Reflection on Carmel Point, by Robinson Jeffers

Carmel Point, Robinson Jeffers

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

I am on a flight from one coast to the other. In spite of myself, I can’t stop looking up at one of the sixteen screens that hang above the seats on either side of the aisle. There’s no sound, but my eyes are drawn up by the moving images. The screens are all showing the same TV show, which I’ve never seen or heard of; I stare at it for a minute before I realize what I’m doing. A minute lost. I don’t have all time. I have only this minute, and if I fear losing it, or regret that I lost the last one, then I am not in it. In this minute I am in the center of a plane, surrounded by crying babies and soda-swilling compatriots, catered to by flight attendants, swiftly propelled across the country. Taking advantage of modern convenience. Something Jeffers may have scorned me for.

Without that convenience, though, I would not have spent the last week with my family, in California. So it is not all bad. But it is definitely not all good. If I do what is convenient all the time, what is easiest, I am not truly living. I’m moving on autopilot.

In the Jeffers poem, the first twelve lines describe the landscape, what is sometimes called the more-than-human world. Only the last three tell what Jeffers believes we, as humans, must do: uncenter our minds from ourselves, unhumanize our views, become confident as the rock and ocean. Convenience does not breed confidence. Neither does being catered to. What will breed confidence?

Jeffers single-handedly built a stone tower, what he named Hawk Tower, at his stone house on Carmel Point. It took him four years. He constructed a ramp and would roll rocks up from the beach to the cliff top where he and his wife lived. His wife loved towers, so Jeffers made her this one as an act of love. In building the tower he must have found strength and confidence. He was not hoping to construct something that would last forever, to be marveled at by coming generations. He had faith that one day the sea would cover it. But the tower stands today, one hundred years after it was built, and may stand for many more hundreds of years. Two days ago I visited the house where Jeffers lived, Tor House, and climbed the tower, looked out over the same stretch of sea, the same rocks and the same cliffs, that Jeffers did.

view from Hawk Tower

View from Hawk Tower

Become confident as the rock: what better way to find this confidence than by working with rocks, suffering physical hardship by bearing their weight, cementing them in place and bringing them together to form something wonderful in its austere yet elevated beauty? Each stone in the tower exists as itself and is also part of a greater something that stands as a marriage of the still and eternally patient strength of the inhuman with the creative strength of human vision. Only by imitating the extraordinary patience of the rocks could Jeffers build the tower of rocks. Jeffers would look out from Hawk Tower over the sea at night as the waves crashed against the black rocks off shore. What did he contemplate in those nights? Was his mind as empty as the clear California night sky? Or was some of his energy dissipated in resisting the human sea of houses being built behind him, beginning to suffocate his once-remote Carmel Point?

Tor House

Tor House and Hawk Tower, image from:

It knows the people are a tide / That swells and in time will ebb, and all / Their works dissolve. Including the works of Robinson Jeffers, of course. Did he care? Who knows? Whether he cared or not was his own concern.

My concern right now is the crying baby on this plane. If it does not stop, I may go insane, and though I don’t hold on to my sanity too tightly, since it hangs by a thread most of the time anyways, I don’t really care to go insane when I’m trapped on a plane. Why does the crying baby bother me so much? For one thing, it’s loud. It makes it hard to concentrate. It brings me abruptly to the surface, jarring me out of whatever thought or feeling I was having. But is that such a bad thing? The crying baby is what is happening right now, and my reaction to it can, if I let it, if I become aware of it without resistance, teach me something about myself.

But if I try to listen to it without resistance, in the hope that it will teach me something about myself, I will learn only that I am still ignorant. I cannot try not to resist. I resist instinctively. Something in me hardens, as if protecting myself against the sound. It is not a reaction I have much control over. I can’t not do it. But what does any of this have to do with Jeffers and Carmel Point and turning to the rocks and sea to learn how to live?

