Book Review- ‘A San Joaquin Almanac’ by Don Thompson

(Review by Daniel R. Jones)

In our January issue, I ran three poems by Don Thompson. Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  In addition to his poems in our inaugural issue, I also purchased his most recent poetry book, A San Joaquin Almanac.

When I first cracked open A San Joaquin Almanac, I expected a glorified love letter to the San Joaquin Valley in California. What I found was considerably less reductive than that, and so much better. In this book, Thompson relays the weather patterns of the soul. He plums the depths of a people and the space they inhabit. Each month possesses its own poem, and 44-pages later, I’m left with the impression that I really did spend a year in the Valley.

The first thing that grabbed my eye was Thompson’s incredibly diverse palette. His poems are a sensory overload, effortlessly contrasting the light and dark hues of the world he calls home. Thompson has no qualms about penning visceral, immersive lines, such as the following: “Coyotes, so sleek last winter,/ look bedraggled, moth-eaten, the unappetizing color/ of tobacco juice stained teeth.”

But for as coarse and carnal as some lines can be, the poems are also populated by the likes of Li Po and Dame Julian, W.H. Auden and Tiffany angels. Thompson can hook you, with lines such as “…memory is a rundown theater/ in the seediest neighborhood/ of the limbic system.” He can also have you reaching for the thesaurus, employing words such as “amanuensis” and “sacerdotal.” The net effect of these poems is a geography of words. While mulling them, I felt I could vacation in them. The world was so engrossing; I could almost step through the page and settle down in the Valley, myself, if I could just learn to stomach the unrelenting heat.

A lesser writer might struggle with such disparate pieces, where sordid characters nestle alongside five-dollar-words; where the pious and profane coexist on the page. But not Thompson. This book is one to take your time on. Purchase A San Joaquin Almanac from Main St. Rag Publishing Co. and check out Don Thompson’s website at www.don-e-thompson.com

Talking Shop: The Case for Frivolity in Art

This blog resides at the intersection of two subjects: that of spirituality and art.

If you believe in either of the two, the subject probably matters a great deal to you. What could be more important than your relationship with God? And why shouldn’t you care very deeply about the very expression of your soul? 

Of course you should care. These two subjects are taken more seriously by their–practitioners, we’ll say, than anything else.

But at the same time, both topics also demand a sense of levity that can be markedly absent from their discourse, writ large. How often have you heard a sermon that was devoid of liveliness? And how often have you read a poem by someone who clearly takes themselves too seriously? In truth, you’ve likely experienced both at some point in your life.

G.K. Chesterton, a theologian and a creative-writer, never shied away from employing a little lightheartedness. In fact, he once stated, “What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity, they are simply too tremendous.”

If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, well, he wasn’t called “the Prince of Paradox” for nothing!

In any event, he was so adamant about the above quotation that he reiterated its sentiments multiple times throughout his life, stating, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light,” and even, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

While the full import of Chesterton’s statement can be difficult to discern, this much is clear: he believed that a relationship with Christ was anything but stuffy and stifling. After all, isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?

But if the church can fall prey to a stifling seriousness, academia is certainly no better. Many self-important painters, poets, and novelists have churned out example after example of joyless art. In fact, literati as a whole tends to eschew work that they view as “low-brow” or less serious, whether it be *gasp* “genre fiction” or “light-verse” poetry.

But what’s wrong with utilizing some tropes, if it’s effective in conveying a point? (See Ursula Le Guin’s masterful works of sci-fi and fantasy, for example.) And some of the greatest writers in recent memory dabbled in light-verse poetry, including W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and–notably, Chesterton himself.

In short, I think we would all do well to take ourselves a bit less seriously at times. Perhaps my opinions on the subject can best be summed up in the following aphorism by the Samurai master Miyamoto Musashi: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

May we all strive to do so.