Rexroth’s “The Wheel Revolves

It’s a good thing The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth began with a selection of his later poems or I might have stopped reading before I started because I dislike his early poems, which the promotional copy on the cover describes as written in “the disassociative style — sometimes called ‘literary cubism’— developed by Mallarme´, Appollinaire, and Reverdy. This was not free association, but the conscious disassociation and recombination of elements of the poem to achieve the highest possible level of significance? — not to mention the highest possible level of confusion.

I have more than enough confusion in my life already. I don’t need more confusion in my life, nor do I need to be reminded that much of life doesn’t make sense — I have an increasing number of weird dreams lately to remind me of that.

Luckily, I loved a couple of his last poems included at the beginning of this collection. My favorite was:

THE WHEEL REVOLVES

You were a girl of satin and gauze
Now you are my mountain and waterfall companion.
Long ago I read those lines of Po Chu I
Written in his middle age.
Young as I was they touched me.
I never thought in my own middle age
I would have a beautiful young dancer
To wander with me by falling crystal waters,
Among mountains of snow and granite,
Least of all that unlike Po's girl
She would be my very daughter.

The earth turns towards the sun.
Summer comes to the mountains.
Blue grouse drum in the red fir woods
All the bright long days.
You put blue jay and flicker feathers
In your hair.
Two and two violet green swallows
Play over the lake.
The blue birds have come back
To nest on the little island.
The swallows sip water on the wing
And play at love and dodge and swoop
just like the swallows that swirl
Under and over the Ponte \Tecchio.
Light rain crosses the lake
Hissing faintly. After the rain
There are giant puffballs with tortoise shell backs
At the edge of the meadow.
Snows of a thousand winters
Melt in the sun of one summer.
Wild cyclamen bloom by the stream.
Trout veer in the transparent current.
In the evening marmots bark in the rocks.
The Scorpion curls over the glimmering ice field.

A white crowned night sparrow sings as the moon
Thunder growls far off.
Our campfire is a single light
Amongst a hundred peaks and waterfalls.
The manifold voices of falling water
Talk all night.
Wrapped in your down bag
Starlight on your cheeks and eyelids
Your breath comes and goes
In a tiny cloud in the frosty night.
Ten thousand birds sing in the sunrise.
Ten thousand years revolve without change.
All this will never be again.

Part of the appeal in this poem is the allusion to Po Chu I. I’ve wanted to read some new Chinese poets lately, particularly Taoist poets. Reading about Rexroth, I discovered he had been one of the early translators of Chinese poetry, and I ordered two of his books.

More importantly, though, the poem reminds me of the pleasure I felt when my daughter and son used to hike and backpack with me when they were young. Heck, it even reminded me of last weekend’s hike with Zoe, Logan and her parents.

There’s something very special about spending a fleeting moment with young children in the mountains. Though I doubt ever thought of it in exactly these terms, unconsciously I must have felt feel the tension between this fleeting moment and the eternal quality of the surrounding mountains. While it’s sad if you only realize this while looking back at old photographs, it’s liberating, if not enlightening, if you realize it at the very moment it’s happening since it forces you to savor the moment.

4 thoughts on “Rexroth’s “The Wheel Revolves

  1. Loren, have you read Li Po? One of my favorite poets. David Hinton has an excellect translation of his poems, and you really can’t go wrong with any of Hinton’s translations, which includes a lot of Chinese poetry and text (his Chuang Tzu worth picking up). He uses a very clear, modern use of language and lot easier to read them some of Rexroth’s (IMO).

  2. Two things came to mind. After my mother died suddenly in 1994, I found her copy of THE SAN FRANCISCO POETS, edited by David Meltzer. It appeared to have been left in a place where it would be noticed and picked up. As was her practice, she had written her name and the date, September 1975, in the front of the book. She had bookmarked a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, “A Sword in a Cloud of Light” with one of her hand-made silk-screened bookmarks and marked off the following part of the poem. Rexroth had written these words to his daughter when she was five years old and he was fifty:

    Believe in Orion. Believe
    In the night, the moon, the crowded
    Earth. Believe in Christmas and
    Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
    Believe in all those fugitive
    Compounds of nature, all doomed
    To waste away and go out.
    Always be true to these things.
    They are all there is. Never
    Give up this savage religion
    For the blood-drenched civilized
    Abstractions of the rascals
    Who live by killing you and me.

    Recently it has been clear enough at night to see Orion, so I have been thinking about my mother and that poem by Rexroth.

    I was also reminded of a song called “Rexroth’s Daughter,” by Greg Brown, which has been recorded by Joan Baez and contains the following lyrics:

    i am dreaming of the mountains where the children learn the stars
    clouds roll in from Nebraska — dark chords on a big guitar

    and:

    i am looking for rexroth’s daughter — i saw her in the great northwest.

    As always, thanks for your thoughts, photos and poems. Glad to hear that you and Leslie had a good trip in Colorado with your children and grandchildren!

  3. I’ve only read Li Po in collections, Brian. I’ll have to see about puting him on my very long Amazon list.

    Actually, Leslie didn’t go to Colorado with me, Amanda, as we have too many relatives we need to vist to accomodate her vacations schedule.

  4. These words come from a website where his biography is reported. But it seems ironic that even Carolyn Forche, notably feminist poet, befriended him late in his life, when “Kenneth Rexroth’s distinctive poetic voice emphasized sexuality, ecology, and mysticism and provided an aesthetic alternative to social realism and New Critic”al formalism. Although some feminists have objected to his philandering and dated representations of women, as a writer and editor, Rexroth generously promoted both male and female radical writers. His contributions energized postwar American poetry.

What do you think?