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Rexroth Poems

 
THE DRAGON AND THE UNICORN

(Excerpts)

 

 

From California to Europe
Southern France
Italy
Paris
Back in California

 


 

[From California to Europe]

“And what is love?” said Pilate,
And washed his hands.

                                  All night long
The white snow falls on the white
Peaks through the quiet darkness.
The overland express train
Drives through the night, through the snow.
In the morning the land slopes
To the Atlantic, the sky
Is thicker, Spring stirs, smelling
Like old wet wood, new life speaks
In pale green fringes of marsh
Marigolds on the edges
Of the mountain snow drifts. Spring
Is only a faint green haze
On the high plains, only haze
And the fences that disappear
Over the horizon, and the
Rails, and the telegraph
Poles and the pale singing wires
Going on and on forever.

All things are made new by fire.
The plow in the furrow, Burns
Or Buddha, the first call to
Vocation, the severed worms,
The shattered mouse nest, the seed
Dripping from the bloody sword.
The sleepers chuckle under
The wheels, mocking the heartbeat.

We think of time as serial
And atomic, the expression
By mechanical means of a
Philosophical notion,
Regular divisibility
With a least common divisor
Of motion by motion, so
Many ticks to a century.
Such a thing does not exist.
Actually, the concept
Of time arose from the weaving
Together of the great organic
Cycles of the universe,
Sunrise and sunset, the moon
Waxing and waning, the changing
Stars and seasons, the climbing
And declining sun in heaven,
The round of sowing and harvest,
And the life and death of man.

The doom of versifying —
Orpheus was torn to pieces
By the vindictiveness of
Women or struck down by the
Jealousy of heaven.

The doom of the testicles —
Chiron’s masculinity
Was so intense that all his
Children were adopted and
Later destroyed by the gods.

The deed done, Orestes draws
His steel penis like a snake
From its hole. The sun and moon
In Capricorn, Electra,
The little she-goat, bleats and squirms,
Her brother between her thighs,
From whose wounds pour forth both blood
And water, the wine of whose
Maidenhead turns to water
Of baptism, the fiery
Mixture of being and not being,
The artist is his own mother.

Chicago, the train plunges through
A vast dome of electric gloom.
Cold wind, deepening dark, miles
Of railroad lights, 22nd
And Wentworth. The old Chinese
Restaurants now tourist joints.
Gooey Sam where we once roared
And taught the waiters to say
Fellow Worker, is now plush.
As the dark deepens I walk
Out Wentworth, grit under my feet.
The smell of frying potatoes
Seeps through the dirty windows.
The old red light district is
Mostly torn down, vacant lots
Line the railroad tracks. I know
What Marvell meant by desarts
Of vast eternitie. Man
Gets daily sicker and his
Ugliness knots his bowels.
On the site of several
Splendid historical brothels
Stands the production plant of
Time-Luce Incorporated.
Die Ausrottung der Besten.

Do not cut a hole in the
Side of a boat to mark the
Place where your sword dropped and sank.

In experience each present
Time includes its past and as the
Future appears it is included
In it. Only when we come to
Compare the time of one group of
Facts with another do we have
To imagine a common factor,
The instant. As one time is
Measured against the other, both
Are considered to lie in a
Neutral medium of serial
Instants, or against a linear
Background of dots in series.
With hardly any exceptions
The great philosophers have held
That this kind of time is unreal.

Women of easy virtue,
Nanda and Syata, came
To Buddha before the first
Enlightenment. Ambipali,
A whore richer than princes,
Before the last Nirvana.
Jesus was born in Rachel’s tomb,
John’s Salome his midwife.

A freshman theme, “It is the
Contention of this paper
That the contemporary world
Is fundamentally corrupt.”

[...]

[Southern France]

Dinner in a peasant auberge,
Everybody inspects the
Vlos. “De Paris en Italie?
Incroyable! Formidable!”
Grilled pork chops, fried potatoes,
Tomatoes, beans in vinegar,
Fresh cheese, pears, wine, and coffee,
And the magnificent bread
Of Touraine. Just looking at it,
We weep for joy after the
Rancid papier mch turds
They sell in Paris. We shake
Hands with everybody and
Pedal on down the river,
Wobbling, heavy with food.

We camp on the Loire, the vlos
Parked under a rose bush, the
Sleeping bags under acacias,
And careen down the swift current,
Impossible to stand, much less
Swim against it. Two owls chatter
In the trees as the twilight
Comes, lavender and orange
Over the white reaches of
Water and the whiter sandbars,
And the first starlight dribbling
On the rushing river.

Although the possibilities
Of each instant are infinite
They are the possibilities
Of only that instant, that point
Of triangulation in which
The person places himself
In relation to others. You
Can move only from one point.
This necessitous character
Of consequence is what
Has given rise in the West
To the conception of sin,
In the East to that of Karma.

[...]

