California Hills in August
I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.
An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.
One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.
And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.
And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.
When I was sixteen years old, not even thinking about leaving my small Kansas town, let alone living in California, Dana Gioia was writing this poem.
Gioia is the poet laureate of California; I recently saw him read a few of his poems and talk about his quest to visit all 58 counties in California (at California Library Association 2016 conference in Sacramento). I never knew there were so many counties in the state, with such interesting and romantic names. "Del Norte" and "Mariposa" and "Modoc" and "Tuolumne".
I think after this incredibly bizarre week, in which black swans crash landed all over the fucking place, and into the next four years of fear and loathing, we are going to need poet laureates like Gioia to lead us someplace, anyplace, other than where we are or are going to be.
Gioia perfectly captures the sensation overload of a walking in the hills of California. They are lovely in barren and wild ways, these hills smelling of heat and dust and dried up grasses.
He's quite a guy, and quite a poet. We are lucky to have him as our laureate.