The title Everything Barren Will Be Blessed is an effective entry into poet Don Thompson's world: the dichotomous landscape of California's San Joaquin Valley. Once a carpet of wildflowers that John Muir called “the floweriest place of world I ever walked,” the 250-mile-long valley that separates coastal California from mountainous California has been “plowed down to plain dirt,” Thompson notes; it's a place now full of “dust and trash.”
But, as the title proclaims, there is blessing to be found even in a landscape where “the heat bears down hard” and where “dragonflies stick to the viscid air; / and birds have been stunned by it.” The benefit to this kind of harsh landscape and weather? “This is where you come / when you finally get serious / about listening / to what silence has to say.”
Thompson's poems delight me with their ability to find, and render vividly, the sometimes-hidden gifts of the hot and dusty and flat places where he has lived most of his life; in turn, his words make me wonder what other kinds of beauty we mis-label as “barren” in the places where we live. I've been driven through the Valley many times on family vacations; long before Interstate 5 inflicted its shortcut on the west side, there was Highway 99, backbone of California, with tomatoes bouncing off trucks speeding them to market, small planes criss-crossing the highway spraying smelly who-knows-what on endless rows of robotic produce, and prodigious windshield-bug-splats unknown in my own suburban Southern California.
Thompson takes us off the interstate to provide more intimate views: crumbling side roads, deserted labor camps, bird-song-filled sloughs (pronounced “slews”) where “The green muck water hasn't moved / in months.” He paints pictures of alfalfa fields aglow with “hundreds of lemon yellow moths.” He visits almond orchards in spectacular bloom “somewhere between white and barely pink” where “for a few days, everything is perfect.”
One of the themes Thompson weaves throughout the book is the passage of time—both positive and negative aspects of this inevitable phenomena—and in “Almond Grove (1)” he tempers the temporal nature of beauty with the hope that what follows can be even better: “Then the petals lose their grip, / . . . and the entire immaculate edifice / comes down— // the slow snowdrift of its ruin / beginning something even better.” What that “even better” thing might be, Thompson allows the reader to imagine—and I am now hungry for almonds, those delicious and durable brown nuts born out of a flurry of ephemeral blossoms.
What Thompson does here, though, and in many of these poems, is give us not only almonds, but eternity. Via a subtle use of symbolism, Thompson is able, in “Almond Grove (1)” and other poems, to bring to my mind the renewal of creation in Romans 8—but without ever using eschatological jargon that might turn off an audience unversed in such things.
Thompson's words and images make me want to conjure up my own symbolical almond poem—a reaction I had throughout the book as I admired his plainspoken yet painterly words. With steadfast, regular stanzas (most often two, three, four, or five lines in length) and a compactness that brings almost all his poems to conclusion in fewer than twenty lines, Thompson's free-verse lines—usually fewer than 10 syllables—make me want to re-examine my own “nature poems” and see how I can achieve a similar impact of brevity.
Reading as a writer (something that adds pleasure to my perusing of others' work), I also noted that Thompson and I share a predilection for a technique I call “image/insight/action”—a technique too easily mishandled into predictability. Thompson, however, employs this rhetorical pattern adeptly, as in the full-of-surprises “Hawk (1).” The twelve-line poem opens in mystery: “An indistinct glittering in the road.” The title, “Hawk,” has not prepared me for this; I follow the enjambment to line two with much interest, to discover the source of glittering, which “turns out to be the wing of a dead hawk / lifted to catch the sun.”
Now the title makes sense. Or does it? What sort of road kill is this—hawks usually soar high enough to avoid such a mundane possum death. Stanza two: “One miscalculation, a glitch / of mere inches killed him— / inches that keep everyone alive.” Wow. Not only does Thompson write about nature in a way that I aspire to, but the speaker in this poem (throughout the book, a speaker that seems closely aligned with the author) also seems to share my freeway phobia: far too often, speeding along, I wonder what would happen if one driver (God forbid it be me), drifted a few inches left, or right, and the whole frenzied matrix of traffic flow shattered into screeching brakes and twisted metal.
So. Thompson is on to something here . . . and I follow the stanza that now enjambs like a car out of control, so that the beginning words of stanza three are both surprising and inevitable: “for awhile.” But Thompson's deceptively plain word arrangement is just that: deceptive. The complete first line of stanza three reads, “for awhile. I think”—a philosophic pause that is not allowed much time as that enjambed line drives on into the next surprise (what does he think? I've got to keep reading and find out!): “of that elegant, austere soul, / those eyes too keen for comfort, // flying forever into the light.” Here Thompson loses me a little; I've been on the receiving end of the “No anthropomorphizing!” lecture more than once: poets who personified were personae non gratae.
Depending on your stance on this issue, then, you might be put off when Thompson does this throughout the book. Most of the time, the power of his images and insights balance out my aesthetic allergic reaction. And, again, Thompson's poems leave me eager to try something new to me—to perhaps budge a bit on the poetic continuum of investing non-human life with some of our human qualities (without approaching the pathetic fallacy production rates of, say, a Mary Oliver).
So far in this poem we've moved from opening “image” (hawk as road-kill) to “insight” (yikes! A mistake of only inches killed him) and now we've reached the “action” of the last two lines: “and I swerve like a small bird / to miss him.” What's the opposite of the pathetic fallacy? Zoomorphism? Whatever label it bears, I love the surprise here as the poem's speaker is likened to a bird—not an impressive, swooping (now road-kill) hawk, but just “a small bird”—nameless, but with the ability to quickly swerve, change course, avoid further vehicular desecration of the once-mighty raptor—enemy to small birds—now lifeless on the blacktop.
And not just here, but all over the book, Thompson writes himself into scene after scene as not only human, distinct from the creatures he's describing, but also closely identified with them. That this will be an important theme is signaled from the book's first poem, “Old Coyote (1).” The poem (and book) begin with this word-image: “An old coyote alone in the fog, / somehow lost where he lives.” The maturity of the insights about time in the poem (together with the white-haired author photo on the back cover) not-so-subtly points to the poem's speaker/author as another old coyote, and, sure enough, the end of the poem confirms this: “Coyote and I stand here, / two ghosts who cling to our bones, / trying hard not to fade.”
There is a dignity to the image that brings to my mind the sheer effort involved in staying relevant in the midst of 21st-century cultural-digital mutation. I am an old coyote too, and this book reminds me, over and over, of the blessings and beauty of God's creation, beauty which can be found in seemingly barren places. I am happy to have discovered Don Thompson at this “old coyote” point in my life; until a poet-friend introduced me to Everything Barren Will Be Blessed, I had not read Thompson's work, even though his oeuvre includes five previous books, including Back Roads, to which this latest work is a sequel.
The 62 pages of Everything Barren Will Be Blessed encourage me to keep looking for blessedness in barren places, while always remembering the lesson of the almond blossoms, reiterated in the last line of the book as well: “something wonderful is coming.”
Thea Gavin is a native of Orange, CA, where she shoelessly hikes and writes about the plants, creatures, and dusty trails of the nearby Santa Ana Mountain foothills. Other wild places inspire her as well, including Grand Canyon National Park, where she was privileged to spend three weeks as Artist-in-Residence during June 2011. In her off-trail hours, she teaches creative writing at Concordia University Irvine. "Barefoot Wandering and Writing" (www.theagavin.com) is where she blogs about her barefoot adventures.
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