The true capital of France,
Toulouse like a happier,
Freer Spanish city, like
Mexico, or Los Angeles
Before the Baptists came.
Cassoulet with dark goosemeat
And Tolosian sausage, and
The faint flavor of saffron
And garlic, a formidable
Dessert and the wine of Toulouse,
Dry, bitter goat cheese from the
Pyrenees, and dense sweet coffee
Full of sparks like Italy.
All the leafy city — the
Alles and boulevards and parks
And squares full of bright hurrying
People, an atmosphere as
Bracing as nineteen-twenty in
Chicago. How infinitely
Better off the modern world
Would be if Raimon had won
Instead of the Pope’s gangster
And the king of the Isle de France.
Saint Sernin Gaudi’s grandfather —
The split personality
Of the cathedral a symbol
Of the conquered city. An
Immense piscine where we
Swim until exhausted and
Bicycle home in the scarlet
Evening, the pale green moon
Over the red brick buildings.
In the museum some fine
Romanesque sculpture, some carved
Capitals, very Byzantine,
With Biblical figures like
The Four Kings at San Marco.
An American male torch-
Singer in the main caf.
Black-haired, black-eyed whores with heavy
Gold earrings, full-fleshed in thin
Translucent summer dresses.

[...]

On into Nmes, the best taste
Of Rome left in the world, fountains
And columns, boulevards and
Terraced water, all the city
Emanating from the old
Temple, as classical as Bath
But not compulsive about it.
Here at last is one place untouched
By the Normans or the English,
No sign of Gothic mentalism —
In fact, the best looking church
Is modern Romanesque. They say
The city was once Calvinist,
Now it seems hardly Christian.
Splendid food, a masterwork
Of a pt truff which the
Host carries about like a
Newborn baby, cpes dipped in
Olive oil and grilled, guinea hen,
Dove, aubergines provenales,
Courgettes stuffed with spiced soft cheese,
Thick crinkly fresh noodles, rice
With saffron, wines like the small wines
Of Naples. The natives put ice in it!

[...]

The Pont du Gard as beautiful
As ever. Why can’t a culture
Of businessmen and engineers
Make beautiful things? I walk
Across the top and then back
Under the small arches with
Idyllic frames of Provence
Slipping past me and suddenly
I notice the shells in the rock —
With my head full of the
Fossils of a million years,
Standing on this fossilized
Roman engineering, built of
Mudflats of fossil seas, springing
From cliffs with caves of fossil man —
Half-naked jeunesse with golden
Bodies scamper over golden
Stone, the air is full of swallows
Whirling above flowing water.

[...]

[Italy]

Bright petals of evening
Shatter, fall, drift over Florence,
And flush your cheeks a redder
Rose and gleam like fiery flakes
In your eyes. All over Florence
The swallows whirl between the
Tall roofs, under the bridge arches,
Spiral in the zenith like larks,
Sweep low in crying clouds above
The brown river and the white
River bed. Your moist, quivering
Lips are like the wet scarlet wings
Of a reborn butterfly who
Trembles on the rose petal as
Life floods his strange body.
Turn to me. Part your lips. My dear,
Some day we will be dead.

[...]

For the undeveloped heart,
The news or even the sight
Of the destruction of thousands
Of other human beings
May assume only the form
Of a distant cry, coming
Through the complexities of
Disaster, of one other
Person. An air raid may be
Only a distraction from
A letter to a sweetheart;
The famines and floods of China
Only transportation
Difficulties between hotels.
However, as the dual,
The beloved, is known and
Loved more and more fully, all
The universe of persons
Grows steadily more and more real.
Eventually loss or pain
To the least of these, the most
Remote known person of the
Other, is felt personally
Through the intense reality
Of the dual. There is no
Way of proving the existence
Of a person except by
Experience, but we assume
The appearance “human being”
Is always, at least potentially,
The immediate vesture
Of a person. None the less,
It must not be forgotten
That, as such, this appearance is
Only a sign of possible
Underlying reality
In a manifold of empty
Contingency. There is no
Self subsistence whatever
In the manifold as such.

[...]

Michelangelo was surely
A noisy man, and terribly
Conceited. After all, nothing
Ever happened to him that
Doesn’t happen to all of us.
If you have a tragedy to
Portray, you should be humble
About it, you are serving
The bread of communion.
“Too many nakeds for a chapel,”
Said Evelyn. But I don’t think it
Was the exposed privates of the
Mother of God made the Pope faint.
That’s an arrogant, perverse, pride
Soaked wall, a good thing to look down
On the election of the Popes.
Maybe he intended it for
A portrait of the Papacy.
But the Moses was beautiful
Just before the church shut, looking
Like oiled ivory against
The wavering blackness in
The light of the vigil lamps.

