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

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.

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

”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.

© 2013–15 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

 

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.

The Stacks

I awoke from a striking dream this morning before dawn. I’m not sure how it began. It seemed to be another one of those dreams in which I’m wandering through a strange but familiar city. Perhaps I had lost someone. I don’t recall.

Anyway, I was walking down an empty street along what appeared to be a fenced park when I encountered a gate. Looking through the gate, I saw a building—a large, neoclassical building. It looked to be made of red—or pink—granite. As I approached the building, I saw its large double doors. They were a darker red—cherry wood, perhaps. I ascended the steps and found that one of the doors was slightly ajar, so I opened it and stepped inside.

It was a library, and a rather dark one at that. Opposite the entrance, just before me about twenty feet away, there was a broad desk with a dim lamp, inhabited by an elderly woman. She looked up, and hardly seeming to notice me, stood and walked out from behind the desk, whereupon she turned back toward me and cocked her head as if to say, “this way.” So I followed her.

The librarian led me back to the stacks, where the light was even more dim than it had been at the entrance. Her wiry frame held up a black, knee-length dress. It vanished here and there as she passed through the shadows of the more densely packed shelves. The tapping of her heels echoed off the hardwood floor.

Somewhere I noticed a change: her hair was black in the dim light. “Hadn’t it been grey?” I asked myself. Then the curve of her hips: it was suddenly full and smooth. I dared to examine her calves. I stopped momentarily to verify what I had just seen. Seeming to notice my hesitation, she turned back toward me. It was true: she was younger, and she was beautiful. She wore the same dress, and the same spectacles, only now the dress seemed tailored for her body’s curves, and her glasses framed her eyes as though they were two twin gems in some crime movie. Something about her was unearthly, yet she was quite familiar.

The librarian stopped and turned, and she pulled a book off the shelf, handed it to me, and then she leaned against the shelving and waited. I looked through the book. All the pages were blank. I looked up to her and showed her two of the empty pages. She turned toward the stack and reached up, standing on her toes, and slowly pulled out another volume. I could barely make out the black silhouette of her dress in the darkness, stretching flush against the mass of volumes. She pulled the book down and I shyly turned away as she handed the book to me. I handed her back the book with the blank pages, and I soon discovered the book she had just handed me was the same: there was nothing in it.

So it went. She led me down the narrow canyon of shelves, handing me volume after volume of emptiness. Sometimes the pages were fresh, white, and even glossy. Sometimes they were yellowed with time.

The young librarian eventually led me to where the stacks ended at a wall. The shelves there were 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 also see that the librarian’s dress, though black, was not entirely opaque. I could see through it in the light as she handed me the lone book.

But I didn’t open the book because of what I saw all over her dress. It was some kind of writing. The script glowed dimly in the light. It was glowing from within the black fabric. I reached for her collar and turned it out. There was writing, sure enough, in Spanish, I thought, but then I noticed it wasn’t Spanish. There was another collar under the collar of the dress. It was white, and it too had writing, and I turned it over and then—I noticed there were more layers underneath.

I dampened my fingertips and peeled the layers back as the pages of her breast opened like a white rose. The pages turned silently. The words, being in that foreign tongue, were incomprehensible—yet familiar, maybe the words of a song or a poem. As I dug more and more deeply into her pages I could hear her breathing, more and more clearly with every page. My hands thrilled to the touch of each cool sheet, but my fingers began to tremble and stumble. The pages slipped out of their grasp, and I awoke.

My eyes stared up at the ceiling, and I listened to my wife’s rhythmic breathing.

River Mercy

At his feet she is laid resting,
holding up the sun to him;
she presses it
up into his boughs,
and carelessly drops the rays
to filter through him.

And he sees his self
image in her
reflections.

She naps between them
this afternoon.
She is her blood; together
they stain the rocks
and earth emerald.

She doesn’t rush about meadows
searching for leaves.

She sits napping in them,
flirting with the sun;
her dreaming eyebrows
laugh at time.

She comprehends me (I stand
ankle deep on the warm,
round pebbles;

I watch the still
currents of thought), and I—

I feel the way she thinks.

She wanders in her musings
against her crescent banks
and canyons.

she grinds them
with her snow fists and
tramples them
with her dall hooves and

I see that they love her.

© 2013 Kaweah

 

Catch the Sun

You don’t want to lose sight of her yet.
Follow her
across the beach and
feel it sinking with your feet.

Get them wet;
let her golden curls tumble
over you, let her rip you out
onto a sea dark
and deep as the approaching night.

Maybe you can keep up with her
for a while. Don’t
lose sight of the land.

Andromeda

Princess of distant Ethiopia,
Prisoner of the sky:

What men say of your beauty
Can only be blasphemy
Now that I see you
Bound to the heavens
Right before my eyes
With beauties and beauties
Intimate as the stars,
and equally untouchable.

Men claim to have seen you,
But speak only of your jewels
Sparkling under your mother’s proud eyes
Between Perseus and Pegasus
And over me, we lie;
You are so obviously near.
My arms would reach out to you,
If I could only tell them to.
They would rescue you from your heavenly chains
If I could only touch you.

