The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
— Wordsworth, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"
Two clicks away from a Google search for "poems about Idaho," you'll find "Requiem for Idaho," a poem by Ron McFarland that begins
Out here, we don't talk about culture,and ends
we think we are. We nurtured Ezra Pound
who ran from us like hell
and never came back. You
never came at all. You
will never know how clever
we never are out here.
Our mythology comes down to a logger
stirring his coffee with his thumb.
I have never really identified this way, but I suppose I am what people back East might call a Westerner. Aside from four months in Fredericksburg, Virginia and three months in Washington, D.C., I've lived all my life west of the Mississippi—four years in Iowa and the rest in California.
In reading guidebooks on Idaho, I'm beginning to realize I'm moving into what many consider the Real West, where it's not a good idea to be an interloper from California.
I am very much from California. Like five or six generations Californian. Even Fang, despite early inclinations to the contrary, has come to consider himself a Californian.
I have several favorite poems about California. Robinson Jeffers's "Carmel Point," Amy Clampitt's "John Donne in California," and Garrett Hongo's "Mendocino Rose" come immediately to mind. Clampitt so captures the essence of a California meal in her lines
There will be wine,that I'm already missing artichokes, even as I have several growing in my backyard garden at the moment. I'm wistful for the sommelier who haunts the wine aisle at my favorite supermarket.
artichokes, and California
politics for dinner
I've never been a big fan of Long Beach, where I was born and grew up. In All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren calls Long Beach "the essence of California." Jack Burden, the narrator of the novel, spends a night in a hotel in Long Beach:
That was why I came to lie on a bed in a hotel in Long Beach, California, on the last coast amid the grandeurs of nature. For that is where you come, after you have crossed oceans and eaten stale biscuits while prisoned forty days and nights in a stormy-tossed rat-trap, after you have sweated in the greenery and heard the savage whoop, after you have built cabins and cities and bridged rivers, after you have laid with women and scattered children like millet seed in a high wind, after you have composed resonant documents, made noble speeches, and bathed your arms in blood to the elbows, after you have shaken with malaria in the marshes and in the icy wind across the high plains. That is where you come, to lie alone on a bed in a hotel room in Long Beach, California. Where I lay, while outside my window a neon sign flickered on and off to the time of my heart, systole and diastole, flushing and flushing again in the gray sea mist with a tint like blood.The California I have known is polarized: first there is my parents' house--my family's block, really--in a 1920s suburb; avocado and orange trees in the backyards; the long, nearly waveless beach a few blocks from there; my old high school festooned with razor wire and, in my memory, the tension of the L.A. riots. And then there is the Sacramento Valley and Davis, where it's common to see chickens in the yards of 1970s tract homes, where when I walk Lucas to preschool I pass through a small vineyard, a tiny cherry orchard, and walk past redwood, fig, almond, and olive trees. Where black walnuts shade and litter the largest boulevard near us. Where there's more dust and yeast in the air than salt and brine. Where oleander seems a reasonable tree.
I lay there, having drowned in West, my body having drifted down to lie there in the comforting, subliminal ooze on the sea floor of History.
When I left Iowa, I wrote dozens of poems about how much I missed its fields, its oppressive unbroken sky.
I suspect when I leave here, I will finally write poems about California, which, despite my best attempts to the contrary, I have come to love.
Even as I grow wistful about my life in California, I am optimistic about Idaho. I hear the whole state is lovely--I've only seen one city in it--and everyone I've met who lives in Boise is enthusiastic about it and is exceptionally nice. I'm going to learn the language of fast rivers rather than ocean and delta. I'll learn an entirely new history, one with familiar themes because my new place is, after all, in the West.
When state politics get in the way--as I know they will, as Idaho is one of the most conservative states socially and perhaps the most fiscally conservative--I need to put myself in mind of Wordsworth's meadow, grove, and stream apparelled in celestial light. I suspect I'll put my faith in the land, and I'm trying to get myself back into shape so that I can enjoy it on bike, foot, and horseback.
Florike Egmond and Peter Mason.
And I suppose approaching history as archipelago--as a chain of distinct, heterogeneous islands created by similar disruptive and yet creative forces--makes sense to me because Idaho is but the latest island in my personal far-flung archipelago of the West--Long Beach, Grinnell, Davis, Iowa City, Boise. Because of my academic training, but also because I've lived the perambulatory academic life--I'm suspicious of unifying explanations. And maybe that's why this blog post has gone on for so long--there's nothing that makes it hang together except for my experience of the West, of that place Amy Clampitt described as
huge, wind-curried hills, their green
gobleted just now with native poppies'
opulent red-gold, where New World lizards run
among strange bells, thistles wear the guise
of lizards, and one shining oak is poison.