Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Poetry .. beautiful shapes .. violence" - Robinson Jeffers 'Cawdor'

'Cawdor' is an astonishing book, unlike anything I've read outside of Greek drama (it is in fact a reworking of the Phaedra story), although it fuses the clarity of the Greek writers with a darker, more Dionysian sensibility reminiscent of gothic works such as 'Wuthering Heights'. An ageing widower, Cawdor, marries a girl 30 years his junior and, like Phaedra, she subsequently falls in love with his son, provoking the family's descent into violence and tragedy. Insane with thwarted desire, the girl Fera is considerably more demonic than her mythic counterpart, resembling a sort of malignant imp, a child version of the lady who drove Macbeth - the original Thane of Cawdor - to his destruction, although in Jeffers' poem the man Cawdor suffers not death but a kind of apotheosis, being transformed into a living archetype, another Oedipus blinded by truth.
As in Greek drama, the characters Cawdor, Hood, and Fera are locked into roles they are powerless to alter, roles shaped by energies not their own. Theirs is a universe ruled by primitive elemental forces; bleak, haggard, terrible - and sublime.
Jeffers favors strong, blunt, old-English nouns: axe, rock, pit, blood, wing, wood, bone, clot; similarly with the verbs gnaw, rinse, beat, sink, shriek, he fashions a world of relentless violence unmitigated by later (superfluous) developments in language and civilization. What he calls the "rolling stresses" of his blank verse sink the words into place like nails in wood, like facts; we are not invited to consider options, analyze possibilities, dissect motives or psychological conditions, the words have too much of a final quality for that. There is a pitch and tension in the language which extends to every part of the poem, no chinks or broken places where pieces trickle out and are lost. It is as if every word is drawn tight and held aloft in a great, dripping net.
According to the introduction (sensitively written by William Everson), Jeffers' stated aims in writing tragedy were "poetry ... beautiful shapes ... violence." Poetry and violence we recognize as inherent to the genre, but "beautiful shapes" is unusual, and reveals much about the artist's intention. Jeffers worships the visual; objects seen are objects revealed, illuminated; every rock, every wave, every pine needle is charged with the sort of presence we normally associate with consciousness, perhaps more than that, a consecrated presence, a sanctity. Things are in a state of pure existence. Everything simply is. The poet has famously declared in his doctrine of 'inhumanism' our need to "uncenter our minds from ourselves", and the Other-centered world he projects here is a prehistoric vision of being, a spiritual absolutism which is immaculately served by the carved visual qualities of his language.
For Jeffers, Big Sur is church; the bread is the body and the wine is the blood, or rather, the blood is the wine, a reversal which sanctifies the physical. He celebrates the mystical body in all things: it is present in "the dark clot stringing from the red sponge" and "the purple entrails ... on the stone step, speckled with redwood needles", in the "red lichen-fleck on a dead cypress twig" and the "long wings like scythes against the face of the wave". We know this because we see it - in the luminosity of the object, its clarity, its 'beautiful shape'. As in the visual arts, there is a high sensitivity to aspects of figure and ground ("the broad oar of the wing broke upward/And stood like a halved fern-leaf on the white of the sky"), light and shadow, color saturation and complementarity. Scenes are flash-frozen, like photographs, or flattened and highlighted like painted sets, presenting an image like a finished object, its content strangely identical with its form. Witness Fera "like a lit pillar" on the cliffs, "flushed with the west in her face/The purple hills at her knees and the full moon at her thigh,/under her wounded hand new-risen." The poet cuts his deck and turns over a new card, a new tarot, static, absolute, and obscurely meaningful.
As image piles upon image, all elements are raised to a super-charged level of reality, the level of myth, in which everything participates. It is enough to say of a person that he or she exists, as other things exist, and the existence of a thing is magnified by metaphor, by its being like other things, which is of course the province of poetry.
As for violence, that last cornerstone of tragedy, it is purified by virtue of its containment within the whole, as is death and decay. A whole which incorporates death and is not subverted by it does not shrink from violence. Only men and women are in error when they seek to avoid reality or alter it, when they strategize, complicate, and divide. Their reward is to suffer, until everything that is "unessential" about them "burns off". For most, this means death. For Cawdor, who is cold and strong, there remains an altered life, but not a life we can recognize as desirable.
There are three extraordinary death scenes in 'Cawdor' which are utterly unlike anything I have encountered elsewhere in literature - again, they are more painterly than literary - the human death-dreams in particular bring to mind the paintings of Katherine Sherwood after her stroke. The death-flight of the eagle is a study in transcendence; its passion condensed, the bird's spirit soars vertically through space and then time. The human deaths are more complex; described in terms of dream, dispersal, and decay, they are horizontal movements through the space of the body's own disintegration. Here is the old man's death after days of unconsciousness:
"The locked-up coma had trailed its clue of dream across
the crippled passages; now death continued
Unbroken the delusions of the shadow before ... Gently
with delicate mindless fingers
Decomposition began to pick and caress the unstable chemistry
Of the cells of the brain; Oh very gently, as the first weak breath
of wind in a wood: the storm is still far,
The leaves are stirred faintly to a gentle whispering: the nerve-cells,
by what would soon destroy them, were stirred
To a gentle whispering. Or one might say the brain began
to glow, with its own light, in the starless
Darkness under the dead bone sky; like bits of rotting wood
on the floor of the night forest
Warm rains have soaked, you see them beside the path shine like
vague eyes. So gently the dead man's brain
Glowing by itself made and enjoyed its dream ... But then the
interconnections between the groups of the brain
Failing, the dreamer and the dream split into multitude ... "
According to Everson, 'Cawdor' was written to mollify an audience outraged by the immorality of his previous 'Women at Point Sur' and is on account of its formal constraint one of his most perfect works. "But", he adds, if the reader "wishes to touch the nerve of the master", she must dip into the darker poems of his more unbridled instincts, poems such as 'Tamar', 'Roan Stallion', and 'Point Sur'.
In other words, 'Cawdor' is just a foretaste, a delicate introduction to something stronger and more extreme in Jeffers' other works. It is thrilling to anticipate what a poet of these powers might be capable of. The danger lies in the sheer force of his themes, which might so easily overwhelm form, destroying its shape and tending to chaos, waste, or grotesquery. But if he has been able to contain their energies in a less governed context, he must surely have achieved something far more remarkable than his curiously chequered reputation would suggest.

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