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Rexroth Poems (1920s)


The Thin Edge of Your Pride
From The Homestead Called Damascus
From A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy


Poems for Leslie Smith


Later when the gloated water
Burst with red lotus; when perfect green
Enameled grass and tree, “I most solitary,
Boating,” rested thoughtful on the moated water;
Where the low sun spread crimson
Interstices in the glowing lotus; aware
Of the coming, deep in the years, of a time
When these lagoons and darkening trees,
This twilight sliding mirror where we have floated,
Would surge hugely out of memory
Into some distant, ordinary evening —
Hugely, in vertigo and awe.


Six months as timeless as dream,
As impotent . . .
You pause on the subway stairs,
Wave and smile and descend.
Was it an instant between waking
And waking,
That you smile and wave again,
Two blocks away on a smoky
Chicago boulevard?
How many dynasties decayed
Meanwhile, how many
Times did the second hand
Circumvent its dial?


Indigenes of furnished rooms,
Our best hours have been passed
At the taxpayers’ expense
In the public parks of four cities.
It could be worse, the level
Well-nurtured lawns, the uplifted
Rhythmic arms of children,
A bright red ball following
A graph of laughter,
The dresses of the little girls
Blossoming like hyacinths
In early August, the fountains,
The tame squirrels, pigeons
And sparrows, and other
Infinitely memorable things.


Chill and abandoned, the pavilion
In Jackson Park stands like a sightless
Lighthouse beside the lake.
It is very dark, there would be no moon
Even if the night were not thickly overcast.
The wind moans in the rustic carpentry,
But the rain returns silently to the water,
Without even a hiss or a whisper.
We have the shadows to ourselves,
The lovers, the psychopathic, the lonely,
Have gone indoors for the winter.
We have been here in other autumns,
Nights when the wind stirred this inland water
Like the sea, piled the waves over the breakwater,
And onto the highway, tore apart tall clouds,
And revealed the moon, rushing dead white
Over the city.


The absorbent, glimmering night
Receives a solitary nighthawk cry;
Marshals its naked housefronts;
And waits.
The lights of a passing yacht
Jewel for a moment your windblown hair.
The shadows of the lombardy poplars
Tilt like planks on water.
The sea breeze smells faintly of hospitals.
Far off,
On the desert coasts of the Antipodes,
Mountains slide silently into the sea.

Paradise Pond

The minute fingers of the imperceptible air
Arrange a shadow tracery of leaf and hair
About your face.
Downstream a group of Hungarians from the mill,
Stiff with unaccustomed ease,
Catch insignificant fish.
A row of brown ducklings jerks itself across the water,
Moving like furry cartridges
Into some beneficent machine gun.
We shall arise presently, having said nothing,
And hand in vibrating hand walk back the way we came.


I think these squalid houses are the ghosts
Of dinosaur and mammoth and all
The other giants now long rotted from the earth.
I think that on lonely nights when we,
Disparate, distraught, half a continent between us,
Walk the deserted streets,
They take their ancient forms again,
And shift and move ahead of us
For elbow room; and as we pass
They touch us here and there,
Softly, awestruck, curious;
And then with lurching step
Close in upon our heels.


“Whether or not, it is no question now,
Of time or place, or even how,
It is not time for questions now,
Nor yet the place.”
The soft lights of your face
Arrange themselves in memories
Of smiles and frowns.
You are reading,
Propped up in the window seat;
And I stand hesitant at the rug’s edge . . .
Whether or not . . . it is no question now.
I wonder what we have done
To merit such ironic lives.
Hesitant on the rug’s edge,
I study the kaleidoscope
Before my toes, where some long
Dead Persian has woven
A cynical, Levantine prayer.


After an hour the mild
Confusion of snow
Amongst the lamplights
Has softened and subdued
The nervous lines of bare
Branches etched against
The chill twilight.
Now behind me, upon the pallid
Expanse of empty boulevard,
The snow reclaims from the darkened
Staring shop windows,
One by one, a single
Line of footprints.


Out of the westborne snow shall come a memory
Floated upon it by my hands,
By my lips that remember your kisses.
It shall caress your hands, your lips,
Your breasts, your thighs, with kisses,
As real as flesh, as real as memory of flesh.
I shall come to you with the spring,
Spring’s flesh in the world,
Translucent narcissus, dogwood like a vision,
And phallic crocus,
Spring’s flesh in my hands.


