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California Sweet by Kent MacCarter
Five Islands Press, 2018.
ISBN 9780734054258
Luke Beesley reviews

California Sweet

by Kent MacCarter
Magic Gum with Pop Rocks!

'Think of a bellydancer attempting to / headstand / the baud rate of modems' (‘The Plumbing Network under Dolores Park, San Francisco’). The California Sweet is bubble gum with firework-coloured crackling bits in it – pop rocks. So much pop (linguistic, cultural) and fizz in these poems. It’s a delight to mouth the energetic and surprising language. And the crackle has an after-effect, too, when you step out into urban spaces and notice it reflected in distracted thought. Think 'Atomic teenage zigzag' style, or consider 'an overcommitted jellyfish'.

You don’t have to try hard to search out startling phrases and word combinations. I can open the book and bring them here in almost any sequence, and they tend to chime or vibrate pleasingly like 'nearby zhivago pants', 'plastic pickets', a 'hot parade of Tupperware' and 'the gravitas of early jitterbugs'.

In the first poem (‘Sundown over Badwater Basin, California’) you’re met with: 'Gorbachev / their course of salt swivelled my piñata. Atoned / to half a church of Earth I genuflect a passing limousine of shadow / and the heft of Lucas borgs or Jackson’s sharp vanilla // Mittens!' In MacCarter’s poetry, Gorbachev can be a verb, and other nouns and adjectives also feel very verby. Each line’s meanings crackle-out and spit in different directions. Michael or Peter Jackson? Russia and a Christian genuflect in the context of a poem that also seems like a Hollywood Western.

This is American-born, Castlemaine-based MacCarter’s third full-length collection following Sputnik’s Cousin (2014) and In the Hungry Middle of Here (2009), and he continually hints at a political, social, cultural, ecological and historical context for his whirligig language stylistics. For example, in an epigraph to one of the poems we have a line from Silent Spring (1962) a way-head-of-its-time text about the effect of pesticides on the natural environment and the marketing ploys set up to fool the public: 'It is an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged'.

In the poem ‘Descendant of the Donner Party’, we have what seems like a cross between the  films Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Dead Man (1995) and Spaceballs (1987): 'ichabod nobody storm trouper s stare at that double cheeseburger'. In the context of California’s pioneer history, a loose narrative thread holds to the gaze of 'ichabod', or is it nobody? Or one-or-more storm troopers? At any rate, we’re distracted 'trigonometrically', 'a jomocha shake in jodhpurs' in 'high sierra heatwaves', before inevitably swinging back to the amusing cheeseburger 'crouched deep in its bun'. It’s funny, and the language jockeys you along, but you can’t help but try to locate an 'ichabod' (a name that recurs in the book) reaching through eras beyond the limits of the cheeseburger. There are chunks of text – a phrase, one word, two words, a whole line – set up in couplets. Chunks as form. And by the end of the poem, you feel each chunk is its own island. But you intuit the archipelago – each poem feels tight or whole – and you sense a 'superfast' erudite mind trusting itself to engage with the chaos of contemporary high / low culture. This poem, for example, seems to concern the re-branding of history and the foundation of California itself.

California Sweet is separated into three parts: 'Glycogen', 'California Suite' and 'Cryptocurrency'. In 'Glycogen', there’s a 12-page poem called ‘Constanze Weber Steps off Amtrak’s Super Chief Passenger Train in Los Angeles … and Fears She Has Disembarked at the Wrong Station’. Mozart’s wife arrives at a sort of 18th-through-21st-Century 'station' where MacCarter uses 7Up and the film Be Kind Rewind (2008) to pun into her biography. He not only shifts attention from the lionized Mozart but places a complex industrious Constanze into the steam-wheesh of smudged time, centuries squeegeed like a Richter painting.

