top of page

Christopher Buckley: California Poets Part 4, Four Poems


Christopher Buckley


December 29th, 2021

California Poets: Part IV

Christopher Buckley

Four Poems



Promise


How many doorways

have I looked into

with no one waiting

for me to pass

the time of day . . . discuss rain that hasn’t fallen

on roses, sea-dull acacias,

the sun-scraped lawns?

Dirt scurries this way

then that in the street—

and in the study,

my school photo has a grey cobweb

in the background,

and that has nothing

to do with the soul . . .

the sky looks tired

of everything.

Yet, any bird can read the map of the air—

but that gets me exactly where?

The only reply to my letters

expressing interest in the position

is dust rising from my cuffs

to settle each evening in the west—

street sweeper, sidewalk inspector,

bookkeeper of fallen leaves—

the road ends in the sea.


Still, someone needs to make sense

of philosophy—

and if not,

herd sheep, take in a stray cat.

Throw your hands up

in the face of the past

and little more than

a fine powder rises

on the path

leading to a bench outside that bar

where no one

notices the hopeless rucksack

slung over your shoulder,

the one you set off with

half a life ago, thinking

there might be something left

in the grab bag of the blue.

Your reward

is a glass of rough red wine served up

by the seawall,

salt air, some fog hanging offshore.

Breathe in

the usual uncertainty

grey as the sinking pearl of the sun . . .

and realize you’re lucky

to be here with the empty light

like the promise of a life

to come,

a life just drifting off. . . .




Inventory


I’ve been considering

the untold stars

whose dust will never

spell out our names.

We have our bodies

from stars, second-hand . . .

lagging behind

the soul according

to most accounts,

beggars pulling a cart. . . .


I’ve counted out

a dozen encrypted clouds,

floated transcendental

alternatives that have,

so far, added up

to little more than

the last one or two

sinking into the sea

before the stars

come out again

and my thoughts

freeze along with

the lemon blossoms.


Each dawn I examine

the backdrop of the sky . . .

empty space

confirming the earth

is just a rock,

where we came from—

some billions of molecules

rewired. Against the odds

I’ve made it this far

with sand in my shoes,

silt in my veins. . .

banking on the invisible

ledger of air.




Salinas Agonistes


Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, /dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!

—Milton

Luis Omar Salinas 1937-2008


All the guardian angels

took the Greyhound to Mazatlan,

except that old one

sleeping in his pick-up

in back of the Rexall drug

in Robstown—

Jorge Negrete with No Te Rajes

on the radio

circulating forever in my Aztec blood.

I could not escape

the poverty

of my shoes

and made up songs to every Mary

and Martha, to the sorrowful mysteries

of their necks.

A romantic at midnight,

I climbed bougainvillea to balconies,

a pack of KOOLS, beer in a sack,

the articles of faith

as I knew them then. . . .

I drove with one hand over an eye

of my double-vision youth, tipped my hat

and the ashes of moonlight

tumbled out.

Beneath the flowering apricot

I praised the schism

of blossoms,

my soul on all fours floating

like a sandwich wrapper

in wind

over to Roeding park where I spent my days learning

from the larks

all I could about hope.

Through the ‘80s I couldn’t tell

one neorealistic misery from the next—

Visconti’s from De Sica’s,

the emotional sprockets and chain links . . .

I knew an hour was missing

in the U.S. release of Bertolucci’s 1900,

and years before,

I’d hit the road, making soup with Tony Quinn in black & white

along the north-east coast of Italy.

I returned to the sea—my reservoir

of dreams—

unfurled a white sail before the existential waves

with nothing to lose, but my heart

capsized in moonlight.

Nevertheless, I was an original

in Byron’s sequined shirt,

tip-toeing for years on the precipice of the sky,

in the blue

undertow of afternoon . . . .

Adios amigos—

no melodies left

to extract from the waves, and the stars

always did their best

to keep me off course—

the horizon remains beyond eloquence.

If it takes a fool to be a poet,

I’ve deceived no one as I went

in search of roses, not philosophy,

which I had freely from sparrows

in the yard.

