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Rexroth Autobiography (4)


Trips Out West

Monastic Interlude



[Trips Out West]

That spring Morris Pas and Masha and her new husband showed up in Chicago, and Scoop Phillips came from Seattle. Eve Adams had gone off to New York and Ruth had opened a place at 19 West Pearson Street in an old barn. We all moved in. All the talk about the Pacific Northwest decided me to cut loose and go out to the Coast. Turning this decision over in my mind, I took a trip up into Wisconsin to do a little fishing and camping. Along a side road by a couple of wooded lakes came a man in an old Ford touring car. He was lost and looking for the road to Duluth. I directed him to the road and he gave me a ride. He said, “Where are you going?” and I said, “I’m not going anywhere — just camping around here.” “I’m going to Seattle.” I counted over my money and didn’t say anything. After we’d ridden awhile he said, “Would you like to go to Seattle with me? I need company and somebody to help me drive the car.” I said yes. [...]

Seattle was declining from its heroic period. The drastic improvement in working conditions in lumbering, hard-rock mining, and wheat harvesting, which was due to the Wobblies, nonetheless had led to their sudden decline. They were still the ginger group in Seattle, culturally, politically, and economically, and gave the city a character unique in America. The Seattle general strike was only a few years back. The atmosphere was like San Francisco in the heyday of the Maritime Federation, after the ’34 and ’36 strikes, and before the Second War. [...] The most popular soapboxer was a redheaded, derby-hatted Irishman with a wooden leg who talked down at the Totem Pole near the market. Sometime before, he had taken off his wooden leg and had crowned a cop with it. He had been arrested for assault with a dangerous weapon and had been forbidden to talk with his wooden leg on, so before he got on the soapbox he always unstrapped the leg and handed it to the cop assigned to watch the meeting.

He introduced me and I gave a little speech and recited inflammatory poetry. The fellow workers in Seattle had already heard plenty of soapbox poetry from Charlie Ashleigh, and I recited his “Song on his lips he came / Song on his lips he went / This be the burden of his refrain / Soldier of discontent.” It was greeted with noisy enthusiasm. Everybody was wonderful to me but I didn’t like Seattle very much. It seemed to me to have a narrow life, consisting of the circle around the Wobbly paper and another around the University, which shared a considerable number of fellow travelers, all of them bigoted and not very civilized, characterized by the militant know-nothingism Hemingway was soon to make fashionable. [...]

After being around for a little and writing a couple of stories for The Industrial Worker, I decided to pull out. I hitchhiked up north, through Bellingham and Sedro Woolley, looking for work. I discovered nearby the largest white spot on the map, the largest spot without a road, that was not a desert in the United States. I hitchhiked up the Skagit River to Marblemount, where, in those days, the road ended. From there on, around the headwaters of Lake Chelan and down to the Columbia River, was a roadless wilderness — the heart of the highest Cascades.

At Marblemount was a ranger station, where I got a job. Almost forty [a slip: he means thirty] years later I was to meet Gary Snyder, who had worked for the same district ranger just before his retirement. At this time the ranger was just starting. He was what they call a local man in the Forest Service — he was not a forestry college graduate. His name was Tommy Thompson and he was a wonderful fellow. He eventually became Chief Ranger of the Baker National Forest.

I came in the evening with a rucksack on my back and asked for a job. He said, “Come on in and have supper. Maybe I’ve got a job.” [...]

They didn’t have fire lookouts yet in that country. It was difficult to get stock through, and the Forest Service didn’t have enough stock to go around, so this boy and I were sent out on different trails as patrolmen. I think the office of patrolman has practically disappeared from the Forest Service, and if it exists it’s mounted, but we set out on foot to open up the country in the spring. He went up the Skagit and up, I think, Richardson Creek, and I went up Cascade Creek and over Cascade Pass and down in the Chelan National Forest to Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan and came back over Agnes Glacier and down the Suiattle River to Marblemount again. This was some of the wildest country in America and I had never been in real mountains, except as a child sightseeing in the Alps. Thompson gave me a short crosscut saw. I said, “Oh, are we going together?” He said no. I said, “Who’s going to pull the other end of this? It hasn’t got any handle on it.” He said, “There isn’t going to be anybody to pull the other end of it. You’ll do it alone.” Off I went with a rucksack on my back with a week’s supply of food and a couple of light tools and a crosscut saw and ax. The distance was not great, but between Marblemount and Stehekin I did the work which later would be assigned to a CCC crew of twelve boys. I had no pack horse and nobody to give me any advice. I did what seemed to need doing. I sawed open the trail. In one of our tool caches I found some dynamite and an auger. At that cabin I camped with an old hardrock miner who said I was wasting my energy. He showed me a little of elementary powder-man technique. After that I blew open the windfalls. I bored a hole in the log, put in a little powder and a cap, and blew it to pieces. On the way back on the other trail, which was extremely rough and steep — in those days it was impossible to get stock over the Suiattle River trail — I blew my way out of the country, but going in I sawed my way. There were plenty of tool caches. You don’t camp out in that country, it’s too wet, particularly on the Sound slope. All through the country there were cabins to stay in where there were supposed to be tools for Forest Service use. A saw and an ax would not keep very well over the winter, so those two things I carried, but there were bars, peevees, mauls, picks, hammers, wedges, and dynamite cached all over the country. I tipped rocks into mudholes and pulled rocks out of the rocky spots and leveled off the trail, and was a one-man trail crew and thought nothing of it, because I’d never seen such things before. I got back probably the happiest boy who ever lived.

