. . .
Chapter 4 (Part 1)
So busy was Rexroth as aa committed cultural revolutionary--
polemicist, critic, activist, translator, painter, and playwright as well
as poet, that he was thirty-four before his first book appeared and
sixty before The Collected Shorter Poems came out in the
mid-1960's. By then, his erotic-mystical, anarchistic-ecological,
prophetic worldview seemed to be finding fulfillment in worldwide
countercultural movements for liberation from political, artistic, and
sexual repression; but he doubted that the human race or the planet
could be saved. Giving up on western civilization, he found the
equanimity of compassionate realization in the Buddhist tradition,
which had hitherto played an important but subordinate role in his
work. His first tour of Asia in 1967, with the publication of The
Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart that year and The
Collected Longer Poems the next, initiated the final phase of his
work. Subsequent poems, nearly all evolving from Japanese
experiences, were collected in New Poems in 1974 and
The Morning Star in 1979.
The Collected Shorter Poems (1966): "Gödel's Proof" (1965)
In The Collected Shorter Poems, a section of new poems
called "Gödel's Proof" precedes work from seven previously
published books. Like the mathematician who demonstrated that "A
self-contained system is a contradiction in terms. QED" (quoted as an
epigraph), Rexroth withdrew from efforts to construct a unified
philosophy, which since his adolescence had been countered by
skepticism on the one hand and visionary experience on the other.
The second epigraph, his translation of the anonymous Provencal
nightingale poem more famously rendered by Pound,  affirms
the way of love and nature.
After a burst of desperate dissociation, Rexroth celebrates erotic
joy in the jazzy cadences of "Travelers in Erewhon" (6) and other
free verses in direct statement, which he loved to recite to music.
Sensuousness ranges from the lowlife simplicity of "Oaxaca 1925"
(7) to the elegance of "High Provence" (9). He seems to have aged
into a second youth, recalling his first. Each fleeting mortal instant is
lived fully, for its own sake, as he swings through cycles of despair,
love, separation, and loneliness--most vividly, perhaps, in the
sequence called "Time Is an Inclusion Series Said McTaggart" (12-
13). Light, heat, snow, fog, and water envelope him and his loved
ones as they dissolve in nature (6, 7, 10, 19). In such a fertile
atmosphere, the cubist poems in "G&oum;del's Proof" seem strained
and out of place; but in the more natural poems, affection embraces
daughters, wife, and all of nature until he suddenly agonizes over
mistaken love in an allusion to divorce (22).
What can be depended upon? Only the cycles of nature, shown
in "Yin and Yang," the last original poem in "Gödel's Proof"
before a few Chinese translations (23):
In this most liturgical and cyclical of all Rexroth's poems, the
language flows effortlessly and archetypes harmoniously balance.
Moving from Leo to Virgo, the moon fertilizes the virgin, who holds
in moonlight the symbolic wheat of the Eleusinian mysteries, while
under the world the sun moves through Pisces, the double fish and the
Chinese symbol of Yin/Yang, dark/light, female/male, passive/active,
and so on.
The flowers are back in their places.
The birds back in their usual trees.
The winter stars set in the ocean.
The summer stars rise from the mountains.
The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver.
Resurrection envelops the earth.
All but three lines of the poem have nine syllables, with the
eleven of "The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver" quickening the
pace. The last two lines of the poem, having eight syllables each, are
slower, more gnomic, and statelier than the others: "In the
underworld the sun swims/Between the fish called Yes and No."
Emerging from the syllabic movement, however, is a triple accentual
pattern in the lines about flowers, birds, winter, and summer stars, the
most emphatic being "The lion gives the moon to the virgin./She
stands at the crossroads of heaven." A dactyllic movement in other
lines such as these supports the prophetic tone so firmly that the poem
could be sung as a kind of hymn. The melody begins with short i's,
then opens into long o's, a's, and u's which pass through subtle
variations in relation to neighboring consonants: from "spring" to
"range," from "warm" to "perfumed," from "under" to "Easter
moon," on an underlying stream of sibilants. Changes of pace are
also effective in this poem, beginning as it does with the languid "It is
spring once more in the Coast Range," then quickening with the
sharp accents of the next lines of emphatic parallelism, but slowing in
the last two lines.
