Vulture, by Robinson Jeffers

In Igneous Range, the vulture is the firebird, a symbol of ancient Iran, and a symbol of transcendence.

To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes …

Published posthumously in 1963.
Jeffers Literary Properties
Stanford University Press
Reading © 2017 Kaweah

For more discussion on this and other Jeffers poems, see Robinson Jeffers: Fire from Stone.

Blind Guide: Father Sutcliffe

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

Father Harry Sutcliffe

Father Harry Sutcliffe

Harry J. Sutcliffe was born in Brooklyn, New York on 10 August 1925. He was delivered premature and lost his sight soon thereafter to an incubator mishap.

The “age of radio” was a special time to be a blind kid. Amateur radio was also a fascination of many blind hobbyists, one of whom was young Harry Sutcliffe. Anthony Mannino describes Sutcliffe’s career as a “ham” operator in his April 1963 Blind American article:

At the age of thirteen the young student became interested in amateur radio, and by the time he was sixteen was a confirmed “ham” operator. He did a great deal of reading of technical material on the subject and studied under the expert teaching of Bob Gunderson, well-known teacher of the blind. During World War II there were fifteen or twenty amateur radio operators at the school, who worked for the Radio Intelligence Division of the Federal Communications Commission, engaged in recording propaganda broadcasts. Young Sutcliffe also worked for the War Emergencies Radio Services of the Office of Civilian Defense of New York, covering telephone failures resulting from attack or other emergencies. For his participation in this important work he was awarded a citation by the late Fiorello LaGuardia, then Mayor of New York City.[1]

Continue reading

Inscription on Helicon

I have seen her now: seasoned with eternity,
simmers in her sky-cold sylvan pool, hard and white
as the waning moon and quartzite banks, the last softening
membrane of youth seared away in the slow forge of forever;
breast peppered with translucent constellations
when the sun breaks through the leaves.

No fleshy delicacy—even of the slightest young brides,
but the taut, radiant hide of an ageless queen,
Immortal virgin, so say they, but naught of docile innocence;
her purity: homicidal violence.

She it is who haunts the dread hinterland,
    forbidden interior, wildland of man;
        No love for the society of Olympus,
and no Earth Mother, more terrible
    than any Aphrodite.

I have etched here these scars on this stone, scraped
    as I hide, catching my breath, wrapping my wounds,
        year over year, binding my bones,
        to report that I have run this long,
    even to the sacred springs on Helicon.
Not pious nor merciful, she makes sport of me still.
    The hounds come.
        Acteon

© 2015–16 Kaweah

The Voice of God

Though Dad’s mother had been excommunicated, he had been raised Catholic in some marginal sense. He was Catholic enough to be classified as such in his school records, and Catholic enough to be told by a priest that he was going to Hell. Once out on his own, he took a sharp turn away from religion to become something of a “freethinker,” but that turned out to be only a transition.

Dad first encountered the Bahá’í Faith during the time he lived in New Rochelle. He was not approached by a Bahá’í as one would expect, but by a curious non-Bahá’í friend, a fellow chiropractor named Gene Marcus. Gene was a faithful friend. Whenever Dad needed help as a blind man starting a new business, he could count on help from Gene, even if he didn’t particularly want help. One time, Gene bought Dad two suits out of the blue.

It happened one day that Gene got curious about a Persian religion called the Bahá’í Faith, so he invited Dad to join him in attending a public Bahá’í function, probably a “fireside.” Now it doesn’t appear that Gene ever became a Bahá’í (though his brother Leslie did), but Dad became interested, and attended several firesides. [1] A particularly effective speaker presented at one of these functions, and Dad asked for reading materials.

They first suggested that he read “Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era,” an entry-level introduction to “the Faith,” which contained at least one passage that would likely appeal to a chiropractor:

He who is filled with love of Bahá, and forgets all things, the Holy Spirit will be heard from his lips and the spirit of life will fill his heart. … Words will issue from his lips in strands of pearls, and all sickness and disease will be healed by the laying on of the hands.

