Pages 116, Binding Perfect-bound, Paperback
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The prose poems of Anthony Seidman’s Natural History of Asphalt are every bit as hard as the “vast and ugly” avenues of North Hollywood – the San Fernando Valley town where the poet makes his home. They are dark as pitch but, under a certain slant of light, they shimmer. They rise from the Valley’s potholed roads and parking lots, which reverberate with paved-over scars and traumas, like waves of refracted light in the blazing desert heat: “Sunday, the San Fernando Valley is a plain of empty parking lots, with the Tongva gone, bones under the macadam. Their women of ochre-smeared faces now dance and feast in the underworld. Their men hunt ghost deer. All the juniper-berries they desire. All the yucca and jackrabbit.”
Like these parking lots, in a country where every day is a travesty of summer, the poems are hot to the touch, even blistering. In one of the most powerful pieces in this collection, a young Latino boy runs to a corner store for a Hershey bar, scorching his tender bare feet: “I set the boy down and hold up his feet to see the damage; his soles are now two blisters, in parts parchment yellow, in other parts translucent sheaves of epidermis. One blister ruptures, mustard colored plasma oozes thick as penicillin.” At the end, when the boy is being carted away in a Fire Department ambulance, the poet finds himself unwittingly – but wholeheartedly – adopting the injured and frightened child. These poems call us to adopt what we never intended to own— towns seemingly scrubbed of any real humanity, full of circumspect strangers with whom we haven’t a word in common. But a living heart beats beneath the asphalt, and “Christmas lights flicker over the bar-top.” We are surprised by a pride of place: “These foothills, chaparral, are my country, these gas stations, these sub-par public schools, vacant lots and miles of asphalt… they are the sigil I behold through smog.” And when we realize with the poet that “All of us are marooned here,” at the landlocked bar Las Playas, the taste of loneliness, which is “acrid, aspirin on the tongue,” slowly melts away.
Boris Dralyuk is poet and translator who holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literature from UCLA and is the translator of Leo Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need (2010), A Slap in the Face: Four Russian Futurist Manifestos (2013), and Anton Chekhov’s Little Trilogy (2013); co-translator of Polina Barskova’s The Zoo in Winter:Selected Poems (2011) and Dariusz Sośnicki’s The World Shared: Poems (2014); and author of the monograph Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907–1934 (2012). He is also co-editor of the forthcoming Anthology of Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky (2015). He has received various prizes for his translations.