The worship of art, the attempt
To substitute it for religion,
Is the blindest superstition
Of them all. Almost all works of
Art are failures. The successes
Occur hardly once in a
Lifetime even in periods
Of great cultural flowering;
And then they are likely to be
Unpretentious perfections,
Of modest scope, exquisite
As a delicate wine and
Often no more significant.
Better lump them all together —
“A good judge of wine, women,
And horseflesh” — than go posting
For the Absolute in the
Galleries of Fifty-seventh Street —
Or the Louvre — or the Uffizi.
The World’s Masterpieces are
Too often by Vasari,
Benjamin West, Picasso,
Or Diego Rivera.

[...]

“La mauvaise conscience des
Bourgeois, ai-je dit, a paralys
Tout le mouvement intellectuel
Et moral de la bourgeoisie.
Je me corrige, et je remplace
Ce mot ‘paralys’ par
Cet autre: ‘dnatur’.”
So Bakunin says, and Marx,
“The bourgeoisie, wherever
It has got the upper hand,
Has put an end to all feudal,
Patriarchal, idyllic
Relations. It has pitilessly
Torn asunder the motley
Feudal ties that bound man to
His ‘natural superiors,’
And has left no other nexus
Between man and man than naked
Self-interest, than callous
Cash payment. It has drowned the
Most heavenly ecstasies
Of religious fervor, of
Chivalrous enthusiasm,
Of philistine sentimentalism,
In the icy water of
Egotistical calculation.
It has resolved personal worth
Into exchange value, and in
Place of the numberless
Indefeasible chartered freedoms,
Has set up that single
Unconscionable freedom,
Free trade. In a word, for
Exploitation veiled by
Religious and political
Illusions, it has substituted
Naked, shameless, direct, brutal
Exploitation.”
For Dante,
Usury was the ultimate
Form of pederasty, in which
Buggery attempts to make
Its turds its heirs.

Sexual fulfillment was robbed
Of all meaning. The sex act became
A nervous stimulant and
Anodyne outside of the
Productive process, but still
Necessary to it as an
Insatiable, irrational
Drive, without which the struggle
For meaningless abstractions,
Commodities, would collapse.
This is the ultimate in
Human self alienation.
This is what the revolution
Is about. In a society
Ruled only by the cash nexus
The sexual relationship
Must be a continual struggle
Of each to obtain security
From the other, a kind of
Security, a mass of
Commodities, which has no
Meaning for love, and today in
America, no meaning at all.
The greater the mass of things,
The greater the insecurity.
The security of love lies
In the state of indwelling rest.
It is its own security.
This is what free love is, freedom
From the destructive power
Of a society coerced
Into the pursuit of insane
Objectives. Until men learn
To administer things, and are
No longer themselves organized
And exploited as things, there can
Be no love except by intense
Effort directed against
The whole pressure of the world.
In other words, love becomes,
As it was with the Gnostics,
The practice of a kind of cult.
Against it are arrayed all
The consequences of a
Vast systematic delusion,
Without intelligence or
Mercy or even real being,
But with the power to kill.

[...]

What is Capri to me, or me
To Capri? To Hell with the
Bourgeois scenery, said Gurley
To Big Bill Haywood. We live
Back of the Porta Capuana
Where the adolescent whores
Are too poor to buy stockings,
And rent their sleazy dresses
To each other around the clock,
And turn their tricks on the ground
Like the rug girls in New Orleans.
Twenty percent of the male
Children of Naples are without
Domicile. An equal number
Have active tuberculosis.
Little girls have virtue, and so
The Church finds them domicile.
In the midst of boiling squalor,
The crazed faces of American
Cover girls on the magazines,
The special devils of this
Proliferating Hell, where
Only the innocent are damned.
In Sorrento the lace makers
Are called apprentices and work
For a bowl of polenta at lunch.
Babies are doped with bromides,
And rented around the clock, like
The whores’ dresses, to beggar women.
You never see a beggar’s baby
Awake, in a few months it is dead.
But the Church keeps the people
Fruitful, birth control is a
Prison offense. Everybody,
Except the tourists, gives to the
Beggars, the Church teaches Charity.
But they keep only a few
Lire a day, periodically
Boys on bicycles shake them down,
And collect the take for the
Lords of the lazzaroni,
Who pay off to the archbishop.
We go to call on the leading
Anarchist theoretician.
He patriotically denies
That conditions like this exist.
He sits in his expensively
Appointed office and questions
Us about how the theories
Of Wilhelm Reich, and the orgones,
Are doing in America.
I have been further round the shit
Pot looking for the handle
Than this bastard has been from home.
The Hell with him, the Museum
Is full of workers in rags,
Ebullient before the Greek
Statues. Three excited, stinking
Fishermen are having a
Violent argument in front
Of Barberi’s portrait of
Luca Pacioli, with its face
Like a pure crystal and its
Crystal like a pure mind. I
Could be happy here. There is
All the world still left to win.

America is today a
Nation profoundly deranged,
Demented, and sick, because
Americans with very few
Exceptions believe, or when
They doubt are terrified to
Be discovered doubting, that
Love is measured entirely
In an interchange of
Commodities. The wife provides
Pop-up toast, synthetic coffee,
Frozen orange juice, two eggs of
Standard color, size, and flavor,
In the morning, at night the
Fantastic highly-colored canned
Poisons which grace the cooking
And advertising pages
Of the women’s magazines.
In exchange the husband provides
Her with the clothes and cosmetics
Of a movie courtesan,
A vast array of “labor”
Saving devices, all streamlined,
Presumably so they can be
Thrown, a car, never more than
Two years old, engineered with
Great skill to their social status,
A television set, a dream
House, designed by a fairy,
And built of glass and cardboard,
A bathroom full of cramped, pastel
Tinted plumbing. When they wish
To satisfy their passions,
They go to a movie. The
Sexual relation is
A momentary lapse from
The routine fulfillment of
This vision, which is portrayed
As love and marriage by thousands
Of decorticated and
Debauched intellectuals,
Who enjoy the incomes of princes.
Almost all advertising
In America today
Is aimed at the young married
Couple. Billions are consciously
And deliberately spent
To destroy love at its source.
Like the “fiends” who are picked up
In parks, an advertising
Man is a professional
Murderer of young lovers —
On an infinitely vaster scale.

[...]

Sitting there, reading this in your
Psychoanalyst’s waiting room,
Thirty-five years old, faintly
Perfumed, expensively dressed,
Sheer nylons strapped to freezing thighs,
Brain removed at Bennington
Or Sarah Lawrence, dutiful
Reader of the Partisan
Review
’s Book of the Month, target
Of my highbrow publisher, you
Think this is all just Art — contrast —
Naples — New York. It is not. Every time
You open your frigidaire
A dead Neapolitan baby
Drops out. Your world is not crazy.
But dead. It can only mimic
Life with the economics of
Murder. “War production and
Colonialization of
The former imperialist
Centers.” This is the definition
Of Fascism. You are not just
Responsible. You are the dead
Neapolitan baby,
The other side of the coin.
I don’t wonder you’ve never
Been the same since you left the
Tickets to Don Giovanni
In the orgone collector.

[...]

We fill our rucksacks at a
Rtisserie just like the ones
In Pompeii, with bread just like the
Pumice casts, and take the train
To the South. In our compartment
Is an aged widow who gives
Us a message for her sister
In San Francisco. She is
Traveling third class from Milan
To Palermo, erect on the
Board bench like a white hawk in
Black silk. Our wineskin from the
Pyrenees creates a sensation.
All the men cheer as we hold
It at arm’s length and spurt the
Wine, usually, into our mouths.
Everybody takes a drink.
We figure they have decided
There are some good Americans.
Then we find out they think we’re French.
We tell them we’re Americans,
And then they do become friendly,
They were being cool before.

Paestum, the apex of the trip,
And the zenith of our years.

Helen’s jewel, the Schethya,
The Taoist uncut block,
The stone of the alchemist,
The footstool of Elohim’s throne,
Which they hurled into the Abyss,
On which stands the queen and sacred
Whore, Malkuth, the stone which served
Jacob for pillow and altar.

“And what is truth?” said Pilate,
“A, E, I, O, U — the spheres
Of the planets, the heavens’
Pentachord. A noir, E blanc,
I rouge, O bleu, U vert.”

When in Japan, the goddess
Of the sun, attracted by
The obscene gestures of the flesh,
Came out from eclipse, she spoke
The first and oldest mystery,
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,
8, 9, 10.”

All things have a name.
Every mote in the sunlight has
A name, and the sunlight itself
Has a name, and the spirit who
Troubles the waters has a name.

As the Philosopher says,
“The Pythagoreans are
Of the opinion that the shapes
Of the Greek vase are reflections
Of the irrational numbers
Thought by the Pure Mind. On the
Other hand, the Epicureans
Hold them to be derived
From the curves of a girl’s
Breasts and thighs and buttocks.”

The doctrine of Signatures —
The law by which we must make
Use of things is written in
The law by which they were made.
It is graven upon each
As its unique character.
The forms of being are the
Rules of life.

The Smaragdine Tablet
Says, “That which is above is
Reflected in that which is below.”

Paestum of the twice blooming
Roses, the sea gods honey
Colored stone still strong against
The folly of the long decline
Of man. The snail climbs the Doric
Line, and the empty snail shell
Lies by the wild cyclamen.
The sandstone of the Roman
Road is marked with sun wrinkles
Of prehistoric beaches,
But no time at all has touched
The deep constant melodies
Of space as the columns swing
To the moving eye. The sea
Breathes like a drowsy woman.
The sun moves like a drowsy hand.
Poseidon’s pillars have endured
All tempers of the sea and sun.
This is the order of the spheres,
The curve of the unwinding fern,
And the purple shell in the sea;
These are the spaces of the notes
Of every kind of music.
The world is made of number
And moved in order by love.
Mankind has risen to this point
And can only fall away,
As we can only turn homeward
Up Italy, through France, to life
Always pivoted on this place.

Sweet Anyte of Tegea —
“The children have put purple
Reins on you, he goat, and a
Bridle in your bearded mouth.
And they play at horse races
Round a temple where a god
Gazes on their childish joy.”

Finally the few tourists go,
The German photographers, the
Bevy of seminarians,
And we are left alone. We eat
In the pronaos towards the sea.
Greek food, small white loaves, smoked cheese,
Pickled squid, black figs, and honey
And olive oil, the common food
Of Naples, still, for those who eat.
An ancient dog, Odysseus’ dog,
Spawned before there were breeds of dogs,
Appears, begs, eats, and disappears —
The exoteric proxy of
The god. And we too grow drowsy with
White wine, tarry from the wineskin.
The blue and gold shafts interweave
Across our nodding eyes. The sea
Prepares to take the sun. We go
Into the naos, open to the
Sky and make love, where the sea god
And the sea goddess, wet with sperm,
Coupled in the incense filled dark,
As the singing rose and was still.

Mist comes with the sunset. (The Yanks
Killed the mosquitoes.) Long lines of
Umber buffalo, their backs a
Rippling congruence, as in the
Paintings of Krishna, file across
The brilliant green sea meadows,
Under banners of white mist.
The fires of the bivouacs of
Spartacus twinkle in the hills.
Our train comes with the first stars.
Venus over the wine dark sea.

All the way back the train fills
And fills up, and fills again,
With girls from the fish canneries,
And girls from the lace factories,
And girls from the fields, who have been
Working twelve hours for nothing,
Or at the best a few pennies.
They laugh and sing, all the way
Back to Naples, like broad bottomed,
Deep bosomed angels, wet with sweat.

Only in a secret place
May human love perfect itself.

[...]

It is unfortunately
The case, that the world in which
We live is dominated
By two collectivities
Whose whole force is exerted
To depersonalize and
Quantify persons — the State
And the Capitalist System.
If a person is that which
By definition can never
Be added to anything else,
The State is precisely the
Mechanism by which persons
Are reduced to integers.
The State exists to add and
Subtract, divide and multiply
Population units. Its
Components have no more and
No less reality than the
Mathematics of the battlefield.
Similarly, Capitalism
Views all existence in the form
Of commodities. Nothing
Is valuable except to
The extent it will bring a
Profit on the market. Again,
The human being is reduced
To a special commodity,
Labor power, his potential
To make other commodities.
Labor power on the market,
Firepower on the battlefield,
It is all one, merely two
Aspects of the same monster.
The parliaments of the State
Are only highly ritualized
Capitalist market places.
The battlefield is only
The most advanced form of trade.

The equities of the State
Are only devices for
Postponing the decisions
Of violence to a more
Opportune moment. The ballot
Is a paper substitute
For the billy, the bullet,
And the bayonet.

McTaggart:
“Better worship a crocodile
Which being a sentient being
Has some value, than the State, which,
Being an instrument, has none.
As well worship a sewer pipe,
Which may have considerable
Instrumental value.”

The times come round, once more all
Our hearts are breaking as the world
Drowns in a marsh of blood and fire.

[...]

Every collectivity
Is opposed to community.
As Capitalism and the
State have become identical,
All existence assumes the
Character of a vast
Conspiracy to quantify
The individual and
Convince him that all other
Seeming persons are actually
Already successfully
And happily quantified,
And that all human relations
Are quantitative, commodity
Relationships. This means murder.
Every minute, in a million
Ways, the society in which
You live is trying to murder
You. War is the health of the State?
War against its own members.
And with the falling rate of
Profit, all commodities,
Including you, as a unit
Of labor power, become
War matriel, nothing more.

[...]

[Paris]

La Nuit de la Libertaire
At the Mutualit.
An endless entertainment,
All the best raconteurs and
Singers of Paris donate
Their services, the bitter
Humor and passion of the
Dispossessed, gone from the States
With the old tramp carnivals
I followed once in Arkansas,
The voice of the Buttes Chaumont,
The true blague of Pig Alley.
At the end, mass chants by the
Auberge Jeunesse Laque, Spain
Will Rise Again
, Our Martyrs.
One by one, boys and girls step out
And sing a name. I am moved
As the foreign names ring out,
And then, unprepared, I hear,
“Parsons, Frank Little, Joe Hill,
Wesley Everest, Sacco,
Vanzetti.” I weep like a baby.
Afterwards, when the dancing
Begins, we discover the cadres
In double breasted gabardines,
Sitting in a side room at a
Long table, solemnly sipping
Beer, like the Central Committee
In a Pudovkin movie.
They are horrified when we
Jitterbug with the young comrades.
No hope there. But along the
Beautiful rivers of France,
And in the mountains, next summer
Boys and girls will be making love,
And singing the songs of Joe Hill
In their own language. “Song on his
Lips he came, song on his lips he
Went. This be the burden of his
Refrain, soldier of discontent.”
Hideux dans leur apothose,
Les rois de la mine et du rail
Ont-ils jamais fait autre chose
Que dvaliser le travail?
Combien de nos chairs se repaissent!
Mais si les corbeaux, les vautours,
Un de ces matins, disparaissent,
Le soleil brillera toujours!

No collectivity against
Collectivities can function
To restore community.
You cannot creep from quantity
To quality. Today the world is full
Of the vendors of well policed
Utopias, preachers of
Progress by mass arithmetic.
They are all liars, knowingly
Using the language of being
To sweeten the poison of
Death. Never has the last circle
Of Dante’s Hell been so crowded.
While there is a lower class,
I am in it. While there is
A criminal element,
I am of it. Where there is
A soul in jail, I am not free.

[...]

Lontine gives us a farewell.
“M. Kennet’, un pote
Proltarien, et sa femme,
Marthe, une jeune philosophe.”
The tiny room is packed with guests;
A fat Italian sculptor who
Looks like a ragged, dying Wilde,
Epilepsy destroyed his hand,
Now he makes casts for the Louvre;
His silent, fat, Bretonne peasant wife;
A little wiry garagist,
Red faced, bright eyed, three times
Given up for dead with consumption,
Three years in concentration camps;
A Bretonne ex-seamstress who makes
Periodic trips to Belgium,
Where a girl can still find money;
Two neighbors, haggard young housewives,
Who eat and drink but hardly speak;
Lontine’s first lover, an old
Shepherd from the Breton highlands,
With cheeks of purple morocco,
And eyes like a benevolent
Eagle. A wonderful dinner;
A pt truff; a brochet
Au beurre blanc; a bardatte,
The wild hare and woodcocks snared
By the shepherd; peas in cream;
Roast beef with a gravy of
Buckwheat flour, cream, and plums;
Choufleur farci; and a farsac’h,
The plum pudding of Brittany.
I bring the wine, Pelure d’oignon,
(Just like in America,
The girls prefer ros) and a
Bottle of Calvados. They admire
Marthe’s dress. “From a couturire?”
“Certainly not, I made it myself.”
The atmosphere perceptibly
Lightens. Everybody eats, drinks,
Tells stories, sings songs, recites
Poetry. Over the coffee
The garagist cuts loose. His
Repertory is formidable.
“La Poule qu’tait batie trop troite,”
“Toute la nuit sur la Tour Eiffel,”
“L’Hirondelle avec les hmorrodes sches”
(Hirondelles are bicycle cops),
And especially for the shepherd,
“Pompadour, ma belle angle.”
Lontine says, “He writes them all
Himself.” I tell a story with
The punch line, “Ci-gt. Personne.
Son pre utilise les
Produits Michelin.” Great uproar.
The French all think their invention
Hilariously funny.
The shepherd is rather aloof
Until I tell him that once
I worked sheep, when I was a
Forest ranger in the Far West.
We get into a long discussion
Of sheepherding. I draw pictures
Of pack saddles, herders’ wagons,
Tie a diamond hitch around his
Fingers. He is in ecstasy.
“La mme chose, la mme chose. Formidable.
Trs ingnieuse.” He wants to leave
For Nevada on the instant.

[...]

A community of love is
A community of mutual
Indwelling, in which each member
Realizes his total
Liability for the whole.
A collectivity is like
A cancer disorganizing the
Organism which produced it.
The healthy organism
Itself, responds instantly,
As a whole, to the injury
To the slightest of its parts.
Those who by function, or the chance
Of historical accident,
Have mercifully been shut off
From the ravages of social
Paranoia and cancer
Still possess the remnants of
Community, and can begin
To widen and extend it.
This class, unfortunately,
Includes few white Americans.
Where it survives, community
Can transcend history only
By becoming self conscious,
And its first step must be the
Stopping of the insanity
Of commodity production,
And the substitution of free
Satisfaction of human needs.

[...]

Under the somber Autumn sky
We walk in the deserted
Jardin des Plantes. All the plants
Wear straw pelisses for Winter.
Evening comes on, smoky
And blue, and then cold fine rain.
A sign:

AVIS
LES JEUX
SONT
INTERDITS
DANS LE
LABYRINTHE

The maigre November rain
Is falling on the Boulevard
Montparnasse. The streets are dark
Blue and dim. Tiny weak lights
Of bicycles wobble past,
Of men going to work before
Daylight. Garbage collectors
Bang cans, vegetable men
Make deliveries in a
Few open shops. The neon
Bar ornament glows through the
Steaming windows of the Dme.
No breakfast, they are just cleaning up.
The beautiful monument
By the Closerie des Lilas
On the Avenue Observatoire
Is barely visible,
Glistening in the cold first dawn.
Morning comes up Port Royal,
Wet, and biting to the bone.
This is our last sight of the
Crowded little shops of Paris,
Tall houses leaning back from the
Narrow streets and the cold grey
Faades of the Boulevards,
And then the river, silken
In the rain, the coal and gravel
Barges whispering through the rain.

[...]

[Back in California]

Seven days now, in the midst
Of the rainy season, the
Weather has been dry and bright,
In the evening the air
Is hazy with exhalations
Of the drying forest. Night
And morning the dewfall
Is tremendous; and there is
Frost on the bottoms and in
The open glades. New Year’s night,
I walk in the moonlight. In the
Immaculate night the moonbeams
Are like needles. Great bars of
Moonhaze buttress the redwoods.
As I cross the meadow little
Pannicles of ice on the grass
Tinkle against my shoes.
There is a glory around
The head of my shadow, a soft,
Phosphorescent, lunar rainbow.
Over the vast downs, between
The redwoods and the sea, a few
Cattle and sheep move slowly
Or not at all. Then nothing moves.
No light is visible nearer
Than the moon and the stars. Far off,
The world falls like a bomb towards
Its own destruction. I have
Ceased to hear it. I no longer
Have any theories about it.
I no longer have any
Philosophy. All of my
Capacity for tragedy
Is exhausted. I tread softly,
Listening to the earth in the
Moonlight. Peace flows without stopping.
The peace is illimitable
The clear glory is without end.

The contemplative heart, and
Reciprocally the other,
Rise above the levels of
Consequence, appetite, and
Discursive knowledge, with their
Limitations of time and space,
Coming to be and passing away,
And come to know each other
More and more directly. The
Fullness of being is the
Direct knowledge of all the
Others with its love and joy.

When abandoned by Zeus, the
Body of Leda’s swan was
Murdered by jealous Electra.

Under the second moon the
Salmon come, up Tomales
Bay, up Papermill Creek, up
The narrow gorge to their spawning
Beds in Devil’s Gulch. Although
I expect them, I walk by the
Stream and hear them splashing and
Discover them each year with
A start. When they are frightened
They charge the shallows, their immense
Red and blue bodies thrashing
Out of the water over
The cobbles; undisturbed, they
Lie in the pools. The struggling
Males poise and dart and recoil.
The females lie quiet, pulsing
With birth. Soon all of them will
Be dead, their handsome bodies
Ragged and putrid, half the flesh
Battered away by their great
Lust. I sit for a long time
In the chilly sunlight by
The pool below my cabin
And think of my own life — so much
Wasted, so much lost, all the
Pain, all the deaths and dead ends,
So very little gained after
It all. Late in the night I
Come down for a drink. I hear
Them rushing at one another
In the dark. The surface of
The pool rocks. The half moon throbs
On the broken water. I
Touch the water. It is black,
Frosty. Frail blades of ice form
On the edges. In the cold
Night the stream flows away, out
Of the mountain, towards the bay,
Bound on its long recurrent
Cycle from the sky to the sea.

The road which can be traveled is
Not the right road. The word which can
Be spoken is not the true word.

[...]

As long as we are lost
In the world of purpose
We are not free. I sit
In my ten foot square hut.
The birds sing. The bees hum.
The leaves sway. The water
Murmurs over the rocks.
The canyon shuts me in.
If I moved, Bash’s frog
Would splash in the pool.
All Summer long the gold
Laurel leaves fell through space.
Today I was aware
Of a maple leaf floating
On the pool. In the night
I stare into the fire.
Once I saw fire cities,
Towns, palaces, wars,
Heroic adventures,
In the campfires of youth.
Now I see only fire.
My breath moves quietly.
The stars move overhead.
In the clear darkness
Only a small red glow
Is left in the ashes.
On the table lies a cast
Snakeskin and an uncut stone.

There is no need to assume
The existence of a god
Behind the community
Of persons, the community
Is the absolute. There is no
Future life because there is
No future. Reality
Is not conditioned by time,
Space, ignorance, grasping.
The shift from possibility
To consequence gives rise to
The convention of time. At
The heart of being is the act of
Contemplation, it is timeless.

Since Isis and Osiris
Many gods and goddesses
Have ridden the boats of
The sun and the moon. I stand
On the hill above my hut
And watch the sun set in the
Fog bank over the distant
Ocean. Shortly afterward
The moon rises, transparent
In the twilight above the
Mountain. There is nobody
In them this evening. I
Am sure they are empty, that
I am alone in the great
Void, where they journey, empty
Through the darkness and the light.

Deep in myself arise the rays
Called Artemis and Apollo,
Helios, Luna, Sun and Moon,
Flowing forever out into
The void, towards the unknown others.

The heavens and hells of man,
The gods and demons, the ghosts of
Superstition, are crude attempts;
The systems of philosophers,
The visions of religion,
Are more or less successful
Mythological descriptions
Of knowing, acting, loving —
You are Shiva, but you dream.

