Monday, September 04, 2006

Ebb at Evening

William Everson (1912-94) was a very Californian poet. Part of the San Francisco Renaissance, he was known as the Beat Friar, having become a Dominican monk in 1951, and it was as Brother Antoninus that he wrote one of his best known poems, ‘A Canticle to the Waterbirds’. However he was also a literary critic: the author of Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region. The Modern American Poets site has a description by Everson of the Californian landscape.  Here are some brief excerpts:
'It is early morning. The sun, peering over Mescal Ridge, leaves its near flank in shadow. The giant redwoods that line Bear Trap Canyon, huddled together without distinction, are deep in shade.'
'A slight haze has thickened against Mescal Ridge, but the cool of the morning is not all dispelled. The distant redwoods, as I anticipated, stand out like phallic flames, each green cone thrust at the sun. Bear Trap Canyon kinks its wrinkle up the groin of Bixby Mountain. Time seems to hang over the world, suspended.'
'Pausing in my writing I look out over the vast expanse of Bixby Canyon. It is mid-afternoon. The sun is beginning to slant down toward the western rim, but the solar intensity is still at crescendo. Down below me a redtail hawk circles and dips, his remorseless gaze searching for prey on the slopes beneath. After a time he gives up and cries angrily, disturbed by something intruding below him which I can't see. In the redwoods over my head a jay answers the hawk feebly, only a scrawny imitation of the master he cannot rival.'
In his book Imagining the Earth, John Elder discusses poetry in which there is a genuine identification with nature. Of William Everson’s poem ‘Ebb at Evening’, he says ‘in such a gathered moment, to identify the human body with the ocean is to gain a power of participation in nature beyond all ideas of its goodness and beauty.’ Elder believes that ‘many of our most valuable poems of integration are set at evening and the ebb. With the grey light, things that seemed distinct in the strong outlines of noon begin to merge… The tide’s ebb and sunset are two times attentiveness to the earth can guide us to the peace of presentness.’ He provides a further example in a Denise Levertov poem ‘The Coming Fall’ in which the eye and mind retreat and bodily impressions take over. As Levertov says, ‘In the last sunlight / human figures dark on the hill / outlined- / a fur of gold / about their shoulders and heads, / a blur defining them.’

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