(small world)

The universe seems to be
Very big, and who’s to say
  it’s alone.

Somewhere out there,
  someone is just like you.

Somewhere out there,
Someone just like you
  is walking
With someone like me.

Maybe they aren’t that
  far from here.

© 2013–14 Kaweah

 

The Peace-Loving Elements

The cataract grinds away the granite
But water only wants to find a low place
And take the form of its container,
Conform to make its peace.

Earth falls too—
Crashes down on itself
Till the land is level,
At peace.

The wind blows savage over the plain,
Falls from ridge to trough and
The gradient is lost. No high, no low,
No sound but peace.

Fire comes, hungry,
  willful, wild;
Thaws frozen seas, steams
Oceans and the rains fall, turns
Air against air and the winds sing;
Heaves continents, piles mountains up,
Sends the peace-loving elements off
  to war.

© 2013-14 Kaweah

 

Suffocants 19

They breathe only what can be inhaled
from others. That is their way.

When you had no more air for them,
their memory of you was a bible.
They buried the book and mourned it
as you lay breathless, solitary,
according to their law.

They encircled their book,
making weeping sounds,
embalming it in rose water
and saline solution.

I stepped up secretly, discretely
pushed each one into the hole,
back after back, there not being faces.

The tomb was spacious
(The book was large).
The earth weighed heavily on the spade,
but it rested well upon them.

They have come to no harm, do not cry.
They lie there today,
sipping each other’s air.

© 2013–14 Kaweah

 

Meeting Minutes

A fool question, but a safe one,
he figures.

Wouldn’t want to give her
the wrong idea—or worse yet,
the right one.

“São Paulo,” she replies, as if
he were there, not lost
somewhere between the
eyes and mouth,
where it can be hard
to hear anything.

”Is that somewhere near
Ipanema?,” he wonders—aloud,
and she laughs, of course, and the heat
rushes to his face, and the colors
drain from the world,
and she smiles and the stars
draw arcs in the lunch-hour sky
‘round her hair, the breeze
blowing all the patio umbrellas
tumbling and laughing
to the sea, o mundo
    sorrindo.

© 2013–14 Kaweah

 

The Stacks

I don’t recall how it began
I was asleep at the time
maybe long ago in a boy’s dream or some
        half-remembered adventure
          wandering again
through that vast and foreign city of childhood
        that never once was the same
in so many days and dreams
        maybe this time he’d lost someone
          I don’t recall
    Hearst Avenue or some such
boulevard    walking downward
a fenced park to his side    an iron gate
concrete path    neoclassic façade    the
        pinkness of granite
    the cherrywood doors    ajar
Stepping up    cold stone by stone
slipped with the night air    through the entryway
to the dark inside    a broad desk    a bronze reading lamp
too dim to penetrate the dense air and a woman
    old white hair skin folded in ribbed shadows
        in the green lamplight seated at the desk
stood and turned not seeing me    walked out from behind
the oak battlement    turned his way cocked her head to say
follow me patron and so he did    back to the stacks
the green lamplight remained    fading at our backs
her ancient wiry frame    hung a knee-length dress
black in the green light    vanished here and there
as she passed through the shadows of
    the densely packed shelves
        the knocking of her heels
echoed off the bindings and the floor
her bunned hair was black now in the dim light
    the curve of her hips was complete
        each leg in fullness but undressed
seeming to note my hesitation she turned back
she was young she was fruitful she
    wore the old woman’s dress
but it embraced her now and her glasses had the same frames
but the glass was dark as the stacks    somehow I knew
I knew her from somewhere she stopped and turned and
she pulled a book off-shelf    handed it to him and
    she leaned against the shelving and waited
I looked through the volume all the pages were naked
he looked up to her and showed her    two of the empty sheets
she turned away to the stack and reached up
        lifting off her heels to her toes
    dangerously drew out another volume
I could hardly make out the black silhouette of her face
her hair    her dress her calves in the crescent light
her bow-like length flush against the mass of bindings
she pulled the book down and I turned timidly as
        she handed the book to him and
I handed the empty book back    only to find
        the next book was empty    so
she led me down the slot canyon handing him
volume after volume of emptiness
    sometimes the pages were fresh
white and glossy sometimes they were
yellowed and cracked with time and
    the verdant librarian she led me
though the shadow to where the stacks ended at a wall
the shelves there empty    but for a single book
I could see this clearly    in the light of a naked bulb
that shone from high on the wall    I could see that
the librarian’s dress though black was not opaque
I could see her through it in the white light as she
handed him the lone book that he could not open
because of what I saw under the linen
    some kind of writing
the script glowed dimly in the light in the black fabric
he reached for her collar and turned it out
    there was writing
in some Latin form    there was another collar
under the collar    white and it too had writing and
he turned it over and I saw the deeper layers
and I licked his fingertips and he peeled back the sheets
back as the pages of her breast opened    a white rose
the petals turned silently    the words
    incomprehensible and familiar
he dug through into her pages and I
listened to her breathing    clearly
    and deeply
with every new page my hands tingle
to the touch of every silk petal
but the fingers begin to quake and stumble
and the pages slip out of their grasp
and the dreamer slips out of the dream
eyes fixed to the ceiling
we listen to the breathing