But it’s pointless to MacCarter around in this review when we have his book! Though, speaking of squeegees, in one of the book’s 13 illustrations by Jackie Ryan, she visually recreates a version of the ‘Constanze … ’ poem: a man in a chef’s hat, his feet tangled in video-cassette ribbon, less squeegees more roller paints a set of music notes across the sky. An hilariously scrunched chef’s hat can be found in the final passages of this sure-of-itself poem:

A third

Michelin Chef Hat. There it is

wadded up in the slot of a bagel

toaster next to the galley’s MacBook Air

its iTunes shuffling through K. 449 in E-flat major and spreading out in movements of tapioca

You could spend this entire review unpacking that stanza, but while imagining a galley’s MacBook Air, my mind went to a pop-up book, the cardboard folds opening out to expose the intricacies of a sailing ship’s interiors – MacBook near Muscat.

There is a 'Caterpillar' amusement-park ride described in a significant poem called ‘A Note on Going Superfast’. The 1980s ride, from Shakopee, Minnesota, comes out of MacCarter’s childhood and is 'eight connected dodgem-car-like-vehicles on a circular track'. Perhaps that’s the ride, the wheel, we have our hands on when we, at one point, turn the book in both hands to read a six-page poem in landscape mode called ‘Polyurethane Moriawase Display on Earthenware Platter: non-hendecasyllabic canzone for Hokkaido Prefecture sung from the coast of Big Sur, CA’. How to describe this poem? It’s as if you hear bits and pieces leaked from some futuristic made-to-look-vintage internet cable (or is it just bubble gum?) that’s strung between a Tokyo skyscraper and a Big Sur peak. Again, I’ve been made to sound like the book. MacCarter does it best. California Sweet reads to itself.

In the second section, ‘California Suite’, the poems have less jumpy linguistics and demonstrate a gentler delicacy. Enjoy the letter ‘t’ on the tongue in the following: 'tarp lights   gear / moon of title // cot or night / agate torsos' (‘John Chong on the Rail road. At Vallejo near Sacramento’). This section’s poems were made from glancing at archival material from various libraries including The Berkeley Art Museum, the Bancroft Library Pictorial Collections and the California Historical Society.

Mostly, California Sweet is a thickly read with many tangents. I got the most from each poem, the full fizz, in the first 10-15 mins of each reading session, then I had a rest. Sometimes, I tried to cut the motor entirely and slow on the lines. The book rewards slow and fast modes of reading. For example, returning to the poem ‘A Note On Going Superfast’, I read the Caterpillar ride as a metaphor for the accumulation of knowledge or the gradual influence of the world on personality. I saw the spinning dodgem car representing a phase of knowledge absorption, a phase of memory-making, and the superfast blur of these phases representing the hum of our restless quotidian brain, our now.

This ‘A Note On Going Superfast’ comes about halfway through the book and is a surprisingly reflective intermission or wink. A treatise of sorts. It begins: 'As an American teen in the later 1980s, swaddled inside the sensory input that would inform the final third of Generation X, I was pummeled with marketing jingoism designed to lasso the slacker zeitgeist of the times …'. The poem meta-poetically describes 'Commercialised language chemistry', and near its end, there is the following: 'Now, nearly 30 years later, I can taste the angle of a diphthong; fabricate speed with language, and bend a printed page into an origami Danaus plexippus. Or, at least, give it a white-hot go.' The magic-gum language-stylistics of the rest of the book are here, in this poem, but there is also a personal, direct approach. I wondered if I wanted more of this contrast: MacCarter at home in 'Springtime 2015 in Castlemaine, Victoria'. But that would be to blunt the collection’s thesis. This poem is the tease or pivot or breather, in the hungry middle, before returning to embed ethical questions in a display of language exploration and to mimic the speed of information. The book appears to consider if something is lost in noise, but then there’s the memory of noise, and nostalgia in it, too. Curiously, thankfully, the encyclopaedic noise in MacCarter’s mind produces such glittering aesthetics. In the poem ‘A Lime Rickey by Jamaica Bay’ he seems to be making a sort of aural calligraphy in 'towering ampersands of sound'. He follows this line with what I’d call yet another surreal analogy of his poetics: 'or tight enormous swans draping sparkle on the troposphere'.

Kent MacCarter, California Sweet. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780734054258

Published: December 2023
Luke Beesley

Luke Beesley’s fifth poetry collection, Aqua Spinach (Giramondo), was published in late 2018. His poetry has been published widely in Australia and internationally and has been translated into several languages. He lives in Melbourne.

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