Bay Area Lit Scene: Diesel, a Bookstore

Review By Turner Canty, Omnidawn Features Writer

Who: Alice Jones and Stephen Motika.
What: Poetry Reading
Where: Diesel, a Bookstore – 5433 College Ave, Oakland CA 94618
When: April 26th 2012

Poems from each reader follow the review.

It’s spring and Oakland shines. The poets are out. Stephen Motika is in town and Alice Jones has asked him to read with her at Diesel Books. The audience shows up late as usual, but quickly busies themselves with chitchat and the search for appropriate seating. The staff at Diesel has sold nearly everyone a book and the reading hasn’t even begun.

Alice Jones, author of several exceptional books of poems (notably Gorgeous Mourning, Apogee 2004– and Extreme Directions, Omnidawn 2003), was there to read mainly from Plunge (Apogee 2012), her newest work. It soon became clear that the title word was more than a momentary action to Jones, but also acted as a preview of the aural lushness of these new poems, and their diversity.

A regular swimmer, Jones this night read with one hand in a cast. She declined to acknowledge the cause of the injury, but in light of her somber work, it seemed to fit the night’s bill. Speculation aside, Jones read in top form, choosing her poems gracefully from manuscripts, books, and simple paper print-outs. Opening with a few poems from Plunge, Jones read at a brisk pace, streaming out thoughts on California in the evening, shifts in time, and the depths of water and consciousness. Listening to Jones’ work I caught images like “October’s flowered Jar” or a “silver pond”, coexisting and mingling to create something of beautiful importance.

Jones also chose some new experimental work from a series that follows the alphabet, in a manner I didn’t entirely understand. This longer work, (which was recently included in Volt) was a fantastic and intricate assemblage of surprisingly confrontational thoughts and situations. “[t]he circle we emerged from, blood and muscle, space / without sphincter, she pushed, we came. Hello? Sound tunnels / from one world to the next, sometimes the line goes dead.” Jones delivered this and other provocative lines, without pause. Her career as a psychotherapist seemed to come into play here. Especially as some of the darker subjects she touched on, such as suicide and the difficulty of communication in the present day, entered her poetry in a chillingly natural way. Oftentimes it seemed that Jones’ poetry rejected the openly confessional, and instead chose to recognize the world in an opaque “self-referential” and tireless logic, propelling itself to an endless number of vivid scenes. It was partially Jones’ imagery that made this propulsion most interesting for me, for instance when she spoke of “the whirl of mind, braid-patterned lines, a note / of mauve shadow on the pelted hills, arrival / of a governed darkness”. I kept seeing in these images an expression of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, as observed by a single anonymous viewer. Occasionally, I even found this notion a bit frightening, such as in Jones’ final poem, which was like her previous in craft but pushed the emotional content of her reading to a new extreme. The poem’s final lines: “he left me a message on his way to the bridge / today is the day I die”, were such a shocking and complete statement that I was surprised to hear them emerge from so many densely packed layers of imagery. If anything I hope it allowed Jones to leave the podium satisfied with the knowledge that she’d taken the air out of the room for a few seconds.

Somehow Jones’ grave final lines acted as a perfect way to transition the audience’s attention to Stephen Motika, who approached the podium, and with little introduction, set off reading at a brisk pace. Perhaps it was Jones’ still lingering acknowledgment to death that was the motivation. Whatever the case, Motika responded with a boisterous loud energy that was a pleasure to watch. “Western Practice”, Motika’s first full collection, and newest work, was the source of much of his reading for the night. His long work “Delusion’s Enclosure: On Harry Partch (1901-1974)” concerning the life of the so-named avant-garde composer, was a rush to be heard in all it’s dramatic entirety. Each of the poem’s numbered sections gave Motika a unique filter on Partch’s life, and his theatrical voicing and gesturing only further helped achieve this affect. “Trips to Kansas City & musical studies & jobs as porters / but at 14, he knew that it was / SOUND!” ends the first section of the poem. Geography and semiotics continued to mesh as more and more ornaments were hung on Mr. Parch. Yet as Motika continued to read, his poems began to touch on more personal subjects, especially as he disclosed to us more of his vision of his home state California. This change in tone was particularly present in his recitations of “Near Los Osos” and “Temescal”, in which Motika worked in delicate, slow scenes, alluding to views of “gasoline residuals from road-/ way / ficus trees / torn ligaments from childhood” without overcrowding the poem, or anyone’s ears too much. Moreover, nothing in Motika’s poetry seemed too far away, but instead passed delightfully right in front of your face, like fish in an aquarium, unaware of your gaze.

