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What the Smog Inspector Knows
by Nancy Shiffrin
Weisburd, Mel. A Life of Windows & Mirrors: Selected Poems 1948-2005.
Conflux Press, 2005.
80 pages. $15.00.
In this powerful retrospective selection of poems, Mel Weisburd dissolves his debts. He owes nothing to inquirers, inquisitors and informers. His “Kol Nidre” is testimony to a great secular Jewish tradition in the American language. Weisburd was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1927 and moved to Los Angeles in 1948. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in English and became an air quality control engineer. He wishes to “remain in the diaspora, to be free of all compromise and corruption of language, to have faith only in independent witness and relativity.... When was the world stolen?” he asks. Weisburd writes on the border of art and science. He looks outward for content and inward for meaning. His crystalline lines and rhythms reclaim authenticity from the murk that passes for social discourse.
Weisburd honors the great poet and teacher Thom McGrath without being worshipful. In “Image Hill” McGrath takes his class to Griffith Park to find material for poems. Eucalyptus, castor bean, manzanita do not interest Weisburd as much as the “the view of Los Angeles hazed over below.” Weisburd credits McGrath for encouraging him to look outward, to write clearly and courageously without “bullshititis.” Weisburd’s mother was “certified” for trying to kill him. He has no evidence of her, not a sentence. He was raised by his laborer father. Most of the people in McGrath’s classes came from some kind of family dysfunction. They were not asked to deny their experience, only to move beyond the limitations of the confessional. “In the beginning was the world, not the word,” Weisburd quotes McGrath in a prose afterword which will eventually become a memoir. Weisburd’s world includes the family he loves, his wife and best friend, Gloria, his daughter Stefi. His poem ”To Gloria, My Wife” is an amazing paean to mature sensuality and attentive fatherhood, miraculous given his family history.
I lay in a paddy of her stomach
steeping in her
and fall into deep sleep
while she is stretched over the gravity
that held us together, the universe
suddenly reorganized.
Later in the same poem Weisburd describes “a sunlit daughter born to handle / the division in art and science / better than I.”
Weisburd uses his art to interrogate science. “Report From an Early L.A. Smog Inspector” is a numbered sequence of fifteen poems which capture the sinister quality of L.A.’s romance with the auto, with oil, with the trappings of “progress.” The date on these poems is 1956. The voice here is prophetic though the poet does not berate or exhort. He invites the reader to a state of awe and inquiry. When will we learn what the smog inspector knows, that “every state of matter enters the puffs released from cannons like light off.” He asks, “In a million years who will drill / for the oil of our rendered remains? Quantity will far / exceed those of the dinosaurs, but for what use? / What quality will it be?”
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