Despite my recent lack of posting, I haven’t given up reading Robinson Jeffers, it’s just that I still don’t have much to say about Jeffers’ longer poems but it takes considerable time to wade through a 98 page poem like “Give Your Heart to the Hawks.” While I find myself liking his later long poems more than his earlier long poems, “like” is definitely a relative word. I find it painful to read them but persist out of a certain stubbornness and unwillingness to give up because they are hard to read.
Luckily, my distaste for those poems has been more than offset by several short poems I like quite a lot, even though they probably make me more worried about the future than I already was.
“The Purse-Seine” is one such poem that paints a dark picture of our modern world:
The Purse Seine
Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon; daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the narrowing
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.
Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
-or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy, the mass-disasters.
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life’s end is death
In my more pessimistic moments, it is hard not to see the world exactly this way. The lines:
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape.
seem particularly true, at least here on the West Coast, the only world I really know. Anyone who’s thought about possible ways to solve the problem of air pollution, much less global warming, cannot help but feel that the very things that at first appearance seem to make our lives comfortable end up causing the problems that threaten to overwhelm us.
A rural home may seem like the ideal place to live when you first buy it, but when everyone else makes the same choice the city and all its problems moves to your neighborhood and the commute to work suddenly becomes a nightmare.
The irony of the final lines is hard to miss. No one who’s read history can deny that “cultures decay” or that “life’s end is death” knows that logically these things are true, but everyone wants to believe that their culture is still on the rise, not on the decline. I know I’m more concerned about how well I’m going to feel tomorrow or next year than I am about the inevitable ending of my life.