Sonnet Guide to LA

Serving the city, 14 lines at a time

by Karl Stull

Karl Stull is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Bio at karlstull.com.

INDEX: The 405 * Aimee Semple McPherson * Amir’s Garden (Griffith Park) * City Hall * Clifton’s Cafeteria * Disney Concert Hall * Dodger Stadium * El Pueblo de Los Angeles * Flat Rock Beach (Palos Verdes) * The Forum * Huntington Library * Inglewood Park Cemetery * La Brea Tar Pits * Lake Balboa * LAX* Llano Del Rio * Los Angeles River * Malibu Creek * Manzanar * Metro Red Line * Mulholland Drive * San Fernando Mission * Santa Monica Pier Waltz * UCLA * USC *

Click title in Index to jump to that poem.

The I in the I-405

Photo by Rebuilding CA

If this is free, who needs a ball and chain?
The traffic’s jammed before I leave the ramp.
We crawl and stop and crawl and go insane.
My toes are knotting — Jesus, pedal cramp!

The Slo-Mo’s. Swoopers. Truckers from Tulare,
the Not-in-Front-of-Me’s but Full of Doubt,
I’d gladly kill them all but I am wary:
the Pickup with the Mattress Falling Out.

With sixty monthly payments, this I know:
I can’t just quit my job at Burger Shark.
To where I wanna, when I wanna go:
that’s all I ask, and somewhere I can park.

Mass production cars without the masses:
I lay me down in brown, exhausted grasses.

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Mulholland Drive

Adapted from a NASA image. The angel’s head is Griffith Park. Mulholland Drive begins at the collar, wanders west.

It runs the ridge, looks down on rich and poor;
at night the houses glitter all the same.
I power through the esses feeling sure
the stars above are spelling out my name.

From here did Bill Mulholland see the future,
an aquifer half-full in nineteen-eight.
Mulholland Drive is twenty miles of suture,
sewing up sweet Valley real estate.

Mountain lions prowl along this road;
like drivers, unaware they live in danger.
No room to run, as habitats erode.
Fate each given day, a passing stranger.

I squint; the wind is up, the top is down.
The view is wingèd glory: Angel Town.

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LA City Hall

Photo by Karl Stull

A middle finger flipped at the sightless sky god
by a ground-floor devil in the real estate scrum,
a wingèd headquarters for the Great White Spot,
behold the bold herald for magnificence to come.

The ’Thirty-two Olympics, a million population,
a noodle dish of freeways to the Ram-Dodger-Lakers,
the TV studios, the space and aviation…
Come unto me, all ye movers and shakers.

Ants go marching in for the permits and the zoning.
Need the city stamp before the units start to sell.
Mutter hallelujah in the hollow halls of owning.
Ironic it’s iconic, it’s the el-lay tour ee-fell.

Heavy arrow aimed to the turbid atmosphere:
T-minus eight, counting down a hundred years.

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Disney Concert Hall

Photo by Karl Stull

If Sydney’s Opera House took too much acid,
its waves would turn awry, their crests would fall;
the sails would flap, the mizzenmast go flaccid.
Meet the Diz, fantasiac concert hall.

The ancient and medieval master builders
worked with blocks, made pyramids and domes.
This slew of silhouettes on Grand bewilders
images of grandeur in our bones.

Is the outside true to what’s within?
Inside the Diz, the mood is exaltation.
Passers-by may gape, while others grin:
there’s room for more than one interpretation.

Either way, the fact is people stare,
in awe — because, like Everest, it’s there.

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Manzanar

Photo via National Park Service

Los Angeles owned the land at Manzanar,
a wartime suburb built for Japanese.
A long commute, but no one had a car,
just sweeping views, a brisk Sierra breeze.

The buses came in March of ’forty-two,
the barracks freshly painted, all the same.
Retrieving luggage, people that you knew
had worried smiles; the little bow, the shame.

Resentment blew like winter through the floor,
the strain of being careful, every word.
The dust came back each morning, always more.
We’ll live like decent people; dreams deferred.

Whispers fill a prisoner-parent’s ear:
What did you do? Why do they keep us here?

