Robert Pinsky  

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 2 1997 9:30 PM

Robert Pinsky  


       "She hates California--it's cold and it's damp." I've always imagined Cole Porter's line as referring to Northern California. When I lived there, I used to notice that Californians often felt cold because they chose not to wear warm coats, even when the weather, especially at night, was cold and damp. They prefer to shiver, and have no bulky clothing to wear or carry or check or leave on the bus.
       In contrast, I once spent a couple of weeks as visiting poet at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. It was October, which means that it got below zero every night and rose to maybe 20 during the day; the Russian set designer who shared the campus guest house with me referred to me as his igloo-mate. It was too cold to storm, but every night an inch or two of sugary, hard, airy little flakes sifted down. In those two weeks, I did not feel cold once, because like everyone else, I was aware of socks and thermal underwear and glove liners and hats.
       Yesterday, in a fine Los Angeles drizzle, the air temperature a muggy 60 degrees, people were riding their convertibles through the misty rain with the tops down, on freeways and city streets. Gangs of kids with sopping hair plastered to their foreheads bounced soccer balls and basketballs on the street, headed to or from the playground. People strolled on the sand and on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.
       And on television, there was the Rose Bowl Parade, a great example of California's Midwestern underbelly. In James McMichael's wonderful book-length poem about Pasadena, Four Good Things, he talks about the clubs organized by immigrants from Midwestern states and describes the picnics along the Arroyo held by the Kansas Club, the Iowa Club, the Nebraska Club, and so forth. This is a farm state, deeper than the movie business, and on the television in the bar where we have lunch, people are cheering for the floats, weird immense folk sculptures--ephemeral, stiffly animated by hidden motors, kajillions of flowers coating their wire frames. Under the gray sky, everybody is having a wholesome, enthusiastic time of it.
       These people are, in the old unkind term for it, hicks: glad to stand in the rain and cheer, or to wave from the rolling diorama, or from horseback. There's a desperation for amusement, for ornament or display, in this spectacle: an astoundingly incongruent innocence in the land of Disney and DreamWorks. So close to the dazzle of Hollywood, a Middle American booster's Fantasyland. McMichael writes of the homesickness and vague melancholy that motivated the Minnesota Club, the South Dakota Club--something like, "The endless succession of perfect days were too exactly what they had come for."
       It's a good thing that we didn't come for perfect days. Emerson says that one baby will turn any group of adults into a room full of babies. Sam loves to flop down repeatedly, face first, onto a pillow or fluffy quilt placed on the floor. We all amused ourselves watching him and doing our elephantine versions of the same game. A clever, poorly coordinated monkey, he turns the room into a playground for all of us.

Robert Pinsky is an American poet. His latest published work is The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.


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