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The Calistoga of Sarafornia
A Wedding Poem
24 June 2017

Salmon Brothers

Ryan and Cary prepare to cook salmon for the wedding party.

In A Place First Missed

Here in the Oakland Hills, among succulents, eucalyptus lawn terraces, a ridgeline swimming pool, and spread out across various garden decks, the wedding party assembles for a homemade celebration for Ryan and Katherine. Ryan's mom, an outstanding cook, is chopping fruit, spreading blueberries, sqizzling last-minute lemon, and her son and his brother Cary are clowning in the kitchen with a huge filet of salmon. They're both in shorts and easy shirts; mom is wearing a furry black flapper dress with silver open sandals. She looks like some kind of bear.

I'm here to help out and to write a poem for the wedding couple, camera swinging at my hip, as I settle the very-delicate white chocolate wedding cake into the fridge for later. I picked it up on the way the party, the baker warning me to "put the A/C on in the car if you're headed into the East Bay Hills." My plan is to interview the wedding couple and key family members throughout the day, then take my notes up to the family office overlooking the patio and write a tribute poem for Ryan and Katherine's wedding party.

The bride is wearing a patterned dress, and bright sandals, standing in with a group of her friends in the living room. Someone circulates around to the bride and her friends, placing floral bouquet headbands on their heads. They're not really bridesmaids, and this isn't a formal ceremony with an officiant and vows: it's a party for friends and family, with the groom, his brother and mom doing most of the cooking. The tone of the afternoon is relaxed, easy-going, informal, in-the-moment. Somehow I end up with a floral bouquet around my hat.

The groom's father, in shorts and loose shirt, is easing around with friends, and later in the day, I hear him get into a long conversation with someone about Tesla. Several buckets of ice brimming with various bubblies, wine, and sparking waters line the walkway up to the BBQ grill, where Cary takes a large aluminum pan with Alaskan Salmon filet, and places it on the grill. Freckled with herbs, it glistens with lemon juice, olive oil. The gas BBQ grill begins to smoke approvingly.

I get started with my interviews as I am standing at the counter, cutting baguettes, slicing them at wide angles, the way they do in fancy restaurants. The groom's grandfather steps over and notices the floral bouquet on my head, but doesn't comment. "If Ryan were some kind of animal," I ask him, "what would he be?" He says "tiger." I'm not taking notes with my pen and notebook, so he is relaxed. Not a formal interview here. "What does tiger like to do?" I ask. Grandfather beams, "He's looking for his mate." Seems natural, as this is a wedding party. I ask him, "What would the tigers do together?" He replies that they would be making baby tigers—understandable—but I'm thinking that a tribute poem for the wedding couple in heat might be a bit much for an opening line. We settle on the idea that they would be protectors of the Tiger family. I'm thinking William Blake.

I spot the bride chatting in the living room her friends, so edging over, I wait for a pause in the conversation. I have her wedding gift in hand: a recycled yogurt cup with clippings of Italian parsley, thyme, and oregano from my garden. "Katherine," I say, "Here's your wedding gift." She is gracious at this odd-ball gift coming from someone with a wedding bouquet on his hat, and smiles politely. I tell her that "When you marry into the Martin family, you marry into time," handing her the cup with a wink. "Don't take anything from the mouths of poets literally," I add. Her friends aren't quite sure what to make of me either, but we're all in fun. I interview her later in the day.

By this time the steaming salmon arrives on the dining table, where there are assorted crackers, cut breads, a fruit salad, cheeses, grilled zucchini (I miss my chance at those), roasted nuts, and a very tall lighted candelabra, shimmering, the way the afternoon sun shimmers across the East Bay Hills. Folks begin grabbing plates, and serving themselves, while trying to balance politeness with grilled salmon in one hand, and conversation with fruit salad in the other. It's lunch. One-ish. The party feast begins. Soft goat cheeses and camembert on the platter glow with the color of the cheeks of grandparents.