I’d also like to note that it was Motika’s poem “They Have Fans” that really tied the night together for me. “They Have Fans” was written in dedication to the memory of poet and translator Stacy Doris, a memory that Motika noted both he and Jones hold in high regard. Like “Delusion’s Enclosure”, Motika took up a quasi-biographical voice to annotate Doris’ life as he saw fit. But unlike “Delusion’s Enclosure, “They Have Fans” was far more personal and calm. Motika chose to describe Doris’ world in a detached lingering manner, heavy in description and juxtaposition. At times the poem even devolved into simple lists, almost reminiscent of Ted Berrigan in their disarming polarity. Motika’s thoughts shifted through the details of Doris’ life, with little climax until finally, like Jones’ final lines earlier, he left us only with Doris’ death: “in the perfect are the words / I the room a subtitle / a fledgling length of short words / an illness takes the breath”.

It was dark by the time Motika wrapped things up. Alice Jones stood up and thanked everyone for coming. Both poets had brought up so much emotion, it was hard to even begin digesting their work. With Jones, her poems had been so cascading and naturally expansive that many of her lines stayed with me for days. Stephen’s words were equally powerful, but felt more angular and resistant, and I had little idea what to make of some of his poems until I later reread them in his book, which I’ve still not put down. Overall both poets where incredibly inviting, and generous to share with us so much of their great work in such a relaxing setting.


Alice Jones


                                        Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.
                                                                                          Samuel Beckett

Door, door opening on every pulse, the same empty hall,
washed and unlit, the same peculiar night lit by green planets,

before and after on the inspired breath, one O, another,
the circle we emerged from, blood and muscle, space

without sphincter, she pushed, we came. Hello? Sound tunnels
from one world to the next, sometimes the line goes dead.

The unthought scheme of things, design, circle to circle,
continent’s end—the skin shelf of nothing beyond what’s seeable

from here, Circe’s song, the sirens’ wail, the ear’s small cave,
lips’ vermillion rim, apart, the world comes, I came, she. Then

hunger’s clawed hand, the reach towards an iron door,
penitentiary, century of penitence, patience of the buried

furless creature. Iron innocence, barely light, your breath pulsing
little tides, mornings left, how many? day shaking itself awake.

The long-lined infinitesimal pin-pricked light, the stars are holes.
Black sled, so fast, S-curves, the silk, the sail, satin undies,

“smalls” they’re called. Who wanted you? For the long feathers,
pinions, bead-heads, the father’s reach, how far the wrenching,

untold secrets, questions a child’s mind forms around,
kernel of nothing that becomes the something inside

of each who, where. A voice opens like water, the pour
overboard, the poor filling the world, the world refusing

to fill them. Landscape develops rills, loamy with tendrils,
the scent of wet earth seeping, that’s where we’ll go soon,

manacled to time—you’re it, the body pulls you along. Spill
out a line into a place that isn’t there yet, are you singing?

Won’t, far-fetched, water pail, mooncalf, milk in the face,
a wake is full of food, the dead aren’t talking, can’t, they lie there

listening to us chew, those pink spotted star lilies that smell
too strong. Possibility always open, we turn from it so often,

a window, and then one orange day gone into the rumpled
flannel of a Sunday and where are you? The spotted hand,

lost ring, sweet unlived days, pool of mind, welcome water,
drink, lap, the slip-flap turnings of desire, wake up, padding,

row row under the wavelets under the covers, slip slip, in we go.
The Cha’am salmon? Something spicy, cilantro, walk in

the kite-flying marina, purple darkness oozing in, open skin,
a mind’s easing itself up and over the lip of time. Small daily

killing, desire unfolding all over again inside the slipknot’s loop,
stepping down the mossy stairs into the bottle-green bay, who is it?

No one. Me? No one. Black is a quality of space, vibrations lengthen
into flood, the wash, the sea. Who went there? The ones who came

before, the embryo, the vanished, gone, the sunk and sinking.
What peace is there at this point? Peach-lit fog blows in, scrawling,

we go over the edge again, who said ground is basic? “Myriad-minded,”
shapely, ship-shape, formless, figure and arc, the reach into—

what do you figure? Drift grasses, black oolong, sip air and otherness, one
conceivable line of time. It floored me, what was there, disguised as nothing:

a wall of water, silver surface, creased and wind-driven, sun-stricken,
almost painful, from the massive heavenly dark, down here, shining.

Muddy Hollow

Sun-splashed green reeds, silver pond, a whirl
of red-wings and their throaty notes,
piercing calls, the clouds’ dappled shadows,
reflected camouflage, wind-struck water, arriving
one by one, the light, the birds, the song, governed
by half-seen forces, a mottled ocean beyond

the hills like rumpled felt, and beyond
that far sweep, mistranslated nations, a whirl
of languages, brush work, incense, governed
by tone, Cantonese, nine, Mandarin, four notes
to sound the texture of sh’s, z’s, r-slurred arrivals
on an alien ear. Container ships drop cargo, shadowed

by ICE, uncounted people hidden in shadows,
hungry commerce, convertibles in numbers beyond
need, tennis shoes, yellow rayon dresses, new arrivals
in the Goodwill store, sent back across the ocean, a whirl
of exchange and loss, fierce need. It’s been noted
how commodities flow uphill, cash-governed,

