Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robinson Jeffers Takes Us All On

I hate the planet. Call me antinomian, but I've finally had it with society's recent shift toward self-righteous environmentalism, and when I heard the neologism "green collar"--meaning someone who works in the alternative energy business--I knew I'd had it. Of course, it was around this time that I was made to read Robinson Jeffers, environmentalist poet extraordinaire. To make matters worse, I had to read him for a close reading class, which means I had to read him over and over again until his words fall apart.

I don't like camping or hiking or sitting quietly under a tree in the woods or any other activity one might associate with environmentalists. All my positive feelings about so-called "nature" involve civilization, whether it's driving at night with the wind flying through my car windows or sitting on my back porch reading in the cool fall air. But I don't understand the people who risk their lives to save some tree or another, and I don't believe that Mother Earth is crying. I don't mind the Alaskan oil pipeline, and I'd love to build what the Athens hippie contingent has termed a "bioterror lab." (In reality, it's a nuclear power plant that could drastically lower our dependence on that foreign oil that's kind of a big deal right now.) I think that whatever members of the unwashed masses came up with the Davis Toad Tunnel need to be imprisoned.

And yet I like Jeffers. His poem "Salmon Fishing" has the potential to annoy me the way that most environmentalist writing does, but any disgust I might have felt is for the most part subsumed by the sheer beauty of his expression. He seems determined not to use any language of civilization, and the poem opens a scene freed of humanity:
The days shorten, the south blows wide for showers now,
The south wind shouts to the rivers,
The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon
Race up into the freshet. (ll. 1-4)
Humanity does not encroach upon this scene--or at least Jeffers would have us believe that it doesn't--but the natural world still manages to choose and to perform actions. (Derrida, I suspect, would call all this into question--can a river have a mouth without having the word mouth?) And the scene is absent of humanity except for Jeffers' loud voice echoing through the canyon, describing it for us.

But I am not sure Jeffers' presence in a humanity-free world qualifies as contradiction in his mind. All through the poem, he sets himself up as an intermediary between humanity and nature, as a sort of environmental Christ. Thus, he includes images of suffering and of sacrifice:
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval,
Like the priests of the people who built Stonehenge. (ll. 5-9)
Jeffers somehow floats above this scene and inhabits the two sides of it. He feels nature's pain and is privy to its nonhuman activity, and yet he speaks human language--he translates, in fact, nature's illiterate groanings into human language.

The fishermen, meanwhile, are Druid priests at winter solstice, a mystical and holy time at Stonehenge. It's important that Jeffers doesn't hate humanity--his distaste for homo sapiens is tempered by his pity; he sounds like the Christ of "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This sacrifice of the salmon may or may not be necessary, but it allows the fishermen to lose their humanity (a good thing here) and to become "primeval," like the rest of the scene.

After all, Jeffers was not, as far as I can tell, a vegetarian. Humans have to eat, and if the anglers weren't standing in the stream pulling the salmon out of it, brown bears would almost certainly be there in their place--and no one blames them. My first reading of "Salmon Fishing" demonized the fishermen, cruelly pulling innocent fish out of their homes, but Jeffers' language suggests I was wrong; he says that they are
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in the red shallows
Of the river's mouth at the year's turn,
Drawing landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales full of the sunset. (ll. 10-14)
There's something sinister about the fishermen, perhaps, and Jeffers certainly does not make the mistake supermarket city boys like me make--that of divorcing the dead fish from the live one--but these fishermen are not wicked, and the death of the fish, made holy by the sunset in their gills, allows humanity to continue to live on.

I say that Jeffers makes himself into one of the fish because of his ability to see their future; they "Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will / The wild Pacific pasture nor wanton and spawning / Race up into fresh water" (ll. 15-17). The narrative voice, tied to nature at the opening of the poem, dies on the same hook as the fish he describes.

Jeffers' poetry trafficks in this ambiguity. We see it just as strongly in his poem "Haunted Country":
Here the human past is dim and feeble and alien to us
Our ghosts draw from the crowded future.
Fixed as the past how could it fail to drop weird shadows
And make strange murmurs about twilight? (ll. 1-4)
Jeffers appears to criticize the modern city-dweller for his lack of connection to the past--symbolized here by nature--which he must then fill with his dystopian expectations of the future. But the grammar's out of joint here. There's no punctuation mark between the first and second lines, which means that we're missing either a period there (making the first two lines distinct) or the words the and that (as in "alien to the us / That our ghosts draw"). The split is significant, the difference between a monolithic cultural identity and one that dissociates when faced with problems.

Likewise, "Fixed as the past" has no mechanical markers, and the clause could mean at least two things: (a) The past and the future are equally dependent (or equally static); and (b) The future is a square peg that modern man attempts to "fix as the past," that is, to shove into a round hole. This ambiguity, however, subverts Jeffers' presumed point. It becomes clear that it is not clear that modern man has no connection to the past or that that is a bad thing. Holding onto the future, Jeffers may suggest, is as dependable as holding onto the past. We may be faced with another set of salmon fishers here, people who we assume Jeffers dislikes while he actually admires them.

This ambiguity allows Jeffers to transcend the didactic and transitory nature of most environmentalist writers--he seems to hear every point of view and to treat them all equally. His conclusions are perhaps not conclusions at all, but further questions. He is, in other words, a first-rate Modernist poet, up there with Eliot and Frost and whoever else you include at the top.


Joel said...

I'm not too familiar with Jeffers, but your reading of him makes sense. I may wind up teaching a course on environmental writing at some point, at which I'll probably come back and plagiarize from you.

Jeffers seems to have more of a traditional (conservative?) view of conservation and environmental issues in that he views a connected inter-dependent relationship with the land as including fishing, hunting, raising one's own stock for food, etc., but would at the same time be critical of thoughtless, consumptive behavior that's much less appreciative of the land even while ruining it quickly. Again, I don't know much about Jeffers, but that would be my guess.

Michial said...

I didn't know you were into environmental writing so much--although I guess you'd almost have to be since it's such a big deal at UNO.

I think you're right about Jeffers' relative conservatism, which is probably why he doesn't bother me the way more contemporary environmentalists do.

Steal away.