Somewhere between bites of salmon and sips of mineral water (I need to stay sober), I catch up with the groom's mom. I ask her about her son's accomplishments. Since she is the master chef of the house, and has given her culinary passion to her son, she recalls the source of her own passion for cooking. "How proud they'd be of you," she says, "Auntie, Nana, Ocoh, for your peanut satay." I ask about the bride, "What would Katherine be were she a bird?" She says, "A red cardinal, breeding salmon in Bodega Bay." Tiger children. Salmon breeding. I can't wait to meet the offspring.

I'm downstairs now on some errand by the front door, car keys in hand, when I notice an adorable young lad with a blonde sprig on his forehead. "Who are you?" I ask. I find that I am speaking with Tristan, 8 years old, second cousin to the bride. One of my favorite writing exercises with children is personification. Notebook in hand, I ask him, "If Katie were a color, what color would she be?" He doesn't have a clue what I'm asking. I coax him a little. "Think of your favorite color," I say. He lets me know that he likes Silver. "Let's imagine that Katie is Silver. What would she do?" He's stumped. Nobody asks such silly questions. "Well, what have you been doing in these last few weeks?" The narrative floodgate flies open, and I learn that he's been out camping with Katie and Ryan in Big Bear Forest—only they couldn't—because a big tree got in the way, and so they ended up camping in Mariposa. They find themselves at a nearby lake, "Too cold to swim," he says, so they make sand sculptures of pyramids and castles. The random hummingbird appears. The big beauty blue jay comes by, loving Yellow, the groom. I allow his narrative to unfold, staying out of the way. The pen moves. The poem writes itself.

I'm upstairs now, with a plate of quinoa, fruit salad, another mineral water, sitting at a bright tablecloth, interviewing Cary. He is a print artist, mostly, branching out into other disciplines now, home from art school in Brooklyn; he loves the ocean and all its metaphors for art. My questions have been focused on personifications of animals or colors, so I ask Cary about color. "Were Ryan a color, what color would he be?" Cary tells me that his brother is "deep cobalt blue, blueberry blue, Pacific Ocean blue." The rhythms and repetitions are magic. He says that his brother loves the "complexity of love, of what's done right, as the right notes are hit, an eye for artistry, chimichurri, grilled filet." I have to add the words "salt and pepper" here to trim the rhythms of his language back to one- and two-syllable words. Cary compares his brother with the Pacific Ocean. "On the surface, you may be closed," he says, "but like the ocean, once I get to know you, you are my playground." I notice them hugging later in the afternoon. A new moon begins piping its silver flute over the Oakland Hills.

With caution, I approach Katherine. We sit down at a brightly-colored dining table, and I ask her to imagine that Ryan is some kind of animal. He was born in the year of the Ox. It fits perfectly. They are both post-grads, having worked hard for years at UC Davis. He's won a fellowship to study and teach in Mainz this fall, and they are headed there soon. Vegetative metaphor abounds. She says that he is "pulling plows, reading furrows into verses, planting rows of new knowledge, new shoots, green growth."

After speaking with her, I interview Katie's mom, ("a pair of lambs, or goats, or lions"), then Ryan's dad ("two jet planes," where in Mainz, they "find an old stone with moss writing that says 'your future starts with me'"), and after speaking with the parents, I sit down with the groom.

Ryan tells me that his bride is "Orange." This opens up wonderful ambiguities, as she is both the fruit and the color. To me his description of her is the most poetic of all the interviews. He tells me that "I found you in a place that I first missed." My pen can't keep up. "Before we met, you were less aromatic, like a lemon maybe, or zucchini," he says. He tells me that soon they will be off to Calistoga, to "dip into mineral baths," where they will "dissolve together, become even more fragrant than I would ever think."

In a recent piece in The New Yorker, (July 6 & 13, 2015), Adam Gopnik reviews writings on love, love songs, and the love poems that stay with us. He says that love poems and love songs honor a sense of singularity. "What we feel for Daisy or Darren may be what everyone feels for his or her own Daisy or Darren. But what we feel about what we feel for Daisy is all our own."