I left the sport coat of fame in the display window,

no inheritance but the gritos of the gulls.

Somewhere, there are

silver trumpets and mariachis singing

El Rancho Grande,

but I can’t hear them from here.

I bequeath my manuscripts,

illuminated or otherwise,

to the thrift shop of the wind,

and I will hitch-hike to the stars.

My parents took the package tour

to paradise

and put in a word for me, but God, I think, is not

sentimental. You wouldn’t think so,

but I loved him well enough

in my own way—

what other choices were available

to desgraciados

still standing in the street?




10th Year, Drought


Each day now, leaving for my walk,

I put on my straw hat

to hold in the hope I have left

as I walk past dehydrated trees

where I can’t help but think

of Goya’s El tres de mayo,

how, with their arms surrendered

to a black sky,

those soldiers

look just like the trees, slumped

hopelessly into each other,

waiting to be shot. . . .


There’s a bougainvillea on the cliff

making a heart-red run

through the prickly pear,

humming birds

at the purple blossoms of Mexican sage—

that’s all it takes

to have me praising what’s left

before the heat arrives

to toss another worthless prayer past the islands,

the crags of Santa Cruz,

the far reaches of San Miguel,

as I look for any trace of cloud

slipping in from 40 years ago. . . .

But daydreaming is so much dust

in the rain barrel

at the corner of the house

where I watched B westerns,

filmed just 90 miles south,

that we tuned-in Saturday mornings

in black & white

while it rained, while clouds

of dust were rising

from the posse in pursuit. . . .

What chance now

the sky’s

going to open up

and return us to those days?

Above the bay

each evening, there’s just that cloud of dust,

starlight blurring,

burning down. . . .



Interview


November 19th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Christopher Buckley, Poet and Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s begin with your most recent project, Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets. At first glance, the book seems to be an anthology of poetry, but actually it’s not. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the project, what you hope it will achieve, and how editing this work gave you greater insights into the Fresno poetry scene?


CB: With the death of Peter Everwine in October of 2018, the untimely death of Jon Veinberg in 2017, and Philip Levine’s passing in 2015, the stark reality was that the Fresno Poets, the early core group, had become pretty thin on the ground. That added to the fact that too many poets were lost far too early in the proceedings: Ernesto Trejo in 1991, C.W. Moulton in 1995, Larry Levis in 1996, Sherley Ann Williams and Andres Montoya in 1999, Roberta Spear in 2003, and Luis Omar Salinas in 2008.


The interviews and essays present the poets speaking in their own voices about the ideas and processes behind their poems as well as about their comrades, the community of poets in Fresno, their interaction, mutual development, and support—what it was like working together in those early days. The concept behind the book then is to preserve the voices of the poets talking about their work, their beginnings and development in interviews they have given over the years. Philip Levine came to teach at Fresno State in 1958 and Peter Everwine followed in 1962; C.G. Hanzlicek came in 1966 and the initial group of Fresno poets collected here became students and colleagues of theirs.


NAMING THE LOST is substantially representative of that essential core—roughly 1960 through the early 1980s—the early group who wrote and published books and made a poetic life that began in Fresno, and whose work and accomplishments contributed to the continuing zeitgeist of the Fresno community of poets. So while there are three anthologies of poetry by Fresno Poets, it was clear to me that this book of prose about the poetry and the poets was needed.


The book focuses on those poets lost to us, and those of us still standing—if a little wobbly—in our 60s and 70s. This, I believe, is a collection of historical and aesthetic value to contemporary poetry and creative writing in the 20th and 21st centuries. There hasn’t been another grouping of poets like this in the U.S. in the last 60 years. It seems unlikely there will be another

.DG: The majority of anthologies covering California poetry—and we may even say that all of the most popular, widely known ones—are heavily focused on the Los Angeles and San Francisco scene. Why is Fresno deserving of the same respect and who are some of writers connected to the city you have particular fondness for?


CB: When you think of the number of major and accomplished poets who lived in and came through Fresno, teachers as well as students, names such as Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, C.G. Hanzlicek, Larry Levis, Luis Omar Salinas, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, Sherley Anne Williams, David St. John, Greg Pape, Kathy Fagan, Suzanne Lummis, Dixie Salazar, Juan Felipe Herrera, and many more, come immediately to mind. All of these poets are important contributors to American poetry in the 20th & 21st centuries, let alone California poetry. It is just amazing.


DG: In 2001, with David Olivera and M. L. Williams, you edited, as part of the California Poetry Series, the anthology of poetry How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, which was positively reviewed by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. Exactly twenty years have passed since that project and your newest one. How has Fresno poetry changed over those years and do you think it will be a long time before the city will have another figure like Philip Levine?


CB: The short answer is that we will not see another Philip Levine. But it must be said as well that one reason for the success of the poets coming through Fresno was not only Levine, but Peter Everwine and Chuck Hanzlicek, amazing poets and mentors. That combination of influences and voices accounted for and supported a true range of talents and visions. As the program grew and its poets made their names in poetry, young poets were drawn to the program and came to live and write in a place as unlikely as Fresno. The first anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, 1970, collected that substantial first wave of poets who came to Fresno, though some were already in the area—Larry Levis, David St. John, Roberta Spear, Gary Soto, Michael Clifton, Greg Pape, Lawson Inada, Sherley Anne Williams, an amazing confluence of talents. The second anthology of Fresno poets was Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets, edited by Ernesto Trejo and Jon Veinberg in 1987, which rounded up most of the poets who had come through after the initial group. HOW MUCH EARTH, 2001, was an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, to gather up as many as possible of the more recent poets who were studying, writing, and publishing in Fresno and be sure they were added to the mix. Certainly poetry in Fresno has changed as the poets themselves have changed, as the world they respond to has changed. Chuck Hanzlicek has been retired for some years now and Phil and Peter are gone. But I think the essential project of poetry had not much changed. Connie Hales came in and taught for many years and kept students focused on their lives and a common humanity, and like Chuck Hanzlicek, a clarity of vision and voice. For a number of years Dixie Salazar and David Dominguez taught workshops on a part-time basis and both had been student writers in the program going back several years. Certainly there was no one style that marked the Fresno poets, but clarity and a grounded imagination, and often the stories of lives in the central valley of California, continued to ground the poetry.


DG: In 1994, you published Cruising State: Growing Up in Southern California, your first work of non-fiction, consisting of eighteen essays about growing up in the Golden State. One of the essays, “Playing with Time,” describes the experience of walking down Grant Avenue in San Francisco one random day, eating at a Chinese restaurant named after Li Po, the great Tang dynasty poet, and then discovering two musicians—a guitarist and saxophone player—laying down a song “easier than that buttered pearl of a sun dipping west,” and yet both are utterly unknown: “They are too fine, steady and full of that blue river and resolve of jazz to be playing for drinks; certainly too little in it for dope.” Certainly, the world is full of talent that’s unrecognized—it’s likewise inundated with famous people who don’t deserve any recognition, and California seems to be an epicenter of this phenomenon. As a poet, to what extent have these extremes affected you, and what are things about California that make it easy to be writer and what are things that make it particularly difficult, at least from your perspective?


CB: Well that was the Li Po bar, not a restaurant. Tourist trap to be sure, but Gary Young and I stopped by for a drink and photo opportunity in front as we were of course both admirers of the poet and thought it would be a great photo—in those days long before selfies—to be pictured at the entrance to a river cave with Li Po’s name on it as they had the entrance tricked-out. No idea now where that photo is—we were just in our 30s then I think? I believe you are correct re the deserving and undeserving in California. Happens more so here as we are such a large state with a huge population. But this phenomenon per capita, I’d venture, is no more prevalent here than anywhere else, people being people. Politics, insider trading, current trends, friendships, fashion, all, in my experience, accounting for many mediocre or poor writers becoming famous and many great talents going unrecognized. Best example that comes to mind is Jon Veinberg, one of the truly gifted and original Fresno poets, and for that matter, one of the very best poets of my generation. Veinberg, Soto, Gary Young and I were in grad school together. After school, Jon chose to avoid academia and worked in psychology/counseling his whole life, doing a lot of good in the world. He did not network with the rising stars in “po-biz” or curry favor in the academies. He just wrote his poems and published five outstanding and remarkable books of poems. He did receive two NEA grants in poetry as they are submitted anonymously, and I have always thought the famous judges must have been perplexed trying to guess who this great poet was whose manuscripts/poems they did not immediately recognize.


It is difficult to be a writer in CA as there is so much competition and probably not enough first-rate poetry publications. And, of course, one has to land a job to support yourself, and then find time for the writing. One of the great things about the Fresno community of poets was that everyone was mutually supportive and not competitive. Of course the many stunning environments around the state are sources of inspiration, though Fresno is certainly not Big Sur, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, La Jolla etc. Still it was easy to write in Fresno as that seemed to be the business of the place and you had so many comrades down the street to exchange poems and ideas with and so many good nationally known poets came to read as there were great poets in town to visit with. One of the great subjects and motivations for poets I think is always the notion or atmosphere of “home.” So the many varied environments of CA call place readily into play. As for undeserving poets being recognized, given the prizes and jobs, well that is nothing new, politics as usual. As early as 1956 or ’58 Robert Lowell, in his sonnet “Words for Hart Crane” (Collected in Life Studies, 1959) began: “When the Pulitzers showered on some dope / or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap . . . .” Nothing new under the sun.


DG: If you saw an American restaurant in Fresno, for example, called William Saroyan, is this something you would find strange or would you see it as an exciting way to bring more attention to literature?


CB: Well that would be interesting and encouraging, it would show someone is thinking, has some respect. Saroyan was born in Fresno, and was a fabulous writer of the human drama. I would think such a restaurant would promise great Armenian food.


DG: Like its cultural and social oppositions, California is also a land of geographical extremes—the highest point in the contiguous US, Mount Whitney, rises from its forests and the lowest point in North America is there in Death Valley. As a poet, which feature appeals to you more, and why?


CB: Well, candidly, neither, though both have their merits of course. What worked for me as a poet was Santa Barbara, growing up there from age 4, long before anyone knew we were there and real estate was beyond most everyone but the ridiculously rich. The route through town, along the coast, before it was the 101 Freeway, was a 3-lane highway; one lane each way and a center “suicide” lane for passing as they had it back in the ’50s. I grew up in the foothills and would walk the creeks from there down to the beach. I spent a lot of my early years at the beach, skin diving and surfing. The town was an arboretum with an amazing variety of trees and plants. Rain was regular, everything was green year round, the average yearly temperature was 72, population was low. There were 4 lanes, 2 each way, up and down State Street and a variety of shops and department stores and during the holidays they were open until 9:00. Not much traffic and we could ride our bikes without risking our lives from the foothills into town and back. It was Edenic. Having to move elsewhere for work later on gave me my themes of the loss of Eden, if you will, and tossed several curve-balls about metaphysics, in both poetry and prose.


DG: You’ve had the great privilege and honor to win four Pushcart prizes. Indeed, winning just one isn’t easy, and you naturally must be proud of every single accomplishment, but is there a particular piece, for one reason or another, that means a bit more to you, and do you have any advice on how this young poet can perhaps win one? (That last question is a joke, of course—I will appreciate no answer.)


CB: Well, the Pushcart provides a great service to poetry and letters. I received 4 prizes fairly close together, oh I don’t know, over an 8 or 10 year span and felt very fortunate indeed. It was just luck—luck that the poetry judges did not have a political agenda or friends and students they were looking out for as often happens in these things. One year Marvin Bell and William Stafford were the poetry judges, and man was I pleased and amazed to have a poem selected by them. It all depends on the judges—often who you know, are you famous, etc. Forgive me if I sound cynical. I was a poetry judge one year and Bill Henderson asked me to suggest a co-judge and I offered Chase Twichel, a good poet I knew from Bread Loaf. We each took boxes of submissions for the few pages we could fill. I just went through and found the best poems I could. I don’t think any of our selections duplicated, and so you had two varying visions. You have to be lucky. Each year after my last Pushcart Prize in the late ’80s or early ’90s I was nominated, thousands of folks are nominated each year. I have been nominated almost every year since then and have never won another prize. Perhaps my writing has become worse instead of better? Or there just might have been judges with other agendas?


DG: In 1999, also as part of the California Poetry Series, you edited, with your close friend Gary Young, an anthology called The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place. The concept of place, as you’ve said in another interview, holds great significance in your work: “Place is very important in my poetry. I was born in California and grew up in Santa Barbara/Montecito of the 1950s and ‘60s, long before anyone knew we were there, though we were only one hundred miles from L.A …. This was when Southern California had more trees than cars; I could walk out my front door to creeks, woods, hills, long and empty beaches. It was Edenic, and like all Edens, it is lost.” With respect to this loss, how has poetry helped you cope with these changes and are there any specific poems you always turn to in this respect?


CB: Yes, well in one of the responses above, I pretty much confirm this loss of Eden theme that presented itself to me as soon as I had to leave CA for a job in Pennsylvania, which was a shock to the psychic and physical systems. I don’t mean to inflate my “theme” here and sound as if I am trying to be a minor Milton. But I realized then that that loss of place, of home, not only was a gut-punch emotionally but that it called up the natural landscape that had supported me and given me my life thus far, and thus put an unresolved metaphysical question in front of me: the origin, value, beauty, sustainability, and loss of such an environment—the meaning of it, full stop. Two poems that have always been markers for me in this regard are “Sycamore Canyon Nocturne” and “The Presocratic, Breathing, Surfing, Cosmology, Blues . . . ” both from Camino Cielo, 1997. “Sycamore Canyon . . .” appeared in POETRY, due to the generous offices of Joe Parisi who published a number of my poems for several years, and “The Presocratic, Breathing . . .” appeared in American Poetry Review; it was a long poem and I have always been grateful to Steve Berg, bless his soul, for taking a chance with it. Poetry helped me face up to and work through this theme/consternation, especially while I was exiled to the gulag of Pennsylvania for my sins. I don’t know that I have landed any firm conclusions but dealing with it through poetry and nonfiction has kept me working and thinking.


DG: If you could bring one poet you really admire, living or dead, who wasn’t or isn’t from California, to write a poem about the state, who would this person be and where would you take him or her?


CB: Well, the question as formed eliminates Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, and Charles Wright all who wrote wonderful poems set in CA. And as well probably my good friend and mentor Jerry Stern, whose great writing about PA all these years again demonstrated the importance of place; and, as well, I think Jerry has a few CA poems, plus the fact that he is still with us, continuing to write great poems into his 90s. Honestly, I think I would vote for Wislawa Szymborska. She has always been a favorite of mine and my great good friend the poet Jon Veinberg. Her attention to everyday detail and the way she observes the human condition with simple but yet deep and sophisticated logic and irony—how her thinking is always fresh and accessible—is compelling, and close to a miracle. I have a poem in AGNOSTIC, Lynx House Press, 2019, “Juhan W Niebie”—an elegy for Jon which uses his full Estonian first name and adapts a title from a Szymborska poem, in Polish, “Ella w niebie” (Ella in heaven) . . . an elegy to Ella Fitzgerald. That poem appeared in Szymboraka’s book HERE, 2010, and my poem had its start from the cover photograph of Szymborska in her study with a cigarette and cup of coffee, her eyes closed perhaps in another ironic realization.


I’d take her to Santa Barbara for the contrast between now and the ’50s/’60s.


Author Bio

Christopher Buckley’s most recent book is Agnostic, Lynx House Press, 2019. He has recently edited: The Long Embrace: Contemporary Poets on the Long Poems of Philip Levine, Lynx House Press, 2020; and Naming the Lost: The Fresno Poets—Interviews & Essays, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021. His most recent book is The Pre-Eternity of the World, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021, and The Consolations of Science & Philosophy is due from Lynx House Press in 2022.

Commenti


bottom of page