© 2013–14 Kaweah

 

Jeffers and Fire

Here’s the presentation that I delivered (in part, having run out of time) at the 20th conference of the Robinson Jeffers Association in Carmel, California on February 16, 2014. It might interest anyone into Robinson Jeffers, the Central Coast of California, fire, Moby-Dick, Heraclitus, Zoroastrianism, etc.

Fire as God in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

Several assertions are made:

  1. Jeffers was a fire poet,
  2. Jeffers’s fire-muse was the place that he lived, and
  3. Jeffers’s god was a god of fire.

Original Sin

To the poet Robinson Jeffers, the eagle is a symbol of something like divine consciousness. Man, in contrast, is more like an inauspicious microbe. Man and eagle do have this in common: they both use fire. This is obvious in the case of man. For Jeffers, the eagle is an opportunist, seeking game and carrion in the wake of wildfires.

The key difference between eagle and man—according to Jeffers—can be seen in the poem Original Sin. [1] Man’s rise and fall are identified with one act: man’s harnessing of fire. One might make a case that the chief sin in the poem is man’s cruelty, and human cruelty is surely a sin that Jeffers decries, but there is also a side to Jeffers that laments the rise of civilization, and what better image is there for the rise of civilization than the taming of fire?

The old stories have it that when Zeus got word that Prometheus had given fire to man, Zeus had Prometheus tied down so that an eagle (or vulture) would eternally devour the rebellious Titan’s liver. This punishment might well have seemed justifiable to Jeffers. He did seem to think Prometheus a fool:

And this young man was not of the sad race of Prometheus, to waste himself in favor of the future.[2]

All this original sin is perfectly natural, of course, and we must accept it as such, terrible though it may be.

But we are what we are, and we might remember not to hate any person, for all are vicious;

Natural though it all may be, there is tragedy in the powerful knowledge and tools of man as well as in his cruelty. In Original Sin, fire is the symbol for all three.



[1] Published in the Double Axe and Other Poems, 1948.

[2] The Dead Men’s Child, published in Cawdor and Other Poems, 1928.

The Advent of Stone

a trap so baited was laid to catch you when the world began, before the granite foundation [1]

Before the granite was bedded to build the world on [2]

age-reddened granite that was the world’s cradle [3]

One of the themes that appeared in earnest when Robinson Jeffers published Tamar and Other Poems was the stone theme (hawks and eagles didn’t really appear until Cawdor, three releases and four years later). Tamar was published with shorter poems with titles like “To the Rock …” and “To the Stone-Cutters.” The next release, Roan Stallion, began with the poem “Granite and Cypress.”

Stone, for Jeffers, tended to mean granite, and even more specifically sea-granite [4], his term for the exotic granite that pushed up through the marine rock west of the San Andreas Fault. Before the Jefferses purchased those 16 lots at Carmel Point in 1919 [5], it is debatable whether stone ever meant very much to the poet.

Granite is not the dominant bedrock of Carmel-by-the-Sea or of the Central California coast in general. The coastal zone is west of the San Andreas Fault, and so its bedrock is primarily marine in origin. There are, however, exposures of granite throughout the coast of Central California. This granite is exotic to the terrain, as granite is not a marine rock. It is believed to have been sliced off of the Sierra Nevada Batholith many million years ago and moved slowly up the coast along the San Andreas Fault. Thus there is an outcrop of Sierra sea-granite at Carmel Point, and stone throughout Jeffers’s life work.



[1] Tamar (CP 1:38)
[2] Tamar (CP 1:54)
[2] Tamar (CP 1:80)
[3] Term used in The Cycle (CP 1:14) and Meditation on Saviors (CP 1:398)
[4] National Park Service, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. CA-56

Elijah’s Burnt Offerings

When our son Michael was ten years old, he’d been given a school assignment to find two poems. When I saw what Michael had found I was a little shocked. Soon after that, his teacher reported to us that Michael’s choices weren’t appropriate for 5th grade.

