Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Strong Enough to Listen: Reading Jeffers on California's Northern Coast

You’ve probably done this, too—taken a sack of books along on your vacation, along with an equally burdensome ambition to read them. I did it again last week. And, as usual, the books stayed in their bags while I went walking.

This time my walks were along dry-grass bluffs above the ocean, down to rocky tide pools, and among thick stands of wind-bent cypress trees. On clear nights the houselights were left off and I would stare into the swirling disc of stars that is our galaxy. I let my eyes relax into the night sky, identified new constellations. Yes, I consulted the star charts—and a guide to shorebirds—but my attention could not be held by any of the “reading” I’d meant to do.

Then I remembered a favorite poem by Robinson Jeffers, “Birds and Fishes.” Its first line, to the best of my recollection, began “Every October.” And there I was, in October, looking out at the same Pacific Ocean that held Jeffers’ eyes, attention, and imagination for decades. Fortunately, I’d tossed The Wild God of the World into the car before leaving Sacramento. It was a last-minute impulse to grab my well-read copy. Despite my intentions to power through several new books, I just couldn’t head to the coast without some Jeffers. And there on the coast, near the mouth of the Gualala River, it was a delight to read “Birds and Fishes” while watching the "festival" he’d described.


Every October millions of little fish come along the shore,
Coasting this granite edge of the continent
On their lawful occasions: but what a festival for the sea-fowl.
What a witches’ sabbath of wings
Hides the dark water. The heavy pelicans shout “Haw!” like Job’s warhorse
And dive from the high air, the cormorants
Slip their long black bodies under the water and hunt like wolves
Through the green half-light. Screaming the gulls watch,
Wild with envy and malice, cursing and snatching. What hysterical greed!
What a filling of pouches! the mob-
Hysteria is nearly human—these decent birds!—as if they were finding
Gold in the street. It is better than gold,
It can be eaten: and which one in all this fury of wildfowl pities the fish?
No one certainly. Justice and mercy
Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish nor eternal God.
However—look again before you go.
The wings and the wild hungers, the wave-worn skerries, the bright quick minnows
Living in terror to die in torment—
Man’s fate and theirs—and the island rocks and immense ocean beyond, and Lobos
Darkening above the bay: they are beautiful?
That is their quality: not mercy, not mind, not goodness, but the beauty of God.

I spent seven days reading and re-reading the poems selected, and introduced, by Stanford University’s Albert Gelpi in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2003). The anthology is drawn from Tim Hunt’s five-volume Collected Poetry and includes "Cawdor," one of Jeffers’ narratives, described by Gelpi as “really a novelette in verse.” "Cawdor" is situated “at the center of the volume and is surrounded by a representative selection of shorter poems from a career of more than four decades.”

After my first re-reading of Gelpi’s anthology, I wished I had lugged more of Jeffers’ poems with me to the coast. I wished I had pulled Hunt’s one-volume Selected from my bookshelf. It turned out to my advantage, though, to read deeply the slim (by comparison) anthology’s meditations on granite, ocean, sky, and universe. By this process of total immersion, I experienced a glimpse into Jeffers’ poetic vision. I could imagine this earth before—and after—humankind, as Jeffers had imagined it. And lines I’d read over many times before stood out and became meaningful to me. In "Natural Music," the lines “I believe if we were strong enough to listen without/divisions of desire and terror” took root in me.


The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

It is October in Sacramento. Of course, it’s warmer here than on the coast. Drier. The lawn needs watering. Soon I’ll be raking sycamore leaves. And soon, the salmon schooling in the ocean mouths of our rivers will be here—first in the Sacramento, then the American. I look forward to the salmon’s arrival, and to the migration of the steelhead trout behind them. But my heart’s still breaking over the beauty of Jeffers’ coastal landscape, even though I know it is there—“sufficient to itself”—whether my eyes, or any other human eyes, look upon it.


My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from
the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt,
the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found
in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of
reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the
heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

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