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

 

Hotel Jericho

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The junction has a name: Jericho. Today it is considered part of the town of Adams Run (as though you know where that is).

The Notre Maison Boys Home

The Notre Maison Boys Home
Source: Rebecca Reconnu Biggs Grainger


 

Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a store with gas pumps named Caison’s Groceries, and a school annex for Coloreds. The store had a post office inside. Mom and Dad bought the old hotel in 1970, when we returned to South Carolina. I was just 5. We didn’t stay there long. Sometime after we left South Carolina again in 1972, it all burned down in a couple of fires (I have an alibi: I was out of state).

The hotel had three stories, if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and and old four-legged bathtub. It had exterior wooden stairways which functioned as fire escapes. It had ten bedrooms and four bathrooms. When we moved in, one of the bedrooms had a sagging floor. The bathrooms were equipped with showers, but none of them functioned. We all had to bathe in the attic, which doubled as my sister Duska’s bedroom.

Around 1964, it had been converted to a boys’ home by David A Reconnu and his wife Nima. They operated the boys’ home for about four years.

NotreMaisonBoysHome1

Source: Thomas C. Hucks


 
The adjacent store (peeking through on the right edge of the above photo) came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag about snagging a free soda to one’s mom.

When Mom and Dad first saw the hotel in mid-1970, they saw a place that might serve well as a home for seven and a dog, a chiropractic office, and a Bahá’í center. I must confess that if I were driving down the Savannah Highway and I saw a FOR SALE sign posted in front of that old hotel, I would have been sorely tempted to stop for a look-see.

Among my favorite memories of Jericho was the the trash pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain. I can still smell the aroma of molten plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal. I also remember when a crab, recently taken from the ocean, got a hold of a cat’s tail. I’m not sure how that happened, but now I suspect it probably got some help.

Across the highway, there was a hotel of a different kind that was even more noteworthy: a maze of tunnels that some neighbor kids had dug out. My memory of that system of tunnels has endured in my mind as one of the great achievements of kidkind.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Mom and Dad weren’t able to sell it for a couple years after we left Jericho.

Jericho School Annex for Coloreds
Jericho School Annex for Coloreds.

© 2006, 2013 Dan J. Jensen

I have a secret don’t tell

The boy doesn’t like girls,
but then he’s only eleven.
He’s very punctual about school attendance,
always leaving by twenty after,
never a minute later.
That’s far more than he needs to get to school on time.
I guess he gets in a basketball game before class
(you know, boys).
Sometimes he forgets his homework or
his house key, but
he’s always gone by twenty after.

This morning I took the dog out for a walk
just past twenty after.
We snuck up on the boy—
just for kicks,
and the dog caught him with his snack bag open
(the dog likes jerky too), and I noticed
across the street, down on the corner
a girl was standing—just standing, waiting for someone?
After I finally pulled the dog off the scent,
The girl yelled to the boy, “Is that your dog?”
And that’s when it finally hit me.
Sneaky devil.

© 2013 Kaweah

 

holy water

Above the porcelain font
and the laughing gargoyle,
the stone words warn,
Do not feed the fool.

So thoughtless to let his heart
    off its leash
for your modest gift,
to let his eyes be detained
by the gentle glint
of your mercy.

© 2013 Kaweah

 

Isle of the Griffins

Somewhere on the edge of the ancient world, not far from Paradise, there is a rugged island of gold, pearls, giants, griffins, and Amazons. From time to time, the island has taken on a new name. Early in the 16th Century, a Spanish novelist by the name Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo christened her California:

In this island called California, with the great ruggedness of the country and the innumerable wild beasts that lived in it, there were many griffins, such as were found in no other part of the world.

The griffin was not your typical composite monster of myth. Its great wings represented something more than monstrous. The griffin was the guardian of the Persian Empire and her sacred fires. In spite of the great danger these mythical beasts presented to men, legends reported that they had sometimes flown men over otherwise impassible barriers, such as when griffins transported Alexander the Great across the Sandy Sea and into the afterworld. It may have been thought by some that only the great wings of a griffin could carry a man up to Heaven, and it cannot be doubted that wings have represented immortality and transcendence in many cultures. This symbolism is surely not lost to the handful of Zoroastrians and Tibetans who still practice “sky burial,” feeding their dead to “griffon vultures” to this very day. Perhaps it is more than a symbol. Perhaps it’s an archetype.

Island of California, by Johannes Vingboons

Island of California, by Johannes Vingboons

Because a country named “Califerne” is mentioned in the 11th Century heroic poem the Song of Roland, there is good reason to believe the name California predated Montalvo by centuries. It has even been suggested that the etymology of the name reaches back to a sacred fire in the Zagros Mountains of ancient Persia. Regardless of when and where the name originated, the myth of this isle of pearls, gold, liberated women, mountains, and monsters is more than an old yarn; it was once a recurrent dream.

