Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 4 (Part Two)

Natural Numbers (1963)

The Collected Shorter Poems concludes with "New Poems," written between 1957 and 1962, from the original 1963 edition of Natural Numbers, which had also included selections from the previous books. Notably missing are poems of intricate philosophizing and of extreme technical innovation, although a gentle cubism is apparent in "Eight for Ornette's Music" (332-34). Nearly all of the other "New Poems" are in the more natural direct statement in syllabics, and the prevailing tone is elegiac instead of lyrical or satirical.

In many of them the poet is hiking or fishing with his daughters; listening to Mary, at seven, talk about "Homer in Basic" (317); reminiscing about the time of revolutionary optimism ("Fish Peddler and Cobbler," another of his perennial memorials for Sacco and Vanzetti, 319); or remembering his father flipping poker chips that three-year-old Katherine now plays with. A dozen poems of travelling in France, Italy, and England resemble passages in The Dragon and the Unicorn, but we find none of the harshness of the earlier satires, for he has moved from polemics to tragic acceptance of the human condition.

The book ends with a sequence called "Air and Angels," love poems with the insistent, sad reminder of inevitable loss and loneliness, as in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," which Rexroth quotes in "Pacific Beach" (340-41). Nothing can save him from the overriding sense of doom surrounding moments of ecstasy. The quieter, resigned, more traditional side of his personality emerges as he consolidates his lifework to date in a mood of solitary tenderness. He explores such perennial themes as children, youth, love, and community with elegiac equanimity, which in five years would be enriched by the pervasive influence of his first visit to Japan. The cool lyricism of the poems written for music, at the conclusion of The Collected Shorter Poems, harmonizes in style and tone with some of the poems in "Gödel's Proof" at its beginning: so the whole collection is cyclic, like nature itself.

And like nature, multiple rhythms unite Rexroth's poetry from beginning to end. His pioneering preoccupation with elemental sounds of language, most evident in cubist poems that allied him, for a time, with Zukofsky's experiments in verbal musicality, extends throughout The Collected Shorter Poems, so lyrics in "natural numbers" also display amazingly subtle rhythmic and melodic qualities inherent in the duration, pitch, and stress of common speech. Alternations of concrete and abstract diction, passages of pure vision that resolve philosophical dialectics, are also rhythmic, as are dramatic variations in tone from despair, agony, and indignation to desire, affection, and ecstasy. The selection, arrangement, and meaning of some poems, especially in the cubist mode, may trouble readers, but there are more significant, interrelated patterns of sound, syntax, imagery, tone, and theme, and more enduring wisdom, than most readers can discover in a lifetime of close reading. The Collected Shorter Poems is a work of heroic struggle, artistic and intellectual, that deserves as much attention as the work of other major modern poet.

The Collected Longer Poems (1968)

Rexroth thought of his long philosophical reveries in a tradition that included Aiken's Symphonies, Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's The Cantos, Williams' Paterson, Zukofsky's Poem Beginning "A", Lowenfels' Some Deaths, and Tyler's Granite Butterfly. [8] He might have added Whitman's long poems, and outside American literature the prophetic poetry of Blake, Milton, Dante, Lao Tzu, and the Bible. But his claim in the Introduction to The Collected Longer Poems (1968) that the five poems are one poem does not quite ring true, for the five are too stylistically diverse. Moreover, the long delays before the first two poems were published in books, more than three decades for Homestead and two decades for Prolegomenon, indicate lingering artistic and intellectual uncertainties about his youthful symbolist and cubist innovations. Nevertheless, the three later long poems are major achievements, and the five considered together impressively reveal the development of the poet's artistry, worldview, and wisdom. Of these, The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Dragon and the Unicorn expand the radical Christian Personalism of the first two poems, whereas The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart initiates the predominantly Buddhist outlook of the last thirteen years of his life, although oriental influences had affected his work from its inception.