The tender anguish of the new poems is intensified by the theme
that no instant can be redeemed. All passes away. Flowers, birds, and
stars return, but they are never the same, and we are never the same.
Even if patterns are eternal, particular experiences never are. In "The
Wheel Revolves" Rexroth's daughter reincarnates the dancer
immortalized by Po Chu I; and as summer and swallows return to the
mountains where they are camping, "Ten thousand years revolve
without change./All this will never be again" (21). Faith in creation
cannot save the particular day, or daughter, from mutability. Having
passed through countless cycles of despair, ecstasy, matrimonial
responsibility, and disillusionment, Rexroth returns to a "rite of
rebirth" in nature and art.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1920-32: 1949 & 1953)
Turning back from the aging bard to the precocious innovator of
The Art of Worldly Wisdom, included next in part in the
Collected Shorter Poems (with "A Prolegomenon to a
Theodicy" appearing in CLP), we are struck by the persistent anguish
of mutability, the perennial loss of love, the mature awareness of
death from the beginning of Rexroth's work. The stylistic and
intellectual complexities of his earliest poems, written between the
ages of fifteen and twenty-seven, do not obscure the fear and
trembling of a youthful struggle for light out of darkness.
After Rexroth's most poignant cubist elegy, "In the Memory of
Andrée Rexroth" (27-30), "The Thin Edge of Your Pride
1922-26," a sequence of fourteen delicate love poems for Leslie
Smith (31-36) similar in style and tone to "Time Is an Inclusion
Series Said McTaggart," opens with the colorful music of "Later
when the gloated water/Burst with red lotus" that echoes Stevens and
Tennyson, and ends with tanka -like lines (36):
A white robe over your naked body,
Passing and repassing
Through the dreams of twenty years.
The eleven poems of a section called "Interoffice
Communications" in the 1949 volume, rearranged in CSP (37-68),
include "Phronesis" (meaning "practical wisdom," 37-40) and other
cubist poems of agonizing syntax and despair that is relieved by the
imagist love poem in plain speech beginning, "I pass your home in a
slow vermilion dawn" (47). The extended finale, "When You Asked
for It" (69-78), is the least obscure example of cubism in the
collection because the elements of experience and language are more
recognizable, as in the voice of one of the poor women: "I saw my
sister in a white nightgown walking among purple tree trunks in a
heavy fog very slow and with a gentle smile just like she was laid
The book is provocative, anguished, full of life and
consciousness of death, intensified by advanced artistry, but
troublesome: a collection showing Rexroth's promising range of
intellect and imagination, but not as satisfying as his later work.
In What Hour (1940)
The thirty-one poems of In What Hour, written between
the two World Wars, pose a metaphysical problem in that actuality
"might have been otherwise," as Alfred North Whitehead observes in
the epigraph (79). One "otherwise" for Rexroth is revolutionary hope
for a world community based on creativity, mutual aid, and love
rather than on competition, coercion, exploitation, and war. But hope
dimmed because of a pattern of historical defeats. Recalling the brutal
destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, the Bolsheviks' massacre
of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921 and other totalitarian perversions of
revolutionary idealism, Fascist victories in Italy, Germany, and Spain,
suppression of strikes and radicals in the United States, and the
outbreak of World War II, Rexroth comes to view history as a tragic
process in which values fall from heroic sacrifices. In these poems he
is not in immediate danger, but above the battle, typically mountain-
climbing in the Sierras, contemplating seasonal cycles of
constellations, wildlife, and vast geological processes against which
human struggles seem pitiful and terrible. The tragedy of history is
viewed against the inevitable cycles of nature. The poems in the first
half of the volume are generally in the style of direct address, vitally
descriptive of nature and human conflict, often muscularly rhetorical,
whereas poems in the second half transcend history to reveal "value
in mountains" (120) in a more detached cubist style.