Baha’u’lláh and the New Era, p. 112

There are other references to natural healing throughout the Bahá’í scriptures. The scriptures, for instance, discourage the use of medicine “when health is good”:

Refrain from the use of drugs . . . Abstain from drugs when health is good, but administer them when necessary.

Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, 1980 ed., p. 106

The Bahá’í scriptures predict that in the future healing will be performed through nutrition:

The science of medicine is still in a condition of infancy; it has not reached maturity. But when it has reached this point, cures will be performed by things which are not repulsive to the smell and taste of man — that is to say, by aliments, fruits and vegetables which are agreeable to the taste and have an agreeable smell.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 256

The majority of the diseases which overtake man also overtake the animal, but the animal is not cured by drugs. In the mountains, as in the wilderness, the animal’s physician is the power of taste and smell. The sick animal smells the plants that grow in the wilderness; he eats those that are sweet and fragrant to his smell and taste, and is cured.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 257

This must have piqued Dad’s interest, but he wanted to go straight to the source—the scripture, so he asked that someone read “the Ketáb-e-íqán” to him. He was instantly convinced. “No man could write this,” he declared. He was sure the book was the “Word of God.”

Dad became a Bahá’í during the time the Bahá’í community was under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi, AKA “the Guardian,” the last of the Bahá’í patriarchal bloodline. Shoghi, unlike his predecessors, had a western education—an Oxford education, and it showed. He lacked personal charm, but he possessed a remarkable mastery of the English language, particularly for a non-native speaker. Dad could reel off Shakespeare from memory and had a pronounced affection for eloquent language. I’m inclined to believe that Shoghi’s lofty language and purposeful voice, which embodied both the works he authored and those he translated, was one of the greatest factors in my father’s conversion.

New York City had one of the older, established Bahá’í communities in the western world. Bahá’ís had lived there since 1897. One of the most influential leaders of the Bahá’í Faith, Abbas Effendi, AKA “the Master,” Shoghi’s grandfather and direct predecessor, had famously lectured throughout New York City for a couple months in 1912.

Dad lived and worked in New Rochelle at the time of his introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. New Rochelle, being in the New York City metro area, had a strong Bahá’í history and presence. Dad even had the honor of visiting Juliet Thompson—a rather well-known Báhá’í artist—at her home, which I believe was in New Rochelle (she was buried there). Dad’s experience as a Bahá’í in the New York of the mid-1950s must have been distinct from what he would experience once he left New York, and he would experience quite a variety of Bahá’í communities over his lifetime.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[1] Fred Tarrant attended one or two firesides as well, surely at Dad’s invitation. Fred would later visit the Chicago temple at Dad’s invitation, but he was unmoved. Fred, like Dad, had been raised by a Catholic mother, but Fred has never been drawn to religion, though he respects Dad’s strong moral drive.

Suffocants

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,
emitting weeping sounds,
embalming it with 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.

© 2013–15 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.

Pomegenesis

Ararat PlateWhen it began, in the old land,
Ararat and the noor seed, and the night skin
Cracked, and the sun slipped through,
Fat pomegranate boiling up with red arils
In thousands, and a little snow on the greater cone
Thawed and watered the seed that through March
And June became the noor tree.

A breeze blew through August, October bloomed,
And red orbs grew fat on her slender fingertips,
Loaded down her mighty arms to the earth
And the sun came down from the mountain,
Like pomegranate swelled and cracked,
And doves flew in, cut the red skin and grew
Fat and round on the tree, that bride
Who cast the virile fruit to the ground,
And the aril and the earth and the sun and the snow
Gave birth to Ararat’s children.

Three pomegranates fell down from heaven:
One for the storyteller, one for the listener,
and one for the world.

© 2013–15 Kaweah

 

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.

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.

Stone Prophet

Tor House Under ConstructionHis father was a preacher.
His mother was a poem.
Maybe he was raised by Mars
And taught to see by stone.

He didn’t wander Sinai
Or immolate a bush.
He didn’t build a giant boat
Or feed a giant fish.

He built a pulpit
With his hands
And granite
From the sea.

He stacked the rock
From ground to God
Right up to forty feet.

For forty years he prophesied
With verses for his robes.
The people called him poet,
But everybody knows.

© 2013 Kaweah