Unreal Nature

January 30, 2015

This Kind of Listening

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… Soaking it up, filling those tilted, deep-shelving seams …

This is from the essay ‘William Everson: Some Glimpses’ (1995) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… once, when I was in college, on some errands, I had to deliver a package to Saint Albert’s, the Dominican rectory in Oakland where I knew he lived, and, when I asked about him later, was told that he was the tall, lean, mute quizzical man who had opened the door for me when I rang the bell, and had stepped aside and with a low bow and a gesture of his head had invited me in.

Later I described this to another writer of the same generation [ … ]. With the particular vanity of the young — here was this man opening the door for me — I emphasized in the telling, his humility. The writer said: “It’s theater.” I was taken aback. “You mean, he’s a fake.” “No,” his friend said, “I mean it’s theater.” An aspect of Bill Everson’s character and art — and a way of seeing them — I would come later to understand.

… And — oh, eight years later — I was spending a summer in Kentfield, next door to a Dominican retreat where Brother Antoninus [aka Everson] was living. I used to catch a glimpse of him across the fence and through an apple orchard as he walked in the garden. I was by that time working hard on poems and also had a much better sense of my neighbor, had read The Crooked Lines of God and The Rose of Solitude and the study of Jeffers, Fragments of an Older Fury. And I think I had heard him read by then, those extraordinary performances in which he paced, inflicted long silences on the audience — equivalents of the silences I had intuited in his early work — and barked out his poems in anguished and ecstatic fragments. It was much too dramatic for my taste then and it seemed manipulative of the audience — a few of whom were put off, most of whom were ravished in those heady and credulous day.

I remember that what fascinated me, standing in the back of the room — was he reading “A Canticle to the Waterbirds”? — was that he commented on the shamelessness of the performance, seemed acutely self-conscious about what he was doing, and was genuinely ashamed, and almost unrepentant. It seemed Dostoyevskian to me. His making himself naked to the audience, the silences that seemed bullying — I think he said “bullying.” Something like “Do you feel bullied by this? I do to you what God does to us.”

[ … ]

…………………………………… Then early last evening
A thin drizzle, gaining toward dusk. Before dark dropped
The low hanging cloud slit its belly and the rain plunged.
All night long the thirsty slopes drank straight-falling water,
Soaking it up, filling those tilted, deep-shelving seams,
Blue veins of the mountain, zigzag crevices of fractured shale.
When dawn flared and the rain held
The runoff began.
……………………………………………………… [from The Masks of Drought]

I didn’t like the slit belly of the cloud or “the thirsty slopes,” that way Everson took over for his own purposes Jeffers’s projections of human violence onto the landscape. But I envied the “tilted, deep-shelving seams” and the “zigzag crevices of fractured shale.” It is a gift, this kind of listening to older writers, learning from them.

And beyond these specifics there was, as I reached my thirties, in Everson as in the other poets of evident power in my place — George Oppen, Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, and others — a sense of the life of an artist with its metamorphoses and amazements and fragilities and risks.

-Julie

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