from Four Good Things

By James McMichael b. 1939 James McMichael
The mountain north of Pasadena has severe   
and angular back canyons where the light is always   
unexpected, out of place, too simple for the   
clutter of the granite blocks along the creeks.
The slopes have low rough shrubs, some firebreaks.   
It rains sometimes, and then the soils wash easily   
through Rubio and Eaton canyons to the small   
catch-basins and the storage tanks. The bedrocks   
tilt toward the west, and so the seepage   
drains that way. Along a wall of the Arroyo,   
it comes down in springs named Tibbets, Ivy,   
Flutterwheel. These are the only steady water,   
and the Indiana colony had hauled it out   
in tubs and barrels to their lots. They’d cleared
the greasewood from the flats and planted groves of   
orange and peach trees, built their houses in the   
California Style with battened redwood boards.   
Nearer the Arroyo, on its terraces,
they saved a few live oak. They’d have December   
picnics there and afterward would walk from   
that side, down the bluff. The floor was cool,   
and there were sycamore and alder, loose   
irregular new channels through the willows.
On the other side, and south, below the San Rafaels,   
more oak, the sun. They’d take a new way back.
      Their lots extended east to the Lake Vineyard   
Land and Water Company. And as a grudging   
compromise between that tract and theirs,
the Central School was built in the dry neat   
rows of the orchards east of where they lived.   
Excursion parties from the Middle West were taken   
mostly with the climate. At the citrus fairs,
the charts and produce showed them that it didn’t freeze.   
Storms were rare and offered the consoling interest   
of a flood in the Arroyo, loud and stupid
boulders the size of safes colliding down the wash.   
A new hotel faced south on Colorado. Like the   
Ward Block to its right across Fair Oaks,
it was substantial, frame, with dormers and   
brick chimneys. Each had its widow’s walk   
and looked as much like Boston as it needed to.   
Someone from Los Angeles brought in a telephone.   
He hooked it up in the store on the southeast corner,   
rode back downtown and called and asked for   
so-and-so, who wasn’t there. From that one   
crossing, there were fewer lots each month,   
new storefronts and more traffic, speculating   
boomers and pikers, midnight sales, bands and free   
lunches at the auctions. Owners were induced to move   
east on Colorado to more eligible locations,
but the cross-streets led through dusty tent-lined   
orchards to the chaparral. The boom came back   
toward the center and was done. What they’d been   
selling was the weather and a place to live, and   
that was what was left. As their one industry,
the Novelty Works of Mr. Wakeley went on stuffing   
scorpions and trapdoor spiders, horny toads,   
small animals and birds. The balance of trade was
not in Pasadena’s favor.
      But there were jobs. James Scoville kept men doing   
rockwork on the banks above his groves. The Arroyo   
narrowed there, and so he had them build a   
pumphouse and a dam and turn a railroad trestle   
upside down between two concrete footings.   
This was the central bridge. It crossed to open   
ranchland that would subdivide more slowly than the   
woodlots on the bluffs. Another bridge, La Loma,   
farther south, was taller, with a wider span and   
sycamores around its girders. It had replaced the   
Johnston bridge and made it easier to sell the tracts.   
The wealth of the invisible elite went into homes on   
Grand and Orange Grove, Raymond, Nithsdale Rd.,   
Arroyo Terrace, Bellefontaine, new bungalows   
that looked much less expensive than they were.
In their commissions, Charles and Henry Greene   
used common and available materials,
stones from the Arroyo, bricks, a simple flexible   
pine frame of 2 x 4s and hand-split cedar shakes,   
porches that were railed with the same rough timber
as the posts and beams and trusses and the overhanging   
rafters for the roof. Their costs were mostly labor.   
They’d show the workers where they wanted   
terraces and knolls, what trees and shrubs to save.   
A local factory expanded to keep up with them,   
and they’d make daily visits there to oversee   
the millmen and the carvers or the quality of   
lumber that had just been shipped. Their mason did   
exactly what they called for on retaining-walls,   
the color of the fill, which stone or clinker at what   
angle to the rest. Each minor thing they cared about   
earned what it had to do with matters that were   
not their business. Where the money for a house had   
come from, what the Mayor had in mind, or
Public Works, or how the street would look with lights—
affairs like these beyond the garden stayed   
accessible, a movement to and from the house   
implicit in its horizontal lines. The roof was   
long and relatively flat. Beams above the frames of   