I’m blind now, obviously

Beautiful, I don’t know how
Your smile became an ocean wave,
Tumbling everything over
And over with
Crushing saltwater power,
Your eyes, binary suns
Burning through the world, and
I’m blind now, obviously,
But the heat remains,
Washing through your hair
A whispering
Autumn breeze
Through the shivering
Aspen, somehow,
Beautiful.

The Fool and the Prince

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a fisherman’s son. He was not favored by the girls of the village, for he was neither smart nor good looking. He was such a fool; in fact, that the village folk got much pleasure at his expense, for he in his foolishness had given them many a humorous anecdote. Many of them would reflect that the boy had once, not very long ago, caused a great uproar of laughter when a royal procession had passed through the village. The boy had invited the crown princess to take lunch with him! Not only had the village folk broken out in laughter (many of them injuring themselves by laughing too hard), but the boy had been compelled to flee for his life when two of the royal guards tried to arrest him for his impertinent mouth. Lucky for the foolish boy, he leaped into the harbor before the guards could grab him, and he hid beneath the dock until the guards were ordered to proceed.

It happened one day that when the boy was out fishing on the sea, pulling in his nets, he found a large fish snagged among the few fish that he’d caught. The boy congratulated himself on pulling in such a large catch. There would be plenty of meat for his family, and they’d make a dime or two from selling what they couldn’t eat themselves. “Father will be so proud of me!” he exulted, and the creature spoke. “Please, fair fisherman, show mercy on me and return me to the sea, and I will surely make it worth your while!” The boy laughed “ha! Ha! What do you have that I could use beside your meat and bones?” The creature answered, “Surely you see that I am a magical creature. Has it not occurred to you that I might grant you your dearest wish? Have you not heard of such things?”

“Heard? Heard, yes!” laughed the young fisherman. “I’ve heard it in fairy tales. Surely you have too!”

“Ah but this is no child’s tale,” argued the creature. “I am quite heavy, no? Have you ever known a fairy tale so heavy?”

“Yes, you are quite heavy, and you talk,” but the same is true for my aunt Mathilda. She is even heavier than you, and she chatters on just as you do, but she grants no wishes.”

“That is fair,” conceded the creature, “so I shall have to prove myself.”

“Yes, you shall,” the boy nodded and paused for a moment, the he said “go, you’re such a talker. You tell me my wish!”

“Oh ha-ha!” the creature laughed. “That’s easy! What magical fish in all the sea doesn’t know that your wish is to sit at lunch with the crown princess! But lo, no magical creature could ever grant such an absurd wish. One such as you could never sit at the table of a princess! You are so foul to look upon, and even more foul to smell! The poor princess would not be able to eat. It would be like having a pile of dead fish at the table!”

“’Tis true. ‘Tis true” conceded the fisherman. “There is no hope of it. I shall not be able to spare you.” And the fisherman turned to take up his oars and row back home.

“Wait. Wait!” cried the creature. “There must be a way.” It paused, and then cried out, “yes! I know.”

Just then, a strange feeling came over the boy from his head to his toes, and creature said, “There! Now look overboard into the water, and tell me what you see.”

The boy hesitated, but then he noticed that the soiled and bloodied rags that he’d been wearing had been replaced by clean, embroidered sleeves, and his hands had changed: they were clean and soft. “Look!” the creature cried out, and the boy hesitated no more. He looked overboard into the water to see his reflection, but he did not see himself. He saw a prince! And it was not just any prince that he saw; he saw the prince who had come courting the princess from the land over the sea. The young fisherman was thrilled.

“Now you must cast us all overboard now, or our smell will betray you!”

“Yes,” the boy agreed, and he unloaded the net into the sea. A moment later, the creature arose from the water just enough to speak, and it said, “Ye must act today! The spell wears off at sunset!”

So the boy returned to the land with haste, and upon finding one of the royal guard at the market, he commandeered the guard’s steed and rode, not very gracefully, to the castle, where he was invited in straightaway. “I have come to beg the company of the princess at the noon hour,” he spoke with authority to the captain of the guard. And so it was granted.

The princess gladly admitted the prince to her table at the noon hour, thinking him to be her beloved. When he took his seat she sniffed the air, frowned, and observed, “fair prince, you have been at sea.” Then she remembered to smile.

“Indeed I have, fair princess” he replied. “I must cross that foul pond to gain your sweet presence.”

The prince glanced left and right, as if wondering who it was that had said such noble words. Then he realized that the spell must have affected his mouth with the rest of his face.

And so they dined together that day, and after lunch they went riding across the royal hunting grounds. When the prince noticed that the sun was sinking near the horizon, he begged her leave, rode away, and returned the guard’s steed.

And so it was that the fisherman’s son got his wish, and he was not too wise to brag when the townsfolk would mock, “been to lunch with princess lately, have ye?”

“Indeed, you have heard!” he would reply.

And so this fool happily carried on. He never married, for no village girl would have him, but he could be found out at sea early every morning, casting his nets with noble anticipation.