California (a love poem)
I found myself free in you, you know
that long ago afternoon when the sun
shifted over Donner Pass
a sudden scent of pine masked the fumes
from the Greyhound bus I was riding
westward out of Evanston, Wyoming,
out of Laramie, Wyoming, out from underneath.
I was not a strong swimmer.
You were as far away as I could get.
West of Truckee the bus skated through ruins
of 19th century hydraulic mined manzanita flats
past signs saying “let ‘er drift”
and then the dust choked oleander in the median
and oh, California
that first flat-broke t-shirt warm winter
wild oat stems against my back in the Berkeley Hills!
we watched Sirius cycle through
its colors: I thought there
might be something to all this
Scrub jays in the poison oak
pelicans an inch above the kelp
In 1988 a kestrel on a power line
outside of Mount Shasta City
dropped a dragonfly’s wing.
It caught the slanting light
as I watched it maple-seed flutter downward.
When I first held my ex-wife
acorn woodpecker drilled granary holes
in a six-inch liveoak limb above our heads.
Slender salamanders slept warily
beneath the cinderblock hot tub footing.
Then, at Ocean Beach, the fog.
Coho pink steelhead blue-gray fog.
and oh, California
two decades on you called me
and she walked north, dew-flecked grass
above the fog-wreathed Bay shore.
I went the other way, toward dry
and stark-silhouetted hills
fringing your neglected desert valleys.
On Dillon Creek where it flows
into the main stem Klamath
I filled buckets with dark sand.
My lover wept. Parr-marked fry
(steelhead? Chinook?) kissed our ankles.
Salal curled on swordfern. Swordfern
mantled over redwood sorrel.
We drove next morning on the Gasquet-Orleans Road
past sucking mud and splintered boles
centuries-old trees killed for sawlogs.
The next good rain and it all would go,
slide into the Klamath. Everything
always goes downhill: mud, flood, tears,
the smothered fry, black gold sand.
And oh, California
we all watched them clearcut you,
your forests, your meadows
vernal pools and desert rivers,
the people who were here first,
the salmon, the grizzly eating salmon
all cordwood stacked on the market scale.
I have felt my unlit way through lava tubes,
cobble-walked in the North Fork Salmon,
lost myself naked where the Pacific
lapped up beneath Torrey pines.
Ephemeral palo verde creeks carve tunnels
under thick tufa slabs and I have lain there
twenty yards from daylight, and content.
I have stood atop a mountain of solid obsidian
dreamt altitude dreams on pumice hillsides
pulled my boots from mud in deer-tick swamps
under box elder and grapevine. I have
slept beneath endemic firs, ears ringing
with the Big Sur River. I have watched
Mono Lake far below fade in August snowstorm.
I have stumbled, wine-drunk through
Oakland night streets, watched
furious men break taqueria bottles
on Fresno night streets, sat at curbside
shaking angry on Los Angeles night streets,
certain that the relationship du jour
had dissolved in vodka and Red Bull
and oh, California
there is no part of you I do not love.
In the shadow of oil refineries,
black and brown children line up
to buy ice cream in the street
from an old Sikh. His truck plays
Home On The Range in bell chimes.
In 1989, Matthew and I watched
from Grant Line Road, the Perseids
falling around the Coast Ranges,
the sky coal-black. Outlet malls stand there now.
In 1983, a Nipomo shack in a sea of flowers
had these seriously kick-ass carnitas. Four decades on,
an endless expanse of striped parking lot.
Sweet amole rosettes in montmorillonite
desert lilies’ tentative shoots in blowsand.
Why, as the San Francisco garter exists
does no one worship its bejeweledness?
Burn the Bear Flag, that monument
to genocide and extinction, and then
plant Douglas iris in the hole it leaves.
How sacred the ceanothus! How sacred
the bay laurel! How sacred the Sutter Buttes
and Pinnacles! How holy the desert seeps,
these spots of mud swarmed by butterflies
and skippers! How holy the springtime ponds
newts floating like happy corpses just below
the surface, laying their clusters of eggs!
The land where Toypurina walked,
and Cucunichi, called Estanislao by
the invaders. The land bedotted with
stone mortars. The land carpeted in chia
and camas. The land of acorn, of yucca,
of kelp. The land of coho, sturgeon, pupfish.
Tule boats to ply the shallows.
and oh, California
how could we have given you over
to the developers, the pushers
of pavement, the terracotta carcinoma,
the self-described elites, the bankers?
Spanish bayonets look down from hillsides now,
surrounded, besieged, waving white flags.
Some days ago I drove I-5
northward through cloud to my onetime home
where the Sacramento and San Joaquin
together reach the Pacific. The valley floor
was white, and yellow, and purple in bloom
but the bloom was replaced by cotton,
cotton by almonds, almonds by tract homes,
the lying signs of corporate farms
ever more shrill — “drought does not exist,
dams bring rain” — and the Temblor Range
a claustrophobic green after winter storms
to my desert eyes. The same red-tails,
fence post perched, as 30 years ago.
Starlings danced in swarms over fallowed fields.
There was the monstrous feedlot,
the motel with the tree frog in the room
a lifetime ago, the grape-choked slough,
the sandhill cranes and box elder beetles,
the fields drowned by the floods of ‘97
now full to the brim with sprawling
soulless market rate housing.
we have cut you on the rectangular
staked you out and bled you
poisoned you from inside and out
we have sold everything but your value
but your soil is still my skin, your desert
my bones, your rivers my blood.
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