February 2006

Gillian Wegener: Exceptional poet, teacher, earth steward


Gillian Wegener was born in Queens, NY, and lived in Eureka, CA, Tucson, AZ San Diego, and Arcata, CA before ending up in Stanislaus County. Somewhere in there she received her BA from Humboldt State and her MAW from the University of San Francisco. This is her 15th year teaching Jr. high English in Oakdale. She has been published in numerous poetry journals, including Quercus Review, americas review, Runes, In the Grove, and English Journal. Her book, Lifting One Foot, Lifting the Other, was published by In the Grove press in 2001. Wegener is a member of the Licensed Fools. She lives in Modesto with her husband, Joe Orlando, and daughter Sophia.

Wegener writes “I don’t really feel like an activist, but I went to my first protest in 1991 to march against the Gulf War. Between then and George Bush’s 2004 election, I didn’t do much, but the election of Bush politicized me. I attended more protests, joined the League of Women Voters, and started a letter writing campaign to the Bush Whitehouse. I wrote 18 letters in 20 or so weeks, and received one generic response. Still, someone had to read the letter, right?

“In my classroom I try to emphasize that all opinions should be listened to and respected if not agreed with. I certainly realize and respect that not all my students or their families share my liberalism. We have some great discussions.

Currently we are working on a recycling project with proceeds going to UNICEF in an attempt to engender a concern for the environment and give my students a sense of the world beyond our little area. It is one of my greatest hopes that they will carry that concern for the environment and the world with them as they grow into adults.”

Her passion for poetry is beautifully expressed in the words below:

“I am sure that someone else has already said that every poem is an act of love, because it is so true. I can’t possibly be the first person to think it. Every poem, even those written about the dark sides of our world, is an act of love because it is an act of attentiveness to feeling, to image, to imagination, and to others. What greater gift can we give each other and our world than the twin gifts of attention and love?

I moved from Humboldt County to Stanislaus County in 1991, but I did not feel comfortable here for a long time. It took several years of paying attention before I began to feel like this Valley had really become my home. It was mostly inconsequential things that caught my eye, the way a red-wing blackbird would perch on the very tip of a reed, the way clouds moved across the wide valley sky, the face of a rancher framed in his own sideview mirror. These made me eventually love the valley and made me begin writing poetry in earnest. Even today, driving home from Oakdale where I’ve been teaching junior high English for the past 15 years, I saw a meadowlark alight on a fencepost, throw back his head, open his beak and let out the best birdsong I know. He really did throw back his head. How could you not love that?

Of course, we cannot only focus on our Valley. As the world becomes a tighter, frequently uneasy, community, we are all finding a myriad of other people and places that require our attention and our love. Sometimes people think poetry doesn’t have a place in the more difficult, sad, or tragic aspects of humanity, but poetry may be more important there than anywhere else. If we want to establish a sustainable and peaceful world, perhaps poetry is one way to do this. It seems to me, however, that this can still be done by focusing on the seemingly inconsequential - the everyday - because this is what really links us all together. A bird in a rice field here or in China, a rural road here or in Rwanda, a cup of water here or in Finland or in Guatemala. Attention paid, love nurtured, and a little peace left to grow, into a poem and into a poetry for all of us.



at some point the valley opened
it started from a small point, then several, an ellipsis
it opened from there like a museum of itself
self-conscious, artifacts out, a little glossy. She, visiting --
for a while it was like this, then something happened
a book fell open, an orchard of apricots unfolded
no museum here. People live in the broad wind
know the seasons of walnuts, the names of waterways
San Joaquin yes Mokeulmne yes Stanislaus yes
alkali lakes and still that treeline means water
maybe so far down that the earth above it jigsaw cracks
eucalyptus can suck the salt water from the ground
thus saving the field. Food grows where water flows amen
signs up and down the open valley, hung from old freight cars
is it easier to grow cotton or almonds? Either way
it takes 26 hours to irrigate a field that size. Sleep an hour
here or there, water on the field like a mirror for God
the valley opened from a small point and grew bigger, a tattoo
of sorts, she knew it would never leave her now
a yellow-headed blackbird and two rows of palm trees
the sky a cupped palm above the valley
she under the palm and not claustrophobic
May through December, gold hills like ric-rac
wild oats aren’t native to the valley, but took over
not in a mean way, everything just wants to survive
the eucalyptus aren’t native, neither are table grapes
the native tules have seen their clattering numbers dwindle
first ranches, now houses, earth underneath groaning with the load
if it weren’t for wild oats the hills would be grayish-green all summer
the oaks would still be there but on a gray-green canvas
at some point the valley opened and let her in for good
she wasn’t expecting this, but it seems right
she won’t say she wasn’t hoping