Somehow I must turn and love even the crying baby, the thousands of people in the airport, the insanity of going through security, the tremendous speed of the thing, as if everyone involved is embarrassed at the fact that our trust for each other has diminished to the point that we are forced to implement these measures. It may be that I cannot love what is in front of me unless I look away from it, look out the window to the deserts of the Southwest, the book Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey in my lap, on my way across the country to what Abbey called the ‘Siberian East. Look away towards that freer world rather than let my eyes be drawn without my soul’s consent towards the screen at the same time my ears are unable to drown out the baby’s cries. But no, I cannot look away or close my ears. I have an obligation to look everything in the eye, whether it repulses me or attracts me or awes me. I must be able to walk through the rough seas of the airport and experience the same inward love, which has all time, as I experience when I look out from Hawk Tower over Carmel Point, at the sea that has all time.

I don’t know how to do this. I hate loud noises; I hate crowds; and I hate the hardhearted attempt to strip me of my individuality and treat me like one of the crowd. Must I love what I now hate?

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves. What I need cannot come from my own action. If I try to get what I think I need, my action will be centered on myself, and I will not get what I need. I need a deeper center. But I don’t even really know what I need. I don’t know if I must love, or if I’m only saying this because I heard it somewhere. I cannot make myself love, so to say I must love is to doom myself to despair when I fail, as I must. And yet I must love, and so I must fail.

We must unhumanize our views a little. Instead of focusing on myself, looking always at how I can improve or change or accept or resist or become or be myself, I’d be wiser to let my eyes travel beyond the small concerns of a self convinced it is separate, to take in a wider view of the larger world: unbroken field, clean cliffs, endless ocean. Perhaps in contemplating the unity of that world, I will find that I have always been a part of the unity, that I have never been separate. If the world has all time, and what I truly am is not separate from the world, don’t I too have all time? But thinking is not believing. I might think it could possibly be true that I am not separate from what has all time, but I will never be convinced of this unity, and thus believe without a doubt that I too have all time, so long as I’m striving to fill what time I do have with petty concerns and desires—the desire to achieve and be admired, the desire to be comfortable and secure, the desire to take risks and so alleviate boredom and dullness, the desire to be discovered, the desire to find a soul mate, the desire to be alone, and all the other desires that seem so significant and real until my views expand a bit, and I see what else is here. Thank Heaven, writes Thoreau, here is not all the world.

Thank Earth, thank rock and sea and space, not all the world is fit for human habitation. Let me not become so habituated to human habitations that I forget what I was made from, which is intimately linked with what I was made for. As the rock and ocean that we were made from. I was not made to forget what made me, but to return to it. I was not made to live so enmeshed with the human world, so enslaved by my own human habits, that I forget to look up and see the unending beauty of the unspeaking world, and remember that it has no need to be seen and no need of me to see it. And yet I see it, and how will I receive the gift of this seeing?

Will I let myself be humbled? Will I look at the rocks against which the sea crashes, and let my heart be softened? I can only let the softening happen or resist it and impede it from happening. The river, though powerful, does not force its way to the sea. It flows on its natural course. We dam it, of course, as if that will help, and then we water-ski on the surface of the dead, defaced lake we have made, moving all together only in clockwise direction around and around, circling our falsity. We ski on the surface of the fake lake we have made, not seeing the violence we have done to the river that is still living despite our attempts to dam it from Life. We have only dammed ourselves, impeded our own growth, prevented ourselves from softening, and made a true life, one of constant renewal like the water in the river, impossible.

Well, damn.

lake powell

Glen Canyon Dam, photo from: Atlantic

There is no hope in a dam; the water from it will not last forever. It does not have all time. It ends in death and so its very existence breeds hopelessness and despair. When the river is not dammed, when its flow is not impeded, there is no need to hope that it will reach the sea. It will go where it is meant to go. I pray to uncenter my mind from myself, from my view of where I should be going. Let me climb into a canoe and be carried by the current, taking in the view of both banks, seeing at all times what is before me. Let the river teach me where I am meant to go, and let it, at its own pace that has all time, take me there.


