The Summit Redwood, by Robinson Jeffers

There is an outlaw thread in Igneous Range, so one of the Robinson Jeffers poems that it reminds me of is the Summit Redwood:

First published in 1928
Reading by Kaweah

A companion lyric to Cawdor and a splendid fire-poem in its own right, The Summit Redwood has never been selected for any anthology, possibly because it appears to put “people of color” in a bad light, or perhaps because its style appears to be inconsistent. I happen to see it as a marvelous portrait of kindred defiants: a red tree and a red man.
Redwoods don’t often grow on summits, particularly on the coast, but often enough for the purposes of this poem. They are shaken by lightning commonly enough.

But this old tower of life on the hilltop has taken it more than twice a century, this knows in every / Cell the salty and the burning taste, the shudder and the voice. // The fire from heaven; it has felt the earth’s too …

The lyric begins with a powerful depiction of a redwood tree’s battle for survival against the fires of earth and heaven, but then the imagery takes a sharp turn into the military and religious, and the wording turns toward the vulgar, comparing the redwood to a “helmet spike” and a “finger in heaven,” closing out its first part with the symbolic observation that the solitary tree’s “boughs make their own rain.”

This redwood is no plaything of bucolic sentimentality: rather, it is a warrior and a god. Perhaps this is not what most Jeffers readers are generally after in nature imagery. I can’t speak for the majority.

Perhaps the second part is what really gets the poem in trouble with readers. Suddenly a cattle rustler named Escobar, likely an Indian whether Mexican or Californian, is introduced as the protagonist of the second part of the poem:

Old Escobar … Would drive the cow up here to a starlight death and hoist the carcass into the tree’s hollow, …

We should take care not to assume that this poem sees Escobar as a “thievin’ Indian” of yore, for Escobar could just as likely be a heroic rebel, fighting defiantly with cynical desperation against pale-face hegemony. This was a familiar dichotomy of the Old West: “one man’s cattle thief is another man’s freedom fighter.”

If we look at the closing lines of the poem, Escobar appears to see his theft, upon concealing the carcass in the bole of this summit redwood, like a brilliant but secret star, hidden in the vastness of the sky. There is no guilt. To Escobar, this theft is a thing of triumphant beauty.
Is Jeffers saying that Escober is wrong to hide a carcass in a redwood trunk? I don’t see the poem implying that there’s anything wrong with it. Perhaps there is some mockery of human ambition and hubris here. Escobar’s triumph is a tiny thing in the grand scale of nature, yet Jeffers depicts just how magnificent and grand Escobar feels.

I don’t think this is a poem about right and wrong. It seems to me that it’s more about how magnificent a tiny being can feel. His triumph is not to be mocked, though. It is indeed microcosmic, but it remains grand. Jeffers makes us sure that this is so. He makes us feel it:

… he could smile for pleasure, to think of his meat hanging secure / Exalted over the earth and the ocean, a theft like a star, secret against the supreme sky.

from Robinson Jeffers: Fire from Stone
© 2016–2017 Kaweah