In "Hiking on the Coast Range," the opening poem, blood from
the stab of a wasp, reminding the poet of strikers killed in San
Francisco, symbolizes the sacrificial creation of values (84).
Prophetic voices rise from the blood of social change in "From the
Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion" (81, entitled "March 18,
1871-1921" in the 1940 edition) and "The Motto on the Sundial,"
(188); but if these warnings go unheeded, if the dream of freedom
dies, then suicide would be seductive ("Gentlemen, I Address You
Publicly," 83) and defeat would be inevitable ("At Lake Desolation,"
82, in which regiments, their throats cut, are plowed under). In the
face of world crisis, aestheticism is satirized in a parody of Auden's
post-communist conventionalities of playing safe, advising children
to weave chains of violets instead of exploring the dangerous ruins of
history (85), and also in "A Very Early Morning Exercise," in which
a decadent Chinese official mutters pretty poems (91-92) in contrast
to the courageous Tu Fu (Rexroth's favorite lyric poet), who hated
despotism and war so much that he told off the Emperor ("Another
Early Morning Exercise," 92-93). Rexroth never escapes into pure art
or nature, for in "Autumn in Califonia," for instance, as he wanders
in idyllic weather, he imagines a Chinese mother bursting from a
bomb and Spanish comrades conversing philosophically before battle
(94). Though admiring humane revolutionaries, he questions the
illusory nature of action, which always eludes theory; for even as
logical men with just intentions plan the future, real activists bungle
and pervert such ideals ("New Objectives, New Cadres," 96). Only in
nature can history be transcended. In "Requiem for the Spanish
Dead," constellations offer cosmic solace during the Spanish Civil
Two of Rexroth's periodic commemorations of the execution of
Sacco and Vanzetti are "Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22,
1937," in which he predicts that the peak will one day be named after
them (89-90), and "August 22, 1939," his finest poem on the social
function of poetry (97-99). Beginning with a passage from Sacco's
final letter to his son Dante, the latter poem asks, "What is it all for,
this poetry?"--"this alphabet of one sensibility?" The answer is that
poetry reveals mysteries of nature, personality, love, death: "Values
fall from history like men from shellfire." He prophesies that "The
rule of iron and spilled blood" will at last give way to "The abiding
solidarity of living blood and brain." Even as liberators are
condemned to die, classic revolutionary slogans ring out hope:
So history interweaves with nature. In "North Palisades, the
End of September, 1939," he imagines peace beyond military
victories (100). "Towards an Organic Philosophy" shows in
meticulous detail "The chain of dependence that runs through
creation" (quoted from the naturalist Tyndall, 101). This ecological
theme runs through many poems: his lover's eyes are the "color of
snow" (112); he remembers hearing his first grosbeak on a farm that
has become a polluted suburb (108); a girl, mountain-climbing with
him, envisions a sunset on Saturn (87); and in 1939 he watches
moonlight on snow as war begins in Europe (109).
"Liberty is the mother
Not the daughter of order."
"Not the government of men
But the administration of things."
"From each according to his ability,
Unto each according to his needs."
Some atypical Renaissance influences show up briefly in "A
Letter to Yvor Winters," metaphysically presenting "thin imagos that
abide decay" out of "clouds of unknowing" (104), and in love poems
for Marie, whom he married after Andrée had died in 1940 (105-107).
The last seven poems depart from the direct speech of "natural
numbers." In "The Apple Garths of Avalon," resembling the
symbolism of Homestead, Sebastian, one of the Damascan
brothers, moves from aesthetic detachment into the absurd plethora of
existence (110-12). The cubist "Value in Mountains" (120-22),
taking off from Marx's theories of class struggle and surplus value,
then moves from social to individual being and value. Asserting that
"value is a food and not a weapon," he turns to the dialectic of
mental creation in Part 2. In the last part of this poem, the style of
shamanistic chanting should be compared with the sophisticated
vocabulary in similar form, in "Easy Lessons in Geophagy" (123).
