New works by Stephen Kessler stalk the Santa Cruz state of mind
Two new books, one of essays and observations, the other of prose poems, have just launched from the prolific pen of local liter-artist Stephen Kessler. “Where Was I?” offers a dreamscape of reflections on the strings attached to key places in Kessler’s biography. In his past recaptured, Kessler’s perennial haunts still pulse with imperfectly understood epiphanies and the hipsters itching to find out just what the hell it all meant. As the writer stalks his Santa Cruz of the mind, the strut of smart-ass longing bears more than a whisper of Ferlinghetti’s beatnik stride. The book is pure jazz—riffs, improvisations and variations on the theme of then and now. As he notes of the Los Angeles of his youth, “Later there may be margaritas or mariposas or magdalenas or madeleines to proust your muses …” Prousting muses is certainly the operant trope in Kessler’s accessible new pieces, so effortlessly do they revive the hormonal meanderings of our own clueless yesteryears. Poems such as “Silver Lake” or “Hours in Logos” shimmer with an emotional congianti of ebb and flow, contradictions of mood and intent that twine uneasily between past and present. More magic realism than postmodern collage, such a cunning mixture of images, candor, grief, and rock ’n’ roll sexiness is Kessler himself, a savvy and ardent bohemian with the work ethic of a triathlete.
The slender volume bristles with extemporaneous enlightenment, such as in “Not Far from the Tar Pits” where he writes, “the classic love ballads of the jazz station playing as you cruise are just as eternal as ever.”
“Where Was I?” is a prayerbook of casual encounters and their remembered potency. An unsentimental nostalgia for places and energies gone by—Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk, El Palomar, West Cliff, Mission Street and the California of Kessler’s youth, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu. The insistent joy that seeps through his effortless prose is pushed back at every turn by sleek stoicism. “Those were the days, or so they seem from this distance, under the influence of senior discounts, re-imagining your 20s in some surf-crashed red wooded Left Bank or Montparnasse of the mind. The time is real, is now; it is you who have passed.”
Bracing, heady, and full of sweet swing, these are polished bits of reflection aimed squarely at the hearts and minds of Kessler’s fellow baby boomers. They are the ideal audience for “Where Was I?” And he, it seems, is an ideal tour guide across the Styx of maturity.
In “Need I Say More?” Kessler has curated a bouquet of his essays, memoirs, and thought pieces on notable lives, culture and politics, on writers and writing. With characteristic clarity of thought and clean, lively expression, the literary flâneur shares three decades of paying close attention to the driving forces of all-too-human folly and esprit. Each essay is a dip into a deeper pool where ordinary—and oft-submerged—objects are magnified by the lens of Kessler’s probing intelligence. A tidy fan-dance of confession and criticism, “Need I Say More?” will prove especially juicy to longtime locals who will recall many of the opinions and personalities under Kessler’s scalpel. There’s much to savor: Gertrude Stein, Cuba, the Oscars, Beat poetry, cooking, alternative journalism—the essays on sex, living alone, aging with dignity, and what happiness isn’t, are as rich as they are bravura. Poet, essayist, translator, and publisher, Kessler has been a tireless advocate for the examined life. And clearly—note that each of these new titles ends with a question mark—the quest continues. If you’re reading these words, you already know what to give your friends for the Holidays.
Stephen Kessler will be at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29. PHOTO: Writer Stephen Kessler with a loyal friend in his backyard on Santa Cruz’s Westside. CHIP SCHEUER