Rexroth explains in the Introduction that the plot of the five poems is "the interior and exterior adventures of two poles of a personality," represented in Homestead by two brothers (with a third figure, an anonymous observer-narrator commenting from time to time). In dialogue, philosophies are contradicted dialectically and resolved only in a transcendent experience. Male personae in the poems and plays--the brothers in Homestead, Rexroth himself undisguised in the other poems, and Greek heroes in Beyond the Mountains--form a polarity with fertility figures such as the Greek Artemis, Marichi (an Indian Goddess of the Dawn), and human heroines who suggest an absolute community of love realized in "the self unselfing itself" in "creative process."

The Homestead Called Damascus (1920-25; 1957)

The title of Rexroth's first long philosophical reverie reminds us of St. Paul's conversion, and The Homestead Called Damascus is rich in Christian imagery and the kind of religious anthropology that Eliot, Frazer, and Cambridge classicists had been promoting. Is the homestead domestic or monastic? And are the heroes blood-brothers or religious brothers? Thomas is associated with Doubting Thomas Didymus and the sacrificed god Tammus- Osiris-Adonis-Dionysus, expressing the involuntary, reflective side of Rexroth's personality; and Sabastian, paradoxically identified with the Greek god Eros as well as with the saint shot with arrows, reflects the active, willful side of the poet, who finally gravitates from action to contemplation of the fertility-goddess-muses Marichi and a Negro blues singer. Sebastian also compares himself in one of Rexroth's earliest oriental allusions to Daruma (12), the Japanese name of Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism from India to China, meditating so long that his legs rotted away.

Homestead is in four parts, in Rexroth's most musical, symbolist style, in lines typically of nine syllables. He begins by contrasting angels who never question the mysteries of the universe with youths who search infinity for spiritual vocations as they construct forms to make sense of their chaotic lives. The brothers live on the Hudson River in the Catskills, in a rambling homestead that embodies the bourgeois-Christian-Classical tradition from which they try in vain to escape. Their parents might have been created by Henry James or Proust, and their grandfather had stuffed the house with reminders of imperialistic glories in India and China; while under the church are pterodactyl bones and smoky paintings of libididous primitivism repressed by civilization and superego. In a neighboring mansion of bygone Renaissance glory, the brothers visit Leslie, who lives like a fantastic princess.

Unsettled by artifice, domesticity, and decadence, the brothers contemplate heroic quests and ancient fertility rites, the origins of culture; but fearful of losing themselves in either sexual love or martyrdom, they never find the grace that came to Saul on the road to Damasus, to pagans in search of Atlantis, or to knights in quest of the Holy Grail. They kid each other with myths, but the serious reveries of Sebastian waver between enticements of domestic bliss with Leslie and, at the other extreme, the martyrdom that befell his Christian namesake of the third century. Thomas has nihilistic nightmares of Lucifer and Modred (the nephew and murderer of King Arthur) who could see only the potters' field, though Christ was always present.

In Part II, "The Autumn of Many Years," while Thomas goes on an erotic quest to New York City, Sebastian sinks into a temporary nirvana, but leaves it to ponder the waste land of the city and Maxine, the black stripper and earth goddess whose promises he cannot experience. Suddenly, the narrator breaks in like Eliot's Tiresias, ranting of mad lotus-eaters, Adonis castrated, and evolutionary mysteries of creative process, geological, biological, astronomical, and human (13-14). This remarkable vision, informed by scientific knowledge spurned by Eliot, is followed by a scene of the debased union of Persephone and Adonis reminiscent of Eliot's "The Game of Chess" (14-15). Part II ends on Good Friday as the brothers sink into contemplation, but without receiving grace.

In Part III, "The Double Hellas" (Apollonian and Dionysian) the universe is perceived in aesthetic forms: "Baroque forests," Bach's bust in a park, "sculpt and colored stones and shells" (20, 17, 23, and 29). The brothers are still paralyzed in the dilemma between the promise of decadent domesticity with Leslie in a menage a trois, and the dangers of sacrifice involving such fertility goddesses as Persephone, Kore, Theano, and the living Maxine. While the brothers fantasize, the narrator seems to be caressing an actual woman (25).

In the last part, "The Stigmata of Fact," during an archaeological expedition that is a kind of grail quest, Thomas concludes (13) that

      "There is no self subsistent
Microcosm." He thinks a while of
Chuang Tzu fishing with a straight pin and
Says, "There is no self subsistent
Macrocosm either."