The trip took a little less than two weeks. I got another week’s supply at Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan for the return trip. My job was not actually to repair the trail going in but to open the country up after the winter so the trail crew with stock could get through behind me. In those two weeks or so I discovered the whole world of the Western mountains. I camped with Basque sheepherders, insane prospectors, and cattle outfits, and climbed all the most interesting peaks along the way in the early morning or in the evening after I was through work.

One weekend I was above Lake Chelan with Glacier Peak far off across a steep canyon to the west. It didn’t look particularly near. I was not deluded by the distance, but I was deluded by the apparent ease of access. I started off Friday night down the canyon with no experience of the dense understory of the Puget Sound rain forest. In a short time I found myself hopelessly entangled in a jungle of down timber, vine maple, devil’s club, and blackberry bushes, all growing on a surface at the steepest possible angle. Sometimes I would descend for a hundred feet scrambling in and out of branches like a monkey without ever touching ground. My shirt got torn and my knuckles barked, my eyes smarted with lashing branches. I kept on because after I had gone a little way it was impossible to get back up. I reached the river at the bottom of the canyon after about three hours. The climb up the other side, although steeper, was not so difficult and I got to the broad meadows on the western side of Glacier Peak the afternoon of the next day. It had taken me several hours to cover an airline distance of little over a mile.

I built a fire and made some tea and sat eating hardtack and cheese. All round me like a herd of domestic sheep were Rocky Mountain goats. As the sun set, just like domestic kids and lambs, the young ones played over the grass, up and down the hummocks and protruding rocks and down timber at follow-the-leader and king-of-the-mountain. To the southwest the great mountain rose up covered with walls of ice. There was no one near me for many miles in any direction. I realized then with complete certainty that this was the place for me. This was the kind of life I liked best. I resolved to live it as much as I could from then on. By and large I’ve kept that resolve and from that day much of my time and for some years most of my time was spent in the Western mountains. [...]

I went fishing with Tommy Thompson and he gave me a lot of advice about living and working in the mountains and sold me a horse. This was the first horse I ever owned and one of the best. I went out Monday night and fed him a handful of oats and curried him and put my arms around his neck and rubbed his nose and ears. It’s impossible to convey the intense excitement of an adolescent boy from a great city rubbing noses with his first horse deep in the Western mountains the night before he starts off on a typical wandering, horseback, Western-story quest for range and mountain work. The horse’s name was Bob. [...] He cost me twenty-five dollars and an old McClellan saddle and a Spanish ear bridle thrown in for free. Anyone who has ever ridden a McClellan saddle can understand why it was free. [...]


* * *

I no sooner got back in Chicago than Harold Mann persuaded me to start off on a trip around the world. We planned to hitchhike through the Southwest, ship out from San Pedro, work our way through the Orient, up to Europe, and back to New York. We expected to be gone about five years. [...]

El Paso was as far as we got. Harold was in love and had started off around the world to get over it. [...] Finally he couldn’t take it any more and we headed for home. [...]

As we got into the Ozarks panhandling didn’t work very well. Neither did hitchhiking, for that matter. This was before there was any regular highway from Texarkana to Hot Springs. There was only a narrow, partially graveled turnpike wandering through the hills. As a matter of fact, the new highway was at that moment being built off to the north of us. We got almost no rides, and those only from farm to farm. But it was all right; it was very pleasant walking through the late-autumn mountains. The only trouble was that we could neither beg nor buy anything to eat. The barefoot natives leaned in the passageways of their dog-run shanties and either didn’t speak or told us to git when asked for food. We didn’t try to beg; maybe we should have. The most distraught pleas to buy even a piece of bread met with the standard response, “We feeds all our cold bread to the hogs, and we just ain’t got none hot.” Every few miles there’d be a country store. These were long, dark, shedlike structures with no windows whatsoever, each with a group of men leaning upright or in tilted chairs on the high porch, motionless except when somebody spit. Around their feet there was always a passel of drowsy hounds. Inside the store there were barrels and bins, shelves of denim, gingham, and calico, hams and bacons hanging from the rafters, and no prepared food of any kind, not even crackers. One day for lunch we bought a pound of sugar and walked along the highway eating it out of our cupped hands.

