Los Angeles Made Wild: Eloise Klein Healy, Artemis in Echo Park

Eloise Klein Healy is one of those writers whose style became associated with L.A. after the 1960s: loose lines, conversational tone, self-revelatory imagery. That, anyway, is how I (mis)read her work when I first saw it in Poetry/LAin the 80s.

In fact, Healy’s lines are sonically well-knit and rhythmically tight. The tone is a half-step above the conversational. Though her self-revelatory pieces are particular to her own body and memory, they possess a compelling resonance.

One reason I’m drawn to this collection is its geography. I grew up in Echo Park in the 60s and 70s. The neighborhood hasn’t changed much in these poems, written ten or fifteen years later. Along with the local references are others (for instance Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, NM) which are also landmarks in my life.

Healy’s Echo Park, though rendered in its details, serves as a synecdoche for all of Los Angeles. As in Susan Suntree’s lyric LA collection Sacred Sites, Healy reveals Echo Park to be a  palimpsest, written over – but not entirely obscuring – its deeper past, as in the title piece, “Artemis in Echo Park” (13):

The life before cement is ghosting up
through roadways that hooves and water
have worn into existence forever.
Out to Pasadena, the freeway still behaves
like a ravine, snaking through little valleys.
The newer roads exist in air, drifting skyward,
lifting off the landscape like dreams of the future.
We’ve named these roads for where they end –
Harbor Freeway, Ventura Freeway, Hollywood Freeway –
but now they all end in the sky.

She does it again in “The City Beneath the City” (21-22):

I own a print of cows on a green hill

who dream me through the wall,
through my neighbor’s house, straight back
to old Pasadena—Rancho San Pasqual,
Rancho Santa Anita, and the wild cows
with arching horns, their spines knobbed
and hairy, 3-D and mean.

The city beneath the city dances
like a calavera in the ballroom of the dead.
The old bones shake when a shovel
strikes an amber bottle
or excavations uncover stone canals
mysterious as the mountains of the moon.

and in “The Place Named for Califia” (37):

as it rises, an island real enough
to be necessary, a kind of woman
necessary enough to be real.

and “Up To Topanga” (38):

Up to Topanga the road cuts down
to the muscle, a sea-laid matrix
of rock and shell the creek carves through.
Full moon, the sea at my back
glazed dark blue.

I’ve been at that cut in Old Topanga Road, where the Miocene seashells crumble out of the loosened clay matrix after the winter rains, exposing L.A.’s antediluvian past.

From this ancient alluvial landscape much that is wild survives.  Coyotes, bears, hawks, peahens and other wildlife intrude into the city from its nocturnal margins. In this collection, Artemis really is a goddess of wild creatures and, because of that, a goddess of the night.

Human beings also live on L.A.’s feral margins, and Healy’s language works as well on the streets as in the chaparral. A woman, half her teeth missing, begs a meal (“Advice Like That,” 43). “Three boys abreast” on a sidewalk hone their dangerous edges (“Toltecs,” 23). Even Healy’s eulogy for her friend, the convention-defying anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff, becomes a “Ceremony” (48) facing outward from the city. All these figures appear suddenly, in landscapes where they are not expected – much like Healy’s two hawks (“Hawks,” 34). Healy is right: “What you feel in Echo Park/is population density/but only the moonlight matters.” (15).

The same is true of Healy’s lovers. In “Now I Find My House Is Not Safe” (16) she writes:
Now I find my house is not safe
from my desires.
A woman comes to my door
a week early for our appointment.
How surprised I am
to want her without preliminaries.
This is the strange price of my solitude,
always on the edge
of taking whatever path leads away
from the deep pond that’s been the center
of my world for months.
But a howl in the woods
and my quick dogs of feeling
rise up and circle.
They know I’m already moving
And want to move.

Too enflamed to be merely erotic, Healy’s urgency is heightened by its nearness to the midnight’s wilderness.

For me, the collection loses its footing when it drives into L.A.’s pop culture past, as it does in “Chinois” (a close almost-encounter with Joan Didion) and “What it was Like the Night Cary Grant Died” (54-55). As lyric observations, I have no quarrel with these poems. But their appearance in this collection felt like an intrusion.

Though I share both her territorial memories and her fascination with the city’s natural margins, it has taken me many years to find my way to Eloise Klein Healy’s work. For that, I can thank the poet Steve Reigns, who shared one of Healy’s pieces in a “Queer Crush” workshop last month, part of Beyond Baroque’s exceptional series “LA Poetics. It’s thirty years late, but I’m glad to have found her work.

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