Both primitive and sophisticated techniques blend harmoniously in
"A Lesson in Geography" (129), which sounds more like Rexroth
speaking than do the previous cubist poems, and which ends in
ecological communion as he lies speaking and listening to stone that
seems to be himself.
The final poem in the volume, "Ice Shall Cover Nineveh" (130-
36), is more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this
volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once
covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim
who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is
broken by the thought of the inevitabilility of death for both
individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the
poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through
periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour
move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent
view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.
The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944)
Rexroth dedicated the short poems in the 1944 edition of
The Phoenix and the Tortoise to D. H. Lawrence for
attempting "to refound a spiritual family." Lawrence's "December
Night"  is paraphrased in Rexroth's "Runaway" (142); but
whereas the English poet asks his lover to take off cloak, hat, and
shoes by the fire, offering to warm her limbs with kisses, Rexroth
goes much further, warming breasts and thighs also after describing
his lover's damp hair, eyes, lips, and cold cheek, concluding with the
wish to build a fire in her that would never go out, and to place a
magnet in her that would always draw her home. Rexroth's poem
sustains and develops desire that is more impulsive in Lawrence's
Erotic mysticism pervades poems such as "Floating," in which
time slips away in flesh (144), and in "Inversely..," in which the
lovers are "implements" of lust (148). But despair returns when the
poet thinks of himself in "The Advantages of Learning" as
ambitionless, friendless, poor, aging, and doomed (146). Such despair
is social as well as personal. The Lost Generation, Rexroth writes in
"Between Two Wars," was not so lost as the oppressed masses (150).
And hearing "Madame Butterfly" on shortwave from London during
World War II, he mourns the collapse of the civilization that he had
taken for granted as a child before World War I ("Un Bel di
Vendremo," 158). Bohemians who trivialize historical collapse
disgust him (147, 153, and 166-67).
Nevertheless, love returns in a Christmas celebration (143); in a
commemoration of religious and political revolutionaries (155); in the
poem beginning "Climbing alone all day," in which Rexroth
sensuously unites with his wife across the immense distance of a
mountainside (162-63); and most triumphantly and theologically in
"Theory of Numbers," in which the bliss of Holy Matrimony focuses
responsibility for all humankind (164). The eroticism of these poems
is grounded in Rexroth's organic philosophy. In the marvellously
sensuous "We Come Back" (163) and two excerpts reprinted from
The Homestead Called Damascus (159-60), for instance,
erotic, seasonal, geological, and astronomical cycles triumph over
accidents of existence.
Among satires, "Gas or Novacaine" (151) denounces the
impotence of intellectuals in the face of disaster, and "A
Neoclassicist" (167) ridicules a silly female mystic and priggish
lecher. The mood changes in agonizing elegies to his mother, Delia
(153), and to Andrée (154 and 166), and in anti-war poems
such as "Strength through Joy" (156).
The completion of the long title poem (reprinted in CLP) is quietly
celebrated in "Past and Future Turn About" (CSP 168-72), in which
the poet and Marie return in autumn to the Pacific beach where once
again he contemplates dying sea creatures and geological records of
millenia of life and death. He doubts all doctrines, including his own.
Nor can the Cross be used as a weapon against injustice, for salvation
comes only through selflessness. If anything lasts, it is cosmic
patterns that change and disappear:
Although in The Phoenix and the Tortoise there are
terse satires (153, 159, 166, and 167) and tragic reminders of war
(156, 158, and 161), Rexroth generally moves beyond despair into
confident affections resting upon the order of nature, all expressed in
consistently clear and direct language. The value of love is
heightened by its brevity, by the transience of life itself. Ecstasy,
celebrated both in present glory and poignant memory, gives meaning
to loss. Rexroth has found his place in the universe, imagining with
equanimity even his own death (164).