Someone has cast an unwary match
Into the litter of the tamarack woodlot.
A herd of silent swine watch the long flames
Blend into the sunset.
By midnight the fire is cold,
But long streamers of grey smoke
Still drift between the blackened trees,
And mingle with the mist and fireflies
Of the marsh.
I shall not sleep well tonight.
Tomorrow three days will have passed
Since I have heard your voice.


After a hundred years have slept above us
Autumn will still be painting the Berkshires;
Gold and purple storms will still
Climb over the Catskills.
They will have to look a long time
For my name in the musty corners of libraries;
Utter forgetfulness will mock
Your uncertain ambitions.
But there will be other lovers,
Walking along the hill crests,
Climbing, to sit entranced
On pinnacles in the sunset,
In the moonrise.
The Catskills,
The Berkshires,
Have good memories.


This shall be sufficient,
A few black buildings against the dark dawn,
The bands of blue lightless streets,
The air splotched with the gold,
Electric, coming day.


You alone,
A white robe over your naked body,
Passing and repassing
Through the dreams of twenty years.



Heaven is full of definite stars
And crowded with modest angels, robed
In tubular, neuter folds of pink and blue.
Their feet tread doubtless on that utter
Hollowness, with never a question
Of the “ineluctable modality”
Of the invisible; busy, orderly,
Content to ignore the coal pockets
In the galaxy, dark nebulae,
And black broken windows into space.
Youthful minds may fret infinity,
Moistly dishevelled, poking in odd
Corners for unsampled vocations
Of the spirit, while the flesh is strong.
Experience sinks its roots in space —
Euclidean, warped, or otherwise.
The will constructs rhomboids, nonagons,
And paragons in time to suit each taste.
Or, if not the will, then circumstance.
History demands satisfaction,
And never lacks, with or without help
From the subjects of its curious science.

Thomas Damascan and the mansion,
A rambling house with Doric columns
On the upper Hudson in the Catskills,
Called Damascus. We were walking there
Once in early Spring; his brother Sebastian
Said, staring into the underbrush,
“If you’ll look close you’ll see the panthers
In there eating the crocus.” And Thomas said,
“Panthers are always getting into
The crocus. Every spring. There were too many
Panthers about the courts in my father’s time.”
They had an odd wry sort of family humor
That startled idle minds and plagued your
Memory for years afterwards.
We sat up late that night drinking wine,
Playing chess, arguing — Plato and Leibnitz,
Einstein, Freud and Marx, and woke at noon.
The next day was grey and rained till twilight,
And ice from somewhere in the Adirondacks
Drifted soggily down the river.
In the afternoon Sebastian read

The Golden Bough, and Thomas said,
“Remember, in school, after we read Frazer,
I insisted on signing myself Tammuz,
To the horror of all our teachers?”
“And now,” he said, “We’re middle aged, wise,”
(They were very far from middle aged.)
“And what we thought once was irony
Is simple fact, simple, sensuous,
And so forth. Fate is a poor scholar.”
We said nothing, and the three of us
Watched the rain fall through the budding trees.


The Lotophagi with their silly hands
Haunt me in sleep, plucking at my sleeve;
Their gibbering laughter and blank eyes
Hide on the edge of the mind’s vision
In dusty subways and crowded streets.
Late in August, asleep, Adonis
Appeared to me, frenzied and bleeding
And showed me, clutched in his hand, the plow
That broke the dream of Persephone.
The next day, regarding the scorched grass
In the wilting park, I became aware
That beneath me, beneath the gravel
And the hurrying ants, and the loam
And the subsoil, lay the glacial drift,
The Miocene jungles, the reptiles
Of the Jurassic, the cuttlefish
Of the Devonian, Cambrian
Worms, and the mysteries of the gneiss;
Their histories folded, docketed
In darkness; and deeper still the hot
Black core of iron, and once again
The inscrutable archaic rocks,
And the long geologic ladder,
And the living soil and the strange trees,
And the tangled bodies of lovers
Under the strange stars.
                                    And beside me,
A mad old man, plucking at my sleeve.

Persephone awaits him in the dim boudoir,
Waits him, for the hour is at hand.
She has arranged the things he likes
Near to his expected hand:
Herrick’s poems, tobacco, the juice
Of pomegranates in a twisted glass.
She piles her drugged blonde hair
Above her candid forehead,
Touches up lips and eyelashes,
Selects her most naked robe.
On the stroke of the equinox he comes,
And smiles, and stretches his arms, and strokes
Her cheeks and childish shoulders, and kisses
The violet lids closed on the grey eyes.
Free of aggressive Aphrodite,
Free of the patronizing gods,
The cruel climate of Olympus,
They feed caramels to Cerberus
And warn him not to tell
The cuckold Pluto of their adulteries,
Their mortal lechery in dispassionate Hell.