Here Thomas is echoing Shakyamuni who, under the Bo tree, discovered that there is no absolute universal spirit (Brahman) and no absolute personal self (Atman): experiencing universal interdependence, he gave up striving for any absolute, finding nirvana in change itself. Chuang Tzu, the Chinese sage popular in Taoism and Zen, was so completely, unselfconsciously attuned to nature that he needed no fish-hook. Sebastian agrees with his brother, quoting Shakyamuni that "There is no self that suffers release," but without attaining enlightenment (35); nor can Maxine's enticements save him from sterility. Silence closing about Thomas, resignedly staring into a fire.

Any reading of this astonishing poem discerns only some of the many threads of meaning woven into the ambiguities of its symbolism and ideas, making it at least as philosophically intricate as Eliot's or Stevens' poetry. The Damascan brothers are adolescent Prufrocks, inhibited from making a leap of faith into love or martyrdom, but are more sensuous, humorous, and intellectual than Eliot's anti-hero. No poem is more faithful to the frustrations and speculations of precocious youth. The brothers are not dramatically distinct, nor do they act in a definitive way, but symbolist personae are not accustomed to do so. Unlike most symbolist literature, Homestead contains abundant diction from mathematics and the natural sciences--"galaxy, dark nebulae," "space--Euclidean, warped, or otherwise," "rhomboids, nonagons" (3), and technical terms from geology and the life sciences intertwining with mythological language. Here we see the beginnings of Rexroth's organic philosophy, uniting mystical experience with scientific observation and theory, which led to a more direct and ecstatic contemplation of nature in later poems. And the erotic mysteries that are pursued in Homestead are later intimated if not realized in many lyrics.

"A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy" (1925-27: 1932)

How can God be omniscient, omnipotent, and supremely good if evil exists? A theodicy, such as Leibniz's theory of pre-established harmony, justifies God's perfection in relation to an imperfect universe. Rexroth did not offer a solution to this problem, but his second long poem concerns mystical experience without which no theodicy is possible. Religiously and technically more mature than Homestead, "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy" is his most famous cubist work, placing him securely in the international arena of "The Revolution of the Word."

Metaphysical and moral despair is much harsher in this poem than in Homestead, in which the Damascan brothers had the luxury of witty dialogue, congenial sentiments, and sensuous companions. In "Prolegomenon," communication seems hopeless as the distraught poet speaks in extreme dissociation to a disembodied "you" who seems not to understand him in Part I.

Part II suggests various ways of existing, in short, parallel lines like those of a primitive chant, a style sustained and intensified in III and IV, which ends with revelations of lamp and mirror. [9] In V, voices praise the Lord in a hymn of peace. In VI the poet is compared to a blissful Thomist angel who contemplates the Word and all things in it. In VII the poet is tempted to evade his prophetic responsibilities, but in VIII he is reminded that moral character requires the choice of death rather than dishonor. In IX he imagines a Dantean hell.

In these depths of misery, the poet hears from the sky that it is blessed to die; and a visitor, apparently a Savior, is admitted by the woman to whom the poet had addressed the opening part of the poem. In the last part, the poet moves climactically towards a kind of "Paradise Regained." First, he is assured by Aristotle that he will reach his goal and then by Blake's greater wisdom (58). The angel Gabriel defeats the evil spirit and the poet is blessed by the Apocalyptic coming of God (60):

The ciborium of the abyss
The bread of light
The chalice of the byss
The wine of flaming light
The wheeling multitude
The rocking cry

In "Prolegomenon" Rexroth reaches out of the despair of Homestead towards God Himself. But the Beatific Vision, bursting through the radical dissociation of the rest of the poem, strains belief, and nothing so blatant appears again in his work. The fact that the work was not published in a book-length collection of his poems until 1949, more than two decades after it had been written, may indicate serious uncertainty about its outlook and effectiveness. Although certain passages in it are powerful, it is the least satisfying of the long reveries. Nevertheless, its prosody is extraordinary: for instance, (46-47):

The throat of night
The plethora of wine
The fractured hour of light
The opaque lens
The climbing wheel

Here patterns of sound are subtly woven: t's in throat, night, light (and rhyme also); i's in night, wine, light, climbing; l's in plethora, light, lens, wheel; and reverberations in throat and plethora. Also, the cubism of this poem produces cadences closer to those of actual speech than the symbolist mellifluences of Homestead; and the Damascan brothers seem dilletantish in contrast to the rigorous asceticism of the poet in "Prolegomenon." It prepared the way for Rexroth's first book eight years later.

