Susan Rhodes


The poetry critic of the Boston Globe could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. For his plane had landed at LAX, after a smooth flight in first class with a Dan Aykroyd (very funny, very funny) movie, bourbon over some chips of ice, unexampled views of the night sky and a vivacious blonde sitting next to him, smelling wondrously and exhibiting a good deal of powdered flesh and muscular tensions in elastic multiplicities of form (he had read that somewhere, in a colleague’s discussion of Howard Nemerov’s formalism, that was the title of it, Formalism, or something like that), but, alas, completely absorbed each minute of the flight in Michael Jackson’s arrival at the Canary Islands, where his PR men had arranged to have the former child soul singer greeted by two offspring of the local inhabitants, dressed in traditional costume and bearing flowers, right there on the tarmac. The stewardesses whisked along the aisles and the movie ran its length and he stared out the window at the strange clouds and vapor trails and cities and constellations, smelling the powder and chewing gum and quiet inoffensive perspiration of the eager fan beside him, and drank.

The approach to Los Angeles is always exceptionally beautiful, if you have lived there for any length of time and return by air. The white desert gives way to the orange heat of the avocado half L.A. sits in like a crabmeat mixture, and its warmth and radiance, like no other city, spread out before you as you settle into it and the plane angles in for a landing.

He was being paged in the terminal. His name sang invisibly in the loudspeaker system with a woman’s voice. He was exceptionally sensitive of hearing, and liked to quote the famous choreographer’s remark (having studied his sister art and mastered the piano) that, being a musician, he gets killed through the ears, which always reminded him of the Murder of Gonzago, somehow. The gleam of linoleum and tile and the curves of Formica and stainless steel escaped his attention, his complete attention, as he crossed the terminal outside of which stood or lumbered a fleet of large and small airliners like the one inside of which he had dined on lobster and enjoyed a comedy. The smog was repulsive today, but not excessive. Mr. Harold Dickerson, the woman’s voice was saying, Mr. Harold Dickerson, please go to some counter or other.

A car was waiting for him, a variety he had seen real people in close-ups advertising as a blissful dream of reality unbroken, an ecstasy unbounded, a joy unparalleled, and good for the country. Poetry, he considered, ignoring the chromium paint on the door’s plastic knobs, is not a métier, nor a craft. Nor an assembly line. What is it?

She had won the literary prize that merited an interview in person, and he was going to interview her. West Coast poetry was a dismal affair, after the great loss of nerve in the Seventies (he felt, this Boston æsthete), but he was fortunate to find in his generation a poetic movement in its spring, though perhaps each generation experiences that reawakening. Perhaps not, he couldn’t be sure, look at Pound. From nothing and Idaho to pommes de terre at the Savoy and ignominy while he yet lived, and after he died as forgotten as J.S. Bach. The streets of Los Angeles whirled past, a city undergoing a major renovation, a city abrogating art as a useless and untimely interference in business and governmental affairs. The sterile sculptures grew like mushrooms, the studios were bought by shadowy companies and began to produce parodies of parodies with a nasty turn of mind, something hard, bitter and senile that made you afraid, leaving the theater, of the city you lived in. Los Angeles, where the poetesses practiced horrible, insane tortures on the word in their hands, and poets dreamed of raping it with power tools and foreign objects. But Susan Rhodes was an exception, though her work lacked the audacity of some of the rimesters springing punning rhythms with perfect ease and tension, hers was an imagisme so lascivious it did not raise an eyebrow but calmly effected its glorious surprise, as it were by accident.

The air had changed in Los Angeles. Where San Francisco crackled and fizzed and hissed like an electric power plant driven by steam, he had found Los Angeles a flat city, a city sobered perhaps by the very grandeur of its artifice, that hid in studio warehouses the icons and images of several generations. Indeed, the activity was so overwhelming that it was hard to practice any other form of art, for any activity that attracted attention was quickly subsumed into the studios, either directly or by imitation. But it was different now, that studio commissary oeuf sur le plat du jour sans le plat sans le jour had been smashed in a real dædalian furor, whose mystery was that it had none. The city sprawled helplessly tormented in nightmares, while amateurs in doctors’ masks practiced frightful and obscene operations day and night.