doors and windows were much broader than the   
frames themselves and paralleled the covered   
entryways and porches. Even the stairs inside   
were less than vertical, each section of the railing   
carved from a single piece of teak and joined to   
all the other teak—the notched and interlocking   
kickplates, the splines and level boards that were   
the facing of the well. Their stairs were furniture.   
A bench along a landing had the same insistent   
finish as the inglehook, the same square   
ebony caps for screwheads as the chairs and tables.
Everything showed you how it went together.
A scarf or box-joint, metal straps, continuous   
sure banding from the hallway into any room.   
There was tile and leaded glass, but it was mostly   
wood—mahoganies and walnuts, oak, redwood or   
white cedar wainscots, doweled and pegged loose   
furniture in teak or birch or lignum-vitae, a smooth   
self-lubricating wood that didn’t crack. The grain   
inside was outside too in rafters and stiff rounded   
beam-ends that were oiled and rubbed. They looked   
penetrable to light, looked as if they could
absorb and carry it at any single time toward the   
one best place inside. Lucile’s house on Holliston   
was miles from the Arroyo. But it was imitation   
Greene & Greene, a less impressive version of their   
simplest large two-story frames. Its eaves on   
both the north and south reached almost to the   
neighbors’ lots, lots that for several blocks each way   
repeated themselves with slightly different houses.
The man she’d bought it from was still a
pharmacist at Lake and Villa. He didn’t know me   
and I never spoke to him. He had a massive
tumor on his neck and jaw, and I would be
amazed each time I saw him that he wasn’t dead.   
Until a year or so before he’d sold the house,
there’d been an organ with the pipes extending to an   
upstairs bedroom, probably the room across the hall from   
Donna’s. There would have been no floor between   
the first and second stories, our den and sewing room   
a single shaftlike chamber that the sound would fill.   
It’s just as likely that the floor had been there
all along, exactly as we knew it, with the organ   
somewhere else. But of all the rooms downstairs,   
only the den could open to the room above it.
With the ranks of pipes along the wall that
backed against the stairs, there would have been   
high windows to the south and west, and possibly,   
around three sides, a thin railed walk one got to   
from the upstairs hall. I might let myself care   
more about how well or what he played if it were   
clearer to me how the organ looked. If I know   
anything about its wood, I know it from the
oak-frame sliding doors between the den and
living room. So if the console had been quartered oak,   
the case was walnut—no tracery around the pipes,   
the same plain cuts as for the cabinets and counters   
everywhere downstairs. How many manuals there were,   
or knobs with nameplates for the pitches and the stops,   
if the bench was free or fixed, or whether the   
pedals for the naturals were strips that flared   
slightly in their alignment toward the darker sharps—
the whole clear shape of it in that one place remains as   
closed to me as how it worked, as the feeders and the   
reservoirs, the valves, the layers of coarse felt between
the double panels of the swell-box; as how the sliders   
kept the air below the upper-boards and pipes   
and let it go and let it sound the way he
wanted it to sound, the wind inside the pipe
striking against a lip and coming back, contained and   
vibrant for the time he kept it there. Its shock to the   
air outside the pipe was how it sounded, the way he   
wanted it to sound, or as it might have sounded
if the room were larger and the sounds dispersed and mixed   
less palpably, went on together with the light or   
darkness in the room. There wouldn’t have been time   
between the sounds to count them to be sure that   
nothing of the piece was missing. Nor was there time   
for me, at any moment in the sewing room, to know   
the changes that the light had worked downstairs.   
Not that I would have tried to know, or done much more   
than suffer my current fit of pouting. I’d hear Lucile   
walk past the stairs toward the kitchen in her busy   
self-important way. Maybe she’d leave. From a back   
window of the sewing room, I’d see her in her car and   
starting out the driveway. These were the least   
obstructed windows in the house. Late in the day,   
haze showed its tired agreement with the house next door,   
the shingles dull and olive like the rusted screens, the   
asphalt paper on the roof. I could see my aunt’s   
back yard on Chester. Trees as far west of us as Lake   
marked off the streets in staggered elevations—palms,   
short rows of deodars and jacarandas. At night,   
from a window in the southern wall, the top three   
letters on the tower for the academy kept coming on   
one at a time, then all together.