It is the dark of the moon.
Late at night, the end of Summer,
The Autumn constellations
Glow in the arid heaven.
The air smells of cattle, hay,
And dust. In the old orchard
The pears are ripe. The trees
Have sprouted from old rootstocks
And the fruit is inedible.
As I pass them I hear something
Rustling and grunting and turn
My light into the branches.
Two raccoons with acrid pear
Juice and saliva drooling
From their mouths, stare back at me,
Their eyes deep sponges of light.
They know me and do not run
Away. Coming up the road
Through the black oak shadows, I
See ahead of me, glinting
Everywhere from the dusty
Gravel, tiny points of cold
Blue light, like the sparkle of
Iron snow. I suspect what it is,
And kneel to see. Under each
Pebble and oak leaf is a
Spider, her eyes shining at
Me with my reflected light
Across immeasurable distance.

[1944-1950/1951]


NOTES

The Dragon and the Unicorn is a book-length poem (approximately 200 pages long) recounting Kenneth Rexroth’s 1949 journey through Europe. It has been difficult to select passages that are both “representative” and self-contained because the work covers such a variety of encounters and experiences in such a wide range of social and cultural terrains, interwoven with “commentaries” from continually shifting and often deliberately clashing perspectives (political, historical, aesthetic, philosophical, mystical). The above excerpts comprise only about 15% of the text. To discover the full scope of Rexroth’s vision I highly recommend that you read the entire poem. You can find it in the Collected Longer Poems (New Directions, 1966) or in the new Complete Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2002).

The mythological and other allusions are too numerous to fully annotate here. I will just mention a few things that may be of interest (the section titles have been added for convenience, they are not in the original):

From California to Europe: “The plow in the furrow” and “the shattered mouse nest” refer to Robert Burns’s famous poem To a Mouse: On Turning her up in her Nest with the Plough, which concludes that “the best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley [often go amiss], and leave us nought but grief an’ pain, for promised joy! Which might be considered an expression of the universal suffering that was Buddhas first call to vocation, mentioned in the same passage.

Southern France: Rexroth traveled alone through Wales and England, then to Paris. There he was joined by his wife Marthe, and they bicycled through France to Italy. Vlo is French for bicycle. The remark about “the Pope’s gangster” refers to the 13th-century Crusade that annihilated the Albigensian society in southern France.

Italy: Rexroth’s statements on human relationships (with “the beloved,  “the dual,” “the other,” etc.), and on the distinction between “community” and “collectivity,” are strongly influenced by Martin Buber’s I and Thou (see Rexroth’s essay on Buber). The “arrogant, perverse, pride soaked wall” is Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The Bakunin quote means: “I have said that the bad conscience of the bourgeois has paralyzed the entire moral and intellectual movement of the bourgeoisie. I correct myself and replace ‘paralyzed’ with ‘perverted’.” The Marx quote is from the Communist Manifesto. The “A, E, I, O, U” passage alludes to Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles,” in which each vowel is matched with a different color. “The Philosopher” who compares the Pythagoreans with the Epicureans is Aristotle (Rexroth is mimicking Aquinas, who usually referred to Aristotle in this way). The doctrine of Signatures was expounded by the German mystic Jakob Boehme (see Rexroth’s poem The Signature of All Things). The Smaragdine Tablet is a medieval alchemical treatise. Paestum is an ancient city in southern Italy noted for its Greek ruins. The Anyte poem is one of Rexroth’s translations from the Greek Anthology. John McTaggart was a British Hegelian philosopher.

Paris: Albert Parsons (one of the Haymarket anarchists), Frank Little, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest (IWW members), Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were American labor radicals who were executed or lynched. Song on his lips... is from an IWW song. The French song that follows reads: “Those hideous kings of the mines and the rails, have they ever done anything but rob the workers? How much of our flesh have they devoured! But one of these days, if those crows and vultures ever disappear, the sun will shine forever!” “While there is a lower class . . . I am not free” is from Eugene Debs. The songs at the farewell party are all extremely bawdy (The Whore Who Was Built Too Tight, The Bicycle Cop With Dry Hemorrhoids, etc.). I couldn’t resist including the Jardin des Plantes passage because it represents a rare serendipitous convergence between Rexroth and the early situationists, who seem to have been equally struck by the absurdity of the admonition “No playing in the labyrinth” — three years later Ivan Chtcheglov mentioned the same sign in his Formulary for a New Urbanism, and two years after that the August 1954 issue of Potlatch once again quoted it as perfect expression of the civilization that they intended to overthrow.

Back in California:The road which can be traveled is not the right road. The word which can be spoken is not the true word” paraphrases the opening of the Tao Te Ching. The “ten foot square hut” was an abandoned shack in the woods north of San Francisco that Rexroth used for many years, but the phrase also recalls Kamo no Chmei, who described his retreat in his own ten foot square hut in 13th-century Japan. Bash’s haiku about a frog jumping into an old pond is the most famous Japanese poem. The “cast snakeskin” on the table suggests self-renewal, and the “uncut stone” sitting beside it probably hints at the previously mentioned “Taoist uncut block,” which represents original nature.



Excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s The Dragon and the Unicorn. Copyright 1950, 1951 New Directions Publishing Corp. Copyright 2003 Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

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