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Practicing a Gentle Art: Review of Gary Thompson's On John Muir's Trail

On John Muir's Trail, by Gary Thompson
Bear Star Press: Cohasset, California, 1999
73 pages, $12.00 (paperback) $15.00 Canada
ISBN: 0-9657177-3-9

When I first heard this voice I leaned in closer for a wry and confidential message. It tells of something truthful, even integral, regarding the character of natural creatures and man-made events, something judiciously funny:

     Pretty bored birds, these crows. They'll do anything for a
     thrill: swing madly from the skinny tip of the cypress
     outside my study window; play chicken on the road with
     jerks they know won't slow down; wobble like drunks
     across the highwire until they teeter off; wings akimbo.

Hmm, casual attitude. Most poets for the past hundred years have been uplifting all the lordly, buzzard-Iike, scraggly birds, portraying the hawk's majesty and giving it "the lead gift in the twilight." That particular moment in Jeffers was actually a high-point concerning birds of prey in Western American poetry. Some believe it went downhill from there. Crows (especially British) have been imaged as crude, survivalist personalities representing the dark side of delight. Thompson's crows are super clowners worthy of an ovation. Many of the poems in this collection reveal their "true selves" like the crows, playfully.

Gary Thompson has honed an irony the sun can bounce from. His main control-switch is hooked to intellect-sparking word-choice. Adjectives alone put a zip to the knife that skims away the dead skin of automatic misconception. Horatian satire, the eighteenth century masters called it, skips along, featherweight boxing, knocking the General Idea just enough to make the old Statue rock on its foundation—but not enough to knock it off its base. That seems to be the movement of much of his language. Surprisingly off-handed bullseye commentary, in verse, lopes and prances in speed. Here is how he stacks up the interesting factuals "In California":

        built a little dam
                to plug Big
Chico Creek into the swankest
        swimming hole
                in Butte County.

Army hotshot
        engineers dubbed this job
                "flood control"

but what's to flood?

Maybe he knows the best way to catch truth in California is to approach it slant, as one instructed way back when she said to tell the truth but to tell it slant. That slant is evident in Thompson, but the angle is a little steeper than Emily probably had in mind. This downward trail, switch-backing on the power of satirical grounding, is effective in stepped lines (always a thrill when the form fits the tone!)

And lo, they appear, the Californians, in all their glory: "Today lovers in spring art- / collage spandex / lean their neon bikes / against the century-weathered fence. / ...The young man whistles / the obvious, catchy / tunes of their lives / while the woman nestles / California poppies in her tight, brown hair." They think they are thinking for themselves, spontaneous on the nature trail, but are they not posing for a full-color calendar pic with huffy clouds and cerulean skies?

Thompson's is not exactly a sympathetic approach to mundanity which thinks of itself as original, but we have had way too much of that already. There is no such thing as border-line patronizing unless it be the person you thought of as a friend ripping you apart with freshly- spoken double entendre. (When called on the carpet for it they can always deny it and claim you have taken it all wrong.) I don't think the persona leaves any room for doubt regarding his attitude toward the present superficiality, which is the hard glaze that denies depth in many Californian life-styles.

But time is running out in California, in the Northwest and over the seven oceans of the world. There is little time left for hidden double meanings, especially when the poet speaks of ruin: "I believe in fish. / I wish I believed in Fish / and Game's claim that salmon / fantail up these ladders to spawn / in their ancestral streams / beyond our dams." Uh-huh. Wish in one hand. By the end of the poem the reader knows there is a mighty big difference between believing in fish and believing the Fish and Game commission. No one will ask for an instant, "Why is the poet telling me this?"

There is an undercurrent throughout the book: collective intensity. It is gathering on a journey that begins with the first poem, "On John Muir's Trail":

I could give up this life
of children and fuss
because there's still a John Muir
Trail I retreated down
that insane sixties summer I was
trapped between boy and man.

The poet earns our trust by not singing praises that are unwarranted. We sense there will be some serious stories and images less fleeting than usual. Not the least of them come from a poem about the state flower, "California Poppies," as the poet reveals "poppy / constellations all over / a meadow / of graves, so our bones / might open / if day shines / like a bunch of orange / bells / about to chime." The shorter lines always flow on their humble way down the page, but here they carry technique from the oldest, most musical poetry: any writer of verse or song who puts bones and bells that close together comes from the Old School, the School we learned from before there were creative writing departments to help us along.

Such metaphorical layering is balanced in another confession about the poet's love for Michigan hardwoods in autumn: "but I miss the maples more / each November spent / here where mostly oafish yellow bigleaf / and viny imitations / drop their uninspired leaves." Comparison/contrast has made, again, an unlucky winner of the persona.

This book of poems reminds us that California was made of people who mainly arrived from Somewhere Else, which many still think of as their old home. And that John Muir, like many of his followers, left village and civilized fences to wander to the lost places where he would discover himself in splendor, untouched and remote, in the mountains. He left for Thompson, and other thinkers, a legacy.

It still is not easy, even today, to follow John Muir's trail, but it is difficult for different reasons: hiking along knowing that Audubon was a bird-killer and painter before he was a preservationist; knowing that most of the wild is over-run by tourists who can only imagine themselves as pioneers on well-paved or modified pathways, no matter what their travel-agents lead them to believe.

Here in these poems, a man claims a landscape for better or worse, acknowledging the history of that land's ruling society which used unsavory tactics for exploitation. If the collection is a guidebook, as one critic called it, it is not a guidebook for tourists skimming over the surface. Thompson points to the New Confusion that is mirrored in his poem "Six," about one of his favorite subjects, birds. It is the sixth out of seven poems titled "The Lesson of Birds." Regarding a flock of Canadian geese, he says: "I watched a lead goose / lose its way (the wingless / can't say why), drop / and circle— / its well-taught flock strung behind. / Each new skein joined / the confusion, and soon / thousands of geese were swirling, / wildly honking."

From a still-point beneath the overhead swirling, which is the odd reality of what has happened to California as it filled up with people strange and odd to one another, these poems are rooted. The poet seems comfortable with his Janus-like attitude. The two faces speak alternately: the cynical and casual manner of everyday anecdote is balanced by a softer, lyric gift of the beholder. These poems live within an astounding terrain full of dynamism that was shaped with radical forces.

And finally, Gary Thompson is not one of the wingless who can't say why. His poems do sometimes point to the destructive imbalance which the bird-and-beast world suffers caught inside the super-plans of humans. With considerable accuracy and light-handedness he illuminates the beautiful and the distasteful, going deeply "into the settling hills / of always shattering / California."

Printed in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of CLR

Holly Hunt

Holly Hunt is a poet, essayist and reviewer who has published poems in such journals as Prairie Schooner and Poetry.

She is an adjunct English instructor at Clackamas Community College and resides in Portland, Oregon.

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