The poet is Dana Gioia (page, poem source). Now I know that my continuing interest in poetry places me in about 0.1% of the American population, please forgive my oddness. Take a second on this gorgeous New England October day, to read this…
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.
Now most of that poem could be just about seeing landscape with different eyes. My Midwestern raised eyes used to staring at the unending distances, had to get used to the hills of the East. In the Midwest you stared at sky just by staring at the horizon. It was impossibly far away, but always present. In the east, the ground right in front of you often lifts your eyes. You don’t see that far away meeting, but instead jump from the top of the hill right into the blue.
It would be a nice poem if just about that, but read that last line of the third stanza. Our eyes often miss the reality. Whether that is because they are dim and clouded, or because we don’t want to see what is before us, our foreign eyes “are unable to conceive that these…were alive.” We have been placed where we are; to live, we should see. But that seeing requires work.
And the poet takes it a step deeper in the last stanza. You can be born or be placed somewhere and never see anything else. And this is just what life is. If you’ve never known the monsoon, or even the gentle rain, the sparse landscape just is. You might never now, just how dry it is. Or how deep the dirt “wishes for water”.
Think he is talking just about the landscape?