telephone poles.

I quote short sections–many of the longer ones have the kind of continuous firepower

that singes your eyebrows–because the only way to get these pieces is in their entirety;

but even in these few lines you can hear the tension between dismay and defiance that

drives the rhythms in the poet’s voice, and the Whitmanic self that both is and is not the

author, identifying with his surroundings, moved to affirm the existence of even the

humblest luckless nobody, to hear the lonesome unmusical yet somehow hopeful call of that

unseen gull.

Ethnicity, nationality, class and ‘race’ play important roles in Foster’s cosmology,

not surprisingly when you consider that his father is revealed to be Anglo, his mother

Japanese and his neighborhood predominantly Mexican. The father in Field Manual is all but

missing, except when he turns up drunk in a rooming house or half dead in a hospital bed

after open heart surgery or remembered sending foreign currency home to his son from some

port where he’s docked as a Merchant Marine, boozing it up and fucking the local whores;

it’s not what you’d call a reverent filial tribute, even though the bitterness of the

portrait is tinged with a certain grudging forgiveness. The poet identifies more deeply

with his mother, but she is scarcely seen as an individual, more as the child of any

Japanese American family relocated in 1942 to one of the infamous detention camps.

Culturally, Foster has the soul of a Chicano; the boyhood friends he invokes are mostly

Latino; his language is salted with Spanish, touched with a black and blue affinity for

Jimi Hendrixesque improvisational departures into hallucinatory consciousness-bending

astronautical flights of song. In other words, he’s American, multicultural to the core,

as indebted to Hemingway as to Los Lobos, yet he cops to the identity of only half his

heritage, the half that isn’t quite ‘white’ If one were a Freudian rather than a Marxist,

one might attribute the poet’s third-world revolutionary fervor to certain unresolved

issues with the father. But neither psychology nor politics can truthfully be reduced to

such simple formulas. To Foster’s credit, he engages neither in ideological diatribes nor

in crybaby lamentations over victimhood or familial malfunction; he plays the hand he’s

been dealt with enormous reserves of spirit, creatively transforming the anger and grief

of nasty circumstances into a paradoxical elation, a battle cry of undefeatedness.

Poison summer breeze, least likely to bring any relief but strangely it does; it’s

unexpected but I’ll take it; the wrong wrench, the wrong socket set, the only thing you

bring me makes the job take even longer–I’ll take it in place of anything less; your

glance, cheeks colored with sexual frustration and resentment; the broken end of a bottle

waved in my face, two motherfuckers spitting out insults at the end of the day; skinny dog

chained in a shityard of flies, chain crackling in the dry leaves; no one has anything to

say that makes any sense, the families walking through heat waves at Evergreen Cemetery;

raggedy-assed palm trees & friends who’d rather read magazines than try to think–hey,

whatever, whatever is left; whatever you allow–you know what I’m saying– I’ll take it.

(page 111)

Foster’s first book, Angry Days (West End Press, 1987), was a strong collection of

poems, yet for all its rage and accomplishment it yields nothing like the overall voltage

of this masterfully sustained long-poem-in-prose. City Terrace Field Manual is a

breakthrough, not just for the author but for anyone else in search of alternatives to

tired forms. (This review has been edited for length)Review by Jean Gier

Published in the Pacific International Reader

Literary Supplement, Spr., 1997

Sesshu Foster’s new book of prose poems, City Terrace Field Manual,

hits hard; it has the heart and feel of poetry, but it is also a manual for urban

survival, and definitely worth reading. Lesson #1: How do you survive when you enter East

L.A. wit nothing but the clothes on your body? City Terrace begins with a

short vignette about a family jumping from boxcar to dusty embankment, to take up

temporary residence in a derailed boxcar. There are no easy answers. Very often, the only

resource the characters of City Terrace have is their sense of caring, what one boy thinks

of as "a warm lonely pain he thought must be love."

There are signs of wisdom and signs of disaster strewn about Foster’s L.A.

landscape, like fragments and shards from an explosion: "tinkeroys, squalling kids, a

sister with rickets & my/brother without shoes, highway 101 two-lane blacktop/like

Route 66… this fleeting world going down, fleeing, flat, furious desires of birth &


Foster’s language has an energetic, headstrong quality; each poem wrenches

you from one telling scene to another, each an individual testimonio to a place

where countless paths cross, leaving traces of disparate cultures, words (some chanted

like stations of the rosary, some like Buddhist prayers), violence and death:

I AM this fetus: a worm in a womb of earth, root,

stone. You can look up and see Chinese ideograms

etched in baby’s breath across the crystalline firmamet,

flame-dark pre-Columbian constellations over dusty

streets of Aztlan. A youth who no longer knows who

he or she is, bound and gagged in the dark so long,

raped and abused with electrodes, beaten, spit on,

and humiliated. A calendar wheel burns in epochs of

darkness, stones worn down by penitent knees, the air

smoky and stained with mumbling, wailing…

Foster’s poems are concentrated histories of disillusionment, separation,

and culture shock, moving from one intense scene to the next. His prosaic form is

punctuated with telling dialogue and imagery that, at times, verges on the surreal.

Throughout, one senses the power of cities like Los Angeles, and of North America in

general, the irony and devastation of their allure. Foster’s poems remind us of those

individuals who make the journey: those who are destroyed along the way, and those who

survive with only their dreams:


tell me you’ve been looking for me. I know you are

coming. I know you want help studying your kanji,

katas, cal–, your future-tense English. I know I told

your mother I would. The years are falling down, but

I just can’t be there for you today. I will, I will, but…

there is too much light.

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