How short a time for a life to last.
So few years, so narrow a space, so
Slight a melody, a handful of
Notes. Most of it dreams and dreamless sleep,
And solitary walks in empty
Parks and foggy streets. Or all alone,
In the midst of nightstruck, excited
Crowds. Once in a while one of them
Spoke, or a face smiled, but not often.
One or two could recall the tune if asked.
Now she is gone. Hooded candles in
The Spring wind tilt and move down the
Narrow columned aisle. Incense plumes whirl.
Thuribles clink. The last smoke dissolves
Above the rain soaked hills, the black pines,
Broken by a flock of migrating birds.



This is the winter of the hardest year
And did you dream
The white the large
The slow movement
The type of dream
The terror
The stumble stone
The winter the snow that was there
The neck and the hand
The head
The snow that was in the air
The long sun
The exodus of thought
The enervated violin
The oiled temples
The singing song and the sung
The lengthy home
The trundling endless stairs
The young stone
Homing and the song
The air that was there
Flayed jaws piled on the steps
The twirling rain
And laying they repeat the horizon
Ineffably to know how it goes swollen and then not swollen
Cold and then too warm
So many minor electrocutions
So many slaps of nausea
The keen eyelids
The abrupt diastole
That leaves you wondering
Why it was ever despite their assurances unlocked
Stars like lice along the scalp
The brain pan bitten burning
And dull on one foot
And dull on one foot
O cry aloud
O teeth unbound
Don’t you know that the stone walk alone
Do you know the shredded brow
Are you aware
Do you take this forever concentric bland freezing to touch
Let the scarlet rustle
Let the globes come down
Let the oblate spheroids fall infinitely away
Forever away always falling but you can always see them
The creak
The squeak that makes you so slightly open your mouth
Patiently to be strangled
It is gone away somewhere
It is Winter

Blue black
The silver minuscules
In early dawn the plume of smoke
The throat of night
The plethora of wine
The fractured hour of light
The opaque lens
The climbing wheel
The beam of glow
The revealed tree
The wine crater
The soft depth
The suspended eye
The clouded pane
The droning wing
The white plateau
The hour of fractured light
The twisted peak
The cold index
The turquoise turning in the lunar sky
The climbing toe
The coastwise shout
The cracking mirror
The blue angle
The soothed nape
The minute flame
The silver ball
The concave mirror
The quivering palm
The conic of the wing
The trough of light
The rattling stones
The climbing humerus
The canyon bark
The unfolding leaves
The rigid lamp
The lengthy stair
The moving cubicle
The shifting floor
The bending femur
The rigid eye
The revealing lamp
The crackling anastomosis
The initial angle
The involved tendon
The yellow light
The acoluthic filaments
The general conic of the wind
The revealing eye
The crazed pane
The revelation of the lamp
The golden uncials
The revelation of the mirror




The Thin Edge of Your Pride. Rexroth’s youthful love affair with “Leslie Smith” (Shirley Johnson) is recounted in his Autobiographical Novel, pp. 191-194. The last poem sounds like it may have been added two decades later when these poems were first published.

In the following two selections I have given a sampling of the more complex and obscure poetry of Rexroth’s earlier years. The Homestead Called Damascus, a long poem largely written when he was still a teenager (though apparently considerably revised before its initial publication in 1957), shows the influence of T.S. Eliot (notably the various mythological references in The Waste Land: Grail legends, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, etc.) — an influence that Rexroth would soon reject. But we can also already see the very un-Eliot-like involvement with nature and erotic love that would characterize his subsequent work. Sebastian, Thomas, and the unnamed narrator presumably represent different aspects of Rexroth.

A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy is in the “cubist” style that was characteristic of many of Rexroth’s early poems. Cubist poetry breaks up and restructures verbal elements somewhat like cubist painting does with visual elements. Rexroth’s cubist poems also reflect his explorations of primitive songs and modern linguistics. For a good discussion of what’s going on in this kind of poetry, see Rexroth’s introduction to his translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Selected Poems. If this sort of thing does not appeal to you, don’t worry. Most of Rexroth’s poems from the 1930s on are in a much more accessible style.

Copyright 1949, 1957 Kenneth Rexroth. Copyright 2003 by Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

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