View from the Hill: A Poem About John Steinbeck’s Monterey, California

It was on a long so long past her midnight night,
under a scheming sky of milkbowl light and nightkissed stars,
on a night wrapped in the silver and silk of self and moon,
wrapped in a night of dream and hope,
a night of soft quiet filled
with the stippled and glazed glimmering
of the polished eucalyptus leaves
that flashed
and flushed on the naked limbs
under the moon-scarred diamonds
of an outcast and far off
forgotten heaven.
From the shores of the ripple-splashed and cold
black bottomless bay sounded the noise of the windbuoys,
came the sound of the sea, came the music addressed to unseen ships
as the sightless gray of the wind’s morning hands reached
softly down
and rattled them,
like the call of a thousands cows that pained alone
in all the frost-filled prairies and pastures and plains of the world.

Calm night, cool wind, and out there too,
in all the deep-dark valleys of the bay,
buried beneath the shadows of splashing waves and tireless rocks,
the noise of the sea lions
moaning and barking and rolling their heads, a lonely dog’s bark
that pierces the black guts of the night, their calls into the high skies
that mean, to them, perhaps passion, maybe pain;
while somewhere in the dark
the throbs and the strokes, the sounds of the motors of the early-hour boats, fishing men
aiming their restless bows over and through the waves,
while in them the Italian, the Grecian, the lonely and the sad, the
new, the ancient mariners
trod worn decks, drop mended nets
down into the depths to find pieces of their prayers
in the cool bellies of their netted fish.

Under the quiet moon I walked,
and under the sweeping arms of the black-shadowed trees I walked,
and under the stars and the limbs of the eucalyptus and pine I walked
in that early-soft morning moment of dawn
beneath a blanket of cathedral stars
in that sweet-scented moment of time
when the slightest movement of tomorrow’s winds begin to fall quietly down to earth
like soft kittens,
and in that sheltered moment of good
and greatness
and everything,
when even the stink of the earth and the sound of the water and the smell of the pines spells wonderment, I felt
my moving heart shake,
crossing over wheat-waving fields of grass,
over weed-filled meadows giving up the sounds of crickets,
and below me and below God and below the moon
and man and his sleeping world,
there, between the hills and the sea,
I looked down and saw a Monterey morning
sprinkled upon the surface of the earth like dim fireflies
in a shifting fog.

Behind me, the crickets, and in the weeds, the wind. While before me, the sea, the seals, and the sounds of the fishing boats.
Below me in repose, the town in its sound and soundless sleep, and
in a single moment of gladness,
alone in that world of mist and myth,
I found myself overcome with a feeling of grace, and I was suddenly a priest, was suddenly a monk,
was suddenly a saint,
was suddenly someone neither good nor bad. I was
everything and nothing, both whole and unwhole: a leftover piece
of some onetime great and fallen god
that had its home in the tossing grass,
that shared all of the space from here
to the darkest corner of the starlight skies.
And with my feet spreading wings over the dew-wet grass,
through the mattress of needles in the thick pine forests, the soles of my feet pounding hard upon the earth,
feeling a part of some gigantic and tremendous ancient thing, feeling part of a universe that was as close to me as the simplest stone
or as far from me as the farthest star,
I turned
and made my way home.

John Bell Smithback About John Bell Smithback

John Bell Smithback is a former teacher and newspaper columnist living in Bellingham, Washington. He has published more than 50 books defining English idioms and proverbs for an international audience, as well as The Lonely Dark, a novel about America in the age of the atomic bomb, and Silent in the Dawn, a collection of poems. In his early years he lived in the Monterey, California house where John Steinbeck once wrote and where he met friends from Steinbeck’s time.

Speak Your Mind