Rexroth’s “Incarnation��?

I’ll have to admit that I find it hard to totally agree with these reviewers’ statement that, “It is remarkable that a life as deeply troubled as that of Kenneth Rexroth should produce erotic poetry of such profound transcendence,? but I did find Rexroth’s love poetry at its best as moving as that of Yeats’ love poetry, high praise since Yeats ranks among my five favorite poets.

Several of Rexroth’s poems are more erotic than any that appear in Yeats’ works, perhaps because of a shift in values, but “Incarnation? does remind me a lot of Yeats:

INCARNATION

Climbing alone all day long
In the blazing waste of spring snow,
I came down with the sunset’s edge
To the highest meadow, green
In the cold mist of waterfalls,
To a cobweb of water
Woven with innumerable
Bright flowers of wild iris;
And saw far down our fire’s smoke
Rising between the canyon walls,
A human thing in the empty mountains.
And as I stood on the stones
In the midst of whirling water,
The whirling iris perfume
Caught me in a vision of you
More real than reality:
Fire in the deep curves of your hair:
Your hips whirled in a tango,
Out and back in dim scented light;
Your cheeks snow-flushed, the zithers
Ringing, all the crowded ski lodge
Dancing and singing; your arms
White in the brown autumn water,
Swimming through the fallen leaves,
Making a fluctuant cobweb
Of light on the sycamores;
Your thigh’s exact curve, the fine gauze
Slipping through my hands, and you
Tense on the verge of abandon;
Your breasts’ very touch and smell;
The sweet secret odor of sex.
Forever the thought of you,
And the splendor of the iris,
The crinkled iris petal,
The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
And the obscure cantata
Of the tangled water, and the
Burning, impassive snow peaks,
Are knotted together here.
This moment of fact and vision
Seizes Immortality,
Becomes the person of this place.
The responsibility
Of love realized and beauty
Seen burns in a burning angel
Real beyond flower or stone.

Here a Romantic image of nature and of love is fused, and this fusion, this vision, becomes immortal in a way no physical love can ever be. In fact, I would argue that it is this very vision of love, not the physical love itself, that is transcendent when “This moment of fact and vision/ Seizes Immortality/ Becomes the person of this place.?

This vision of love is “more real than reality,? or, at least, as real. Our dreams of what we want life to be, our aspirations, are as real as the failures that we encounter in trying to reach those dreams. Memories of romantic moments in our life, those moments that tie us to those we love, are “more real than reality.? In fact, reality isn’t reality until it is processed, turned into memories.

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.

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.