Week 491: California Hills In August, by Dana Gioia

I relish this poem for its particularity even though, paradoxically, I am not a fan of the kind of weather or landscape it particularizes: personally, during the rare heatwaves we have in this country, I hate ‘the bright stillness of the noon’ that seems to hold one trapped in a suspension of energy and interest and long for the cool of the evening when the infinite possibilities of earth and sky open up again. So yes, I would be just that ‘someone who found/these fields unbearable’, but that doesn’t stop me admiring the skill with which they are evoked, and I guess the truth is, as Gioia suggests, that it all depends what you have grown up with, on that first imprinting of the soul.

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.

Dana Gioia

Postscipt: If you feel a bit hot and dusty after reading this poem you could always freshen up with a dip into Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’, that includes lines like:

‘Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard….’

And ends

‘…..when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’

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