Entertainment & Arts

Planted in the San Joaquin

Don Thompson
“I see everything I need here,” Thompson says of his home. “The metaphors are here.”
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

In October 2002, a trim, white-haired poet named Don Thompson sat down in a farmhouse in the San Joaquin Valley and wrote a poem called “Turning Sixty.” In it, he compared his birthday to the climb of “a few degrees on the thermometer” that “add up to the end of a long season.”

But a long season of discovery for Thompson was starting. For something like 30 years, he’d been isolated from the poetry world, rarely publishing, a solitude he sought partly to avoid rejection but also from an anxiety about his artistic independence that he describes as “not letting my rock get turned over.” Chris, his wife, saw the steady flow of poems from the upper-floor writing room. She knew the company he kept: 20 or so admired poets watching him from photos pressed under glass on his desk.

She concluded that it was time for Thompson to get published.

Seven birthdays later, Thompson’s work has appeared in five chapbooks, although not yet in a full collection. Combined, about 100 poems have been published in the modest, soft-covered volumes. Last spring, after 25 rejections, Parallel Press at the University of Wisconsin brought out a more cumulative chapbook, “Where We Live.” Its title states Thompson’s ambition to find a collective voice for the San Joaquin Valley.

Also, in 2009, this great-grandfather won the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize, which bestowed publication of his latest chapbook and a reading last August at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, near Hartford, Conn.

There, Thompson met C.K. Williams, one of America’s most highly regarded poets, who set about helping him find a publisher for a manuscript collecting the poetry of decades. If that happens, Thompson will join a select group whose lifelong labor appears in one hard-earned strike of visibility.

These days, Don and Chris Thompson are back at their home near the small town of Buttonwillow, about two hours north of Los Angeles, 20 minutes west of Bakersfield. The Parsons Ranch, as the place is called, is named for Chris’ family, in which it’s passed through four generations. Fields stretch from a white-painted house built for no-nonsense spaciousness. A large oak tree stands out front. While his in-laws run the farm, Thompson teaches state inmates at a nearby minimum-security prison skills to cope with life upon release. He’s kept his writing so quiet that some relatives still don’t know that he’s a serious poet.

Thompson’s poems tend to be lyrically charged, highly personal meditations based on a lifelong immersion in Central California’s agricultural landscape -- “flatlands with no skyline / except a few silos” and “furrows, straight and narrow,” grapevines “snarled in their own freedom” and hawks “at ease in the emptiness.”

If such phrases suggest the natural innocence of a warm-climate Robert Frost, Thompson is no more a sage of the simple life than -- well, Frost himself, or William Stafford, whose penetrating eye for country places led Thompson to write, as he says, “about how the landscape lives.”

He finds beauty in the San Joaquin’s austere, often corporate fertility, making room in his poems for its inescapable clouds of dust and fog. Ironies and unsettled quests unfold within sharp-edged political, religious and economic contexts. Man’s place in nature becomes a model for existence. The flight of an owl or a cloud eclipsing the moon will lead to a kind of studious wonder.

Thompson populates his poems with the ghosts of the area’s Yokut Indians and speaks of hired farm hands, those who hire them and automation’s impact. He can be humorous, both whimsical and angrily ironic.

When he gazes toward Los Angeles, Thompson becomes a Central Valley David aiming his poetic slingshot at the water-guzzling Goliath:

Some rivers become so sluggish,

So depressed

They can barely feel their way around a rock;

Others are manic in spate & rip trees from the banks.

What about the California Aqueduct,

That bureaucrat

In a concrete suit, relentless, obsessed

With draining the North dry?

Anyone who has seen “Chinatown” or read about L.A. and water will understand this as a startling reverse view, openly pained at the region’s resource flowing south. The stanzas come from “Back Roads,” Thompson’s cycle of unnamed poems published as part of the Sunken Garden prize.

How fully the land has shaped Thompson’s art became clear when I visited him last August. I drove up Interstate 5, another piece of infrastructure that haunts his poems, and got lost. I was one of those urban aliens who Thompson, in an essay, wishes might work harder to figure this place out (" Johnny Carson showed us no mercy for years”).

My mistake led me through the dense, flat sprawl of Bakersfield, where Thompson was born and raised, the only child of parents who both worked at the post office. Eventually, I found my way and later took another drive with him and Chris.

We passed the alfalfa fields, nut groves and cotton fields that enter his poems, along with egrets, owls, sparrows, hawks. “There’s an egret,” Thompson called out. We passed an orchard of pistachio trees: “Everyone’s planting pistachios these days.”

Softly, he said: “I see everything I need here. The metaphors are here. All I need to write is here.”

According to Thompson, many poems get drafted “in my head” on the way to work at the prison. This is the latest on a long list of jobs -- postal worker, library worker and tow-truck operator, to name a few. His story, he notes, reflects the working-class lives of almost everyone he knows, except that he found poetry.

It happened in high school. A friend wrote poems. He sent some to e.e. cummings, and cummings wrote a postcard back. “Keep on writing,” it said. Thompson took the advice as if it were for him and “even published some stuff in a journal when I was 20.” He did incomplete stints at community colleges, state university campuses and forestry school. Ten years after high school, he got a B.A. from what was then the Bakersfield extension of Cal State Fresno. In the Bakersfield library one day, he spotted a listing for a master of fine arts program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver -- “I didn’t know there were writing degrees” -- and ended up getting an M.A. on full scholarship. About 1970, he published a chapbook of surrealistic poems titled “The Toys of Death.”

Beyond a few pieces here and there, that was about it, until the recent surge. “I don’t like the literary scene, that’s part of it,” he says, “but also I have a big fear of failure. There’s the say-so, you know?”

Thompson was a tow-truck operator one night in the fall of 1981 when a call came in for a pickup that had broken down on the Grapevine. Near 2 a.m., Thompson pushed through a downpour with the pickup in tow, the driver on the seat with him. The man -- Thompson recalls “a self-described gypsy” -- held a Bible open on his lap. He told Thompson that Christ was the answer to his troubles: “I was chasing a woman somewhere, my marriage was breaking up.”

The gypsy read him the following line:

“If today you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.”

It’s from the Book of Psalms.

Says Thompson: “The second I opened my heart to that possibility, He came in. I was an unbeliever one minute and a believer the next.” He aims a crooked smile at me: “Now that was an interesting experience for a writer.”

Thompson, the writer, is always there, and the role of faith in his poems is complicated. Some are so religious they must be called devotional. In others, faith becomes an instrument to explore the poet’s ties to nature, his place in the universe. And many poems don’t seem religious at all.

What’s constant is his restrained poetic ego, a quality he found in Stafford and, in contrast, in William Everson, a forceful poet who also wrote about the San Joaquin. Everson, for whom Christianity became so key that he had a monastic phase as Brother Antoninus, made the poet’s heroic ego central. Thompson has rejected that.

Still, he builds on the regional tradition Everson helped to create. He talks of other poets -- Gary Soto, Larry Leavis -- who have written about the San Joaquin. His awareness of poetry is far-reaching.

Late in the day, as I prepared to leave, Thompson quoted a short Everson poem called “San Joaquin,” written during the time the poet spent working in vineyards. Of the valley, Everson wrote how “cityfolk scorn it, cursing heat in the summer / And drabness in winter / And flee it: Yosemite and the sea.”

Pointing me toward I-5, eager to help me get it right this time, Thompson didn’t disagree. “A lot of people who start out here flee,” he said. “But that’s not me. I’m not going anywhere.”

Jalon writes about books and culture for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle.