Letters to Early Street by Albert Flynn DeSilver (La alameda Press, 2007) is a sequence of fifty-four epistlatory poems. Each poem is a free verse “letter”--sometimes addressed to the street, and sometimes addressed at a friend, another poet, or whimsically, everything from a stone to the Pacific Ocean to the word “etc.” Like the mythic but specific town of Springfield in the “The Simpsons,” Early Street seems to be a concept as much as a place. And the reader immediately asks--what Early Street? A local one, an archetypical one, or perhaps one in san francisco, the poet’s home town. But Early Street can’t quite be limited by time and space. In “Letter Twenty Eight”:
Dear Early Street, dear darkening ground.
The text of your unfolding
is written in our walking
Your path is urban boulevard
and deer trail all the same--
where taxicab and insect
The epistle is one of the most ancient forms of writing. Indeed, it predates the novel, and is the basis for some of the first novels in English. The letter poem has immediacy--it automatically implies an audience--and very little formal constraint other than the “Dear” and often a complimentary close. It has been practiced by Langston Hughes and Lew Welch among others. Desilver doesn’t sign his letters, not even the last one of the sequence, which is both anonymous and intimate--no doubt Early Street et. al. know who is writing. And some of these letters are to himself, or extensions of himself, as is “Letter Forty Five” which begins: “Dear Poem,/ When are you gonna shape up?and become thrillingly brilliant to the general/reader--contemplative to the temporary ear?”
There is more about writing in “Letter Eighteen”:
I can’t seem to just let em pour--
the words, that is
like trains pouring by
arattlin’ rather crookedly
this morning they hammer
the tracks in some gunshot fashion.
First the 5:18, then the 6:18, then the 6:50
A.M. something--am what?
An occasional horn wisping by?
One interesting hallmark of the letter poem form is that it tends to be both occasional--written for a purpose--and ephemeral--like a postcard from a fast passing scene or slice of life. “Letter Thirty Six” captures a flash of feeling. addressed to “Dear grief, one bird” it goes on the describe:
wings who were swept
thin over the waning
page where skin and I wept
gracefully through Thursday’s rain--
“Letter Fifty One” is kind of a paean to the ephemeral, here an imitation and homage to poet Phil Whalen whose style it imitates. The poem begins “Dear mind,” seeming to invoke Whalen’s emphasis on Buddhism and perception, and goes on to call the spirit of the poet “Where P. Whalen is/disguised here as/HORSEFLY/on my foot!” New Mexico, Whalen’s home in the 1980’s, is present here as well: “New Mexico, gives me a feeling inside,/of canyony, pinyon piney vast birds SCREECHING/beautifully by and by”.
Letters to Early Street is beautifully designed by J.B. Bryan of La Alameda, in a manner the press’s readers have come to expect. The book is its own small work of art. The cover art, a pastel image on cloth by Paul Klee, aptly introduces both the playfulness and abstraction of the poems inside. Active without being cluttered, Klee’s “Legend of the Nile” tells us, like the early street poems, that the world, and our perceptions of it, are right here, right now, right before our eyes.
Causes Albert DeSilver Supports
California Poets in the Schools
The Stepping Stones Project
Spirit Rock Center
KWMR Community Radio
Small Press Traffic