Perhaps Ryan's comment that he found Katie in a place that he first missed fits this notion of singularity. And so when speaking of his feelings for Katie, Ryan creates a singular statement on love. Something all his own.

I move back up to the BBQ smoking with the second side of salmon, to interview Patrick, Katie's father. From him, I learn that the great giant had a lumber yard called Falcon Lumber. Katie is a "Soaring bird," Patrick says. "You are a falcon across the ocean that you love. Silent for so long, now that you have found your voice, your strength shows." Patrick has studied the arts and literature. We get into a conversation about the "Concert for George." Buddhism. Photography. I've got to get the poem typed.

Before I get up assemble all these interviews into a poem, Patrick tells me about the naming of the town of Calistoga. He recalls the story of Sam Brannan, who, in 1862, opened a resort in Napa Valley, with hopes of developing it as a destination for San Francisco's nouveaux riche to dissolve in mineral baths and natural springs. He opened his resort with a 3-day party for 3,000 guests. Brannon began bragging about his vision for his resort. He was attempting a toast to the Saratoga of California. But the whiskey slipped his tongue. It came out as "The Calistoga of Sarafornia." This story fits nicely as the title of the wedding poem, because Katie and Ryan are planning on dissolving together sometime soon in the mineral baths of Calistoga.

A poem written in honor of the wedding couple is called an epithalamium. Works of art that consist of various bits and pieces juxtaposed together are called a collage. I think this poem is an epithalami-ollage. Seven syllables for love. What makes it special for me to write, and special for the contributors, is that each family member hears his words juxtaposed with the words of other family members. After typing the poem (it's dinnertime by now), and several brisket servings later (work done, I get a glass of wine), I ease in beside the photographer, who assembles everyone on the deck for a group photo. When he finishes, I step in beside him and read this poem.

Poem Reading

Reading the poem for the wedding couple (hugging).

Calistoga of Sarafornia

You are tiger, tiger bright, happiest with your dwelling mate.
The two of you keeping the family tiger safe beneath
a golden-shaded leaf. For your accomplishments,
how proud they would be of you; from them you learned
to cook peanut satay, Auntie, Nana, Ocoh.
A red cardinal Katherine, salmon breeding in Bodega Bay,
how you love baking cherry-chocolate cupcakes.
Silver, you are Katie. Camping at Big Bear,
we tried to go, but it was closed because
of that big dumb tree down, so we head for
Mariposa, where we set up tent for Tiger,
Tiger at the lake. Beach too short, too cold to swim,
we make sand sculpture pyramids, castles,
that random humming bird passes by,
that big beauty blue jay loving Yellow.
Deep cobalt blue, blueberry blue, cold
Pacific Ocean blue, Ryan your love of family
opens us always, hitting the right notes,
chimichurri, grilled filet, salt and pepper.
You may be closed on the surface, but like the ocean,
once we get to know you, you become our playground.
Hard-working Ox, you keep on task until it's finished,
solitary, pulling plows, reading furrows into verses,
into prose reading pages, pages planting rows on rows
of new growths of knowledge.
Two spotted lambs, or two goats, or two lions
nearing chapters new, wishing you fragrant pink.
When you were born, a fragrant pine tree came to life.
Two jet planes, departing soon to Mainz, perhaps to see an
old stone facade with moss writing that says
"your future starts with me."
Your fragrant Orange, you found Katherine
in a place that you first missed, before meeting,
she was less aromatic, like a lemon maybe, or zucchini.
With Orange, you travel soon to Calistoga,
dissolve in steamy waters, become more fragrant
than you could ever think.
Soaring bird, Katie, you are Falcon
across the ocean that you love.
Searching for meaning, you've been silent for so long.
Now that you have found your voice,
your strength shows.
Now that you have found your mate,
your bond is fierce and deeply loving.
The scent of you draws me near.

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