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November 4, 2009 > Book Review: My Dreaming Waking Life

Book Review: My Dreaming Waking Life

Six Poets Sixty-Six Poems
Review by Denny Stein

On Sunday October 25, in a bright 1968 Eichler-designed house in Walnut Creek, the East Bay Poets gathered to launch their first collection, "My Dreaming Waking Life." This book is the culmination of the creative efforts of three women and three men, from Concord, Fremont, and Walnut Creek, who have known or worked together, in various combinations, for 32 years. A reading of "My Dreaming Waking Life" will be held at Barnes & Noble in Fremont at 7:30 on Thursday, November 5.

If anything overarching can ever be said about a group of poems, then the collective words that describe the work of the East Bay Poets would be "beauty" and "lucidity." The 66 poems in this collection are available to the reader, without sacrificing nuance and music incumbent to fine poetry. Musicality is a foregone conclusion for David Holt, a musician, who performed, with his wife Chappell, at the beginning of the reading. Their piano and vocal piece, "Doodling," was a vocalese piece, a 1950s phenomenon wherein lyrics were set to jazz music, both composed and impromptu. John Hendricks, the composer of "Doodling," was called the James Joyce of Jazz, a fitting introduction to the words of poets.

The nascent configuration of these poets was in 1977, when Elaine Starkman met S. Solomon, a third generation East Bay Californian and career bookseller. Ms. Solomon writes from her imagination, her heart, and the newspapers. In "A Tale Told at the American River," she includes a San Francisco Chronicle story: "A maintenance man fell five stories headfirst down an elevator shaft and was . . . still alive when he hit ground."

The man knew his screams, following close behind his flailing arms,
would not save him. He was a man who knew how things worked and
knew a scream to be useless in the mouth of a fool. The maintenance
worker was no fool. He wove his fear into cables and broke his fall
before reaching the bottom of the elevator shaft."

Of our California wildfires, and so much more, Solomon says:

When night falls
it too will fail
to bring this to an end,
for embers,
like passion,
remember and
have a patience
all their own.

Elaine Starkman, who is responsible for both the launch party venue and the title of the anthology, starts "My Dreaming Waking Life" with the image of riding a "plum pony" into her childhood flat behind the family store. First, "Mama says, / Get it out of here." Then "Daddy says, / Keep him." Thus begins a life of dichotomies, dreaming and waking.

Ms. Solomon introduced Starkman to Dave Holt, a poet and musician of many bloodlines: Canadian, Irish, English and Chippewa Indian. In his "Poem for My Grandmother 'Cassie Hare'," Holt illustrates the nexus of his ancestry, the secret lies, and the pain they caused: "You followed the repudiation of the past with flight / from West Bay, Ojibway, First Nation blues." This first lie leads to Holt, as a child, "wondering why my blond, blue-eyed cousin is preferred, / over a dark-haired, brown-eyed boy like me with an Indian nose." And yet, the riches gained from denying and selling out enabled the grandchildren to grow up, "with the privileges Grandma bestowed with her lie." Powerful, unfussy, David Holt's poems can make you feel as though you were the "first man and first woman" to have read his words.

Florence Miller, an accomplished poet and long-time friend of Starkman's, who had been living in New Jersey, finally returned to California three years ago and was absorbed into the group. Miller now lives in Fremont and works weekly with several writing groups, continuing her creative adventures. Miller's poems range from dreamy and musical to narrative and questioning. "Raven Reads the Fog" harks back to Native American images: "Salmon son of Raven out of Fog Woman," and uses unexpected, flawless descriptions of nature: "The fish-shaped rock / The bird-shaped land / Between the clouds," where "Terns crosstich air."

Miller's poetry also addresses the reality of life, without mincing words, as when she describes tying up her husband's sailboat and losing part of a finger in the process: "I wish it had happened to me," says her husband. "I say I wish it had".

Born in Connecticut, Joseph Chaiklin traveled across the country collecting degrees in Speech and Audiology, landing finally at Stanford. Joe Chaiklin took a class with Starkman and thus another poet joined the East Bay group. Chaiklin's reading, as one would expect from a PhD in Speech and Audiology, is a treat to hear. I was sorry that he did not read "An Ugly Business" where the poet realizes that the romantic bull-fighting poster on his wall actually depicts a cruel and bloody encounter: "I discarded the picture when it finally breached / the boundary between humanity and love of art." In "How My Father Became Dead" Chaiklin describes the hit and run death of his father, yet feels it so strongly that "murdered is / the word to tell what happened / to him on that November day, and / murdered is a word so strong / it sucks the life from died."

About four years ago, the East Bay Poets found its newest member in an unlikely place, the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Marc Hofstadter, a much-traveled literature professor, was its librarian for 25 years, and a well-published poet. Hofstadter manages to write from the point of view of others, as in "Buddy, My Dog for a Week," who taught him, "how to sniff the breeze, and "gape at the mad rush of a squirrel up a trunk." This poet digs deeper when he composes "Rainbow," separating the colors, "red from orange, / orange from yellow, / yellow from gold;" he then dreams that "red people cried because / they'd never known an orange person, / orange people wanted to be yellow, / yellow people were stuck forever / in yellowness." The reader is left, like Hofstadter, "wishing to see the old, / multicolored myth, / the one with a pot at its end".

Six Poets Sixty-Six Poems. From East to West to the East Bay. "My Dreaming Waking Life" brings together poets from the worlds of academia, banking, science, and sales. Like its titular contradiction, this collection of poets and poems proves that there is music and beauty to be found in the most unlikely places. Use a quiet moment to enjoy these "Falling stars / close enough to touch," Miller's words from "The Heart."

"My Dreaming Waking Life" is available on, and will be for sale at Barnes & Noble in Fremont, at the November 5 reading.

My Dreaming Waking Life
Thursday, Nov 5
7:30 p.m.
Barnes & Noble Bookstore
3900 Mowry Ave., Fremont
(510) 791-1060

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