Rites of Disposal

When I’m finally done, when all
my smoldering embers go cold, put me away.
Clean me up, straighten me out, and put me in my box.

Take it up to that green landfill
where they dump such things
and label them with cut stones.
Find me a plot, dig me a hole.
Sow me deep like a pumpkin seed
that you don’t want to grow.
Cover me there with earth by the yard,
and if you must speak, be brief.

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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

 

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.

Reservoirs

          On the ‘Aha Makhav
        there is plenty of sun,
          but not so much fire.
Look to where the sea clouds
        spray the earth, there
    the sun stores his spark
  in grass, shrub, and tree,
              bakes them till
                    it escapes.

© 2013—15 Kaweah

 

The Answer

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

 

So Spoke Zarathustra

“The gods indeed did not choose rightly …” —Ahunavaiti Gatha

The clouds rumbled.

“Bastard! Devil!,” a bearded man screamed at the sky.
The mountain wind whipped his hair across his face.
The hair was not grey, but the face was not young.

He looked around,
surveying the black bellies of the thunderheads
gathered around the mountain.
The man turned his eyes back to heaven.

A smile spread from his cheeks to his eyes.
He inhaled deeply.
A mad laugh burst out of him,
and he shouted at heaven.

“You dare not kill me, you fool!”

and he shook his head.

With a lower voice, he began to speak as though
he were talking to another man on the summit.

“Death is my ally. Death—
is my power over you.”

His voice elevated as he continued:
“Kill me and you have nothing!”

Now he began to whisper, as if to a confidant.

“My friend. You and I know of powers
greater than the thunderbolt.
Greater than flood! Drought!

… If you do not kill me now, I will tell the others.”

A flash struck the peak to the south, and then a crack split the air.

“You — MISSED!” The first man screamed, laughing,

but then the wind subsided, and
his face grew more solemn.

“You know, we too
have harnessed fire.”

© 2013 Kaweah

 

Sierra del Fuego

He knew her best,
I have no doubt of it.
And didn’t he name her better
Than did the Spaniards? Hah!
What did they know?
They never even approached her.

Today I received another incident report
From the Range. She has
taken to burning again.

It’s inevitable.

If you’ve ever walked her wooded elevations
on a day like this, under the faithful
California sun,
you might reckon the thickets and the woods to be
on the threshold of ignition.

What isn’t burning is baking.
You can smell it.

The cold fire of alpenglow on the high peaks,
That is a reminder.

I remember, John, how you waited out a mountain
fire in the charred heart of a Sequoia,
that Giant among giants who needs
a little fire now and then.

I would have liked to have been on Paradise Ridge,
there with you, that night.

I would have been waiting, a little nervously,
for the right time to say,

Now tell me
you never considered

Range of Fire.

© 2013 Kaweah

 

What is fire?

No definition is perfectly concise. We associate words with images and pretend that we all agree on their meaning, but we are occasionally reminded that we don’t always agree. I remember, as a child, being surprised to hear that school buses are yellow, having been of the opinion that school buses are orange.

“Fire” is a particularly difficult word to corner. It is generally associated with the chemical process of rapid combustion, a chain reaction of oxidation reactions in a gas. This “fire” occurs in hearths, automobile engines, forests, and volcanoes.

I think we can safely agree that all such rapid oxidation events can be called “fire,” but one other phenomenon is very fire-like, though it has nothing to do with oxidation. It is the fire that we see burning on the sun. It is sometimes called stellar fire, stellar combustion, or astrophysical combustion. I’ve heard educated people say “the sun isn’t really a fire,” because they identify the word with chemical combustion, but the word is much older than combustion theory, which was first presented in 1777, a year after the American Declaration of Independence.

What is combustion? According to modern chemistry, it’s an electron transfer, but it’s called “combustion” because of its macroscopic character as an exothermic chain reaction. The word was not chosen because of any association with electron transfer, but because of its association with the phenomenon we have called fire since the Greeks called it “pyr”. The Latin root of combustion is a word that means “burning.”

What about fire leads us to call it fire? What are its characteristics—its phenomenology?

To understand the phenomenology of combustion, it helps to bear in mind that flames only occur in the presence of a gas, and that gas will not ignite without adequate heat. What is a hot gas? At the molecular level, a hot gas is just a cloud of accelerated molecules. It is the kinetic energy of free molecules colliding with each other that makes combustion possible. Molecules are broken apart in the melee, and the fragments recombine to form new molecules, often generating free electrons that will start further combustion reactions. The result of this chain reaction is a burning gas that we call “fire” and chemists call “rapid combustion.”

But how different is this chain reaction from what goes on in the sun? Sure, we know that the solar fire is driven by fusion reactions rather than molecular bonding, but that aside, we still have a chain reaction in a dense “cloud” of high energy objects breaking apart, forming new objects, and releasing light and heat. In both cases, we have a bright, circulating mass of convection, conduction, and radiation. Both phenomena are self-sustaining and self-replicating, so long as fuel is available. Given that the word “fire” predates our discovery of either molecular combustion or atomic fusion, it seems hasty to attach it to the former while keeping it at a safe distance from the latter.

Now that we can recognize the kinship of these exothermic, self-sustaining, self-replicating chain reactions as species of fire, we might consider what other processes can be recognized with similar characteristics. One obvious example occurs to me: life.

In what ways is life like a fire?

How to Look at God

Sol rules the sky,
a celestial Medusa,
flames swinging and waving out into space
like so many yellow snakes,
the failure of the metaphor being
that we may look upon him,
though only through his companion;
a month being nothing more
than the time we must wait
to see the fire of heaven
as he sees himself, fully,
in his mirror
of wounded stone.