Two California Poems

In 1983-84, I studied in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine, and lived in Dana Point, on the coast between Laguna Beach and San Clemente. I liked that Dana Point is named for Richard Henry Dana, who sailed from Massachusetts to the Pacific in the 1830s and later wrote Two Years Before the Mast. I allude to his voyage in the "Whale Grace" poem. I often write about places I've lived or visited. The concept of "place" --- what it is, how it shapes us, why it matters --- occupies me even as I go down other writing roads. This California experience gave me several poems.

The time in Dana Point was my second extended stay in the state. For six months in 1967, at thirteen years old, I lived with my parents in Stockton, where my father had been working seasonally as a wool grader for a wool producers co-op (sheep ranchers) in the San Joaquin Valley. My mother was unhappy out west, feeling isolated, so the family returned to the New England she loved.

While UC Irvine is a top writing program, part of the draw for me was that I had relatives and friends in Southern California. I had not gone away to college for undergraduate studies and was restless, looking for a change of direction and location. Beyond these reasons was something more fundamental, however. Because I had concentrated on political science and history in college, I was insecure about myself as a writer. I knew what I didn't know. For some time I'd wondered if an MFA program would make me a better writer and strengthen the literary foundation I had built for myself largely through personal study and practice. The time in Irvine was critical to my continued development as a writer --- and I gained several lifelong friends. In addition to the poetry workshop with close reading of new poems and the literature courses, I taught first year composition as a teaching assistant. As much as anything else I did on campus, teaching students how to write clean sentences and sound paragraphs helped my own writing. I left the program after a year for a job opportunity that was too good to pass up.


Strawberry Fields

Local maps call it “Winter Hill.” We said, “the woods.”

To see it now, I would have to cut across private lawns.

Near Sweeney’s Pond, in fields once owned by actual Yankees

Or Polish farmers, chipmunks sped over rock walls under vast maples.

One day, luck led us to a raspberry patch, wild fruit tangled in juniper,

Hardly a jar full, which is what came back to me upon learning

What I’d seen between the Irvine Auto Center and Laguna Beach signs,

Where the 5 splits to the 405—rush-hour sun blasts the plastic tarps,

Making a silver spread of lanes set massively for strawberries.

Wrapped soil shines like the mirror glass in bank towers

A few exits north of cattle and farm workers down from

The freeway, assembling pipe-grids for sure rain.


Early draft of "Strawberry Fields" in December, 1983. 

Farm workers installing irrigation system on a strawberry field covered with plastic tarpaulins ( Los Angeles Times  news photo)

Farm workers installing irrigation system on a strawberry field covered with plastic tarpaulins (Los Angeles Times news photo)

Whale Grace

A jawbone frames the laboratory door.

Each winter, California grays plunge and run,

And laden watch-boats head out to spot a fluke,

A spray, any sign in the blue. This taking account,

This need to see, runs in us like the urge pushing

Giants south to calving lagoons. The totem

Is painted, carved, printed in the Orange County

Marine Institute, where bones of a whole

Creature float over murmuring aquariums,

The ribs arching even the town this festive week

While the big mammals, as they have for ages,

Slide by the chaparral bluffs from which men

Once scaled cowhides down to the beach for

Traders whose Boston ships worked this coast.

Dana Point scene looking south toward San Clemente (watercolor notebook sketch, 1984).

Dana Point scene looking south toward San Clemente (watercolor notebook sketch, 1984).