Richard Arkwright was a barber. He toured the   
markets and the farms and bought the hair of   
country girls and made it into wigs. When he   
hired John Kay to build a frame for spinning   
thread from the strands of cotton, manufacture was   
domestic—looms and jennies in the kitchens of the   
small freeholders and the farmers who would   
sell their cloth to merchants. Wool was the English   
staple trade, a privilege of the landed graziers.   
All gentlemen wore silk. Raw cotton was a coarse   
adherent fiber from Brazil and the Antilles.   
It had to be opened and cleaned and have its strands   
laid parallel by two large cards that worked it
back and forth between them. Drawing made the slivers   
equal in thickness by redoubling them, and roving   
made them thicker still and left them ready to be spun.   
Arkwright’s water-frame replaced the hand’s inexpert   
pulling and pushing, movements that begin and end   
and can’t repeat themselves exactly. At Cromford,   
with the money of two hosiers, he built a gas-lit
mill above the Derwent. He needed journeymen   
clockmakers who did tooth and pinion, a smith who   
forged and filed. Afraid that no one man would know   
“all that I should expect he might,” he was
“determined to let no person see the works.” He wanted   
“locks and hangings for the windows; good latches   
for the outer doors, and for the inner doors as well.”   
To make the other money come to him,
he specified as little as he could in all his
patents. And as he sold the plans, he built six   
factories in Lancashire. At Glasgow, he was made   
an honorary burgess and was taken to the   
Falls of Clyde, at New Lanark, where he would   
build another mill. He advertised for weavers,   
framework-knitters. Children who were seven could have   
constant employment. In the riot against machines,   
they burned his mill near Chorley. He was threatened:   
“I will lie in wait for you in this town Nottingham   
or wherever I most likely to find you. I will   
ashure shute you as your name is what it is.   
Dam you do you think the town must be ruled by such a   
barber as you.” Contemporaries thought he was   
a Newton or Napoleon. He was knighted and named   
High Sheriff of Derbyshire. He claimed that   
he could pay the national debt if he were   
left alone to make his money; and when he died,   
the income from his mills was more than that of most   
German principalities. He was asthmatic. An   
economist of time, he worked at English grammar as he   
traveled in a post-chaise with four horses driven   
always at top speed.
      He lost his patents at a trial in 1785.
The industry was open. In the damp valleys,   
at breaks in the long profiles of the streams,   
new spinning mills went up. They were too far
outside the towns to worry that they’d be
inspected—close enough to send their thread   
to upland workshops by the new trans-Pennine   
turnpike roads, or by the new canal that crossed the   
valley of the Calder, through the Craven drumlins   
east to the other watershed, and Leeds.
There was so much thread that barns were fitted up   
with handlooms that could weave good fustians and cambrics.   
Cotton was its own new country, and the landlords   
feared the moneyed men. Land could itself be   
capital, the business of the aristocracy.
Each landlord had his broken straggling plots,   
their furrows running lengthwise to the rounded   
headlands where the plough would turn. He knew   
which land was his, but it was open and was grazed   
collectively by several owners. Between
harvest and sowing, even his farmers’ pigs would
graze there with the sheep. Cows grazed the catchwork   
meadows on the terraces, or at the watersides.   
Enclosure was the landlords’ plan to change their   
strips of arable to larger straighter fields.
They would appropriate the wastes—the marshes and moors,   
the peat-bogs where the farmers got their fuel.   
Commons had been “a profit which a man hath in the   
land of another, as to pasture beasts thereon,   
cut wood, catch fish, hunt coneys, and the like.”   
In most of the Midland parishes, there were now   
Acts for Enclosure of the Open and Common Fields,   
new roads with wide grass verges to a ditch,   
then quickset hedgerows, ash, occasional small   
farmsteads with a croft, no lanes, the landlord’s   
manor and his park, and in the fields the
thickets for his foxes. It cost him less to
graze than till. The stiff clay soils would hold
a year of wheat, another of spring corn, lie fallow.
The land would yield him more if he could save   
the labor of his farmers and the cottagers.   
Tenure at Will was his prerogative to put them   
off the land when he was through with them.
As he engrossed more farms, they set his hedges,   
drained and marled the looser tracts and planted   
clover, turnips, and lucerne. He managed
breeds of stock and turned them out to graze the even   
turf across the hillocks. Enclosure had made   
“fat beasts, and lean poor people.” With no one skill   
peculiar to themselves, they left the villages for   
workshops in the north. The Earl of Leicester said   
“I look around and see no other house than mine.   
I am like the ogre in the tale, and have eaten up   
all my neighbors.”

James McMichael, excerpts from “Four Good Things” from The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by James L. McMichael. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

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Poet James McMichael b. 1939


Subjects Living, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Landscapes & Pastorals, Youth, Nature, Money & Economics, Coming of Age


Born in Pasadena, California, poet James McMichael earned a BA at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a PhD at Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters.
In his early work, McMichael frequently made use of long, sometimes paragraph-length, poetic lines; in more recent work, his lines and stanzas have followed a precise, variegated structure. Describing his invented form of varied stanza and line . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Landscapes & Pastorals, Youth, Nature, Money & Economics, Coming of Age


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