Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

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Chapter 4 (Conclusion)

The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1967)

In Rexroth's fifth and last long philosophical poem, the aging poet wanders through Japanese forests at the beginning of summer, recalling Lao Tzu's imagery of the Tao: "The valley's soul is deathless./It is called the dark woman./The dark woman is the gate/To the root of heaven and earth" (283). He feels towards the Tao like a man who has lost the woman he loves. But since illumination is like the innocence of fish who do not know that they live in water, the desire for it is self-defeating. The Tao is like light, but unseen, and music, but unheard. He loses himself in intermingling sensations of bamboo leaves, gold fish, waterfalls, birds, birdlike voices of women, temple bells, meadows, lakes, the perfume of flowers and forests (283-86). The Tao, the radiant harmony of life, both immanent and transcendent, speaks in his pulse and breathing (290). Wandering over mountains and through valleys bathed with light, conversing with tree frogs, hearing the click of looms and the clack of pachinko machines, he experiences things as they are, freed from illusions born of grasping (297). To the enlightened eye, nothing is specially "holy" in opposition to the "profane": so an ordinary stone or uncarved block of wood is no less sacred than a temple. Similarly, any human act, even the prostitute's, is contemplative (299). The language of this poem is as sensuous as the perceptions that it conveys. No other poem of Rexroth's is more musical. Rather than theorizing, he transmits experience directly through such melodious imagery as:

The Eve of Ch'ing Ming--Clear Bright,
A quail's breast sky and smoky hills,
The great bronze gong booms in the
Russet sunset. Late tonight
It will rain. Tomorrow will
Be clear and cool once more. One more
Clear, bright day in this floating life.

How simple the sense, but how intricate the sounds of this passage (294). The first five lines, like most of the others in the poem, are of seven syllables each; but the five stresses in each of the first two lines make them seem languidly long in contrast to the abruptness of the third and fourth. The indecisive ending of the third line and, in the fourth, the internal rhyme ("Russet sunset"), the caesura, amd the s's and t's, contribute to the change of pace; and the sixth and seventh lines are a return to the languor of the "floating life" of detached equanimity.

Patterns of vowels and consonants also give the passage contour. First there are three stressed ee's and internal rhyme: "The Eve of Ch'ing Ming." "Clear Bright," the name of the day which describes the day, is repeated in the last line, and "clear" is also in the sixth. "Breasts," "bronze," and "booms" alliterate with "Bright"; "tonight" rhymes with it; and the i's in "sky" and "life" provide additional linkage. Playing against the i's are the low resonance of the o's and u's in "smoke," "bronze gong booms," "Russet sunset," "tonight" and "Tomorrow," "cool once more. One more," and "floating." The t's of "Bright," "breast," "great," "Russet sunset. Late tonight," "tomorrow," and, repeated in the last line, "bright," lead to "floating"; and f and l reappear in "life." The poem must be read aloud for the reader to enter fully this "floating life." Just as every-day objects are sacred to the enlightened eye, so the most ordinary words become music conveying the feeling of awakening in the Japanese landscape--the fulfillment of Rexroth's agonizing quest of half a century.

Two short poems follow the long one as a kind of coda linking Christian and Buddhist terminology in renditions of the same basic realization. In "A Song At the Winepresses" for Gary Snyder, Rexroth senses that the same love in Mt. Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara as in Japan (305). And in "the Spark in the Tinder of Knowing" for James Laughlin, at the Cowley Fathers Monastery in Cambridge, he reaffirms the "Holy Wedding" of existence (307).

The Collected Longer Poems ends with the aging poet's attainment of spiritual realization in Japan, having begun with the Damascan brothers' youthful quest in upstate New York. As civilization deteriorated after World War I, the wry narrator and speculative brothers of Homestead explore through symbols and dialectic the dilemmas of contemplation and action, attaining a kind of Christian-Buddhist resignation. Rexroth does not appear directly in that poem, but in Prolegomenon he struggles prophetically through hellish dissociation, both verbal and psychological, into a Beatific Vision that seems more literary than actual.