And the death of flowers, but
The flowered colored waves of
The sea will last forever
Like the pattern on the dress
Of a beautiful woman.
The Signature of All Things (1950)
Rexroth borrowed the title of The Signature of All
Things from Jacob Boehme, whose doctrine of correspondences
is familiar to readers of Blake, Emerson, Whitman, and other
romantics who were influenced by him. "The whole outward visible
world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual
world," wrote Boehme,  whose most profound ecstasy
occurred as he meditated on a dish reflecting the sunshine
: "In this light my spirit suddenly saw through all, and in all
created things, even in herbs and grass, I knew God, who He is, how
He is, and what His will is."  Rexroth alludes to this vision in
"The Light on the Pewter Dish" (209), and throughout this collection
the light of love streams through the universe, most brilliantly in the
title poem (actually a triple poem) in which, reading Boehme by a
waterfall, he sees golden laurel leaves spinning down like the years of
his life in a stream of love (177). In a moonlit oak grove where black
and white Holstein heifers lie under trees rooted in Indian graves, and
in the startling correspondence between galaxies overhead and a
phosphorescent log, there is apparent no distinction between the spirit
of the universe and what Rexroth sees, what he thinks, and what he
says. Other signatures, in "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" (180-81), for
example, are marks on his wife's flesh that resemble marks of redrood
cones in cliffs, and hardened lava which, like the ego, speaks of time.
Buddhism as well as Christian mysticism informs some of the
poems in The Signature of All Things. In "Yugao" (184),
alluding to the glowing ghost of one of Prince Genji's lovers in the
classic novel by Murasaki Shikibu, Rexroth imagines, as Marie sleeps
peacefully, that an old jealousy from his own stormy life seeks karmic
embodiment. "Hojiki," Japanese for "Monk's Record" or "Record of
a Monk's Hut," alludes to a collection of poetic essays on Buddhist
Emptiness by Kamo no Chomei, written in 1212 A. D. In the center
of Rexroth's sequence of seasonal nature poems with this title,
preoccupied with wind, rain, waterfalls, and wildlife, he listens to the
"speech" of falling water as he reads Christian saints in his mountain
hut. Suddenly he remembers (188):
The Lankavatara is the sutra in which
Shakyamuni bursts into laughter upon entering nirvana.
Rexroth's simile of the mountain gorge as a girl's body is reminiscent
of Lao Tzu's image of the Tao as a dark woman of the valley in the
Tao te Ching; and in an ingenious Tantric twist, Rexroth identifies the
girl's body with the triple body of the Buddha (Trikaya)--the three
aspects of bliss (the experience of enlightenment, Sambhogakaya),
illusion (the physical incarnation of Shakyamuni, Nirmanakaya), and
law (or truth, Dharmakaya). On the last page of The Signature of
All Things (212), "Further Advantages of Learning" shows us
the poet rummaging through a library, suddenly haunted by nirvana
as he sees a photo of a vase of the Buddha's bones.
Laugh in the Lankavatara,
Lighting up all the universes.
The steep sides of the gorge enclose
Me like the thighs of a girl's
Body of bliss, and illusion, and law.
Rexroth's nirvanic consciousness of death also shapes some of
his finest elegies for individuals and for humanity as a whole. In
"Delia Rexroth," he reveres his mother as the muse of his early
poems and paintings (186). In a double poem for Andrée
commemorating their love together in the mountains, he remembers
great elegies by the Renaissance poet Henry King and the Chinese
poet Yuan Chen, and Frieda Lawrence mourning as humankind
moves towards oblivion (190-90). In "Maximian, Elegy V," a woman
tells him as they embrace in a redwood forest that she is weeping for
the world (195-96). Even when Buddhism is not explicitly mentioned,
there is perennial compassion for universal suffering.