That evening we were pretty hungry. We came down the road into a little valley and there was a genuine house, the first dwelling we had seen all day that wasn’t a dog-run shanty. It was freshly painted bright yellow with scrolls of white millwork in the gables and around the windows, and a beautiful flower garden behind the white picket fence. “Hum,” said Harold, “I guess we get some supper.” Alongside the house tending to some straw skeps of bees was a young, rangy, redheaded man in new waist overalls with shoes on his feet. We offered to buy some food or do some chores. “Oh, that’s OK,” he said. “Come in and make yourself at home. I never turned down a man yet.” He talked to us while he was tending the bees — he was cleaning the hive of something like foul brood but not so prurient, and with this we couldn’t help him. We did help him swill the pigs and rode out bareback with him to chase in the cows. I guess he was pretty lonesome because he talked a steady stream. Just like my grandfather in Elkhart, he had come into the Ozarks “driving twenty of the sorriest-looking jackasses you’ve ever seen, and with nothing in his pocket but five bucks and a broken knife.” That was just after he was discharged from the Army. Six or seven years had gone by and he owned about two thousand acres, most of it in separate farms scattered over three counties. He was beginning to swap these properties off and consolidate them. A couple of years later he was to set out what was then the largest peach orchard in America. I think it’s still flourishing. He himself went on to Congress and a small measure of fame.

We had a fine dinner of venison, sowbelly, blackeyed peas, hominy, cornbread, potatoes with lots of flour gravy, cobbler, and one of the few pots of real coffee in the state of Arkansas. We sat up late talking about everything under the sun, and then he escorted us with a lantern down the road through the moonlight a quarter of a mile to an empty shanty on his property. [...]

We went to sleep on a bough bed in the open passage of the shanty, the full moonlight streaming in our faces and packs of hounds baying off in the hills in all directions.

In the morning I woke with a start. “Harold, Harold!” I yelled. “The joint’s on fire!”

We sat up and looked out. Three men were frying eggs and sowbelly over the dooryard fireplace. “Y’all better git up,” one of them said. “Yo breakfas reddy.” We staggered out, rubbing our eyes, and sat down to a regular banquet: hot bread in a Dutch oven, sowbelly and eggs, persimmon jam, and Ozark coffee made out of burned corn and molasses. When we finished eating, one of the fellows, who had been sitting on a jug which I thought was full of water, pulled it from under him and said, “Let’s perk up the coffee a mite.” It was the purest mountain dew, five years old, aged in the wood, and uncolored. It tasted as if it were about 180 proof. These were the fellows who had been sitting on the porch and glowered at us and spat while we begged the storekeeper to sell us something we could eat. Our host of the night before had let the word go round that we were OK.

As the morning wore along, more and more fellows dropped in. Most of them just appeared suddenly out of the brush. But some of them arrived crashing and banging in ancient cars held together with baling wire, most of them with broken, disused acetylene lamps and hard rubber tires or no tires at all. The local blacksmith shrank wrought-iron bands on the wheels just as though they were wagons. Every third or fourth man brought a jug. The first one was the only glass jug; all the rest were local stoneware. We played cards, chewed tobacco, and talked all day. They were tireless in their demands for information about the outside world. One of the fellows had been to St. Louis and backed us up when we described skyscrapers and elevators. It being Sunday, the womenfolk were all off to church, but the men were free thinkers every one. Furthermore, they were all sorts of illiterate peasant Socialists. Technically, I suppose, their ideas would be classed with those of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, a kind of Populist Anarchism. The biggest piece of machinery they’d ever seen was a locomotive. The nearest thing to a capitalist they knew was the country storekeep, and the only financial documents they knew were mortgages and IOUs marked with a cross. But they had very pronounced ideas about the evils of Wall Street, the trusts, and the system. This was a little too far South for the Green Corn Rebellion, but they were the same kind of men. They were also extraordinarily bawdy and seemed to spend most of their time screwing each other’s wives and daughters. A local character who wasn’t present, an old man with long white whiskers, was quite a line-breeder, as they call it. He’d just had a child by his granddaughter, who was his daughter by his daughter. As they said, “She sho bred true, had cross eyes jist like her maw and grandmaw.”

People kept showing up with food all day. But as it drew toward evening we had a feast: wild-pig meat, coon, deer; and although the women hadn’t come, they sent the men along with pies and cakes. By dark there were about fifteen of us sitting around the fire, five or six jugs of liquor, an indefinite number of dogs, and little groups of kids that came and went. Finally the picnic broke up, but they all promised to be back shortly before midnight and take us on a fox hunt.