The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1940-44: 1944)

In the sacramental union of lovers Rexroth found a solution to the problem of the one and the many in both moral and metaphysical terms. His third long poem and his first extended masterpiece, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, like "The Phoenix and the Turtle," the mystical poem attributed to Shakespeare, celebrates the erotic union of opposites. It also reveals a process from despair through erotic and matrimonial mysticism to a consciousness of universal responsibility.

Rexroth's despair had festered from the loss of his parents during World War I, the collapse of a humane way of life that he had taken for granted as a child, the disillusionment of growing up in a predatory society, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, the rise of Fascism, the Depression, the Moscow Trials, the Spanish Civil War, and the death of Andrée in 1940, at the outset of World War II. Ecstatic experiences from time to time, however, had reaffirmed his intuition that the universe is, after all, harmonious in some inexplicable way, an intuition that seemed to be confirmed by mystical writings that influenced his own. The personalism, sacramentalism, and sense of responsibility in The Phoenix and the Tortoise clearly come from Christianity, but Buddhism is also, less obviously, a major source, shaping this poem far more than it had affected Homestead and foreshadowing the preponderantly Buddhist outlook of later work.

The true person, he argues, is not an isolated self, but a lover in harmony with the universe. The idea, developed throughout the poem, is familiar in Christianity; and though compassion is emphasized more than love in Buddhism, the Bodhisattvah, like Christ, is a sacrificial savior. Shakyamuni's idea of no-self appears in Rexroth's allusion, for example, to a waka by the Japanese poet Kintsune: "The flowers whirl away in the wind like snow./The thing that falls away is myself." [10]

Rexroth acknowledged the central influence on The Phoenix and the Tortoise of The Flower Wreath Sutra (Sanskrit Avatamsaka or Japanese Kegon, after which one of his last poems is entitled. [11] The ideas of this sutra were said to be so obscure to Shakyamuni's followers that he soon gave up preaching them, relying instead on the elementary Four Noble Truths (on the cause and ending of suffering), the Eight Fold Path, and Interdependent Origination. [12] In this sutra, the ultimate reality of creation and destruction is revealed in a grain of dust or anything else, just as William Blake saw "the world in a grain of sand." [13] According to Kûkai (Kôbô Daishi, Rexroth's favorite theorist of Japanese Buddhism), the Buddha in this sutra preached that each moment is infinite, that particulars are universal, and that everything is infinitely interdependent, using images of lamps and Indra's Net. [14] Over the castle of the god Indra hangs an immense net in which countless jewels at the intersections reflect one another as well as the whole, just as mirrors placed around lamps reflect them endlessly, and just as everything in the universe reflects everything else and the whole: so each impermanent, insubstantial thing in the phenomenal world (samsara) reflects the transcendent realm (nirvana) and is inseparable from it: form is void and void is form.

This theme of universal interaction permeates The Phoenix and the Tortoise, extending the organic philosophy that Rexroth had been developing for two decades. In fact, Buddhism complemented Leibnitz's philosophy of pre-established harmony that had strongly influenced Rexroth's organicism. [15] Rejecting the alienating, destructive pressures of modern secular thought and history, in which each person is reduced to an atomic individual in perpetual conflict with other individuals, the poet comes to realize, like a Bodhisattva, his ecological interdependence with all beings, and his ethical responsibility for all persons, including each war victim. He is not a lone individual, but participates in all nature and history, wherever he is, nourished by the entire universe and changing it with his every act.