Four epistolary poems are for his friends Yvor Winters (198-
99), William Carlos Williams (193-94), William Everson (Brother
Antoninus, 201), and the Irish poet Kathleen Raine (205-206); and
other poems are for the actresses Geraldine Udell (204) and Gardenia
Chang (later to become Madam Mao, the leader of the Cultural
Revolution in China, 199), Garcia Lorca destroyed by fascism (197),
and a "Masseuse and Prostitute" (179).
Among translations and imitations from Chinese, Greek, Latin,
and Italian, the most stylistically and emotionally impressive, in its
stately cadences, is "Leopardi - L'Infinito," in which shipwreck is
sweet in the sea of infinity (207). Clarity of vision, purity of
language, directness of communication, a profound sense of peace
and love, and a rich consistency of tone make this collection the most
coherent and satisfying of all Rexroth's volumes of short poems.
The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952)
A few quiet and mellifluous excerpts from The Dragon and
the Unicorn appear in The Collected Shorter Poems,
although most of the long poem (reprinted in its entirety in CLP) is
polemical, satirical, and dialectical. Two of these passages are from
European travels: "Rosa Mundi" and "Golden Section"--lush,
philosophical love lyrics set in the entanglements of history and myth,
as sensuous as Rexroth's lover's body (219).
The other six excerpts are from the last part of the long poem,
when Rexroth returns to California, to Golden Gate Park, to rivers
and canyons, and to the mountain cottage where he and
Andrée were poor and happy two decades before (222). In
"Empty Mirror," he gazes into a campfire alone, remembering wars
and adventures that he used to imagine in other fires, but now seeing
only fire, free from the world of purpose (223). This mystical
equanimity is evident in placid imagery and lulling rhythms as, home
again in nature, he sees at night spider-eyes shining in star-light
reflected from his own eyes (224).
In Defense of the Earth (1956)
Though sometimes associated with the Beat movement, which
the poet soon criticised after welcoming it, In Defense of the
Earth is no period piece, for these poems of timeless themes of
love and protest, meditation and remembrance, stand out as some of
his sturdiest. The original edition began with eight love poems for
Marthe, but all references to her have been omitted in The
Collected Shorter Poems, no doubt because of their divorce in
1948; and the seven poems for her have lost their original order and
unity (227-33, 243, and 259). Nevertheless, they remain among his
most affectionate poems, amplifying the erotic and matrimonial
mysticism of The Phoenix and the Tortoise as he imagines
his blood flowing out to the nebulae and back to him as light in which
he sees Marthe's face. In this image, cosmic and personal energies
unite. Though sleeping, she communicates such deep love that he sees
himself as a bird entangled in lies--a confession that intensifies to
momentary speechlessness ("She is Away," 228-29). Haunted by the
dead and by all impersonal forces he is sustained by erotic union. And
in "The Great Canzon," a masterful translation of Dante, Rexroth
identifies Marthe mystically with nature itself (232):
In the poems for their children called "The Lights in the Sky
Are Stars," Rexroth imagines himself and others as "Vessels of the
billion-year-long/River that flows now in your veins"--the cosmic
"Bloodstream" (237). These "vessels" are, I think, not only blood-
vessels, channels of the universal energy-stream, but can be seen also
as ships in the cosmic river, or even utensils such as bowls holding
spirit. Contemplating the heavenly bodies, he no longer knows where
he begins and ends, for his eye is the universe seeing itself (238). The
periodicity of Halley's Comet and other heavenly cycles harmonize
memories of his childhood with his children's present and future, if
they can escape from being destroyed by depersonalizing men and
their bloody ideas (238 and 241). His daughter asks whether the blood
on the moon, during an eclipse, is because of all the blood on earth
(243). Against the inhumanity of civilization, he offers a primitive
religion of the moon, humanity, Christmas, Easter, and birthdays
Time was, I saw
Her dressed all in green, so lovely
She would have made a stone love
As I do, who love her very
Among poems about Rexroth's youth, "The Bad Old Days"
recalls the revolutionary vow that he made at age thirteen, horrified
by wasted faces of the poor in the Chicago Stock Yards (258-59).
