the museum of americana

a literary review

Gary Thomas’s All the Connecting Lights — Review by Linda Scheller

All the Connecting Lights, a poetry collection by Gary Thomas, brought to my mind David Mas Masumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach. Both writers grew up in farming families in California’s Central Valley where they learned firsthand the importance of interconnectedness while developing the patient diligence required of those who work in agriculture. The dust and shadows of peach orchards taught them both to pay close attention to the world and mark the signs of its changing seasons.

Well-crafted poetry of place based on decades of lived experience can instantaneously transport the reader into the speaker’s world. This Gary Thomas does handily with keen observations conveyed with vivid precision. Gracefully cycling lines and the force of quirky diction convey wonder in the first stanza of the pantoum “Gospel According to March 28.”

         Wind is how the valley announces spring—

         a fulmination of blossoms, bright alms

         left at our doorsteps, compassion carried

         by the whim and purpose we call blessings.

The lessons of love’s blessings are relayed in the detailed and touching reminiscence “Oak Bow Education” which expresses the poet’s gratitude to his father, one of two people to whom the book is dedicated, for gifts material and intangible.

         …knowing that each was being fashioned for me alone,

         that he would fletch and notch the nether ends

         with jay feathers and great care,

         sharpen and varnish the business ends,

         as he called them, each finished shaft

        mine to aim and find the center of hay bales

         or lose in the weeds beyond.

 

         From this I learned, of course,

         craft and responsibility, which were

         the real points…

But All the Connecting Lights doesn’t topple over into the slough of sentimentality. The slimy cement steps of irrigation canals and scorching summer heat aren’t the only elements that counterbalance homage and loveliness. Schoolyard cruelty, racist jokes, and a homeless couple emerging from a tent beside the tracks are among the bruising images that thrust themselves like fists from the lines of poems such as “Two Blinks and You’ve Passed It,” an acerbic rejection of the “basis and blight of my childhood” that recalls the “sullen scowls” and “geysers of vapid patriotism” endemic to many small towns. Alas, that provincialism can be found in the Central Valley. I should know, having lived here more than forty years. And yet, we stay. As Thomas writes in “All the Thinking Is About,” although we may carry shame and damage, we are still, he asserts, “willing, and without regret.”

Despite these limitations, Thomas makes it manifestly clear that life is ours to treasure. All the Connecting Lights largely consists of tender reflections, the musings of a poet of a certain age cognizant of time’s winged chariot gaining ground. Art is acknowledged as contemplation’s touchstone and as welcome reprieve from the chores of life. Of course, other poets and poetry are given their due, and theater is celebrated as life’s mirror in “Stage Left” and “The MacBeths at Home.” Music abounds in the branches of trees and also behind the wheel. The poem “Shufflebrain” is an homage to music, ranging from Glen Gould to Gram Parsons, Tom Waits and Iris DeMent to Talking Heads. In it, Thomas writes:

            I find myself melding into the landscape of intention and risk, 

            like a deck of blue Bicycle cards ruffling out its singular wings

            in search of just the right Schwinn spokes to perch upon and sing…

As is true in much of rural America, All the Connecting Lights views life through the lens of faith. In this collection, religious faith elevates observations and catalyzes questions. Quotations from the Bible clarify priorities and emphasize the need for compassion. In keeping with this celestial focus, a profusion of birds populates the poems with their specific calls and archetypal implications. “Ardea” examines and praises the common egret, “plainly white, merely graceful.” In “Trusting the Songbird Lights,” the birds’ “songs of desire and need” remind the speaker of his Valley childhood sixty years ago and conclude:

            a warbler lights on my patio feeder with an urgency 

            to let the wide world know why he has his name.  

            By now I know his light is within his wings, 

            his unknowable throat, that all his fellows share 

            this radiance, this winged future tense I trust. 

All the Connecting Lights is peopled with vividly portrayed characters such as Rondo Hatton in “That Guy” with a self-described “brow big as the back of a haunted barn.” The sweetness of new marriage is tenderly rendered in “Bride of the Butcher” and recalled in “Mr. Erwin, Room 204” in which the speaker addresses his wife of 49 years from his hospital bed:

            where I look at scalded bushes shaped into green boxes

            next to the parking lot, and think of boysenberries

            bulging, seedy, staining my fingers and lips and yours,

            when we were the only pickers we could afford,

            when we still could make a living on twenty acres,

            and we were in love, we were,

            up to our noses

            in purple seedy love,

            and we did not know we were

            going to be here today.

More than anything else, this poetry collection reminds me of life’s blessings, so easily overlooked and at some unknown point no longer ours to savor. The poems of Gary Thomas demonstrate how we might derive wisdom and gratitude from our daily lives, whether driving somewhere in our car or standing in the middle of an orchard. “Life as Peaches” proclaims:

            the heat in the dust and fuzz

            will ooze wet fine vibrant lushness

            like a mirage in your hand

            that will linger sticky tacky enough to hold gold

Small towns surrounded by farm country harbor enduring love and offer weathered lessons in forbearance. Too often we drive past these little communities without considering how such rural microcosms throb with universal truth. In All the Connecting Lights, Gary Thomas provides his readers ample opportunity to be amazed, amused, and grateful for life and its myriad wonders.

 

All the Connecting Lights is scheduled for release July 22, 2022, from Finishing Line Press.

 

~~~

Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light (FutureCycle Press, 2017), a collection of persona poetry focused on the lives of 36 historic women. Her new book of poetry, Wind and Children, will be published by Main Street Rag Press in June 2022. Ms. Scheller’s writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Inflectionist Review, Entropy, Notre Dame Review, Arkana, The American Journal of Poetry, Terrain, Connecticut River Review, Poem, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Poetry East, and West Trade Review. Her website is lindascheller.com.

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