Friday, October 10, 2014

In the Sierra

All day cloud shadows have moved over the face of the mountain,   
The shadow of a golden eagle weaving between them   
Over the face of the glacier.
At sunset the half-moon rides on the bent back of the Scorpion,   
The Great Bear kneels on the mountain.
Ten degrees below the moon
Venus sets in the haze arising from the Great Valley.
- from 'Fall, Sierra Nevada' in 'Toward an Organic Philosophy' (1940) by Kenneth Rexroth (the full poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation)

In the Sierra: Mountain Writings collects the poems Kenneth Rexroth wrote about his years exploring the Sierra Nevada, along with extracts from his autobiography, newspaper columns and a practical guide to camping in the Western Mountains.  Its editor Kim Stanley Robinson is well known for science fiction that explores environmental themes, often involving mountain climbing - similar in some ways to M. John Harrison, the British science fiction writer and climber I talked about here last year.  Robinson provides endnotes that try to place the poems, speculating on the trails Rexroth must have taken and the vantage points from which he describes the landscape.  There is also a short piece at the end of the book by another Californian SF writer and 'amateur astronomer' Carter Scholz, that tries to locate the poems in time using Rexroth's frequent references to stars and planets.  For example, using information in the poem quoted above he deduces that Rexroth was camping on September 28th 1938 'at Lake Catherine, from which the San Joaquin ("Great") Valley is also visible; from this vantage Ursa Major would have been "kneeling" above Mount Davis to the northwest."

For me this astronomical detective work only serves to emphasise what becomes evident when you read through these poems, that for Rexroth the mountain landscape extends out into space.  Camping out on a high trail he already had a long view: 'Looking out over five thousand / Feet of mountains and mile / Beyond mile of valley and sea.'  Then, as night falls, he could lie back and study the stars.  This poem is 'The Great Nebula of Andromeda', one of a group called 'The Lights in the Sky are Stars', written for his young daughter Mary.  The Poetry Centre Digital Archive has a recording of Rexroth reading these poems in 1955 (he breaks off to tell his listeners what they could see if they looked up at the constellation of Hercules, apologising that 'the finer details of astronomy may escape a miscellaneous audience.') The final poem in this sequence is 'Blood on a Dead World', describing Mary's excitement at viewing an eclipse (Carter Scholz pins this to 6:30pm on January 18 1954).  Earlier this week the same phenomenon, a 'blood moon', was visible over America and Asia.  Rexroth stands in wisps of fog and watches with his daughter as the moon slowly darkens.
        "Is it all the blood on the earth  
        Makes the shadow that color?"  
        She asks. I do not answer.

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