And "A Living Pearl" tells about his first trip west, at age sixteen,
riding freights and training wild horses. The title is taken from
Dante's image of moonlight, as he recalls how the western landscape
first opened his mind to organic forms in the western landscape (235-
37). And while mountain-climbing in "Time Is the Mercy of
Eternity," one of his richest visionary poems, he becomes clear as
But love of nature never seduces him from the passion of
liberating humanity from injustices. Commemorating an old comrade
who died after realizing that their utopian dreams would not come
true for a very long time, if ever, "For Eli Jacobson" glorifies
revolutionary struggles between the World Wars that made them
happy with hope (244-45). And in a group of nature poems for his
daughter Mary, the beauties of nature are contrasted with the threat of
"Thou Shalt Not Kill," Rexroth's most famous protest poem,
which he recorded with jazz accompaniment, denounces cold-war
enemies of mankind, powerful elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain
who destroy the genius of youth. This "Memorial for Dylan Thomas"
is a public sacrament of mourning and righteous outrage.
Commemorating dozens of poets who went mad or died violently in
acquisitive, competitive, predatory, warring societies, both capitalistic
and communistic, he echoes "Lament for the Makeris" by the
Scottish poet William Dunbar:
Demanding to know who killed Dylan Thomas, "The bird of
Rhiannon" (272), he attacks celebrities who have created a culture of
death: Oppenheimer, Einstein, Hemingway, Eliot. The assumption of
total moral liability in the longer poems would suggest that much of
Rexroth's indignation explodes from his own necessary involvement
in the very culture that he despises. Though self-righteous and at
times unfair, he has unforgettably subverted the "Social Lie" that has
destroyed dozens of poets and other creative youth. "Thou Shalt Not
Kill" is Rexroth's greatest protest poem because of its eloquently
expressed range of feeling from tender sympathy to bewilderment,
then to prophetic rage and accusatory assault, all grounded in
brutalities of history. 
What happened to Robinson,
Who used to stagger down Eighth Street,
Dizzy with solitary gin?
Where is Masters, who crouched in
His law office for ruinous decades?
Where is Leonard who thought he was
A locomotive? And Lindsay,
Wise as a dove, innocent
As a serpent, where is he?
Timor mortis conturbat me. 
"A Bestiary" is a proverbial sequence for Rexroth's daughters,
warning them against conformity, cuteness, power, money,
parasitism, the state, fakery, myths, authorities, and epigrammatically
initiating them into some fundamental truths, such as, "N is for
nothing. There is/Much more of it than something" (280). Another
satirical series for his daughters, "Mother Goose," contains his most
whimsical poems (285-92).
After miscellaneous epigrams, diatribes, and translations comes
a finale of three poems on the philosophical nature of poetry. The first
poem in a pair called "They Say This Isn't a Poem" ironically sums
up the theory of Leibniz's pre-established harmony, which had once
attracted Rexroth, but which turns out to stink of oppression and
violence (312). The second poem of this pair presents Rexroth's, and
Homer's, alternate view that Nature's apparent order is only a
reflection "Of the courage, loyalty,/Love, and honesty of men" (313).
Finally, "Codicil" tells us that the theory that poetry is impersonal
construction, as applied by Eliot, Valery, Pope, and others generates
just its opposite, intimate reverie (314). These three poems succinctly
reveal contradictory concerns that Rexroth struggled throughout his
life to reconcile in his poetry: his intuitions of a transcendent
metaphysical harmony on the one hand, and immanent personalism
on the other; or put another way, the amorality of existence and the
personal demand for justice.
Here then is a reaffirmation of the person, even when masked in
so-called impersonal art, a fitting finale for a volume in which
Rexroth comes through so robustly as lover, father, and prophet
denouncing the injustices of humanity while at the same time
recognizing its place in the creative process of nature.
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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson
Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry