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Books: Harrowed Marrow

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Life, a hawk hanging in California’s stainless sky, stares down on Life, a ground-squirrel crouching on California’s sun-bleached desert hills. When the squirrel begins to tremble, when the trembling reaches the marrow of his consciousness, the hawk swoops. After stripping off the flesh, he cracks the bones, sucks the trembling conscious marrow out. Fed with consciousness, his essential bread, the hawk returns to the stainless sky, hangs waiting for the ground-squirrel’s son, their sons, their sons. . . .

Reave Thurso, with his mother and lamed brother Mark, lives on the coastal farm left by his father who killed himself when he could not make it pay. His limestone quarry buildings lie in decay; only a rusty cable, stretched across the canyon over the farm, hums in the air in memory of him.

Thurso’s wife, Helen, fears him more than she loves him, hates his destructive will that is irreversible as the tide. After a deer-killing she runs off with Thurso’s friend, Rick Armstrong, and hides successfully for a year. When Thurso tracks her down she goes off with him quickly, to save a meeting between, him and her lover. On the way home Thurso pretends to break down the car, waits in the desert for Armstrong’s pursuit. But Armstrong does not pursue; all Thurso can kill is a lizard that rambles by.

Home again, Helen finds it more dreadful than ever. Thurso’s mother hates her, watches her like a hawk. Between lust for Helen and visions of his father’s ghost, Mark begins to go mad. To remove all trace of his father’s memory, Thurso cuts clown the humming cable, is cut down himself. Hopelessly crippled, in ceaseless agony, he hangs on to suffering and life. Helen, who hated Thurso for his irreversible will, now loves him for it. In mercy she tries to put him out of his torment, but he will not allow her. After nis crazed brother hangs himself, Thurso gets Helen to cart him, sodden with pain, up to a sea promontory. There, in a quarry shed, she surprises him with kisses, cuts his throat. When the old mother comes up the hill she finds Helen poisoned, dying. She has eaten the contraceptive pills she used to prevent more life. The old mother, too tough herself for any hawk’s beak to tear, is left squatting on her sorrows as on a pile of cracked and pithless bones. . . .

Such is the theme, such the characters, of a new poem by Robinson Jeffers, whom a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced.â€

Eyrie. Hard by the Pacific surfline at Carmel, Calif, stands a tower of grey

Santa Lucia granite, seaworn boulders rolled up from the shore and heaved into place by Poet Jeffers for his own perch. For several years the stones rose in their courses; as they began to invade the upper air, a hawk dropped down to haunt them. Now Hawk Tower stands 30 ft. high; in its turreted top is a socket to hold a flag pole to flaunt a flag, though neither hawks nor Poet Jeffers favor flapping flags.

The building of the tower was urged by Poet Jeffers’ wife, who thought the exercise would be good for her husband. The building has proved useful to the whole family, who have there their “silent rooms.” To its two-room base, Garth Sherwood and Donnan Call, the Jeffers’ twin sons, resort in rainy weather. On the floor above, Mrs. Jeffers, who is devoted to music. Irish folk-songs in particular, has installed a small organ. Poet Jeffers, to whom all music is “just noise.” occupies, with a table and a chair, the tiny room above. Here in the mornings, when his slow pulse beats only 40 times a minute, he slowly writes his poems; in the afternoons, when his pulse speeds up to 60, he plants trees, rolls stones.

The family eat and sleep in the house nearby, built also of sea boulders, but shaped after an old Tudor barn in Surrey which Mrs. Jeffers once admired. In the one-room attic the family sleep; downstairs they live their quiet family life. They have no telephone, no electric lights, no servants, but they entertain a few friends now & then. Poet Jeffers chose the bed downstairs by the sea-window for a good deathbed . . . when the patient daemon behind the screen of sea-rock and sky thumps with his staff, and calls thrice: “Come Jeffers.”

Poet Jeffers, though gentle (he has never killed an animal) is not shy; though not shy he is not sociable, seeks neither the companionship of old friends nor acquaintanceship with new. Towards local Californians. as toward the human species as a whole, he is reserved, cold.

Most local Californians reciprocate his attitude. The most notable exception was California’s poet, the late George Sterling, who doffed his poetical crown to Poet Jeffers, wrote a hero-worshipping study of him. In spite of this he remains to most Californians more of a cloudy stranger gone native than a sunny native son.

Nest. Poet Jeffers’ birthplace was Pittsburgh, in 1887. From North Ireland had come his paternal grandfather. His father, an LL.D. learned in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, had married an orphan 23 years, his junior. John Robinson Jeffers was the first fruit; the second. Hamilton Jeffers, now engaged in astronomical work at Lick Observatory, came seven years later.

John Robinson, at 5, toured Europe with his parents, under his father’s tutelage. From 12 to 15 he went to school at Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich, Leipzig. At 16 he entered the University of Western Pennsylvania, but when his family moved to Pasadena he switched to Occidental College, Los Angeles, took his bachelor degree. He first met Una Call whose second husband he was later to become, while he was a post-graduate student at the University of Southern California.

