your long, sleek-voweled words fill my mouth like ripe avocado

A poem to the strange wonder that is California from Lisel Mueller (1924- ), who was living in the Midwest when she wrote this–and still is, I believe.

“Letter to California”

We write to each other as if
we were using the same language,
though we are not. Your sentences lap
over each other like the waves
of the Pacific, strictureless;
your long, sleek-voweled words
fill my mouth like ripe avocados.
To read you is to dismiss
news of earthquakes and mud slides,
to imagine time in slow motion.
It is to think of the sun
as a creature that will not let anything
happen to you.

          Back here
we grow leeks and beans and sturdy
roots that will keep for months.
We have few disasters; i.e.,
no grandeur to speak of. Instead
we engage in a low-keyed continuous struggle
to get through the winter, which swallows
two seasons and throws its shadow
over a third. How do you manage
without snow to tell you that you are mortal?
We are brought up short by a wind
that shapes our words; they fall
in clean, blunt strokes. The birds here
are mostly chickadees
and juncos, monochromes
bred to the long view
like the sky under siege of lead
and the bony trees, which hold
the dancer’s first position
month after month. But we have
our intimations: now and then
a cardinal with its lyric call,
its body blazing like a saint’s
unexpectedly gaudy heart,
spills on our reasonable scene
of brown and gray, unconscious of itself.
I search the language for a word
to tell you how red is red.

fromĀ Second Language


Who can utter the poignance of all that is constantly threatened

Fragile paradise indeed. Tonight’s selection is from A Door in the Hive by Denise Levertov (1923-1997).

Denise Levertov


“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”

Pale, then enkindled,
summits of palm and pine,

the dew
scripture of

Soon the roar
of mowers
cropping the already short
grass of lawns,

men with long-nozzled
cylinders of pesticide
poking at weeds,
at moss in cracks of cement,

and louder roar
of helicopters off to spray
vineyards where braceros try
to hold their breath,

and in the distance, bulldozers, excavators,
babel of destructive construction.

Banded by deep
oakshadow, airy
shadow of eucalyptus,

miner’s lettuce,
tender, untasted,
and other grass, unmown,
no green more brilliant.

Fragile paradise.

. . . .

At day’s end the whole sky,
vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent
tint of wisteria,
over the malls, the industrial parks,
the homes with the lights going on,
the homeless arranging their bundles.

. . . .

Who can utter
the poignance of all that is constantly
threatened, invaded, expended

and constantly
persists in beauty,

tranquil as this young moon
just risen and slowly
drinking light
from the vanished sun.

Who can utter
the praise of such generosity
or the shame?