Indra's net is behind such images as webs of misery and accident that unite the poet with all suffering beings, such as the drowned Japanese sailor lying among other dead creatures on the Pacific shore, at the outset of the poem (63-65 and 85). Contemplating geological strata and reading Plutarch, Rexroth wonders what survives from the waste of history, concluding that modern civilization is disintegrating in war just as classical civilization did. Is there a way out? Like Socrates, he doubts each answer that occurs to him. At one point in his speculations he seems to agree with Aristotle that "Poetry is more philosophic/Than history," but always breaks out of the circle of argumentation (65, 67, 68, and 70). Condemning theories of personality and history in which reason, ego, and will are basic, he discovers the transcendent person in preparing Passover supper on Easter Eve (66), after which he and his wife Marthe make love. In half-sleep, he has a vision, inspired by Jacob Boehme, of the universe as an hour glass in which gold and silver sands fall and rise from God (72). Christian and Buddhist images mix as Easter approaches (72-73):

The moonlight of the Resurrection,
The moon of Amida on the sea,
Glitters on the wings of the bombers,
Illuminates the darkened cities.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Kwannon, turn from peace. As moonlight
Flows on the tides, innumerable
Dark worlds flow into splendor.

Here the full moon is the image of Dharmakaya (the Body of Buddhist Truth) in the Flower Wreath Sutra. Amida (the Japanese name for Amitabha in Sanskrit) means Infinite Light and is the name of the Buddha of the Western Paradise or Pure Land, the incarnation of Compassion. Kwannon (or Kannon, Japanese for Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. These beings turn from the peace of their own enlightenment to save all suffering beings.

In Part II Rexroth is indignantly anarchistic in the tradition of Piotr Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and the Industrial Workers of the World: "The State is the organization/Of the evil instincts of mankind." And: "War is the health of the State? Indeed!/War in the State" (74-75). Extreme shifts of style from exploding epigrams to sensuous imagery, from ferocious rhetoric to sombre elegy, cohere in the person of the poet in the poem, a passionate thinker and contemplative actor. Nearing sleep in frosty moonlight, he remembers heroes, martyrs, and poets such as Nicias, More, and Abelard who transcend the waste of history (78).

Waking beside his wife at dawn, in Part III, Rexroth rages again against the impersonality of history (80-81), in which I-It supplants Buber's I-Thou. Berating intellectuals who sell themselves to the State, he ironically contrasts the Sophist Hippias, with the most salable skills, contending with the wiser Socrates, who sells nothing (82-83). But why think at all? Dreams may be as true as reason (85).

Finally, in the last, the rising sun of Good Friday reminds Rexroth of the purity of the universe (87), an idea from the Flower Wreath Sutra, in which the Sun of Intelligence or Dharmakaya rises on all indiscriminately, though some beings are in the dark longer than others, just as plains lie longer in shadow than do peaks. Buddhist and Christian themes fuse in the finale as the poet meditates on Schweitzer, to whom the poem is dedicated, and other saintly persons. Remembering a miraculous rainbow and crosses in the sky reported by Whymper, the Matterhorn explorer, Rexroth feels the rising sun focus through him to infinity (91):

Men drop dead in the ancient rubbish
Of the Acropolis, scholars fall
Into self-dug graves, Jews are smashed
Like heroic vermin in the Polish winter.
This is my fault, the horrible term
Of weakness, evasion, indulgence,
The total of my petty fault--
No other man's.

In a powerful affirmation of love and sacramental marriage in which enlightenment comes erotically, Rexroth celebrates his wife as a focus of the whole universe. As she comes towards him through the breakers, nude and singing, the sun illuminates her, the moon, and the sea, melting ancient ice (91).

