Thursday, January 29, 2009
I've been thinking about Robinson Jeffers, surely the great California poet of the twentieth century, and the cold vigor of his response to the coastal landscape, the world of rocks and tide, fog and hawks and seals. A few days after posting the photo below of sea lions floating off the pier at Santa Cruz, I came across Jeffers' poem "Animals." It's an odd poem, in the way that it moves from an evocation of the marine creatures in their cold element to consider the hot colors of sunlight, and to suggest that the sun is also alive with burning creatures. Jeffers often wants to put human life in its place, in a long, geological perspective, and that impulse must have to do with the sublimity and scale of the Pacific Coast. This poem's unexpected final sentence considers the world's many lives, and chemical processes entirely unlike our own. Weird, given where this poem started out, that it ends on "amino-acids."
The painting above is an Arthur Dove, from the Cantor Museum at Stanford, and roughly contemporaneous with the Jeffers poem. It feels like it's also interested in the dynamism of natural processes, of bringing the conceptual vocabulary of science into art.
At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore
In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll in the sea,
Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs
Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kind to human, intelligent, hot-blooded, idle and singing,
can float at ease
In the ice-cold winter water. Then, yellow dawn
Colors the south, I think about the rapid and furious lives in the sun:
They have little to do with ours; they have nothing to do with oxygen
and salted water; the would look monstrous
If we could see them: the beautiful passionate bodies of living flame,
batlike flapping and screaming,
Tortured with burning lust and acute awareness, that ride
Of the great fire-globe. They are animals, as we are. There are many
other chemistries of animal life
Beside the slow oxidation of carbohydrates and amino acids.