rolling towards whoever has. We’re lost. The map governed
us but still, that rising hill shouldn’t be shadowing
the marshland. White egret sounds one harsh note,
unfolds, flies off, swallows dip and swirl just beyond
reach, fine gnats precede them, cowslips’ lacy whirl,
paintbrush, grasses. Were we hoping for arrival—

a state of being, constant and enduring? What arrives—
water and what the wind does with it, ungoverned
intersecting circles of light and dark, a whirl
of unshaped shapes, glints dissolve into shadows,
the other hemisphere, foreign sounds, beyond
the easy eye, the listening ear, lost echo, a note

of loss, ours and the far world’s. We note
and go on seeing. It’s all one place arriving
at the possible, impossible-but-lived lives beyond
one being’s grasp, ten billion fates ungoverned,
tin-roofed houses, small luxury of sautéed chicken, shadows
of birds flying over wetlands, geography’s print and whirl

the whirl of mind, braid-patterned lines, a note
of mauve shadow on the pelted hills, arrival
of a governed darkness—this order, this beyond.


Sun-splashed notes of bird-song,
throat-piercing, shadow-dappling
song is camouflaged ocean,

untranslatable, brush-worked hills.
Language contains the swept texture
of dropped sounds beyond the ears’

store, converting goodwill into a whirl
of exchanges. Yellow dresses
flow hungrily downhill.

Beyond reach, the map,
to our regret, sound swallows
light, painted grasses,

water, what the mind does with it,
unshaped shapes in the ungoverned
hemisphere, the foreign eye

noting the arrival of light,
of a billion small fates,
while geography is flying

through a patterned mind,
the pelted darkness.


Camouflaged arrival
of the clouds’ ocean

a rumpled language
dropping its cargo of r’s

converting need into cash
good will into rayon

ungoverned cowslips dip
in the marshland’s whirl

a state of enduring
unshaped glints, dissolved beings

the impossible world
beyond pattern.


Throaty ocean
translates cargo

luxuries lost,
the other hemisphere’s
wetland map.

Untranslated light
maps the other hemisphere,
the mind’s braided whirl.

Stephen Motika


In memory of Stacy Doris (1962-2012)


I returned from France to work in my culture.

the translation of everything that happened to me

the density, recycling footage to find new ways,

realizing the quick counted snow in lines

and to know for sure

that the world remains warm.


Persistent and not so


breath pours
                    sorting verdant
                                            heat codes

          but no charade
                                 a quotidian shape

                              irregular departures

omissions limp
                          oceans shelter

horizon   is
                  breathe in favor
                                          skin,  flourish


there might always be a long count, a wrong address, then recognizing a cafe, a town, an island, a peninsula. Long muscles wrapped. I knew there was a lion in there. There were engagements. I made it all go away one night. They’ll come for you, the oxalis covered hills will collapse, the house will end up in the water. I felt that it was a foreign place; I fell in love with it. With you and everyone else there. There were few words in the end to describe that falling. Some call it belonging. Others say it’s a door. I always knew it swung both ways.


this justification, a moral fountain, and thus, above all, stoically yielded.
contradicting veracity, the knife crave, adamant and blanketing.

mindlessly, this, behind down triumph of long hurlers.
beloved as one another, in song of gesture, even more, love’s fundamental factors.

hard dips and risks, double slopes. mites wasted, wind shades
tender boys, cook & fiats, flaming parts, bulbous, wouldn’t make up his mind.

bray and beauty, this saying contaminates sources
known hammering, wet wonder, pebbles, itch openings and gouty torture.

furious, vital, with braces, pipe, advent and chest, more hour sprinkles,
to warmth, thirst, hammered slopes strumming, folk-rhymed, happenstance.

in texture, forget danger, oddly fervent, ordinary news, this hunt, glory animal,
oddly again, flame custards lost, plead fury, life sand owes assailant control.

the weak are sly, the most alike, yapping and snarling, dab eye gaudy, hand held
pin pairs, careful, in hot application, pleads prodigious assumptions, trembling.


for me single words appear in a wall, a row, a line. I’ll say them slowly:



here with inky, perfumed, and not, with child, having had children. living in north america, nit loving in north america. in valley crammed in stalks, with crowd, roaring, not roaring. bound by instinct, ribbons, sacrifice, recalling and remembering. wrapped council, flourishing, eccentric, endemic, slots. field or filled or filed. to finish, finite.


scratch + draw

repelling, stretching across spelled avenues

in the last hour of January
                                              in a sunset dark

called, and wondered,
                                  with everything too clipped

board and hard, a difficult conjecture

                                        I never walked to the sea from here

birds , green and fuchsia, children’s macaws. of the reserves, held in emerald and yellow

this last year.

above the field, we took the tram. there, in heights, tailings, a mountain. i wanted to use the phone, to punch each number. Itals and lexicons, the desk.

music, talking, voices

                                        this swimsuit. the long crawls.

in the perfect are the words
in the room a subtitle
a fledgling length of short words
an illness takes the breath