The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a glorious contribution to mystical literature, unites personal experience with the tragedy of history and the ever-renewing interactivities of nature. Oriental wisdom renews and expands the familiar Christian message of selfless love. Rexroth's reply to war, and to human misery generally, rises from an acute philosophical and spiritual struggle and culminates in matrimonial bliss that sacramentalizes a profound vision of the universe. The style ranges from lyrical sensuousness to abstract argument, and from an elegiac sense of the tragedy of history to ecstatic symbolism, rich in Japanese lore and allusions, all sounding from a distinct and compelling voice. [16]

The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952)

Rexroth compared the tone of The Dragon and the Unicorn, his longest poem, to that of Mark Twain's travel writings17; but in Rexroth's poem, along with satirical passages reminiscent of Innocents Abroad, there is more abstruse philosophizing about the political and religious complexities of European history, focussed on the meaning of love, than Twain would find palatable. Rexroth's personality has grown more complex in this, his fourth long reverie, than in his earlier work, in particularized responses to the cold war and atomic terror in Europe and America as well as in the comprehensive development of the worldview delineated in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which it closely resembles also in the natural style of direct statement. The idea of community, hitherto expressed abstractly for the most part, is concretized in The Dragon and the Unicorn in encounters with friends in Europe trying to recover from two world wars and under the threat of a third. Rexroth is more active, and interactive, in this poem than in any other of his entire career. Returning to California mountains, he re-enters the wilderness to contemplate organic forms as raccoons stare at him from a campfire. Man of nature, sophisticated traveller, dialectical philosopher, anarchistic polemicist, and visionary lover are fused in the person intimately speaking to us.

The poem begins with the question of love, asked by Pilate as he washes his hands. In Part I, as Rexroth crosses America by train from San Francisco to New York, and then tours England, part of it by foot--Liverpool, Wales, Shropshire, Tintern Abbey, Bath, Somerset, Stonehenge, London--he searches for the answer that would bring spiritual renewal to a world wrecked by two world wars and preparing for another. Pilate's amorality characterizes those who rule the world, denying the creative power of interpersonal love. Recalling the Buddha's Fire Sermon (95), Rexroth suggests that the way out of world catastrophe is an erotic path of enlightenment familiar in Tantra, though it was considered heretical by other Buddhists. He lists seductive women linked with Shakyamuni (98); he suggests the union of the Buddha's compassion and Tara's wisdom in a traditional image derived from Tantric mandala of yabyum, or sexual yoga (214-15); and he lists additional male/female polarities in major world religions: Kali and Shiva, Artemis and Apollo, the Shekinah and Jehovah, Mary and God, Magdalene and Christ (274).

From Nirvana of enlightened union to Samsara, illusory experience that is usually taken for granted as the "real" world, Rexroth's attention swings back and forth. Vacant lots in Chicago remind him of Andrew Marvell's deserts of eternity (97), and when he tours England, bombed-out shells of Liverpool remind him of the fall of Rome (100). Poverty, war, the collapse of civilization are consequences of the amoral use of human beings as means to an abstract, impersonal end. They are not respected as persons but are instead made to serve history under the illusion that time is abstractly objective, linear and atomic, rather than an organic dimension of human experience. When time is made to dominate life, extreme dehumanization is represented by the logical positivist, who rejects the truth of any experience that cannot be scientifically verified and who denies the wholeness of organic process by categorically separating fact from value. Modern science, technology, and politics conspire to quantify persons.

Against this worldview, Rexroth's basis for renewal is the sense of reality as communion among persons. The image of Indra's Net from The Flower Wreath Sutra, introduced in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, generates this remarkably intricate conception of universal interpersonal mutuality (108):

Each moment of the universe
And all the universes
Are reflected in each other
And in all their parts and
Thence again in themselves
As a concourse of persons, all
Reflecting and self-reflecting
And the reflections and the
Reflective medium reflecting.

So the self or ego, as the Buddha taught, does not exist in itself but is only a perspective on other perspectives; and the person, inseparable from the creative process itself, is responsible for the universe (112- 13). Rexroth had arrived at this conclusion in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, but here the idea is ontological: being is ethical. Reality is responsibility because a person is the universe he or she creates: or in terms of Vedanta, Atman is Brahman, Thou Art That! The universal responsibility inherent in mutuality implies that all creatures have Buddha-mind (118). Love turns out to be the act of creation and evaluation itself (121), exemplified as this poem, a reply to Pilate's cynicism.