The lion is one-eyed and lonely,
his hide, a moth-eaten costume,
hip bones shifting tensely, reminding the keeper
of the wing bones of certain angels.

Dusk is falling over Kabul’s wintry zoo.
The lion paces his desert pen with its gray walls,
a little straw, a pan of water in one corner.
The fleas in the lion’s mane are hungry.

A green tenderness has grown between lion and keeper
similar to the tenderness between men with an ancient grudge.
The keeper never approaches on the lion’s blind side.
The lion keeps his savannah dreams to himself.

On the edge of the city, bombs are falling,
The zoo shudders. A monkey sets up an ignorant scream.
The zebras have long-since died.
The lion, with his soft teeth,
with his matted mane,
with his cracked paws,
with his soul set against the hard press of winter,
settles for the night.

In the iris of his lonely eye, a city on fire flickers.

World View in 12 Lines

the thrum of oboes is not more lovely than the clamor of hot iron

the hornworm is not more precious than the tomato

the queen’s skin flakes as predictably as the legless beggar’s

the phone, the elm, the reflector, the sandal, the same

the grace of the bowl is equal to the taut wire of the bale

the victim’s life is not more worthy than the thief’s

the fence no more important than the divided air

the colt, the poem, the maggot, the sergeant, all the same

the soaking teeth deserve no more attention than the orphaned gums

the flagrant sepia moon is no more stunning than a found penny

the yawn of the mailbox no more alluring than the yawn of the lover

the wrench, the mop, the cicada, the mirror


Summer Pantoum

Joe climbs the plum tree to see,
drops down the ripe ones
like little misty planets.
They leak red juice onto our skin.

Dropping down the ripe ones,
I catch them, put them in a box.
They leak red juice onto our skin.
An occasional bee floats by.

I catch them, put them in a box,
A box full of bees, humming songs.
An occasional bee floats by.
I feed it plum juice from my fingertip.

A box full of bees, humming songs
only bees know the words to.
I feed them plum juice from my fingertip.
The air smells like honeysuckle and roses.

Only bees know the words to
describe the way the heat thickens after noon.
The air smells of honeysuckle and roses.
Somewhere a radio plays Tito Puente.

Describe the way the heat thickens after noon:
like a warm bath, like a dream of rising bread.
Somewhere a radio plays Tito Puente.
We’d mambo if we knew how.

Like a warm bath, like a dream of rising bread,
we float through the afternoon, plum-stained.
We’d mambo if we knew how.
We have no talent for dancing.

We float through the afternoon, plum-stained.
We release the bees at sunset.
We have no talent for dancing.
The bees fly off, heavy with pollen.

We release the bees at sunset
like little misty planets.
They fly off, heavy with pollen.
Joe climbs the plum tree to see.

There’s Nothing Beautiful About Los Angeles

the curandera’s neon hand
looming out of the briny night,
the lines of her palm pulsing,
offering a reading, a remedy,
some affordable comfort
to the blank-eyed drivers
crawling past on the freeway.
It’s 11:15 on a Friday night
and they are all heading southward
toward Disneyland, San Diego,
Tijuana or some other
magic kingdom of the mind.
There’s nothing beautiful in Los Angeles,
except this hand
and the sudden way the moon
sneaks in, tipsy and orange,
balancing just so,
on the thumb’s neon tip,
before sliding off
and becoming
just another