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Poet’s Corner: Edna Poppe Cooper

As the days lengthen to their longest, the summer heat draws us outside into the green-eyed rivers, and golden hills that scallop cloud illumed sunsets. When we look closely at the land that surrounds us in Sonoma County, we can see history humming just under the surface like good soil, waiting to be turned over and remembered.

Edna Poppe Cooper, who grew up in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was a poet whose work was published in California’s famous literary magazine, The Overland Monthly and praised by Ina Coolbrith and Jack London. However, over the last half century, her work has slipped below the surface of what we can see and remember. Cooper had to give up writing in order to support her family when her husband went off to fight in World War I, and therefore only published one collection in her lifetime, but after her death, her family collected her poems in Songs from the Valley of the Moon.

In her introduction to the collection, Charmian Kittredge London wrote, “my neighbor, Edna Poppe - as flower-like as her name that is so suggestive of California’s golden emblem; and in the aureole of hair that crowned her small, dreaming face, was a red burnish that shone in the California sunlight.”

Indeed, Cooper was inspired by the Valley she lived in and the areas that surrounded it. Cooper’s Valley of the Moon is a place where “meadows slumber ‘neath star-studded skies” and where time drifts lazily from “morning hours” to “golden noon”. It’s a place we know now, too, when we slow down enough to enjoy it. Reading her short tribute, one senses how Cooper has walked the valley and discovered every nook and cranny, and felt each “vagrant wind” on her own face.

In “The Old Bale Mill” Cooper visits a landmark that still stands today near St. Helena, the Old Bale Mill (now called Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park). The mill, which was built in 1846 and operated until the early 1900s, helps us remember how the Napa Valley was once filled with wheat instead of vineyards. Cooper’s sonnet addresses the old mill directly, asking it if it remembers the pioneers, and the “leaf-flecked, old mill-pond” that has succumbed to weeds and grasses.

Can’t you see her standing there at that abandoned mill surrounded by fragrant pine? Digging up the past and trying to remind us to look back?

“The Valley of the Moon”

by Edna Poppe Cooper

In sunset’s glimmering, the daylight dies;

Through pathless forests, night is on it’s way;

Dream meadows slumber ‘neath star-studded skies

And shadows stir before the dawn of day.

Now, vagrant winds sigh through the fields of corn,

While morning hours drift to golden noon;

I find the woodlands where my dreams were born-

In fair Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon.

“The Old Bale Mill at St. Helena”

by Edna Poppe Cooper

Historic, old mill! How you seem to dream,

As your gray walls repose by the mountain stream,

where the maple and alder and oak trees grow-

A mute, old reminder of long ago.

Do you dream of the pioneer days, old mill,

As you stand at the base of the fir-crowned hill;

The daily and hourly tasks assigned

By the men who brought you the grist to grind-

Those who have passed to the Great Beyond?

Do you dream of the leaf-flecked, old mill-pond

Where the weeds and the grasses have grown so high

In the many years that have drifted by?

Now the ivy has twined ‘round your wheel, old mill,

In the third of a century you’ve been still;

And your walls, though faithful for many a day,

Have crumbled and fallen at last to decay.

- From “Songs from the Valley of the Moon” 1926

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Sonoma County’s 2016 Poet Laureate.

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