Rexroth’s “Autumn in California?

Reading Rexroth’s poems written from 1920 to 1940, it’s not hard to see why he’s often classified as a Beat poet, though mistakenly so if we are to believe Rexroth himself, but, even if he’s not a Beat poet, it’s easy to see why the later Beat poets saw him as one of them.

My least favorite of these poems remind me of Pound’s rants, while my favorites are those that tend to be explicitly socialistic, or, more often, personal poems integrating Rexroth’s love of nature.

Although “Autumn in California“ isn’t my favorite poem of this period, I like it and it seems more representative of Rexroth’s poems of this period than my favorite:

AUTUMN IN CALIFORNIA

Autumn in California is a mild
And anonymous season, hills and valleys
Are colorless then, only the sooty green
Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep
Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;
The steep pastures are tracked deep by the cattle;
There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.
All night along the coast and the mountain crests
Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.
Only in the mountain meadows the aspens
Glitter like goldfish moving up swift water;
Only in the desert villages the leaves
Of the cottonwoods descend in smoky air.

Once more I wander in the warm evening
Calling the heart to order and the stiff brain
To passion. I should be thinking of dreaming, loving, dying
Beauty wasting through time like draining blood,
And me alone in all the world with pictures
Of pretty women and the constellations.
But I hear the clocks in Barcelona strike at dawn
And the whistles blowing for noon in Nanking.
I hear the drone, the snapping high in the air
Of planes fighting, the deep reverberant
Grunts of bombardment, the hasty clamor
Of anti-aircraft.

In Nanking at the first bomb,
A moon-faced, willowy young girl runs into the street,
Leaves her rice bowl spilled and her children crying,
And stands stiff, cursing quietly, her face raised to the sky.
Suddenly she bursts like a bag of water,
And then as the blossom of smoke and dust diffuses,
The walls topple slowly over her.

I hear the voices
Young, fatigued and excited, of two comrades
In a closed room in Madrid. They have been up
All night, talking of trout in the Pyrenees,
Spinoza, old nights full of riot and sherry,
Women they might have had or almost had,
Picasso, Velasquez, relativity.
The candlelight reddens, blue bars appear
In the cracks of the shutters, the bombardment
Begins again as though it had never stopped,
The morning wind is cold and dusty,
Their furloughs are over. They are shock troopers,
They may not meet again. The dead light holds
In impersonal focus the patched uniforms,
The dog-eared copy of Lenin's Imperialism,
The heavy cartridge belt, holster and black revolver butt.

The moon rises late over Mt. Diablo,
Huge, gibbous, warm; the wind goes out,
Brown fog spreads over the bay from the marshes,
And overhead the cry of birds is suddenly
Loud, wiry, and tremulous.

Perhaps the reference to Mt. Diablo, a favorite hike when I lived in this area several years later, led me to see this poem more favorably than I might otherwise.

Perhaps it reminds me of my walks in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge where my observation of wildlife is too often interrupted by the staccato sound of rifles on the firing line, the thump of mortars or sudden bursts of machine gun fire from Fort Lewis, when pleasant thoughts are diusrupted by the reminder that several Strykker units from Fort Lewis are now serving in Iraq and still other units are training here to replace them. It’s hard to focus on what a good time you’re having when faced with the reminder that others who’ve undoubtably enjoyed the same place are dying in foreign lands as I hike.

It is easy to be lulled into a sense of well-being while out hiking, but it’s impossible to entirely shut out thoughts of the world and it’s problems even while you’re enjoying nature’s beauty. Of course, considering that this poem was written over 60 years ago, it’s also a reminder that war and human suffering were a part of our everyday existence before I was born and, judging from our present condition, are likely to go on long after I’m gone.

The poem is certainly a reminder that we can never completely escape our society, our times, that even our experience of joyful moments must be tempered by our awareness of the world around us and of the suffering of others.

2 thoughts on “Rexroth’s “Autumn in California?

  1. Rexroth–always the classicist, even in his actual skin–never forgot Tu Fu (Blue is the smoke of war. White are the bones of men, 4th Century BC) nor the Romans and Greeks who preceded us in seeing the ironies of human cruelty delivered in war with more sincerity than a birthday gift to a good brother.

    For perspective on this perspective, other than say, Isaiah, I like reading about Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen in Poets on the Peaks, and Yeats, of course, and Rexroth himself, in a more forgetful vein, just recalling a lustful afternoon in a canoe with a lover, or in pure reverence looking out over Mt. Tamalpais. I think it is probably OK to spend some time in the zen connection to the raw power of being, breathing. In that spirit, it is hard not to honor Wallace Stevens who wrote, “Children picking up our bones/will never know that these were once/as quick as foxes on the hills….” Postcard from the Volcano.

What do you think?