Water stagnates in this ditch,
run-off with nowhere to run,
and turns an unnamed shade
of brown, yellow, and drab olive
that makes you morose.
And yet banks that were barren
in spring now teem with weeds—
already dense enough to shelter
a pair of mallards, locals
who never fly north or south.
Tule reeds only inches above the surface,
an almost luminous green,
will be the last withered stalks to die out.
It will take a cold, hard wind
to pry open their fists.
This is a hard lesson, August
lecturing in a tattered black frock coat
that shimmers like hot asphalt.
Its breath sears us.
Coke bottle glasses concentrate
the sun’s rage, igniting
fire in the dead grass
at one hundred degrees plus.
Smoke clouds the distant burned hills.
Listless, our thought life
goes no deeper than a lizard’s.
Nothing makes sense in this weather.
And here we are, flunked
and forced to repeat once more
the core curriculum of summer school.
We never learn.
The dun-colored, worthless soil
has finally cracked
and gone mad from thirst.
Nothing grows out here
except scrub, brittle and gray,
living indistinguishable from the dead.
It’s not a good place to come
with desiccating regrets,
not a good place to be lonely.
And yet there’s an isolated stone,
large enough to lie in the shade of
if you’re a snake.
Varmints have burrowed under it,
several dark little holes
made to look abandoned.
The stone’s like an outpost
in the lawless West where a traveler
willing to suffer bedbugs
and risk having his throat slit
could get some rest,
enough to keep him going.
Don Thompson, currently the inaugural Poet Laureate of Kern County, is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Back Roads (winner of the 2008 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize), Everything Barren Will Be Blessed, Local Color, and, most recently, A Journal of the Drought Year. He and his wife, Chris, live on her family’s farm where he continues to write about the Valley as he has been doing for over fifty years. Visit his website, San Joaquin Ink.