East Hollywood is a neighborhood of some 80,000 souls in central Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a rough-cut diamond, cut through the middle by Santa Monica Boulevard, edged (roughly) by the Hollywood Freeway (101), Western Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Virgil Avenue. On its borders are Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown. Within its borders are Thai Town, Little Armenia, The Church of Scientology, Los Angeles City College (UCLA’s original campus), and a thriving Spanish-speaking population. From atop Mount Hollywood to the north, Griffith Observatory benignly stands sentry over all.
It is here, in this neighborhood, that Harry Northup lives, walks, and writes the poetry collected in East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason (Cahuenga Press, 2015). This is Northup’s eleventh book, and the voice we hear in the poems is exuberant, Whitmanesque.
Northup is a poet who seems to say what he thinks as he thinks it – so that one moves through the poems impressionistically, prepared for open-endedness, unexpected twists and turns, side trips, lyrical (or narrative) interludes. “Poetry puts you right where you are:/no door, no closure, empty shoes, empty/chair, the walk around & return,” he says in “Poetry.” In many of the poems, “where you are” is walking the streets of East Hollywood. In “Place,” he says:
—walking has my/soul, furtive wanderings on fountain,/mariposa, de longpre, alexandria,/lexington — to walk in the night air/tonight, i walked to franklin &/vermont & home later … buying a six-pack of bud light at/7-eleven, a cut-in-half, zankou/chicken with pita bread & garlic/spread.
After his long, rambling, walks, Northup delights in home: “home in front of a fan, my wife’s/through teaching for today, home.” In “short love song,” it is a “home of light & reason/clean, bare, full, home with wife,/love, cats, song & tv, primrose/darling”
There’s also the ongoing spell of the writing process itself. “First shut the door. Write what you want to write,” he advises in “Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles.” And, in “Hot Night”: “The words open, fall apart &/rearrange themselves. One word/files a nail. One holds up a rose/opening … One word springs water.” In “In Memoriam,” he reminds himself “To not bully or order words around./To not interrupt words”; and, in “stillness not quite,” “to be still & thankful/for one & two syllable/words”
Northup’s love of poetry followed him from Nebraska to Manhattan to Santa Monica in 1968; there, he discovered the literary center, Beyond Baroque, where “the themes of youth & struggle, loss & place, were ever present.” In Los Angeles, these days, he says his main themes are “aging, acceptance.” But there is a youthful vigor to the poems, an energy that keeps him walking, observing, listening, conjuring fresh word patterns. This is from “no death heart”:
i will never be lost/ as long as i have words/I will never be lonely/as long as i have my wife/i will never be cold/ as long as i have cats … i will always be young/as long as the lakers thrive/i will always love summer/as long as the dodgers struggle/i will always love the dark/as long as movies play …
Northup is not only a poet and a sports fan. He’s an actor who, “as a man just past 21 hitchhiked/to new york to make it as an actor” (“ridiculously simple”). His acting life is infused in his poetry, his recollections. “I came to Los Angeles to act in Westerns,” he says in “Remains.” He also studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro in New York, and acted in 37 films, including Martin Scorsese’s first six feature films. “At this moment,” he muses in the same poem, “I am eternal.”
Always, in Northup’s poems, there’s the intimate, soothing sensation of coming home, of love for his wife, Holly. In “For My Love Sleeping,” he reflects, “To find means to rescue/Stay within & not hide/To not escape means forever.” In “Careful Notion,” he juxtaposes poetry and baseball:
“The walks in East Hollywood, films at/local theatres, my wife’s cooking & the/fresh flowers she brings home, our bed,/her arm, cats & fan, poetry & baseball/save me, nourish my dazed spirit … I connect poetry & baseball – to lose/oneself in the shadows coming in out/of the sun”
As for his life in the neighborhood he calls home, he concludes, in “for my friend aram”: “I’ve had enough time to think about/living in los angeles and the answer is/simply yes”