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Amir’s Garden (in Griffith Park)

Photo by Ellen Limeres

Amir was here, the jacarandas say,
unfolding shade around the mountain’s shoulder.
A place to rest along the hiker’s way:
in beauty lies the eye of the beholder.

Geraniums and roses, bougainvillea,
arranged on gallery paths as if to show
dimensions of an immigrant’s idea:
the city streets, a garden spread below.

He came to sunny Cal in ’sixty-three,
a customs agent restless in Teheran.
He saw a chance to choose what he might be.
Life was passing by, and he jumped on.

Welcome, said the city, making room.
He kissed the ground, and it began to bloom.

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Flat Rock Beach (Palos Verdes)

Photo by Karl Stull

Oh, hear the jolly-popping of the stones:
they’re tumbling madly up the cobbled beach
beneath the breaking waves, dem rolling bones,
as if it’s open air they hope to reach.

The continental chin above the water,
where paleo-fishies tested life ashore,
is crowded now with houses selling hotter
every year — the market screaming, “More!”

The seafloor pushing hard against the coast,
the fat cats stuffed like sausage getting fatter,
the tumbly stones foretelling like a ghost:
oh, here is where the geo-plate will shatter.

The ocean slapping time against the rock,
a steady-ticking planetary clock.

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Santa Monica Pier Waltz

Photo via Wikimedia

Forget about walking on water: a peril-less stroll
on telephone poles conveys you over the brine,
with spray and shops and shells, the smell, the whole
nine yards. A withered man unreels a line.

The pier is a bridge — to a ship that is not coming in.
It’s perfect for anyone lacking a clear destination,
a wayward way, where fugitive love can begin,
home to the seabird’s cry of desolation.

A fugue! The concussively ding-ing-ing pinball machines,
the carousel groaning on (yes, it’s the one from The Sting),
Elastic dancers go spinning-ing — boom-box scenes.
The fortune teller, shushing, draws a king.

If travel over water is your plan,
go by way of timbers in the sand.

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Clifton’s Cafeteria (est’d 1931)

Photo from Wikimedia

A son of restaurateurs in San Francisco,
Clifford Clinton (Clifton) saw LA
was sore in need of cooking a la Crisco:
basic foods, and no one turned away.

A nickel got you salad, soup and Jell-O
(protein), bread, and coffee by the cup.
Only got a penny? Clifton’s mellow.
The veggie broth would surely warm you up.

Cliff and Nelda came back from vacation,
inspired for new decor: a South Sea theme!
The kitchen kitsch caught on; their next location
had giant redwoods wreathed in meatloaf steam.

Starting life and wondering what to do?
Consider Clifford Clinton’s humble menu.

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San Fernando Mission

Photo by Karl Stull

ANGÉLICA WINE. Crush the grapes. Let stand
till after matins. Add the brandy. Cask.
The knack for table wine’s not in our land;
nor are we smart in vintner’s art, alas.

And yet this stuff wins over wealthy guests;
the tipple with dessert instills a glow.
Our need for their donations never rests;
the work with native converts, always slow.

The converts, simple people, hear the story;
to them, the Lamb, the Virgin — merely shapes.
In time they’ll see the light of heaven’s glory.
Till then we need their toil in fields. And grapes.

Implant the faith, amp up the wine, and pray
the Lord will see us through another day.

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Llano del Rio

Photo by Ellen Limeres

In 1914, we took a little trip:
edge of the desert, there ran a mountain stream.
Dang sure nothin’ like the mighty Mississip;
we built a workers’ paradise — the dream.

We laid the irrigation, planted pears,
built the houses, planted gardens, built
the silo and the dairy — equal shares.
We planted justice, no blood spilt.

We built a fine hotel for lookie-loo’s,
and held our meetings there, our voices keen.
We sang, we danced, denounced each other’s views,
and published Western Comrade magazine.

Then came the War, the water running dry,
and LA’s alter ego said goodbye.

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Aimee Semple McPherson

Photo by Karl Stull

A woman preacher: not a thing you see
every Sunday. Sermons staged with sprawling
sets — and Bernhardt-like theatrically.
They say she left her husband for this calling.