In the "natural numbers" of the remaining three poems he perfected a conversational style for communing with nature and those he loved, and for denouncing the injustices of the "Social Lie." The theological lover of The Phoenix and the Tortoise during World War II, reflecting on the collapse of ancient and modern civilizations, affirms the Integral Person in Community in Buddhist terms of universal interactivity and Christian terms of responsibility through sacramental marriage. The eco-anarcho-Christian-Buddhist philosopher of The Dragon and the Unicorn, finding solace in the processes of nature, love, and friendship as he travels through America and Europe, threatened by atomic extinction, expands and concretizes the philosophy of universal love. The Buddhist sage of The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, moving beyond dialectical polemics, sinks into the Tao in Japan, compassionately realizing the harmonious interaction of all beings.

Throughout the Collected Longer Poems mythic and actual women inspire the poet, often uniting with him in love that spreads through the universe: the elegant Leslie and black stripper Maxine; his wives Marie and Marthe; Lao Tzu's "dark woman of the valley," symbolizing the Tao; the Biblical Lilith and Marichi-ben, Indian goddess of orgasm and the dawn, appearing in the first and last poems of this volume, and later in the Marichiko sequence. The organic philosophy emerges from erotic mysteries as well as from reverence for landscapes on the west coast, Europe, and Japan, under the progressions of planets and consellations, in multiple Buddha- worlds.

New Poems (1974) and The Morning Star (1979)

After the major collections of Rexroth's shorter and longer poems came out in the late 1960's, short poems and sequences flowed from his Japanese sojourns into The Morning Star (1979), the last book of his original poems issued in his lifetime, consisting of three previously published volumes: The Silver Swan, On Flower Wreath Hill, and The Love Songs of Marichiko. New Poems (1974) is a transition between these books and the previous The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, Rexroth's longest poem initiating the predominantly Buddhist outlook that characterizes the final phase of his work.

New Poems (1974)

"Love Is an Art of Time," the opening section of New Poems containing the previously published Sky Sea Birds Trees Earth House Beasts Flowers and other lyrics, is a reminder that time is organic rather than serial, a major theme in The Dragon and the Unicorn; but oriental equanimity has replaced the dialectical polemics of the earlier poem.

Near the end of a sequence of tanka-like lyrics called "The City of the Moon," the Buddha says that out of innumerable truths he has offered only a few, like a handful of autumn leaves (36). In "Void Only," terse allusions yoke two major schools of Mahayana philosophy, the Madyamika of Nagarjuna in which All is Void, and the Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandu in which All is Mind (22). In "Suchness," the English equivalent of the Sanskrit Tathata, the soul, like camphor, burns without residue (23). In "Late half moon," Shakamuni unites with his consort Tara in Tantric union of wisdom and love (24). And in "The Flower Sutra," a Japanese mountain cuckoo cries, "Kegonkyo," the title of the sutra featuring the Net of Indra, foreshadowing On Flower Wreath Hill.

The Japanese style is sustained in the selection from the "Marichiko" sequence (published as a whole separately), and in imitations and translations from the Chinese, making New Poems more of a sampling of work-in-progress than a unified work.

The Morning Star (1979)

Facing death from a failing heart, Rexroth named The Morning Star after the planet that shines forth just before sunrise, a symbol of enlightenment ever since Shakyamuni observed it under the Bo tree about twenty-five centuries ago. The book is the culmination of the poet's lifework and his absorption of Buddha Dharma ever since he had begun translating oriental poetry as a youth.

The Silver Swan (1976)

The first section of The Morning Star includes all sixteen of the previously published poems from The Silver Swan in 1976, along with twelve new poems and a note. Some of these twenty-eight poems are translations from Gunnar Ekelof, the Swedish poet, but all feel Japanese, some are translations from Fujiwara no Taiwa and Japan's greatest woman poet of the twentieth century, Yosano Akiko, and most suggest non-dualities of life and death, mind and nature, past and present, darkness and light, love and loss, and the one and the many. In the title poem, the complex image of the sleeping swan singing as the moon rises suggests that we may be enlightened when we do not know it; and in fact, if we think that we are enlightened, then we have falsely objectified the experience (4).