Yet Susan Rhodes had flourished in all this carnage of the mind, and he was going to meet her and interview her in her home in Topanga, that home which would never appear in Architectural Digest or be featured on Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. She was not rich, nor especially famous, she had not yet, in spite of Philip Levine’s epigram, been made the bard of Los Angeles (on analogy of his position in Fresno, no doubt, snickered Mr. Dickerson) by mistake, as Robert Frost was made the bard of New England and Carl Sandburg of Chicago. Hadn’t Frost written a great California poem? Didn't Sandburg know the farm as well? But they had you in their sights and you were pigeonholed, unless, as Robert Altman said, you were no pigeon.

And there was something inexplicable in her poetry, some odd enchantment that did not proceed from the words, but was there. He could not explain it, he worked for the Boston Globe, it was not his department. But he longed to meet her, to see if there was some reflection of her personality in the work he might discern and understand in spite of the weakness of his analysis.

Sun and earth in the lapse of time since its days of fashion met you in Topanga, but its overbearing solicitude had softened with age and, he noticed, cautiously opened its eyes as if for the first time, and he thought of Ozu who had found it so difficult to make his way as a man and an artist with so heavy a burden of genius that when he finally did so it was as if a pair of claws scuttling etc. had opened its shell to peek out and lifted the ocean with it. Not that Topanga looked very different, but the individual leaves were no longer blurred and fearful (nor frozen in memory) but focused and distinct in manifold combinations that only an artist’s muse, not even he himself, could number, though the sun had not harmonized with the earth and an odd detachment, a sort of stoic movie Indian pride covered the hills, and the quotient of water vapor had not been adjusted that makes a Leonardo da Vinci horizon occur reliably.

But these are professional matters, admitted into the house by a butler in a white coat, black pants and also white gloves, he was alone in a quiet room clean and comfortable with sofas and tables and chairs all soft upon a yellow carpet that ran over wood floors to the glass doors facing the patio and woods, eucalyptus, beyond the wooden railing of the sunporch. There were pictures, Van Velde, Lichtenstein, small prints here and there, and it was very quiet. He crossed the room and saw out of the corner of his eye a boy playing in the hallway with a white ball like a soccer ball, and a small black and white dog bounding after it. As he continued he had the curious feeling of shadowy interferences in the room, as though a dark surface were passing on the other side of a pane of glass you are looking through, suddenly creating reflections. He opened the glass door, slid it back and went out onto the sunporch. Eucalyptus roared into his nose as he stared at the sunbleached grass and a sunbather under a wide hat oiling her buttocks with the ends of her fingers on a large towel, her back to him, preparing to read a book, perhaps, next door.

Susan Rhodes appeared through a doorway and offered him a drink. She was blonde, not tall, her eyes were a green that verged on blue, her hands formed interesting shapes as she talked, but it was her voice that struck him, as it were violently. It was like the sound of the voice of his mother when she was reading to him, it was like seeing a person with whom you happen to be in love no matter how many other persons are present, and it was like something else he could not define clearly, a curve of light against a dark background.

The tensions roused in him became almost too great to bear, and when she inadvertently touched him for one moment with those generative hands, he could no longer control himself but turned away to relieve his anguished spirit all at once, leaning upon her piano with a copy of Goethe beside his hand, ironically enough.

He excused himself and left hurriedly, in quite a fluster, driving straight for the airport, where he cashed his return ticket in and bought another one for Las Vegas, checking into a superbright hotel, and ordered lunch and drinks. He borrowed a typewriter and a fax machine, and in forty-five minutes and forty-five seconds his interview with the poet Susan Rhodes was in Boston. He sent his suit downstairs to be cleaned and pressed. Showered, calm, the poetry critic of the Boston Globe, Mr. Harold Dickerson, sat nude in the hotel’s chair and stared out through the glass patio doors at the desert and at the city. He sipped his drink and meditated the velocity of travel and the instantaneity of communications, until a knock on the door announced his coat and trousers.