O my god, the woman is aroused.
Her voice triumphant hails His mighty sword.
Never has the Word been so … espoused:
her trembling robe, the coming of the Lord.

I feel their yearning eyes upon my raiment.
The Truth that courses through me brings on love.
A fervent room’s the physical repayment
when spirit gives commandment from above.

The more the holy jolts of faithful lightning,
the noose of disapproval ever tightening.

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Huntington Library

Portrait of Arabella Huntington by OHJ Birley; photo by Karl Stull

Arabella, aunt-in-law, was later
Henry’s wife: companion/banker/guide.
The merest lapse of taste would irritate her;
the crassness in LA ran far and wide.

Henry, eager nephew, Red Car king,
was unlike other wealthy antiquaries.
Where they sought out one rare and precious thing,
Henry liked to buy entire libraries.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, they gained a lot from travels:
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blue Boy on display.
One can’t but hear the crunch of Shropshire gravels
when touring through the Huntington today.

A power couple, they did something grand:
bequeathed to us a green and pleasant land.

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La Brea Tar Pits

Illustration by Robert Bruce Horsfall via Wikimedia

Funkier than tar it does not get.
This is real LA, and it runs deep.
Ten thousand years of Angelenos — let
that just sink in: that long and slimy sleep.

The saber cat, the dire wolf disporting,
a mammoth stuck on Wilshire, come to grief,
mega-rabbits croaked while vainly courting:
once-living, now preserved in dark relief.

And what of Tara? She’s the only human
found so far. There’s none to tell us how
or why her skull was left in rank bitumen.
Her story’s lost. Like many others now.

Time dispatches all, won’t ever stop;
we stand in line to take the dive in glop.

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Dodger Stadium

Photo from Wikimedia

The voters said, “Not here!” to public housing
but “Yes” to baseball — poor Chavez Ravine;
the cheers for Sandy/Maury/Don were rousing,
and then a phenom swept upon the scene.

A southpaw with a scroogie, making history,
he won Cy Young while Rookie of the Year.
He baffled bats; his motion was a mystery
that blew away our smog: contempt and fear.

Fernando Valenzuela, compañero,
hablaba no ingles but filled the stands
with joyous fans, together brown and Anglo,
and stamped the Dodgers’ title to the land.

Mid-windup, Fern would glance up to the sky;
now you know the karmic reason why.

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The Forum

Photo by Ritapaj via Wikimedia

Like hope, the Forum rises — splendid beams
proclaiming legends. Dauntless, she ignores
the weary streets, like bare, ruined streams
where hope is drained to lotto-liquor stores.

A hall of heroes, long remembered: Baylor, West,
and Wilt. The Showtime Lakers — greats Kareem
and Magic, worthy James — they stood the test,
with Scott, the clarky Rambis, A.C. Green…

When Kobe slammed his first, she was the hoop,
and now the winds of fame just whistle through.
The Lakers gone, her fare’s a thinner soup,
the payday loans and hard-up lives in view.

Unlikely Inglewood: it wears a crown,  
a court of champions, still in their renown.

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Inglewood Park Cemetery

Photo by Dipsey via Wikimedia

Our longest-serving mayor, here’s Tom Bradley.
Ella “Swing” Fitzgerald, Etta James,
“prince of cool” Chet Baker (ended badly),
Ray “the Genius” Charles — you know their names.

Say hi to Tony “Gambling Boat” Cornero;
Curt Flood, the first free agent, center field;
the Joker, Mister Cesar J. Romero;
and Gypsy Rose Lee — now all are peeled.

Hoot Gibson, Edgar Bergen, Betty Grable;
movie rancher Corrigan “Crashed” the yard;
Jester Hairston, Buckwheat Thomas able
to join “Old Rugged Cross” George Bennard.

For Super Kenneth Hahn, a candle lit.
As Johnnie Cochran said: you must _______.

