The Black River Chapbook Competition Winner


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Santa Ana

Publication Date: December 2012


Winner of the Spring 2011 Black River Chapbook Competition

Some poetry feels like coming home. Some poetry leaves us that much more complete, puzzle-piecing our disarrayed world back into a shape we recognize (that’s me, that’s us). But this isn’t it.  This is a poem about Los Angeles, the Queen with the bloodstained kerchief we scurry to pocket: she watches through lidded eyes. Fairy kingdom gone feral. Children gone to ground, moving from burning house to burning house…City that is a Fibonacci sequence, story that is all mouth, falling into its own silence. City that is a story it tells itself, rocking back and forth in its own arms, a long goodbye and a light left on.

This is a story about telling stories, the paths not taken (but you took every one, gave not one back, never returned). Here, if anything is anything, the roads are rope the city binds itself with. If the city binds itself inevitably it pulls the ropes tight, till the skin chafes and bleeds, till it sighs with the ecstasy of its own bruising, its bright discolorations rising to the skin like an ancient map that led nowhere, nowhere at all, which was where we always wanted to go, disappearing into the tying of the final knot. From anywhere at all. City that ties itself up for its own amusement, straining on the magician’s table: audience of none.


“If you want a guidebook to the psychic underlife of L.A.-which is to say, a map of one alluring and deadly version of this American hour, and of the probable city of the future-Russel Swenson’s your man. Santa Ana is formally alert, tingling with feeling, numb in the ways we are, unpredictable and alive: a troubling, slippery, pretty much perfect little book.”

-Mark Doty

There’s something wrong with Los Angeles. In his brilliant debut Santa Ana, Russel Swensen analyzes what it means to live in a city that sets all of its awful immune system on you, that fevers itself to burn off all but the most wicked and calloused. Here the city becomes a fantastic and terrifying Lynchian nightmare in which each person is an animal desperate to devour or be photographed. A girl sings “if you put your ear to an ash tray, you can hear the sea of flame replacing me” and maybe that’s the city itself,fire licking the corners of the pages, the moments seen as though through smoke. It’s all the speaker can try to do to escape, the wind that carries the flames always finding him, finding him out. This is a phenomenal work, nerve wracking and passionate, and will leave you with all the right kinds of scars.”

-Glenn Shaheen

In these constantly shifting, restless poems, Russel Swensen creates an urban landscape mostly seen through the eyes of a brilliant, sometimes homeless, often nearly unhinged speaker. Populated by coyotes, threatened by wildfires, Swensen’s Southern California is a place where everything seems to speak at once, where characters teeter on the verge of violence and the Santa Ana winds ‘run through the fields with a jacaranda of fire tucked behind their ear.’ These are electric, harrowing poems.”

-Kevin Prufer

Auden tell us that a poet should have not just an internal censor but a censorate, one made up of ‘a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and…a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.’ In Russel Swensen’s poetry, he lets these and a whole host of others have their say, and the sense you get is that after listening very carefully, and even taking their advice, he promptly gives them the middle finger. The result is a unique, uncanny sensibility, one that unites the ugliness of the world with the beautiful, the unsettling with the ordinary, the peculiar and strange with the familiar and inviting. You’re going to laugh when you’re not supposed to, and you’re going to feel affinities to people whose lives you might otherwise pity or shrink away from. ‘You’re clever and you have élan,’ Swensen writes, which is how you’ll feel reading these poems. ‘But you can’t shake the feeling,’ which is how you’re going to feel long after.”

-Hayan Charara

About the Author

Russel Swensen

Russel Swensen earned his MFA in fiction from the California Institute of the Arts and his doctorate in poetry from the University of Houston. He is the author of Santa Ana (2012) and The Magic Kingdom (2016). His fiction and poetry have appeared in Black Clock, Quarterly West, Pank, Third Coast, Devil's Lake, The Collagist, The Destroyer, and elsewhere.

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