About eleven o’clock four or five of the old cars returned with troops of dogs running alongside. We piled in amongst shotguns, Civil War muskets, jugs, and more dogs. We drove down the pike for a couple of miles, up a dirt road, and then across country through the open oak forest. At a big clearing, white as a sheet in the moonlight, we stopped. Everybody got out and all the dogs took off through the woods. Harold and I started after them. “Where y’all goin?” somebody said. “Why, we’re going to follow the dogs,” I said. “Come on back here,” somebody said. “Them hounds don’t need no help. They’ll take care of theyselves.” There was a fire already going, and a couple of decks of cards were being dealt out on the ground. They played some antique forgotten game a little like euchre, and passed around the jugs of mountain dew. Away in the woods, the hounds had turned up a hot trail. Each man knew the voice of his own dogs, and the betting for pennies on what the dogs were doing was inextricably mixed up with the card game. We sat silent and dumfounded. After about two hours of running, the dogs treed a fox (the Southern gray fox can climb a tree if the trunk has any tilt at all). We all trooped through the woods with lanterns and the men fed the dogs cold cornbread and scraps of pig rind, and clubbed and kicked them away from the tree. “Ain’t you going to shoot the fox?” I said. Everybody looked at us in amazement. “Hell, no!” they said. “You can’t eat the critters, and if we started shootin them, pretty soon there wouldn’t be no foxes around.”


* * *

My trip around the world with Harold had aroused my curiosity about the Southwest, which we had never reached. So I only stayed in Chicago a couple of weeks, and then took off through Kansas and southern Colorado to Taos and Santa Fe. On the way down I visited Haldeman-Julius in Girard, Kansas. He had a large stock of a Little Blue Book on diet which he couldn’t get rid of. I bought the lot at two cents a copy and had them shipped ahead. On West Madison Street and Bughouse Square, Eddie Miller once made a good thing pitching a similar book from the Lindlhar Naturopathic Sanitarium. If the stiffs in Chicago bought them, I could envisage an even hotter pitch that would sell them to the weed monkeys.

Taos was under the bitter cloud of the presence of D.H. Lawrence, a miasma which has only recently begun to die away. Lawrence may have been an apostle of love, but his immediate followers hated each other like poison. They spent their time quarreling and organizing the innocent bystanders into their several factions. I went to a couple of parties at Mabel’s where everybody shuffled around full of sugar moon while tame Indians hammered on tom-toms — a weary orgy of skinny or overweight millionairesses, hitchhiking hobohemians, disordered anthropologists, lady imagists from the Middle West, and a select number of very mercenary Indians. During these brawls the Master periodically stormed out of the room in white-faced, red-whiskered rage whenever anybody used a dirty word. However, he magnanimously ignored the considerable amount of gumming-up that went on in the inglenooks of Mabel’s stately home. I won’t say I was disillusioned — every genius to his insanity — but I didn’t cotton to it either.

The only people in the Lawrence set with whom I could make friends were “Clarence”; the Danes; Knut Merrild, still one of the finest human beings I’ve met in my life; Meta Lehman, who seems to have fallen out of all the memoirs and who was much the nicest woman in Taos, being very similar in personality and appearance to Shirley before her TB cure; Jaime de Angulo; and Witter Bynner, who didn’t get along any too well with Lawrence anyway. Most of them I met at the first parties at Mabel’s, but from then on I visited them in their own homes. [...]

Witter Bynner was just beginning to translate Chinese poetry. He was the first person I had met with whom I could share my own interest. He had a very sensible Chinese informant, and had never fallen victim to the outrageous ideographic theories of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. He introduced me to the major Sinologists in French and English, in those days still a rather limited study, and recommended a Chinese student at the University of Chicago who was a great help to me the next winter. He also helped me to shift my focus of interest from the poetry of Li Tai Po, in those days considered by most Westerners China’s greatest poet, to Tu Fu. For this — an hour’s conversation in a sun-baked patio — I have reason to be eternally grateful to Witter Bynner. Tu Fu has been without question the major influence on my own poetry, and I consider him the greatest nonepic, nondramatic poet who ever lived. In some ways he is a better poet than either Shakespeare or Homer. At least he is more natural and intimate. [...]

I went on with a pack horse and another zebra dun. In the pack was the box of health books. Carefully cradled in one of the saddlebags was a tame Gila monster which I had bought from one of my girl’s little brothers.