Colorado River through Grand Canyon

Li-Young Lee’s Search for God in The City in Which I Love You

This is a paper I wrote for a Poetry class about the poet Li-Young Lee and the second collection of poems he published, The City in Which I Love You. Here is the link to the book on Amazon:

To closely read The City In Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee, is to admit, at times, to a blissful incomprehension, to come to realize that beauty does not always need to be understood to be appreciated. It is enough to read the book over slowly, the way Zen Buddhists drink their tea, savoring it like you savor the sun rising over the sea, one of the few awake, walking alone on the beach in the cool of summer, before the sun’s heat brings the crowds. To read it over, and then go back, looking for connections, direction, and links between poems. Sometimes I found those connections and links, other times I was left a little lost, but not necessarily in a bad way. More like when you are lost somewhere in the Grand Canyon, but you don’t mind it; you have food, water, maps. You’ll find you’re way back, sometime. I would rather be lost and wandering in the wilderness than secure and static in a penthouse apartment in the city. In the former, there is mobility in all directions, there is the freedom to be lost and enjoy the lostness. In the latter, the only mobility is downward, in a listless fall from societal grace.

So what ties the book together? What are the themes present throughout the book, whether explicitly stated or not? One theme is the father-son relationship, both between Li-Young Lee and his father, and between Li-Young Lee and his son. Sometimes it is difficult to know which of the relationships Lee is writing about. Often, perhaps, it is both. Lee is fatherless, and in understanding the relationship he has with his dead father, he can be a better father to his young son. Other far-reaching themes are love and death, and oftentimes the two are connected in some way, occasionally with references to the Song of Songs, the book in the bible that Lee quotes in his epigraph to the title poem. There is a quote from an interview Lee has with Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler where he says, “If I looked at everything as myself, that would be complete enlightenment” (Towler and Kaminsky 5). I would argue that a theme of this book is Lee attempting to do that, to find God somewhere deep in the silence of his soul, and to then to look for God outside himself, in the city, in the world.

The City in Which I Love You came out in 1990 and was the author’s second published book. The first was called Rose. The speaker in that book also focused on his relationship with his father. There are a few poems in the first collection whose specific details the speaker returns to in poems of the second collection. An example is the detail of the falling apples in “Falling: The Code” from Rose. Here, the speaker is in his house, listening to apples fall from a tree outside. He writes,

“Through the night

the apples

outside my window

one by one let go

their branches and

drop to the lawn.” (1-6)

In “Goodnight,” from The City in Which I Love You, Lee returns to the apples falling.

You’ve stopped whispering

and are asleep. I go on listening

to apples drop in the grass

beyond the window. (1-4)

In the poem from his first collection, Lee’s speaker searches for meaning in the falling of the apples and finds “the earth / falling to earth / once and forever / over and over” (28-31). In the poem from his second collection, there is another character, Lee’s son. At the end of this poem, the speaker writes, “I no longer hear the apples fall” (40). But the apples still fall ‘over and over,’ although he doesn’t hear them. He relates this back to himself and his son. For them, “there is no bottom to the night,” (45) or end to their descent, but this does not stop them from lying together, suffering “each other to have each other a while” (47). Accepting mortality can mean bearing discomfort, which is the meaning the speaker intends by ‘suffer,’ so that you can be close to another you love.

Four years separate the two collections. A certain ethos comes from the fact that these two poems begin with the speaker listening to the apples falling. The apples fell down sometime in the past, but as the speaker writes in “Furious Version,” the opening poem in The City, “the past / doesn’t fall away, the past / joins the greater / telling, and is” (352-354). The past poems Lee writes in Rose are not forgotten in The City; they join his greater telling. Although Lee returns to the same themes and images from his first collection in his second collection, there is ethos because the images are not stale, the themes are not rehashed in a dry manner, but expanded on, made new. The search goes on. It is more difficult to go back to the same themes and approach them with an equal sense of purpose than to go on to new themes altogether. But for Lee to go on to completely different themes in his second collection would seem to me like a defeat, a surrender. Lee makes his goals clear in one interview: his purpose is none other than to have “a dialogue with his highest nature, his true self” (Marshall 132). In that same interview Lee later says, “my true self is God. I assume that I am God, in my true nature” (134). For Lee then, there can be no other ultimate goal than to find that true nature, to find God. So as to what ‘kind’ of poet Lee is, I would say that he harks back to the Transcendentalists, those poets looking for a sort of higher self within, much more than the objectivists or the modernists or post-modernists. Lee even uses the word ‘transcend’ in an interview with James Lee. Li-Young Lee wrote a memoir called The Winged Seed five years after publishing The City. James Lee asks Li-Young Lee if it was more difficult to write prose than it was to write poetry, and Li-Young Lee answers that he “wanted to transcend craft” (Lee 1).

