Poetry. California Interest. The name of Don Thompson's new collection of quatrains derives from a quote by Randall Jarrell, describing a poet as "a maker of stone axes" and asking, "why make them now?" The answer to Jarrell's question may be found here. In the title poem, the one stand-alone quatrain in the book, Thomson observes, "You can chip the stone into shape, / Approximately, but not much more. / All the skill's in binding it to the handle— / The tight wrap, the unimaginable knots." It's an apt metaphor for poetry, the words always at best approximate, the skill coming in how the poet binds them into form, shaped to use. Thompson's knots are skillfully tied, and he demonstrates, elegantly and eloquently, that a form as traditional as a quatrain sequence can perfectly express contemporary themes. Indeed, the brevity and concision of such short poems seems to have anticipated our age of tweets and texts and soundbites. Take, for instance, the poem "Harvest" from a sequence describing an abandoned farm labor camp: "Migrant ghosts still come here for a season. / Too busy to haunt, they're out in the fields / All night, harvesting loneliness— / The one cash crop that never fails." In these brief words, Thompson not only captures the desolate feeling of a place, but references the hardship of migrant field work, of our unresolved national struggles with immigration, with economic equity, with labor and dignity. And aren't we all "harvesting loneliness" in this age of pandemic?
In four lines, Thompson can contain worlds. His sequences range over topics as diverse as sheep grazing in a winter pasture to poems in honor of Sir Philip Sydney, but most of all the quiet wisdom of nature. His closing poem, tellingly titled "Not the End" offers this scene of life going on "beneath our notice:" "Autumn's anthem: bees / humming in the Chinese elms. / When there’s no more honey to make, / They make music." Why make poems, and especially short poems, these "stone axes," seeming relics of another age? Because, like the bees, they make music.
Don Thompson was born in Bakersfield, California, and has spent most of his life in Kern County. He has been publishing poetry since the early sixties, including a dozen books and chapbooks. Back Roads won the 2008 Sunken Garden Prize. He was the subject of an LA Times profile, "Planted in the San Joaquin." He and his wife, Chris, live on her family's farm near Buttonwillow in a house that has been home to four generations. In 2016, he was selected as the first Poet Laureate of Kern County.
Author City: BUTTONWILLOW, CA USA