The moon of enlightenment appears also, in various cycles and seasons, in IV, V, IX, XII, XIII, XVI, XVIII, XIX, XXIII, and climactically in XVII, certainly one of Rexroth's most remarkable poems of ecstatic vision. In it, the poet, like Shakyamuni in nirvana, observes before dawn, near a crescent moon, the Morning Star, which he notes is Marishiten, named after Marishiben, the ancient Indian love-goddess of the dawn who became a bodhisattva for lovers, women in childbirth, prostitutes, geisha, and samurai (85-86). Having inspired him in The Homestead Called Damascus and in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, she becomes reincarnated as Marichiko in his final sequence of poems. In XVII, as he walks nude in his Kyoto garden, a ray of the Morning Star becomes the goddess,"Her body made of infinite/Whirling points of light, each one/A galaxy, like clouds of/Fireflies beyond numbering" (19-20). In this complex image, reminiscent of the multiple radiances of Indra's Net, infinite universes are incarnated in her body of light, which flows into the poet's, dissolving illusions of world and self in the void of ecstatic love. Then the poet returns to the ordinary world, bathed in the sun of enlightenment, in which star and moon have disappeared.

On Flower Wreath Hill (1976)

The title of the second part of The Morning Star, a sequence published as On Flower Wreath Hill in 1976, refers both to the Kegon Sutra, long familiar as the source of Indra's Net, and a Kyoto cemetery near Rexroth's temporary home in Japan, where he prepares for death (83).

This poet-pilgrim on the Middle Way walks through autumn leaves near the grave of an ancient princess who seems to float near him with the ghosts of heroes. As the moon and his guardian consellation Orion rise over the mountain named after the sutra, the reverberations of a temple bell seem never to die, like echoing memories, an aural equivalent of the visual reflections of Indra's Net (39). Because the world is unstable, as the Buddha said on his deathbed, there is only Nirvana--nothing to cling to or seek (41). As the poet floats in the living universe like the moon in mist or a child in the womb, his body glows with energy free of the illusions of form (42); or as he explained to me, "Shakti, the Hindu syzygy 'power,' in Buddhism is prajna, 'wisdom,' which obliterates power." As he grows aware that the ephemeral world of change, suffering, and death, of the ephemera of samsara, is also the world of illumination, of nirvana, he envisions a wet "spider's net of jewels" (44-45) as

      the Net of Indra,
The compound infinities of infinities,
The Flower Wreath,
Each universe reflecting
Every other, reflecting
Itself from every other,
And the moon the single thought
That populates the Void.

As usual, spiritual realization has been brought about erotically, in this sequence through allusions to the Japanese legend of the Weaving Girl who unites for one night only each year with her cowboy lover (symbolized by the stars Vega and Altair in the Tanabata Festival), and to the ancient princess with moon-like eyebrows, who sang for the emperor as she served him wine, one of Rexroth's many muses who keep him on the sacred path (43). Finally, a soundless flute, playing for Krishna's dancing milkmaids, intimates the Tantric Absolute, nirvana in samsara.

The Love Poems of Marichiko (1978)

The Marichiko poems resembles, in tone and style if not exactly in form, the poems of Yosano Akiko (1878-1942), whose poetry Rexroth translated in several collections and who seems to be a model for Rexroth's invention, Marichiko. He idolized Akiko as the greatest woman poet and love poet of modern Japan. She had revitalized the tanka, inspired feminists and anti-war activists, and edited (with her husband "Tekkan") Myojo, the influential poetry journal of the new romanticism. Translating this title as The Morning Star, Rexroth borrowed it for his final book of poems. Like Akiko's famous sequence Midaregami (Tangled Hair), the Marichiko poems reveal a tale of the desire of a Japanese woman poet of Buddhist consciousness, blissful union with her lover (III-XXXV), and her desperate longing in separation. Here is Akiko, translated by Rexroth:

Hair unbound, in this
Hothouse of lovemaking,
Perfumed with lilies,
I dread the oncoming of
The pale rose of the end of night. [18]

And here is Rexroth's Marichiko in The Morning Star (68):

I cannot forget
The perfumed dusk inside the
Tent of my black hair
As we awoke to make love
After a long night of love.

