Sesshu Foster's new book of prose poems, City Terrace Field Manual, hits hard; it has the heart and feel of poetry, but it is also a manual for urban survival, and definitely worth reading. Lesson #1: How do you survive when you enter East L.A. wit nothing but the clothes on your body? City Terrace begins with a short vignette about a family jumping from boxcar to dusty embankment, to take up temporary residence in a derailed boxcar. There are no easy answers. Very often, the only resource the characters of City Terrace have is their sense of caring, what one boy thinks of as "a warm lonely pain he thought must be love."
There are signs of wisdom and signs of disaster strewn about Foster's L.A. landscape, like fragments and shards from an explosion: "tinkeroys, squalling kids, a sister with rickets & my/brother without shoes, highway 101 two-lane blacktop/like Route 66... this fleeting world going down, fleeing, flat, furious desires of birth & death..."
Foster's language has an energetic, headstrong quality; each poem wrenches you from one telling scene to another, each an individual testimonio to a place where countless paths cross, leaving traces of disparate cultures, words (some chanted like stations of the rosary, some like Buddhist prayers), violence and death:
I AM this fetus: a worm in a womb of earth, root, stone. You can look up and see Chinese ideograms etched in baby's breath across the crystalline firmamet, flame-dark pre-Columbian constellations over dusty streets of Aztlan. A youth who no longer knows who he or she is, bound and gagged in the dark so long, raped and abused with electrodes, beaten, spit on, and humiliated. A calendar wheel burns in epochs of darkness, stones worn down by penitent knees, the air smoky and stained with mumbling, wailing...
Foster's poems are concentrated histories of disillusionment, separation, and culture shock, moving from one intense scene to the next. His prosaic form is punctuated with telling dialogue and imagery that, at times, verges on the surreal. Throughout, one senses the power of cities like Los Angeles, and of North America in general, the irony and devastation of their allure. Foster's poems remind us of those individuals who make the journey: those who are destroyed along the way, and those who survive with only their dreams:
...They tell me you've been looking for me. I know you are coming. I know you want help studying your kanji, katas, cal--, your future-tense English. I know I told your mother I would. The years are falling down, but I just can't be there for you today. I will, I will, but... there is too much light.