They were both Jeffers poems. If memory serves, one of them was Shine, Perishing Republic—let’s just say not exactly the Pledge of Allegiance. The other poem began with a woman torturing a horse. Admittedly, I was amused that our son had got into a bit of trouble because I’d left Robinson Jeffers lying around the house. Not Hustler magazine—Robinson Jeffers: environmental visionary, nature mystic, prophet, poet of California.

The poem with the woman torturing the horse, titled Apology for Bad Dreams, is reportedly based upon actual events, but that’s really beside the point. People are sometimes cruel. We know that. Why, then, is Jeffers so tenacious about telling these stories about sin and mayhem? Is it just that sensationalism sells? Sex and violence, after all, had been good to Jeffers. This is the critique of his work that this dark poem seems to answer.

It is important to keep in mind that much of what Jeffers wrote was written in the aftermath of the Great War, now known as World War I. The Great War was perhaps the watershed event of the 20th Century. It changed everything, including Robinson Jeffers. It transformed Jeffers into a radical anti-war poet, and it seems to me it brought out his demons.

There was some lag-time involved. So far removed in idyllic Carmel, war reports must have lacked immediacy. During the actual event, Jeffers appeared to have been something of a war enthusiast at times, having more than once expressed a desire to enlist. But the grim dawn of the modern age did finally arrive over Bohemia-by-the-Sea, and in the blood-red light of the new era, Carmel ceased to be a pretty place, and Jeffers stopped writing pretty rhymes.

Apology for Bad Dreams is a poem in four parts (I–IV). It can be summed up thus: beautiful places, like capricious gods, call out for tragedy; they must be appeased with cruel sacrifices, real or imagined.

The voice of the poem is of a man who lives in the cultural wasteland left by the Great War, looking out across a beautiful landscape, thinking about God.

Part I. Beauty has turned dark, evil. In all its power and profundity, it wishes us ill. You don’t feel it? Remember the War. Think about the trenches full of corpses. Remember the poison gas, the deformed faces and bodies. Let your eyes pile up the dead, brother by brother, until you have piled millions upon millions. Now, look at the beautiful landscape, in the purple light, heavy with redwood. Look—the beautiful Pacific: it resembles a stone knife-blade. See? And look: a farm, there—so miniscule against the mountainside, so insignificant, there: a woman is punishing a horse

… The ocean
Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together.
Unbridled and unbelievable beauty …
… What said the prophet? “I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.” (CP 1:208–9)

Part II. So there you have it: all this is the Lord’s doing: the beautiful, the grotesque. But this Lord is not Yahweh or Allah. This is Jeffers’s spirit of place, the coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places. The beauty comes up from the core, as does the evil. The beauty has now become grotesque:

… The dykes of red lava and black [demand] what Titan?
The hills like pointed flames
Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun,
what immolation? … (CP 1:209)

The poet sees the evil in the world; ancient, primordial evil—Biblical evil. He sees it in himself, his humanity. He sees it in God. He cannot defeat it; he must appease it. No, this is not a rational response to evil. There’s nothing objective or rational about the world that the poet sees. Reason is no comfort, no help, no use. All we know is that the God of the land craves cruelty. This deep, divine cruelty calls for a primitive response: sacrifice, burnt offerings.

Part III. The former people of this land, all killed off, were a sacrifice. They remain a sacrifice so long as they are remembered. Once forgotten, the sacrifice expires. So long as that memory survives it protects us, reminds us of the cruelty of God, and satiates His appetite for misery.

Part IV. But surely with Jeffers’s pantheistic God all action is ultimately self-inflicted. The God that deforms humanity only deforms himself. Making man self-loathing, he casts self-hate upon himself. Why? There is no making sense of it. There is no reason; only cruelty, power, and passion.

There is a belief among some Jeffers scholars that this poem is a key to Jeffers’s motivation and philosophy as a poet. Even further, it has been suggested more than once that this is his ars poetica, his treatise on poetry itself. The poem does indeed reference his own work and it does strive to justify one of his major themes, but I for one don’t think it definitively addresses Jeffers’s views of his poetry or of poetry in general. There is just too much that this poem leaves out. Refreshingly, Apology does not preach about poetry as some of Jeffers’s other poems do. Alas, I prefer it to anything that might represent an ars poetica. More to the point, I do believe that Jeffers often had the kind of tortured thoughts that this poem seems to reveal, and I find its revelations profound, intimate, and beautiful.

Reservoirs

In the desert there is much sun
   but little fire.
Look to where the sea clouds
Spray the earth, there
The sun stores its spark
In grasses, shrubs, trees,
And bakes them
   till it escapes.

© 2013 Kaweah