In the first little town, maybe Durango, I set up shop. I didn’t have a regular keister, so I put the box of books on a folding camp chair which I got at the general store. On it I put a candle and a big bright navel orange. It was getting along toward dark. I stood there for a while fondling the Gila monster stretched across my chest with his nose nuzzling my ear. After I had collected a small crowd I lit the candle which burned steadily in the hot, windless twilight. Then I slowly peeled the orange in one continuous spiral. Then I broke off a piece of peeling, held it close to the candle, skin side toward the fire, and snapped it back between my fingers. When the oil of the orange hit the flame there was a little explosion of blue fire. I put the Gila monster down on the stand and got him to mumble at my fingers, and began my pitch.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said I, “would you all stand just a little closer? It will serve to shelter the candle from any vagrant breeze of the evening that might spring up and I would under no circumstances wish to block traffic and cause any embarrassment to the local guardian of law and order, otherwise known as the town clown. However, ladies and gentlemen, do not stand too close. Do not, in sudden moments of interest and passion, belly up, so to speak, against the stand and irritate or annoy the little animal. As you know, having grown up in this country, although the Gila monster is one of the most lethargic of all living reptiles, he is nevertheless subject to fits and starts of sudden wrath, and, as you further undoubtedly know, the bite of the Gila monster is more venomous than that of the cobra of India, the tiny jewellike but deadly coral snake, or the instantly fatal fer-de-lance of the jungles of the tropics. Compared with that of the Gila monster the bite of the largest diamond-back rattler is but a scratch. Furthermore, these notorious snakes strike like lightning and instantaneously release their victim, unless, as sometimes happens, their fangs become embedded in a bone and they have to be pulled off by main force. The Gila monster, on the other hand, hangs on and gnaws and chews with a bite far more tenacious than any bulldog. Once he has seized hold he is more difficult to remove than the treacherous abalones of the Pacific which often trap the Japanese and Mexican divers and condemn them to a watery grave. Now, the most interesting thing about the Gila monster is that, unlike all other venomous reptiles and all other poisonous animals, he is not equipped with any poison sacs whatsoever. In addition, his alimentary passage is not provided in its upper reaches with any digestive juices. His stomach and upper gut are extraordinarily resistant to all toxins. You could feed this little animal a half ounce of pure prussic acid and it would have no effect on him whatsoever. His digestive processes are unique in the entire animal kingdom. After he has ingested a rodent or other reptile, he retires to his burrow, usually an abandoned gopher hole, and lies in a somnolent position while the food slowly rots. After it has become an amorphous, putrid mass, it passes on into his middle gut where it is absorbed by a peculiar chemistry of his cold reptilian blood stream. Now the venomous effect of the bite of the Gila monster is due entirely to the fact that he regurgitates a small part of this appalling mess into the open wound of his victim. There is no poison more deadly, and it is composed exclusively of food which had decayed in the beast’s alimentary passage. Ladies and gentlemen, I know, just by looking at you, at your lackluster eyes, at the pimples on your foreheads, at your pale hanging lips and thinning hair, that you, too, like most of the inhabitants of the United States, suffer from exactly the same conditions as are beneficial to the Gila monster but which cause you untold harm — rheumatism, nausea, habitual colds, hot and cold flashes, back pain, swelling feet, bad breath, acne — conditions which not only afflict you with these minor diseases and discomforts but which weaken your resistance and leave you the prey of fatal diseases and epidemics.

“Like the Gila monster, ladies and gentlemen, you are full of shit. Your innards are a compacted mass of decaying food which moves slowly out of you like glaciers move down the valleys of the mountains of Greenland. Cathartics are of no help. They only blast a narrow passage like a tiny tunnel through the surrounding abomination.”

At this moment I squeezed another orange peel into the candle flame. By that time it was dark, and the spurt and the flame were very impressive.

“However, ladies and gentlemen, just as poison kills poison and thieves catch thieves, food, properly used, can cure the conditions which are the result of its abuse. In the most ordinary foods are hidden tremendous powers of which the average person knows nothing. You have seen the fireworks display which resulted from a gentle squeeze of an orange peel. In the skin of an orange is a small quantity of oil of orange, mixed with water and other substances. Oil of orange is potentially more explosive than nitroglycerine. The only reason that it is not used to blow open safes is that it cannot be extracted. It must be used fresh, and its power starts to decay the minute it leaves the skin of the living orange. Now I do not advise you to go about munching orange peels, they will only make you sick. In fact, as you might have noticed, if you’ve ever left an orange peel along the trail, they are so violent in their effect that every animal, no matter how wild, instinctively knows better than to eat them. However, there are many perfectly normal foods which, if properly prepared and eaten in balanced meals, will cure you, in a matter of a couple of weeks, of the constipation which has made all your life miserable. Not only that, but there is no part of the United States so remote or in such wild or desert country that some of these foods cannot be obtained. Many of them are things you eat every day; they only have to be properly prepared. Furthermore, they are far more delicious than soggy, hot bread, flour gravy, and meat fried till it is like leather, which, as I know, having grown up in this country, is what most of you eat three times a day.

“On a visit to Colorado I was employed by the Foundation for Natural Health, a nonprofit organization financed by one of the world’s most famous philanthropists. I am traveling through the Southwest, distributing a little book of healthful recipes and menus which will teach you the proper way to eat. There is nothing freakish or cranky about these foods. They are all perfectly ordinary American vittles, but this book will teach you the proper way to prepare and serve them. And after two weeks of following their menus, planned by one of the greatest living dieticians, all your constipation will pass away in more senses than one; your petty, nagging illnesses will leave you and you will discover the world of radiant, robust health. Now the Natural Health Foundation could easily afford to pay my salary, and for livery for my stock, and in addition, give these little books away. If we did that, you would have no respect for them. In a couple of days they would be out hanging on a hook alongside last year’s Monkey Ward catalog and Dr. Miles’s Almanac. So we are charging a small pittance, only a fraction of the cost of printing alone — two bits, twenty-five cents, a quarter of a dollar.”

The only trouble with this pitch was that after I’d made three or four towns I ran out of books. In the course of the summer I managed to connect with a couple more shipments here and there in the intermountain country. Each time I sold them out in a few days. I imagine I did a lot of good.

I spent the rest of the summer drifting up and down the west side of the Rockies, from the San Juan to Jackson Hole. For several years I was to work here every summer. It was still pretty undeveloped country with thousands of square miles of unfenced range. I picked up jobs for a week or two, mostly as relief cookee and wrangler. This is an easy job to get if you’re trustworthy. The regular fellow seldom gets a chance to go to town. I suppose in many ways this is the best of all cowboy jobs. It isn’t anywhere near as hard as driving or gathering cattle and there are short periods in the day when you don’t have to work. Furthermore, you’re up before anybody else, and it’s wonderful to start the fire and go out and chase the cavy in the early dawn. Sitting on a horse in the midst of illimitable miles of sagebrush and rock under the paling stars is an experience like those described by the mystics — the smell of greasewood and juniper smoke, the strong smell of horses as you come on them in the chill air, the stringent smells of the land itself, the sound of thrashers and wrens waking up the country, the sharp aseptic smell of mountain streams in the night.

There’s only one trouble with this work — most cowboys are not interesting people. From Nebraska to the Sierra Nevada they tell the same jokes, and respond to all of life’s situations with the same limited number of reactions. Still, the particular part of the country I had chosen did in those days offer the widest variety of people and customs in the West. [...]

I made the most of my introductions and spent as much time as I could with Indians. Nowadays, wandering hitchhikers are hardly made welcome. In those days it was still possible to “live on the mesa,” as they say, and I spent a week at Oraibi treated like one of the family by an Indian artist on whom I simply walked in. I had looked forward to a week or more at Zuni, but it was too much for me. There are limits to togetherness. I would say that within an hour anyone of the slightest sensitivity would begin to feel the oppression suffocating. It’s like being in the midst of a boxcar stuffed with pillows. I discovered in talking about this to the Hopi and Navahos and Apaches that they are well aware of Zuni group dynamics, and joke about it. Today I believe it is quite impossible for a white man to live in any of the pueblos. Nowadays, of course, in their bitter struggle to preserve every jot and tittle of their way of life, Zuni is far worse than it was then. Every cholera vibrio in the water is as important as the most important kachina.

I’m not opposed to togetherness as such. Some of the most socially happy hours I have ever spent were with the tiny Havasupai tribe deep in their canyon amongst their peach trees. The Havasupai were at least as well integrated as the Zuni, but they were not so damn compulsive about it. In fact, they weren’t compulsive at all. They just seemed to thoroughly enjoy being with one another, securely locked away from all the world. In those days the trail to the bottom of the canyon constituted a minor mountaineering feat.

[317-319, 322-326]

* * *


[Monastic Interlude]

After Christmas the elaborately constructed intellectual tableaux I had made for myself must have worn out suddenly. I closed out my two-room personal Platonic Academy and went to New York.

I rented a basement apartment on Grove Street just off Sheridan Square. Upstairs lived two young poets — Allen Tate and, directly over me, Hart Crane. The week I moved in Crane was busy writing one of his best poems. At that period he was writing everything to what he considered jazz — in this case, Bert Williams’ “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” On his phonograph he had one of those old tin contrivances which picked up the needle and sent it back to the beginning of the record with a loud squeak. Hour after hour, day and night, I could hear coming through the ceiling “So still de night, in de ole distillery, de moon shine white on de ole machinery.” It wasn’t jazz, but it produced “Whitely, while benzine rinsings of the moon dissolve . . .” At the end of the street was St. Luke’s, a pre-Revolutionary church run by Father Schlueter, one of the most remarkable men in the history of Anglo-Catholicism in America. I started going there regularly. At home, having Hart Crane for an overhead neighbor, my place became a continuous shambles of drunken hilarity. About the middle of February I was baptized, and that night my baptismal party was one of the historic Village brawls. The next day I left in a snowstorm for Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson across from Poughkeepsie.

On the way up I discovered that I had lost my ticket, but the Irish conductor, when he found out that I was going to a monastery, told me to forget about it. Instead of taking the West Side Line and getting off in West Park, I went to Poughkeepsie and crossed the river to discover — afoot with a suitcase in a below-zero night with ten inches of fresh snow on the ground — that West Park was several miles on up the river. By the time I got there I felt very holy and penitent, like Henry the Fourth at Canossa. The monastery lay on a bench above the Hudson in a little meadow surrounded with woods, a big Georgian hotellike building for living quarters, and a little rough, native-stone Romanesque chapel all shrouded in snow. Everything was dark and I pounded on all the doors without rousing anybody. Finally a long white face above a white habit appeared at one of the windows. The community was at evening prayers, and they had ceased to expect me. After supper of milk and bread and cheese, I was ushered to a typical rough-plastered monastic cell about eight by ten feet, with a cot, a commode and washbasin, a table and chair, a crucifix, a prie-dieu. At dawn I was awakened for morning prayers and Mass. I should explain that the regular prayers said by priests and members of religious orders are said eight times a day. In a semicontemplative order like Holy Cross they are sung in chapel, except when the members are traveling. They are called Matins, Lauds, Prine, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline. After Mass we all went in individually to the refectory and helped ourselves to breakfast from a large sideboard. At the other meals the community filed first into the chapel reciting a Psalm, and then back to the refectory, where we were served by novices. No one spoke at meals or, for that matter, at any other time except on feast days and Sundays, and during meals a lector read a brief life of the saint of that day and then a continued selection from some religious book. Although I was just a guest and not a postulant, I was given a white habit without cowl or scapular (a scapular is a long panel of cloth which hangs down to the hem of the skirt, front and back, and is worn only by those who have taken final vows). I took part in all the offices and other activities, served every morning at Mass, and otherwise comported myself like a member of the community.

The Order of the Holy Cross had been founded in America at the beginning of the century and was modeled, more or less, on a combination of the Augustinian and Dominican rules. The priests of the order spent half their time traveling as preachers, and the other half at the monastery, living a rather strict and cloistered life. Most of the founders were still alive, a small group of impressive, white-haired men.

The chapel had been built by Ralph Adams Cram and was a perfect example of his Romanesque work. He had planned to have it decorated with frescoes or mosaics. For this reason, and others, the order was anxious to obtain an artist member. Several postulants had appeared, and some had even served their novitiates, but they had all left after obtaining an expensive art education paid for by the order. At one end of the building, above the kitchen, there was a large studio with a big skylight, an extremely fancy easel, and every imaginable kind of artist’s equipment. Into this I was ushered, and invited to make myself free. I had hardly expected anything like this. I had expected that the new men at the monastery — “fish,” as they are called in prison and the Army — spent their time scrubbing the toilets, wearing hair shirts, and living on bread and water. When I came back to my cell after lunch, the table had been moved out and a desk and typewriter substituted. The monastery had the best small library I have ever seen. There was everything anyone would ever want in theology and related subjects, but there was also a vast amount of secular philosophy right up to date — all of Ogden’s Library of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Method, and all of Muirhead’s Library of Philosophy, for instance, and all the leading journals. So, if I wished, I could continue the regimen I had set up for myself in Chicago. The food was simple — I suppose, monastic, but the cook was an excellent chef. So even though it was Lent we certainly ate well, if modestly. Immediately above the monastery the Catskills rose steeply over the river — one of the most beautiful settings in America.

Every day I painted, prayed, wrote, and walked through the snowbound forest. Next door had been the home of the naturalist John Burroughs, recently dead. I made friends with his family and was permitted to use his little cabin off up in the woods. So began what is certainly the happiest period in my life.

I had arrived on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, so I was able to experience the unfolding of the great two months’ long liturgical drama of Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. I suppose I am just a natural-born monk. Everything about the life satisfied me completely. I felt no temptation for any of the worldly pleasures. Sex, for instance, never entered my mind. If I had been exalted riding night herd or climbing in the Cascades, or fishing in a mountain stream, I spent the days at Holy Cross transfigured. It was all one orderly rapture.

My interest in Catholicism had been more or less intellectual, and I had always fought shy of the common Anglo-Catholic passion for ritual and holy millinery. But life in a contemplative order like Holy Cross is just like in L’Oblat, only more so. In fact, an Anglo-Catholic order like Holy Cross, with its insistence on liturgical purity is far more solemn and beautiful than, at least in those days, anything it would have been possible to find in all but a very few Roman Catholic orders in Europe. Not Shakespeare nor any Greek tragedy could compare with the celebration of Lent and Holy Week. It was a kind of aesthetic possession which took over the personality completely and swept it away. At least in this season of the year, and in such places as Holy Cross, Christianity takes on all the character of an anthropological religion, as linked to the realities of life as the rites of the pre-Homeric Greeks or an African tribe — the stark, pre-Christian mourning of Ash Wednesday; the increasing sorrow and penitence of Lent, broken only by the Consolation of the Blessed Virgin and the Vespers of Mid-Lent Sunday; the distraught sorrow of Passion Week among the shrouded statues; the gathering darkness of Holy Week, with candles going out one by one; the bare white chapel in the cold spring night; brief rejoicing over the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday, and the almost abstract tragedy of the chanting of the Passion at the Mass of the Presanctified. And then Easter, exploding with the completely pagan rites of the New Year on Holy Saturday and reaching a golden climax in the Easter Sequence — all this sung in the purest plainsong by a choir of twenty to thirty voices, trained not musically but by years of devotion.

Immersed in it, I found it totally convincing. At the end of Eastertide I went for a long walk by the river and through the mountains. All the trees were in bud and as varied in color, but far more subtle, than the forest of the New York autumn. Birds were singing everywhere. The underbrush was full of migrating warblers. That evening I had a long talk with the novice master. I explained to him that I found myself adapted to the monastic life. There was nothing whatever about it that I didn’t like. I had felt no hardships but had enjoyed every minute of it, more than anything I had ever experienced. But I had no vocation whatsoever. Father Anderson was deeply moved and assured me that he understood me perfectly and respected my decision. “I think, Kenneth,” he said, “this experience will turn out to be more valuable to you than you can know now. Let’s hope it will always provide a memory which will be a focus and stable foundation for all your later life.” And so it was. I went down to New York the next day.

As is apparent in this story, all my life I have been attracted by Catholicism. But what attracted me was not its Christianity, but its paganism. The Scholastic Philosophers entertained me not because they were apologists for Jesus but because they were refinements of Aristotle. The liturgical life of the Church moved me because it echoes the most ancient responses to the turning of the year and the changing seasons, and the rhythms of animal and human life. For me the Sacraments transfigured the rites of passage, the physical facts of the human condition — birth, adolescence, sexual intercourse, vocation, sickness and death, communion, penance. Catholicism still provides a structure of acts, individual and at the same time communal, physical responses to life. [...]

From earliest childhood I have had not rarely but habitually the kind of experiences that are called visionary. They came long before the possibility of intellectual or even emotional qualification and they have never acquired such qualification in any definite or enduring sense. Not only has such experience been like that described by William James and other unbiased psychologists of mysticism; the first experience I remember clearly was like many such cases in precise detail. I was about four or five years old sitting on the carriage stone at the curb in front of our house on Marion Street in Elkhart, Indiana. It was early summer. A wagon loaded high with new-mown hay passed close to me on the street. An awareness, not a feeling, of timeless, spaceless, total bliss occupied me or I occupied it completely. I do not want to use terms like “overwhelmed me” or “I was rapt away” or any other that would imply the possession of myself by anything external, much less abnormal. On the contrary, this seemed to be my normal and natural life which was going on all the time and my sudden acute consciousness of it only a matter of attention. This is a sophisticated description in the vocabulary of an adult but as a five-year-old child I had no vestige of doubt but what this was me — not “the real me” as distinguished from some illusory ego but just me. I talked to my mother about it, and the curious thing is that although I remember that she was sympathetic I have no memory whatsoever of what she said.

Anyone who has ever read the slightest moiety of the literature on this subject will recognize the universality of the experience. Before I was ten years older I had encountered the same experiences in authors as different as Richard Jefferies, H.G. Wells, Huneker, Rousseau, and some improbable eighteenth-century rationalist, I believe Diderot — including the new-mown hay. As is well known, this latter factor occurs so often in autobiographical literature that people have searched for a hypnogenetic principle among the esters and glucosides to be found in ripe grass. I am inclined to think that ripe grass is only one of many factors that enter into the composition of the poet’s rare day in June when everything can actually slip into perfect tune and the situation triggers total realization.

I have very little confidence in the primacy of hallucinogens whether self-induced in the blood stream by yogic manipulation of the autonomic nervous system, taken as drugs or manufactured in the body in morbid conditions of fever or come upon by accident in the environment. All of these things have happened to me. Much later in this story I will describe my experiments with Yoga. I do not believe such triggers are either necessary or desirable. In fact, I believe that vision which is so conditioned is self-defeating because it must always be exceptional.

I believe that an ever-increasing capacity for recollection and transcendence is developed by a kind of life rather than by manipulation. Buddhism is certainly pure religious empiricism. It has no beliefs, only the simply and purely defined religious experience which becomes for the experiencers an always accessible and ever-abiding present reality. The foundation for this is neither nervous-system gymnastics nor theological notions. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, whose culmination is the “unruffledness” — Nirvana — which underlies reality.

[332-335, 337-338]

End of part 4 of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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