The Large Economy of the Beautiful: Phoebe MacAdams’s New & Selected

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Phoebe MacAdams – The Large Economy of the Beautiful – Cahuenga Press (2016)

Cahuenga Press is a poets’ cooperative dedicated to publishing books by its four remaining poet-founders: James Cushing, Harry E. Northup, Holly Prado Northup, and Phoebe MacAdams. Founded in the very early 1990s, along with Cecilia Woloch and myself, it has published two dozen volumes of poetry. (Due to financial and time constraints, I dropped out after contributing typesetting time to the first two volumes.) Both Holly and Harry have been featured in my three most recent blog posts because of a poet-led campaign to raise money to assist them in recovering from a fire that obliterated much of their apartment. I have no doubt that the fire went beyond damaging their personal lives, but also caused grievous losses to their publishing project. I urge readers to go to Small Press Distribution’s on-line site and buy as many Cahuenga Press books as possible in order to help restore this project’s solvency.

I bought my copy of MacAdams’s most recent book several weeks ago at her house in Pasadena. She had given a reading to celebrate its publication to an appreciative audience in her backyard. Among the guests in attendance were Steve Anter and Steve Abee. It was a pleasure to hear her read her poems that afternoon. Her voice has a distinct timbre that serves both to soothe and reassure, as well as to remind us of how joyfully serious the present tense should be.

Although she has spent most of her adult life in California, first living in Bolinas, and then living in Ojai and Los Angeles, these poems reflect the influence of poets in New York City, such as Ted Berrigan, as well as poets who taught at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado. “Boulder,” in fact, is the title of the first poem in her first book, Sunday, from Tombouctou Books in Bolinas. The time she spent in Boulder largely resulted in prose poems, which is a form she should consider returning to. Few poets back then were interweaving the dream world and daily apprehension of contingent circumstances with the intrepid ease demonstrated by MacAdams, and young readers of poetry could well benefit from having more such models from her.

Each successive book from which MacAdams has chosen representative poems record a poet’s life as destiny. To write these poems required the work of paying close attention to the emotions lingering like scents within each task:

“The poems still look for the poet,
enter our lives naturally,
meandering and willing
to notice the blue flowers
carved out of inner space,
deep ordering that preserves.”
(“I Understand the Mystery of Scissors/In Feeling a Constant Longing”)

Ordinary Snake Dance remains my favorite of all of MacAdams’s books. and the poems she has selected from this collection deserve to be translated into many other languages. To speak to the moment of inspiration so that it transmits more than local knowledge is one of the primary tasks of lyric poetry. MacAdams modulates her voices (note the plural) so that we hear the knowledge of the many lives discovering the singular, and she does this with wit and compassion.

“All the roads lead home, and
all the roads leave home behind.”
(“About My Children Leaving Home”)

The individual book that benefits the most in this 240 page collection is Livelihood, which on its own as a stand-alone volume gained considerable traction by its focus on teaching and learning, but also risked being seen as a specialty book. In The Large Economy of the Beautiful, the flow of poetic vision from Ordinary Snake Dance buoys the ground level conditions of pedagogical challenges, routines, and rituals, and makes this summary of MacAdams’s life-long journey an authentic hybrid of spiritual enlightenment and deeply felt daily pleasure. MacAdams has lived in Los Angeles for well over 30 years at this point, and has made herself one of the essential poets of this city.