Lewis MacAdams (1944-2020)

TUESDAY, April 21, 2020

The obituary of poet and ecological activist Lewis MacAdams that appeared in the online version of the L.A. Times today had the word “river” appear three dozen times in the course of remembering his impact on Los Angeles’s cultural environment. As the leading proponent of restoring the Los Angeles River to some semblance of its original joie-de-vivre, MacAdams certainly deserves that portion of his life to be foregrounded in the immediate notices given to his passing. But the word “poet” (or “poetry”) doesn’t appear often enough to reach the thumb in a finger count.

I can understand that an obituary of Lewis MacAdams would not provide a detailed overview of his many collections of poetry, but given that the article focused on the L.A. River, it seems almost obtuse to neglect citing The River, Books One, Two, and Three. In addition to a volume of significant cultural history, Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde (New York: The Free Press, 2001), Lewis had books of poetry issued by important West Coast publishers such as Tombouctou Books and Little Caesar Press, and his work appeared in many anthologies, too. A poet deserves to be acknowledged for why he is remembered as a poet.

In addition to the people mentioned in the L.A. Times as survivors, Phoebe MacAdams-Ozuna, his first wife, should also have appeared in that list. It was Phoebe, in fact, who first told me five years ago at Beyond Baroque that Lewis had suffered a stroke and was in a rehabilitation facility. The word “valiant” is not used much anymore, perhaps because few people remain who deserve to have that word attached to their sense of integrity. In every instance in which I had the chance to spend time with him, I never left without feeling inspired to stay committed to an idealistic program that settled for nothing less than the pleasure of others in its fulfillment. Wherever people gather at the remnants of Lewis’s vision, they can frolic at their leisure because of the labor he freely offered to bring an alternative to actuality. I hope, though, that when his memoir “Poetry and Politics” is published, the word “valiant” will slip off to the side, like a retired espionage agent. Instead, let his “optimism of the will” be seen as his exemplary call to action.

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MacAdams was one of the five dozen or so poets I included in my anthology, POETRY LOVES POETRY (1985). One of the poems I selected also turned up two years later in Andrei Codrescu’s anthology, UP LATE: American Poetry Since 1970. I have chosen “Moguls and Monks” not so much as a representative poem by MacAdams, but one that two very different editorial temperaments shared equal enthusiasm for, and that therefore might have a chance of being savored by you, too, regardless of your usual preferences in poetry.

MOGULS AND MONKS

A dollar-green Cadillac limousine
pulls from the gate at Paramount
and turns down Melrose.
The mogul passenger leans his bald head
back on his head rest and smiles,
his face a mass of pure contentment

as two Buddhist monks bow by,
waiting at the corner for the light to change
so they can bow across Gower.
Though they don’t see each other, I am them both
as I turn up Highland, cruising
in the twelve spiritual
directions, with the
thirteen calls for cash.

But last night I met someone who was fine.

Fates, be kind.