In Part II, the poet feels an immense ethical burden from the waste of human exploitation. Hearing the popular song "La Vie en Rose" again and again as he travels through France, he suffers memories of failed or broken love (123-24); and along with the pain of his own loss, he feels the agony of history as he recalls the Inquisition as well as the recent war (141). Wherever he goes, he is reminded of repression and waste. How can a man of conscience endure? Must he empathize with each individual sufferer as a Bodhisattvah renounces Buddhahood for himself in order to help humanity find enlightenment? In lieu of this extreme commitment, Rexroth's alternative is to seek transcendence through the contemplative practice of erotic love, which sacramentally universalizes the person (154).

In Part III, as if in fulfillment of this idea of love, his third wife, Marthe, conceives a child as they tour Italy together. As in previous sections, philosophizing is interspersed with anecdotal passages satirical of depersonalizing forces such as American capitalism, leftist intellectuals, the Vatican, and all states (207). As the poet talks with wealthy intellectuals and poor workers, epigrams become more compressed. Love is defined as "mutual indwelling/Without grasping" (158): "A Person is a lover" (160). He denounces the perversions of modern marriage, based upon commodities (167-68), and the antisexual repressiveness of the Catholic hierarchy (182). The orgiastic communion of Tantric and ancient Hebrew religions was based upon a community of lovers, which is Rexroth's idea of God (170-75). And when he asserts that all experience is that of a "Contemplative immersed in/Contemplation," he suggests that each Person is intrinsically though unknowingly a Buddha (176).

Community is always threatened by "collectivity," reducing persons to numbers as the state and prevailing economic systems, both capitalistic and communistic, do. In a world of political and military regimentation, technological coercion, and war, true love is subversive, cultish, in perpetual opposition to the dehumanizing illusion of collectivity (191). Believing in the lie of the state, people allow themselves to be coerced, depersonalized, and destroyed. The only alternative to despair is to love, conscious of the love of others (222).

In Part IV, while passing through Switzerland, Rexroth denounces the obscurantism of Karl Barth's theology and Jung's psychotherapy (226); and in Paris, reflecting on failed revolutions as communities destroyed by collectivities, he rejects the Marxist idea that the proletariat as a collectivity can usher in the good society (230-32). He finds radical workers of sensibility and talent who are not, however, about to sacrifice themselves at the barricades for remote, impersonal objectives (236-41). Their ideology is less important than their respect and affection for one another.

In the final section, back in America, traveling alone from the East Coast to California, he stops in Chicago and Kansas City long enough to look up a couple of girl friends and to rail at the Protestant ethic (253). Out West, beyond civilization founded upon the denial of love, his thoughts travel "beyond the mountains" as he sits peacefully in a mountain cottage where he and his first wife had been poor and happy artists, lovers, and contemplatives (265).

Why the title? The dragon, symbolizing good fortune in the world for the Chinese, and the unicorn, symbolizing the mystery of erotic and spiritual love for European Christians, unite in the worldly and otherworldly wisdom of the poem (104).

The Dragon and the Unicorn is a major effort to work out a coherent worldview, an original fusion of insights from major religions, but concludes like all of Rexroth's long poems in visionary experience beyond abstract speculation. The sustained interior monologue, which often becomes critical dialogue as every idea is vigorously tested, reveals an uncompromisingly conscientious person who lets nothing unexamined slip past. Debating other intellectuals or making love to women in bombed out slums of Europe or in unspoiled mountains of California, he articulates the universal in the particular, the mutuality of existence in each observation. Christian themes of communion, moral responsibility, holy matrimony, and the universal community of love are realized more fully than in any of his other poems, in the context of the creative process of nature, imagined through Buddhist imagery: so transcendence is experienced in immanence, and immanence is transcendent. He has expanded his mastery of thought and language, here, generally, in 7-9 syllable lines, even beyond the accomplishments of his preceding poems. Epigrammatical, rhetorical, and philosophical passages are as memorable as sensuously lyrical and elegiac lines.

Having fulfilled his aims in writing this kind of dialectical poem, Rexroth then abandoned the western mode of philosophical debate in his next long reverie, The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, producing his most sustained expression of pure visionary experience.

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry