God’s Controversy with California
Drought, the preacher chides,
God’s punishment for a sinful people
besotted with superfluous waters—
sipping pinot noir on the Sabbath,
baptizing pretty babes in hot tubs.
But today the blue skies darken, drains
thump like lovers’ hearts, the excited
lemon tree promises more fruit.
Tomorrow I’ll plant pomegranate seeds
under the clouds, tempt them to stay.
Time now for a steamy bath, soup
for dinner, willow wood in the fire.
Chosen people, how quickly
the universe forgives.
Happiness, pleasure, love, these sentiments
rate low, on what Americans think
they should pay for, so says my Hungarian friend
Tibor, expert on the value of money.
He advises me to spend my dollars
buying gardenias, tulips, daisies, roses—
flowers bringing perfume indoors,
signifying love, pleasure, happiness.
But that was his complaint:
You people (his accent Hungarian) don’t consume
enough flowers and keep them forever
to dry like a long marriage.
Water was his secret ingredient.
He took me to Lombardy Spring
in the coastal range, filling plastic bottles
with soft water to fortify his blossoms.
He laughed when I told him
I prefer water from the tap.
I picture Tibor, brows raised,
admiring my stupidity.
He’s gone now, his ashes
covered by violets and lilies;
and Lombardy Spring lies under a ton
of rock beneath the widened highway.
When I find faded petals in a book,
I remember Tibor’s crooked smile
and wonder if a fool like me
bought too many or waited too long.
The blue house shudders on a brown hill,
leaves falling from live oak, layer
with pine needles, dry weeds.
I like the hush of mulch, patter
of nocturnal skunks guiding kittens
along ancient trails.
The first time I saw my house,
I found a redwood stump thick
as centuries waiting to be wedged.
Two years I sawed, good exercise for
a desk-bound man; by the third Christmas
I held a fifty-pound hunk, almost old as Jesus.
The fire smoldered twenty-four hours.
Its blue odor still tears my eyes,
the loss labors in my heart.
Under living redwood, I scatter
oyster shells from Tomales Bay, pretend
to fill fissures in San Andreas fault.
Whatever boils below, I don’t wonder
who’ll lose their footing first—me
or the skunks, the house, the brown hill.
A woman carves
big letters in beach sand
THIS IS CRAZY
watching the sea stealing
her confessions of love.
I lift a black stone laced
with white agate, slip it
into my throwing hand,
count the number of skips
it would make
if I gave it to the waves.
On my desk it will keep safely
along with my chunk of the Berlin wall
and a bronze chit
from the Silver Dollar Hotel,
GOOD FOR ONE SCREW
Madam Ruth Jacobs, Proprietor.
One good screw may not last long
but crazy, lost at sea, is forever.
Redwood Valley Road
A dozen black-faced sheep, nimble
as ballerinas, slip into the road, nostrils alive.
At the shore, whitecaps pound
continental bone, drill
a perfect arch through a forty-foot shelf.
Above the violent sea
whips of wind press the animate to earth.
A wide-winged hawk breaks
backward in invisible currents.
Cypress trees tilt like ladies bent on canes.
I follow the ancient trail,
seabed to beach, sandstone to soil.
Seafarers thrilled to cut
the planet’s highest spars, redwoods old
as the Roman empire.
Bare cliffs bristle in wind.
At the tree line
loggers quit, green succeeds,
the sign offers 800 ACRES.
A couple stares at the thundering shore.
The ocean decides how long it lasts.
At the edge, waves swarm
against black gravel, swirling
the turbid tide. My feet beg
to retreat. I hold them firm, obey
the rule: NEVER TURN
ON THE WAVES
Truth is, I savor the crush
of elements—water bounding earth,
air—and my fire within, once
blazed but banked, appropriate
to meet the clouded sky.
Gulls disappear downwind.
Beyond breakers, mysterious foam slobbers
in the stream—dunks and rises,
impervious to mortal time.
Through thick air, I can report
no news of islands. No ships.
Nothing alive but me. A hard gust
heaves my warmth to the sea.
The western horizon sweeps into a crescent,
luminous as the pale moon.
I take notes with my tongue, the Pacific enlarges my nostrils.
The wind speaks Tagalog.
I cross a strip of sand, dip my hand into gray foam.
Salt drizzles from palm to whiskery chin.
A running dog bumps me into the undertow.
I arise shaking my fur. Strings of kelp
cling to my hip.
I am no longer terrestrial. I dwell
with the walrus, the black seal.
This has never happened before; it happens every day.
Twenty-foot waves thunder
against sprawled rock, remnants
of broken cliff. The men fishing
keep their eyes
on gray-green crests, wild
as animals. A pelican leaps
into the wind. Pigeons pick
slivers of bait. Eyes turn to a trapped crab
measuring too small, watch the man
throw it back. The wind quivers
glass poles, boys clumsy
with tangled lines. No fighting, Emilio calls
to the sea, banter covering bad luck.
The men know the ocean’s violence, how little
a day’s work matters to the world,
how much one fish will mean.
Climbing the high ridge, sun
pinching eyes, I feel the sea’s intimacy
recede. The leashed dog lunges, sets
a pace. My breath tightens, chill wind
on my face.
the doctors warned. I slacken
slightly, breathing harder, can’t help
but wonder why I take the risk.
Up here where hills stretch, rumbling
waves vibrate to the pinnacle. Far below
a surfer paddles over a crest, falls
backward, still paddling, as I struggle
ahead, intoxicated by what
I imagine may be last thoughts.
“…this frigate earth is ballasted with bones…”—
Herman Melville, 1851
When I played
under the kitchen table,
I didn’t know
old people slept
in rooms below.
I ran over grass in a city park,
high clouds made me dizzy. I lost
my footing, overheard trees
giggling. I could not face them.
When I lived in the middle
of the country where lakes
glowed blue and the Mississippi River
slid like a torrent
through my heart, the most sensual
color was earth-dark chocolate.
Gray now, I hear
Pacific whitecaps grinding rock
into sand. I’m cargo
on a gallant ship,
tooth, bone, tissue
sailing the turbid sea.