The City is divided into 5 sections, which together have symmetry. The first and last sections both consist of only one poem, but these two poems are the longest two in the book. This is an obvious similarity. The second and fourth sections both consist of six shorter poems, while the middle and third section has two poems including the title poem, and one of my favorites in the collection, “This Room and Everything in It.” Later, I will try to compare the first poem, “Furious Versions,” and the last poem, “The Cleaving.”

The title binds the poems together because it is the central poem of the collection, in actual location as well as in themes and overall importance. It is highly unlikely that Lee would have placed the poem in the middle section, and made it the title poem, if it did not present and express the central questions and themes and yearnings of the collection as a whole. In this poem, the speaker struggles to see himself in everything, in everyone. He wanders the streets and perceives with sorrow the lack of freedom in this country supposed to be a land of liberty: “the guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches…the prosecuted citizenry” (11, 14). He calls the city home, only because it is where the woman he loves lives, but he cannot see himself in the other people who live in the city: “the woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked / the ones who don’t survive, / whose names I do not know; / they are not me forever” (106-109). If finding God is Lee’s central purpose as a writer, this poem binds the collection together because here the speaker is struggling mightily to do that, to find God in the punished population of this unnamed controlled city, and to find God in the woman he loves, whose “otherness is as perfect” as his death (124). Again, there is the theme of death intricately linked to love in this ode to a lover, and of finding that true self in the alien unloved otherness of the city and in the loved otherness of his lover.

In “This Room and Everything in It,” a close reading reveals how the speaker uses figurative language to show his failure to remember things in “the way his father tried to teach” him (7) to remember, but how he has taken memory and made it an art: his imperfect memory, the imperfect beauty of love. The speaker writes:

“I am letting this room

and everything in it

stand for my ideas about love

and its difficulties” (9-12).

The scent of the woman he loves he lets “stand for mystery,” (20), her belly is “the daily cup / of milk I drank / as a boy before morning prayer,” (22-24), and “the sun on the face / of the wall / is God, the face / I can’t see, my soul” (25-28). In the middle line of the second to last stanza, the speaker writes, “I have forgotten my / idea” (41, 42). Each thing in the room stands for an idea, the idea he forgets is the “greater idea” (32) formed by all the smaller ones. One of the most meaning-packed stanzas in the collection comes in lines 25-28: “the sun on the face…” In this metaphor, the sun shining on the wall is God; God, who is the face the speaker cannot see, is also the speaker’s soul. He cannot see his soul, he cannot see God, but he sees the sun shining on the wall, which he takes to be God. He reveals what he cannot see, his soul, in his poetry, when he expresses his unique vision of the invisible within himself, and within us all. In the rest of the poem, the speaker uses ellipses to show his forgetfulness. The poem ends with the speaker saying that his idea “had something to do with death…it had something to do with love” (53-55). Death and love are linked here, connected by some thread too ineffable to name precisely, a thread that slips through the fingers as a memory slips from the brain, the details of a room forgotten. Perhaps death is the perfect culmination of a life filled with imperfect love.

The two poems “Furious Versions” and “The Cleaving” differ in form, as the former is split up into sections while the latter is one long poem; the splitting up of the former works because each new section takes a thought from the previous section and pulls the poem in another direction. The latter poem revolves around the cleaving of the meat, and never moves away from that cleaving in any significant way. The cleaving remains central to the poem, as does the eating done after the cleaving. Both words and the images provided by the words serve the speaker in multiple capacities. “Furious Versions” is a difficult poem to analyze, but the same could be said for the collection as a whole. The poet, and the transcendental nature of his work, is in a sphere somewhere beyond the critical approach. A rational analysis can only get one so far in understanding him. Still, the form, the repetition in different sections, and the transitions can help in understanding. For instance, the speaker ends both section one and section four with a variation of the world “disperse.” In section one, he writes, “on a page a poem begun, something / about to be dispersed / something about to come into being” (65-67). Here, dispersal seems to be a synonym for creation, the creative act of writing a poem. But at the end of section four, “each sickly / bloom uttering, I shall not die! / before it’s dispersed,” (255-257), ‘dispersed’ seems to be a synonym for death. From the death of the rose, its dispersal, comes the creation of the poem, now dispersed and come into being, in the process of being formed. The form of “The Cleaving” is one long poem. It begins and ends with the same image. The man doing the cleaving is a man with the same face as the speaker: “this man / with my face,” (1) in the first lines of the poem, and “this immigrant, / this man with my own face” (334) to end the poem. In “Furious Versions,” the speaker gives the audience versions of himself, as a son walking with his father (section 5), as a man wandering the house looking for what is making a sound (section 2), and as a man thinking of the similarities and differences between the sound of trees and the sound of the sea (section 6). In “The Cleaving,” there is only one version of the speaker, only one scene he is involved with. This one version of the speaker, though, encompasses the whole world.