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Massive 144-Year-Old Tree Falls

One of four in historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles plaza

— March 2, 2019

Photo by Karl Stull

They heard his back crack. The lanterns flew
like buttons popping. Dreamy-slow he fell.
His branches touching down, then bouncing, blew
a sigh across their faces, like a spell.

The tree was young when workmen came and laid
the tracks that brought the trains. From here, he saw
them hauling rails and rocks, and getting paid
the coin of hate: the “yellow peril” law.

Then came the better days: every spring,
the lantern dancers formed a line, expressing
children’s hopes for luck the year would bring.
The luck that year, an Old One’s final blessing.

Of four agèd brothers, one is gone;
the other three still kindly looking on.

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Metro: The Red Line

Photo by METRO96 via Wikimedia

A choir of steely wheels in granite halls,
the rails like vocal chords in Hades’ throat;
though space is piston tight in tunnel walls,
their “wah” is mystic Styx, on which I float.

Random riders pose with far-off gazes,
as if a rolling Rembrandt brought them there
(the painting could be Night Watch: Other Phases).
They try to not inhale my fetid air.

I smell like rotting hay, can’t get a shower;
what’s more important, I must seek the sound:
it’s where I catch my flow of mystic power:
the ferryman of souls while underground.

The Metro Red Line: thirty minute track.
I ride to NoHo; then I ride it back.

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Los Angeles River

Photo by Karl Stull

The ducks will always love you, Filthy Flo,
in spite of all the muck from city gutters:
with oil and coolant, bug spray, Miracle-Gro,
the oozy goo’s like hell’s own peanut butter.

There’s loo-less urine, all the personal leaks,
blood from stones, undocumented sweat,
repenting tears (my face unwashed for weeks),
and helpless wretching — bad but not done yet.

The milk of human kindness, parts per million,
on sunny paths for Sunday family walks;
our tarps and shopping carts perplex civilians:
they marvel at the ducks, admire the hawks.

A chaptered mural, Great Wall of LA,
freezes time, while you roll on your way.

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Lake Balboa

Photo by Karl Stull

The pelicans powered down like Harley hawgs,
scattering ducks like duckpins ’round the lake.
The coots were cannier, trailed the brutes like dogs,
scarfing up what big beaks didn’t take.

Entitled egrets swirled like tissue paper;
cormorants had no comment, stared from shore;
blue heron blended in with morning vapor:
favorite spots for fishing, theirs no more.

The locals’ final hope was Mrs. Swan:
she rose upon her webs with fearsome flap;
she charged the pack, her war-cry “Thugs, begone!”
They scattered, then regrouped, a victory lap.

In time, the pelicans left. And wouldn’t you know?
The bygone days came back, like old Jim Crow.

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Malibu Creek State Park

Photo by Karl Stull

They think they’re special, folks beside the sea:
the boats, the clams, the shells, “We got the beads!”
I carry inland goods; they trade with me
for antlers, acorns, meat, and useful reeds.

It’s true their planked canoes can ride the ocean,
tied and sealed with cunning — rightful boast.
They paddle all as one in single motion,
at times through ghostly fogs along the coast.

We have a village too, called Talepop,
above the fog where we can see the stars:
the Bear, the Seven Sisters, Mountaintops.
Our shaman reads the future, theirs and ours.

I’d rather live up here, the inland way.
You never know what fog will bring one day.

Note: The fictitious constellation Mountaintops is the W-shaped Cassiopeia. For the Chumash, it could have been the Sierra Nevada; poetic license.

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USC: College Island

Photo by Karl Stull

The rotten tooth of privilege, capped in gold,
expensive clothes and shoes, “Whatever…” stares,
pampered on a campus well-patrolled,
we’re here to hang with future billionaires.

We have our fun; we’re careful not to wander
surrounding streets where guns and gangs are rife.
We keep within the turf of first-responders.
Why let a bad encounter wreck your life?

Some bad PR has hurt the Trojan brand:
the groping doctors, drug-crazed dean, reports
of rigged admissions, gifts from guilty hands…
My god they even say we cheat at sports.

Oh, scandals come and go, you can’t unwind it.
The rotten truth is: crime is where you find it.

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UCLA: Huddled Masses

to come

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