These poems tell more than a story of a woman's love, for Marichiko seems at times to reincarnate the goddess Marishiben and the Bodhisattva Kannon, as she yearns to embrace her love with a thousand arms; and her indistinct lover seems to be Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha symbolized by the sun. So the story may be read as a kind of Tantric parable of contemplative ecstasy, traditionally symbolized by the sexual union of lovers. [19]

From the first poem on, Marichiko's desire exemplifies the Buddha's First Noble Truth, that suffering results from attachments. She is so disoriented by passion that space is distorted (II) and she babbles nonsense to her lover, whom we never clearly see (III). Sometimes, united, they are peaceful (XI), but often desire seems unquenchable (VII); then, when the Morning Star shines, all things light up with love (VIII). In erotic enlightenment she exclaims that he awakens her (IX). Watching fires in the shape of the Japanese character for "big" burn on Daimonji Mountain near Kyoto on August 16, she echoes the Buddha's Fire Sermon, but seems to forget that even their great love will be eventually consumed (XIV: see also the heart-fires in XVIII). XX is like a Zen koan, in which she is lost to her lover, just as Rexroth and possibly the reader have lost themselves in her. In XXI the stars reflect Indra's Net; in XXII The Morning Star (Marishiten) glows over the ocean of the universe (and in XXX it illuminates the world); in XXIII Marichiko wants to be Kannon Bodhisattva of eleven heads and a thousand arms to embrace him; and in XXVI the sun and moon of enlightenment (from The Flower Wreath Sutra) appear. Holding her lover's head between her thighs, she floats on the River of Heaven (the Milky Way, XXXII). After flooding light implies the union of the pre-Buddhist goddess Marishi-ben with the universal Buddha Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana, symbolized by the sun), suddenly in XXXVI Marichiko's lover departs as shadowy as when he came (III)--as if enlightenment were as temporary as all other phenomena.

Alone, she is perishing (LIV). In union, she was Dainichi's wisdom; but apart, the lover changes like the universe itself. She faces death, hating daylight, a reminder of ecstasy which passes like everything else. In XLII she is fated to love without attaining final enlightenment. In XLV she had innocently presumed that her own love would continue forever, when she had watched with her lover a Noh play about the dancer Shizuka Gozen, fated lover of the great warrior Yoshitsune.

Who is Marichiko's mysterious lover? As if he might be pure spirit there is doubt that she actually sees him or even his shadow; and yet he has flesh enough to hold her breasts, kiss her thighs, tongue her, and bite her nipples. He also writes poems in love letters. In XLVI (and the note on 88) she thinks that he is Dainichi Nyorai, the universal Buddha of Shingon (Tantric) Buddism, identified with the sun; but since Buddha-nature is in all of us, he may be any man, enlightened when united with her, when she was his wisdom, like Prajnaparamita (the female incarnation of Perfect Wisdom) sexually united with the Buddha in Tantric yabyum. Lost from her, her lover is shadowy and ghostly (LIX). Her love turns to hate as she remembers how his gaze froze her like the moon at dawn (LX). She has returned from nirvana to samsara instead of realizing that nirvana and samsara are inseparable. Rexroth's extensive notes, like Eliot's for The Waste Land, are as puzzling as they are useful. In his last letter to me, on March 15, 1979, he wrote: "The poem "breaks" at the moments of hubris, watching the fiery [character dai = great from the Kamogawa Bridge, and at the Shizoka Gozen poem, where she realizes that illumination has been corrupted by hubris. It is the same plot as my plays -- except Iphigenia."

As usual, Rexroth's cross-cultural insights are ingenious. Hubris in the Greek sense of overweening pride does not enter Buddhism, in which self-conscious attachments are manifestations of ignorance of nirvana. By bringing a Japanese woman to hubris, Rexroth develops her character towards the tragic intensity of Beyond the Mountains, well beyond the conventions of tanka and Noh, in which a heroine would be resigned, no matter how miserable. It is as if a Japanese woman agonizes with desire and despair in a play by Euripides.