In 1907 he accompanied his family again to Europe, entered the University of Zurich, but soon left to study medicine at the University of Southern California. Thence he went to Seattle and, to get some outdoor work, entered the forestry department of the University of Washington. At 25 he received a legacy from an uncle. Independent, he went to live at Hermosa Beach, passed his time swimming and writing verse. In 1913 he married Una Call Kuster.

The Jeffers’ intention to live in Europe was thwarted by the War. Looking for a place to live they came on the spot where Hawk Tower and Tor House now stand: ”When the stagecoach topped the hill . . . and we looked down through pines and sea-fogs on Carmel Bay, it was evident that we had come without knowing it to our inevitable place.”

Wings. His wanderings now over, Poet Jeffers devoted himself to following his mind’s rising, widening gyres. He had already written much poetry, published one book. At 14 he had won a Youth’s Companion poetry prize. A conventional book of love-poems, Flagons and Apples (1912), he followed four years later with Californians. In its most notable poem, ‘”Invocation,” he addressed the westward-shining evening star that had led his ancestors out of Asia, across Europe, the Atlantic, America, to leave him, a solitary poet, stranded on

the verge extreme, and shoal

Of sand that ends the west.

Balked by the Pacific Ocean, Poet Jeffers, unless he were to retrace his father’s steps, had only three directions left to go: down, up. in. At different times he has taken all three.

For eight years he published nothing. He explained to Journalist James Rorty. who came across him while editing, with Poet George Sterling, an anthology of native California poetry, that he did not think anybody would be interested. Tamar and Other Poems (1924) had just been published in New York by an obscure printer named Boyle. The plates were offered free by Printer Boyle to at least two large publishers, who declined to print the poem because of its incestuous theme. Through the efforts of James Rorty & friends, the Boyle edition received a fanfare of reviewers’ praise. In 1925 Liveright brought out “Tamar” in its edition of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems. In the latter volume Poet Jeffers generalized his theme:

Humanity is the start of the race; I say

Humanity is the mold to break away from,

the crust to break through, the coal

to break into fire,

The atom to be split.

Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a

white fire flies out of it; vision that

fools him

Out of his limits, desire that fools him out

of his limits, unnatural crime, in

human science,

Slit eyes in the mask; wild loves that

leap over the walls of nature, the wild fence-vaulter science,

Useless intelligence of far stars, dim knowl

edge of the spinning demons

that make an atom,

These break, these pierce, these deify. . . .

The visions, the desires that fool man out of his limits lead Poet Jeffers’ tragic heroes & heroines into dark and terrifying ways. “Tamar,” “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” ”The Women at Point Sur” all tell incestuous tales. “Roan Stallion” tells of a woman’s love for a horse. Though critics, with few exceptions, have extolled the splendor and intensity of Poet Jeffers’ works, some women think that he spoils his poems with such outrageous themes. Even his wife complained. “Robin,” said she after he had finished “Roan Stallion,” “when will you quit forbidden themes?” Robin answered with an enigmatic smile. To him, there is nothing in his writings either “surprising or subversive, but the mere common sense of our predicament as passionate bits of earth and water.” To dignify men’s passions, men’s predicaments, he had merely motivated his tragedies with themes al ready given classic sanction by the Greeks. A brief excursion into Christian mythology in Dear Judas, apparently taken from sense of duty, did not much advance his thought; neither did Descent to the Dead, a compilation of 16 poems written in Ireland and Great Britain on a trip with his wife and twins about three years ago, during which Poet Jeffers spent much of his time looking at graves.

“The soil that I dig up here [wrote Jeffers of Cawdor and Other Poems] to plant trees or lay foundation stones, is full of Indian eavings, seashells and flint scrapers. . . . Not only generations but races too drizzle away so fast, one wonders the more urgently what it is for. . . .” Poet Jeffers has already shown how, against the desert western American landscape, the characters of his imagination, impelled by Greekish lusts, drizzle themselves away. In Thurso’s Landing he writes his most native American, least Greekish tragedy, leaving sexual perversion almost entirely out. Its terrors are more Amerindian than Greek —the terrors of a diminishing race under Nature’s relentlessly observant, semi conscious eye. The outlines of the Amer ican continent and of its troubled in habitants, grow colder and clearer under Poet Jeffers’ western-starry light.

The coast hills at Sovranes Creek:

No trees, but dark scant pasture drawn thin

Over rock shaped like flame;

The old ocean at the land’s foot, the vast

Gray extension beyond the long white violence;

A herd of cows and the bull

Far distant, hardly apparent up the dark slope;

And the gray air haunted with hawks:

This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen.

No imaginable

Human presence here could do anything

But dilute the lonely self-watchful passion.

†THURSO’s LANDING — Robinson Jeffers-right ($2.50).

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