Señor Montalvo imagined this island called California to be on the right hand of the Indies, that is, just east of the Indies. This would have made good sense to his contemporaries. The Indies were then thought to be just west of America, so it should come as no surprise that when a rugged, pearl-rich and griffin-inhabited island was discovered just west of America, it occurred to a Spaniard to name the island after the myth.

 

THE ISLAND OF MYTH had been known for her pearls and gold. Though California was named long before the Gold Rush, yet rumors of gold were heard from the time she was “discovered,” and her pearls were more than a rumor. Baja California has been famous for her world-class pearl beds since Cortés first laid claim to her.

And make no mistake: there were indeed griffins in California. A few even remain to this day. In the 16th and 17th centuries, reports of griffins in the New World were not uncommon:

“During Cortés’ campaign in Mexico, claims were made of griffins in high sierras four or five leagues from the village of Tehuacan. The population of the neighboring valley was said to flee in terror of being eaten by these creatures.”

—Dora Beale Polk, citing Toribio de Benevente Motolinia

Such reports, though they appear to be exaggerated, also appear to have had some basis in fact, for giant raptors called condors are known to range from the Sierra Nevada to the Andes. The griffins of California bear the common name California condor. They once were known by the scientific name California pseudo-griffin, before less poetic minds thought better of it. Regardless of what we prefer to name this noble scavenger, we can see that the condor played a part in the naming of California. In like manner, this island griffin remains an emblem of California’s mythical reality that no bear could ever match.

 

LIKE MONTALVO’S CALIFORNIA, the land that the Spaniard named California was for centuries thought to be an island. Baja California was such a long, narrow peninsula that it was generally believed that her shores never met the American continent. California’s perimeter was explored by the Spanish and even the British, but her deserts, capricious seas, and rugged coasts proved too unfriendly to reveal more than rumor. She was still thought by some to be an island as late as 1766, well over two centuries after Cortés discovered her. Even today, Baja California remains a de facto island, her inhabitants speaking of the country across the Sea of California as “the mainland.” And though geographers of today insist that California is no island, yet this doctrine of theirs does not go uncontested. Ecologists and anthropologists are in general agreement that California, speaking in their own terms, is in fact an island.

An island needs only a narrow halo of water to qualify as “island,” but California has the entirety of the Pacific Ocean at her left, and though much of California is not bounded by a sea of water on her right, yet she is flanked by a vast, mountainous absence of water that renders her all the more insular. These are but two barriers among many.

Beginning at the southern tip of California at Cabo San Lucas, the Spaniards were confronted by the Sea of California on the right hand and the Pacific—then known as the South Sea—on the left. The Sea of California was known for her hurricanes and chubasco squalls. Her coastlines were almost entirely desert and inhabited by peoples with an appetite for warfare, as well as tall-tales of gold, giants, and Amazons. The “Indians” of Baja California were thought by the Spaniards to be cannibals. Given the record of their Aztec, Xixime, and Acaxée neighbors, they may very well have been. In any case, the Spaniards had cause for suspicion—and mythologizing.

At the head of the long gulf between California and Mexico, the Spaniards encountered the vast shallows and mudflats of the Colorado Delta, and all about the red delta, the torrid Sonora Desert. None of this was terribly inviting.

To the west, the California Current pressed down from the north, discouraging northbound exploration. For some time, the Spaniards encountered California’s west coast only when riding currents from Asia, but in such cases they were sea-worn, malnourished, and homesick for Mexico.

The coast itself was lined with mountains, cliffs, and a choice blend of summer fog and winter storms. Though California offered welcoming harbors, not all of them were easy to find. When San Francisco Bay was finally discovered by the Spaniards in 1769, it was not discovered by sea, but by a disoriented overland party that had no idea what they had stumbled upon.

California was not approached from the east until much later. This was due in no small part to the Sierra Nevada and the broad desert that marks the shadow of that range. Ripples in the earth related in their genesis to the Sierra formed a dizzying maze of desert basins and ranges. One such ripple would come to be named “Death Valley.”

To the north, the Sierra transformed into the volcanic chain that came to be named the Cascade Range. This chain of volcanoes was not so impassible as the Sierra, nor was its broken shadow so long and deep, but the Cascades represented a daunting barrier just the same, particularly because crossing the Cascades into California from the east required a circuitous journey. Between the Cascades and the ocean, the Klamath Mountains—conceived in the same womb as the Sierra—presented a jumbled mass of high divides, saturated with marine rain and snow.

With so many obstructions in one’s repertoire, it should be quite easy to sustain an insular reputation.

Continue …

Clouds at Ignition

Beneath the dim glow
Between night and day,
Before the storm,
The lioness retreated
To the creekside wood.

He turned from the reptilian
Alto-stratus in the high, blue east
To the storm-laden west
And blinked.

A flash of coral pink
On rock, tree, and meadow
That somehow
Missed the sky?

He whipped around in surprise;

High clouds catching fire
Over the east, somehow
Casting deeper shadow on the land,
And towering over the west:

A narrow arc of refracted daylight
Glowing in the final breath of darkness
Like an answer.

© 2013 Kaweah