by Sara V. Torres
Could a poetic form from the 13th century offer new ways to understand our 21st century conflicts over water? The sonnet may be perfectly suited to the task, a group of poets assert. Historically it has been the poetry of power imbalances: between Petrarch and Laura, Shakespeare and his patron, and Donne and his Three-Personed God. Its fourteen compact lines of verse strain to convey conflicting forces and desires that may, or may not, find resolution. What better creative form, then, to explore the history of guilt and guile, of conflict and cooperation surrounding Southern California’s water wars than the sonnet?
“Such an asymmetrical relationship exists between Los Angeles and the remote sources of its water,” writes Christian Reed, a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA, and one of the conveners of 14 poets who took up the challenge of writing sonnets during the LA Aqueduct centenary this fall. “LA and the Owens Valley have been locked in a dynamic dyadic relation since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct one hundred years ago,” Reed writes. Working on the UCLA library’s collaborative Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform, Reed invited professional writers, artists, and students to create a traditional (or nontraditional) sonnet using archived images of the LA Aqueduct as inspiration.
Reed saw in the sonnet, the Italianate “little song,” an opportunity to bring together a community of writers and of readers who could re-envision the possibilities for inscribing LA’s past and imagining its future—in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.
Though most closely associated with the Renaissance, the sonnet form is uniquely suited to this modern endeavor. The tightly-structured sonnet form served as an inspiration for creative explorations in formal innovation and artistic experiment. Contributors to the LA Aqueduct sonnet cycle freely adapted the sonnet form, creating “overflowing” sonnets, prose poems, and even multimedia art. Artist Valerie P. Cohen, when invited to write a sonnet based on archival materials about the aqueduct, instead offered to paint a watercolor whose design is based on Mount Morrison, a 12,241-foot metamorphic peak whose runoff ends up in Los Angeles. The history she captures in her mixed-media painting, “Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” is both regional and personal; her father, John D. Mendenhall, made what may have been the first ascent of Mount Morrison in 1928.
In early December, surrounded by archival images and documents preserving the history of the aqueduct’s construction, the entire sonnet cycle was performed aloud in UCLA’s Library Special Collections. UCLA English professor Robert N. Watson, a specialist in the fields of Renaissance literature and ecocriticism, delivered a response to the cycle highlighting the verbal echoes and imaginative motifs that ran through the entire sequence and gave it thematic cohesion.
Like the sonnet form itself, the ongoing water conflicts in California may or may not find ultimate reconciliation. But the efforts to preserve water resources in California may well require the kinds of creative habits of mind, steeped in both tradition and innovation, familiar to poets. As Reed writes, the aqueduct sonnet cycle “opens a space in which meanings can seep, can saturate one another, can be soaked up by a larger audience and offers an invitation to readers that is something like the opposite of Mulholland’s famous line ‘There it is, take it.’ Rather, these sonnets say: ‘Here comes history, awareness, poetry: be taken by it.’”
And here is my own contribution to the sonnet cycle:
by Sara V. Torres
Long sweep of the desert wind across high mesa meadows,
blue-eyed juniper, lilac, sage, cactus scrub, cascara sagrada,
wide-armed mesquite, pale iris, primroses, piñones thick with needles,
resin-glistened rocks, lone enebro, sawabe dusted across cañon slopes,
sky-divided waters, white-blossomed yerba mansa,
crested quail, meadowlarks, beetles moving on the face of desert lakes.
Two iron-ringed arms reach out across the plains, full-veined,
Crushed limestone cut from the valley, desert-baked concrete, captures streams,
plunging deep across a land of water borders retraced in the earth,
of lost mines and rabbit borrows, hawks and unflinching old vaqueros;
Waters drawn towards sunset, towards pillars and light-bathed stars,
towards invisible cities beyond the somber mesa.
The ending: Frontinus runs dusty fingers through a street-well’s trickle
Plumbed Appia, Anio Novus, dammed Aniene above Subiaco,
His fixed gaze mingles with the Tiber among crumbling columns of stone.
We bring a bronze legend to this outstretched map of arid land,
and think on oar-dipped waves and scrolled papyrus,
our familiar genius at home among these abundant ruins.