“What is it in me would

devour the world to utter it?” (189, 190)

Although he never answers the questions explicitly, he later states that he would “devour this race to sing it” (217). Cleaving can mean two things: it can mean splitting, sundering, severing; and it can mean linking, embracing, conjoining. These are two contrasting meanings that the speaker in “The Cleaving” brings together. He writes at the end,

“What then can I do

but cleave to what cleaves me.”

Here, he is talking about embracing the divisions within himself, embracing his soul in all its manifestations, whether grotesque or ideal; embracing the world, despite its divisions, its cleaving and splitting up into races which do violence to each other, the violence that is “no easy thing” to accept (309).

In the forward to Rose, poet Gerald Stern, who once taught Lee, writes that he is “amazed by the large vision, the deep seriousness and the almost heroic ideal, reminiscent more of John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke and perhaps Theodre Roethke than Williams Carlos Williams on the one hand or T.S. Eliot on the other” (Rose 8). He also says Lee owes “a debt to Whitman” (Rose 10), no doubt because both share a similarly large vision. In terms of the collection, I would say to potential readers to read the selection if they are curious and wonder about their own conception of God, if they are interested in searching the depths of the invisible to attempt to make it visible. Readers may need to spend more time on Li-Young Lee poems to appreciate them in as full a way as possible than they would spend on most other poets. A poet should be read in much the same way his poems are written: written with serious intent, they must be read with the same seriousness. A surface level reading will not get very far towards understanding the depths of this poet. The speaker in the cleaving says he would

“eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his

soporific transcendence.”

Here Lee is making a break from the transcendentalists, professing his individuality. Though inspired by Whitman and Emerson, his poetry will not be a repetition of either of their writings. Li-Young Lee is distinct from both because his story is unique and completely different from the native born Americans. He is distinct from post-modernists in that he predominantly uses himself as the subject in his poems. As David Roderick writes in his review of Lee’s Book of My Nights, published in 2002, “Li-Young Lee has always eschewed the postmodern condition of fragmentation in favor of synthesis, and what makes him a contemporary poet worth reading is that he remains true to his ideals without backsliding down the slope of solipsistic confessionalism” (Roderick 172). Finally, Lee is distinct from objectivists in that his poems are subjective, primarily concerning his thoughts, emotions, desires, his ‘large vision,’ his ‘heroic ideal,’ his search for his true self, for God.

In an interview with Tod Marshall, Li-Young Lee says, “In minute and inevitable ways, everything is connected. In the invisible realm—which has more reality than the visible realm because the visible is dying and without materiality—when somebody writes a poem, when he opens himself up to universe mind and that universe is suddenly present in the visible world, the poet isn’t the only one that gets the benefits of that. Universe mind comes down and that whole mind is a little more pure, a little more habitable.” To make the universe mind visible, to find and express the true self, these are Lee’s goals throughout this collection of poems. In many of the poems, especially “This Room, and Everything in It,” and “The Cleaving,” Lee is successful. For a moment, whether in his own soul, in his wife’s body, in the face of the man with his own face, Lee is able to see himself, his true self, in another. He is able to see God in another. For a moment, he realizes there is no difference between the two, between his true self and God, between himself and another. The walls come down, the boundaries are split, cleaved, and he embraces the world, in all its grotesquerie and beauty. Reading his poems late on a humid summer night, I was able, for a few moments, to do the same.