Marichiko is Rexroth's most enigmatic creation. Was he using Buddhist traditions primarily to write love poems, or does he join the ranks of contemplative poets, symbolizing the experience of nirvana in sexual union? Or both? Does Marichiko reflect Rexroth's failure to attain permanent enlightenment, his confusion of it with eros, the recognition of his own hubris, his failure to practice strict Tantric disciplines in which sexual meditation is a highly controlled "skillful means," not to be confused with Marichiko's abandon? And who, finally, is Marichiko?

She is, I think, the distillation of all of Rexroth's lovers as well as his anima, the feminine, yin aspect of his personality, a personification of his creative imagination, in which the lone self is lost in the poetic process of uniting beings who appear to be separate. Akiko-Marichiko enters Rexroth's pantheon of muse-saviors, joining his wives, lovers, women of Artemis in the plays, ancient poets, heroines, and his mother. All of them, rising from nature and embodying wisdom, inspired his poetry of spiritual realization. Through contemplative union with them, realizing the interdependency of all beings, he passed into the great nirvana of death but continues to live and speak in his poetry, which remains for us a way of waking up.

The Morning Star is Rexroth's "death and transfiguration." In it, The Silver Swan commemorates the death of others and his absorption into the spirit of the Morning Star; approaching death on Flower Wreath Hill, among ghosts of heroes and princesses, he envisions the Net of Indra as a spider-web; and in the finale, he is transformed into Marichiko. Having found himself, he loses himself in her. These Buddhist poems are indispensable for comprehending Rexroth's erotic mysticism, expressed in some of his most sensuous, imaginative, and philosophically suggestive poems. They reveal Rexroth's love of Japan, where he wanted to spend the last years of his life despite its authoritarianism, sexism, and corruption of modern commercialism. In Japan Rexroth responded to more beauty and spirituality than anywhere else in the world, and the style of his poetry went through a major change after his first visit there in 1967, when he wrote The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart.

The Selected Poems (1984)

An excellent selection of Rexroth's poetry has been made by Bradford Morrow, his literary executor and editor of Conjunctions, whose perceptive Introduction outlines Rexroth's adventurous life and explosive intellectual and artistic development. Morrow succinctly analyzes parental and ancestral influences on Rexroth's radical-mystical world view, his revolutionary "disaffiliation" and precocious entry into the international avant-garde in Europe and Mexico, his labor activism during the Depression and humanitarian aid to Japanese-Americans during World War II, his marriages and love poetry, ambivalence towards the Beats, and the vast range of his essays and translations. Praising Rexroth's "polymath knowledge that would surpass that of any other American poet of the century (Pound included)," Morrow concludes that "after Waley and Pound, Rexroth was the great bringer of East Asian poetry into our culture"--a contribution emphasized with solid evidence by Sanehide Kodama in his American Poetry and Japanese Culture.

I cannot agree with Morrow that Rexroth was always "free from prejudice" or that he was "Always a poet of love within the relationship of holy matrimony," for extramarital adventures are obvious in his poetry and autobiographies. Nor can "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy," written between the ages of 20 and 22, be fairly called a "juvenile work." Nor does Morrow explain why "Between Myself and Death" "is the most original and persuasive synthesis of transcendent metaphysical and erotic verse written by an American poet this century." What about "When We with Sappho," parts of the verse plays, or The Love Poems of Marichiko? He might have indicated how Rexroth philosophically synthesized Buddhism, Christianity, classical logos, anthropology and depth psychology, revolutionary ideology, and ecological organicism, for he was a rare visionary who thought precisely and passionately in poetry.

But Most of Morrow's evaluations and exceptionally keen analysis of Rexroth's syllabic prosody are just, effective, and needed. The selection of poems, editorial judgments, and informative notes are exemplary. Key passages of long reveries are judiciously included with short poems to show Rexroth's vast thematic and stylistic versatility. One might wonder why passages from Rexroth's first long reveries, the symbolist The Homestead Called Damascus (1920-25) and the cubist A Prolegomemon to a Theodicy (1925-27), had to be placed at the end of the volume instead of in the order in which they were written, but no doubt shorter poems are easier for some readers to begin with. The translations from Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek understandably could not be included, but these are readily available in many other collections.

