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Timothy Steele: California Poets Part 6, Four Poems

Timothy Steele

October 18th, 2023

California Poets: Part VI

Timothy Stelle

Four Poems

Squirrel Among Sweet Gum Trees

A sweet gum drops a seed ball, which is fielded Alertly by a squirrel beneath the tree. His paws revolve the hard brown spiky thing. A student of medieval history Might help him tie it with a bit of string To a small stick to make a ball and chain Like those that bold knight-errant rodents wielded Against opponents in King Arthur’s reign.

Yet he looks hesitant, as if he’s weighing Humiliations he already stomachs. Why arm him, when to do so might excite The hot blood of some Lancelot-like lummox— Some big raccoon, say—who’d provoke a fight And brain him just to strip him of his gear? A bully always relishes displaying His strength and courage to his Guinevere.

The squirrel is in fact averse to warring And suffering gratuitous abuse. (He’ll scoot off if he’s threatened, tail up straight And all but flying a white flag of truce.) Best leave him in his un-chivalric state. The seed ball has long since released its seeds. He lets it drop and lopes away, exploring The grass for fruit that better suits his needs.

Haydn in Los Angeles

Surprise!—My off-ramp is closed! As if to underscore What’s happening, the drum stroke In Symphony 94 Bursts from the dashboard. Adding Insult to irony I’m late now, and “The Clock” Comes next on this CD.

But that’s the way with Haydn. Uncannily, he frames Conditions on our freeways In his symphonies with names. During “The Hornsignal” I’ve been honked at from the rear, And “The Miracle” played one morning When the 405 was clear.

While speeders have blown by me, I’ve listened to “The Chase.” (Perhaps “The Lamentation” Solaced them when disgrace And the CHP overtook them.) Rightly or wrongly, I feel “Il Distratto” applies to drivers Texting at the wheel.

Too stormy and stressy for purists And for romantics too prudent, Mentor to Mozart and teacher Of Beethoven (one tough student!), Dear Haydn, your wife and patrons Drove you at times to despair— The former snipping your scores up For paper to curl her hair.

Yet your symphonies still console us And enlighten us as we drive— One-hundred-and-four of them. Or rather, one-hundred-and-five. The last one’s imaginary. It features a plaintive flute And a furious finale. It’s commonly called “The Commute.”

Bird Bath During the Dog Days

The birds nearby have thirsts to quench. I fill their basin in the heat. They chatter in what sounds like French: Vite, vite! they seem to urge. Vite, vite!

I shut the hose. My leaving brings The flock in. Some drink, wade, relax; Some flap the water with their wings And tail-flip water to their backs.

Most are house finches, but a grand Brown towhee sits among them there. His messy, soaked crown feathers stand Upright like liberty-spiked hair.

They dart back to the trees to preen And relish being cool and wet, Quiet till I return to clean The basin for their next toilette.

The Vite Vite Choir begins again. It’s wrong of them to rush me so. And yet they’re right: I’ve always been (Alas) deliberate and slow.

The Concert

He soloed for the first half of the show, A troubadour attempting to expand, Then, following a short break, brought on stage A band that would in time become The Band. His folk fans left in protest and in droves. Theirs was the music he had helped revive And was, from their perspective, trashing now In late October, nineteen sixty-five.

We young who stayed and listened were too quick To pride ourselves on our enlightenment. Substantial as he was, in years to come We couldn’t always follow where he went. There were dismaying moments, from Self Portrait To the bizarre Victoria’s Secret ad; During performances, he sometimes sounded Willfully off-putting or downright bad.

“You saw him on his first electric tour?” A friend said lately. “That must have been intense!” It was. Yet, spot-lit, he looked thin and frail. The night before, he’d played in Providence; Detroit would be his next stop; and the mixed Receptions he was getting wore on him. After he closed with “Like a Rolling Stone,” He vanished. The lights came on in the gym.

As we walked home in groups of two’s and three’s, A creamy-haloed moon portended snow. The wind swirled dry leaves at our feet, as if Training to rope calves in a rodeo. Somebody, having checked her watch, announced Tonight had just turned into yesterday. We hunched a little deeper in our coats And went, with surer purpose, on our way.

Author Bio:

Born in 1948 in Burlington, Vermont, Timothy Steele settled in Los Angeles in 1977. His collections of verse include Toward the Winter Solstice; The Color Wheel; and Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986. He has published as well as two books about poetry—Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing—and has edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham. His honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing from Stanford University; a Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is an emeritus professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.


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