From Rexroth's first book, In What Hour, Morrow has reprinted anarchist poems about warfare in Spain and China, one of his commemorative poems for Sacco and Vanzetti, and "Towards an Organic Philosophy," showing his agonizing struggle to make sense of the tragedy of history in the context of nature. Erotic, mystical, historical, and philosophical themes unite in lyrics and elegies of love and nature from The Phoenix and the Tortoise, his second volume, including key passages from the title poem, his third long reverie concerning his ethical evolution from abandon through erotic mysticism to a sense of universal responsibility in marriage. There follow some of Rexroth's earliest, imagist love poems, "The Thin Edge of Your Pride," written when he was a teen-ager in Chicago, but not collected until The Art of Worldly Wisdom came out. From The Signature of All Things are the profoundly mystical title poem of the volume, heart-rending elegies for his mother and first wife, poetry for jazz, and "A Letter to William Carlos Williams," his greatest poem on the sacramental function of poetry in which he concludes that when America has become a Utopia the Passaic River would be renamed after the poet of Paterson.

There follows a generous portion of Rexroth's fourth long poem, The Dragon and the Unicorn, which Morrow has justly praised as "the most complete formulation of his personal, mystical philosophy, the most extensive indictment of western civilization (comparable to, if not as fiery and incantatory as 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'), and perhaps the closest approximation to his speaking voice there is in his poetical works." "The Memorial for Dylan Thomas," Rexroth's most famous protest against the prevailing worldwide predatory culture, is included with poems about his liberated youth and about his wife Marthe and their children, from In Defense of the Earth, a book often superficially linked with Rexroth's temporary sponsorship of the Beats.

Japanese Buddhism, which had previously influenced his philosophical poetry, saturated his work thematically, stylistically, and tonally after Natural Numbers. His fifth long poem, The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, written in 1967 during the first of five tours of Japan, is his most sensuous revelation, rich in allusions to mystical writings of East and West: "The illuminated live/Always in light and so do/Not know it is there as fishes /Do not know they live in water." After New Poems in On Flower Wreath Hill, written during his year-long honeymoon with Carol Tinker in Kyoto, "An aging pilgrim on a/Darkening path walks through the/Fallen and falling leaves, through/A forest frown over the hilltop tumulus of a/Long dead princess..." Death moves nearer in The Silver Swan, from which one of Rexroth's greatest poems, XVII, in which the poet erotically unites with Marichiten, the goddess of the Morning Star, is unfortunately not reprinted. Finally, transfigured into Marichiko, who unites with the Tantric universal Buddha Dainichi Nyorai, Rexroth releases his most ecstatic poetry.

Regrettably, nothing has been reprinted from the plays or from "Gödel's Proof," the new poems in The Collected Shorter Poems (1965). And a few hitherto uncollected poems, such as those commemorating the Hungarian revolution of 1956 in an early Evergreen Review, might have been included. But this, the best introductory volume of Rexroth's poetry, will inevitably lead readers to more of his work.

As Rexroth's poems are read and reread, they awaken us to perennial cycles of the seasons, historical struggles, personal growth. "The Bad Old Days," "For Eli Jacobson," and other revolutionary poems shatter the shibboleths of the new conservatism as they shattered the old. His poems of mountain-climbing in California and bathing in Japanese hot-springs cannot help but deepen concern for the "fate of the earth." And what American poet has offered more passionate love poems, more affectionate poems for his children, more authentic insight into Japanese traditions and Buddhist realization? The Selected Poems is essential reading for anyone seriously concerned with modern literature and thought.

Whether we read Rexroth's poems sequentially from book to book, attending to his artistic and philosophical development, or randomly as we are drawn to favorite poems, let us not forget that studying them is but preparation for reading aloud in direct communication to others. As he never tired of reminding us, poems are music to be performed: the text is a score for chanting and hearing them, person to person, in the re-creation of community. Public performances of poetry thus become commemorations of the poet, friendships, affections, heroic acts. Communing with him in the poems as he loves and protests, thinks and acts in the world, and perhaps leaves it in transcendent ecstacies, we become more fully human; our feelings are enriched and our minds expanded, perhaps into countless Buddha-worlds.

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry