Rexroth Poems (1930s)


Another Early Morning Exercise
From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion
Requiem for the Spanish Dead
On What Planet
Climbing Milestone Mountain
Autumn in California
August 22, 1939





One hundred feet overhead the fog from the Pacific
Moves swiftly over the hills and houses of San Francisco.
After the bright March day the interior valleys
Suck great quantities of cool air in from the ocean.
Above the torn fog one high, laminated, transparent cloud
Travels slowly northward across the lower half of the half-moon.
The moon falls westward in a parabola from Castor and Pollux.
I walk along the street at three in the morning,
It is spring in the last year of youth.
The tide is out and the air is full of the smell of the ocean.
The newly arrived mocking birds are awake
In the courtyard behind the houses.
I pass a frosted refrigerated window
Where five disemboweled white hares
Hang by their furred hind paws from a five-spoked rack.
The unlit florists’ windows are full of obscure almond blossoms.
I have been sitting in Sam Wo’s drinking cold aromatic liquor.
“What did Borodin do in Canton in 1927” —
The argument lasted five hours.
My friend Soo sympathizes with the Left Opposition;
He told me I had murdered forty thousand bodies on Yellow Flower Hill.
“Those bodies are on your shoulders,” he said.
He ordered stewed tripe and wept eating it,
Clicking his chopsticks like castanets.
Whatever Borodin did it was probably wrong;
History would be so much simpler if you could just write it
Without ever having to let it happen.
The armies of the Kuo Min Tang have taken the birthplace of Tu Fu;
The Red Army has retreated in perfect order.
I wonder if the wooden image erected by his family
Still stands in the shrine at Cheng Tu;
I wonder if anyone still burns paper
Before that face of hungry intelligence and sympathy.
He had a hard life he hated war and despotism and famine;
The first chance he got he quarreled with the Emperor.
Venomous papers dry their ink on the newsstands;
A chill comes over me; I walk along shivering;
Thinking of a world full of miserable lives,
And all the men who have been tortured
Because they believed it was possible to be happy.
Pickets keep watch by the bridge over the mouth of the Sacramento,
Huddled over small fires,
Talking little,
Rifles in their hands.




Remember now there were others before this;
Now when the unwanted hours rise up,
And the sun rises red in unknown quarters,
And the constellations change places,
And cloudless thunder erases the furrows,
And moonlight stains and the stars grow hot.
Though the air is fetid, conscripted fathers,
With the black bloat of your dead faces;
Though men wander idling out of factories
Where turbine and hand are both freezing;
And the air clears at last above the chimneys;
Though mattresses curtain the windows;
And every hour hears the snarl of explosion;
Yet one shall rise up alone saying:
“I am one out of many, I have heard
Voices high in the air crying out commands;
Seen men’s bodies burst into torches;
Seen faun and maiden die in the night air raids;
Heard the watchwords exchanged in the alleys;
Felt hate speed the blood stream and fear curl the nerves.
I know too the last heavy maggot;
And know the trapped vertigo of impotence.
I have traveled prone and unwilling
In the dense processions through the shaken streets.
Shall we hang thus by taut navel strings
To this corrupt placenta till we’re flyblown;
Till our skulls are cracked by crow and kite
And our members become the business of ants,
Our teeth the collection of magpies?”
They shall rise up heroes, there will be many,
None will prevail against them at last.
They go saying each: “I am one of many”;
Their hands empty save for history.
They die at bridges, bridge gates, and drawbridges.
Remember now there were others before;
The sepulchres are full at ford and bridgehead.
There will be children with flowers there,
And lambs and golden-eyed lions there,
And people remembering in the future.





The great geometrical winter constellations
Lift up over the Sierra Nevada,
I walk under the stars, my feet on the known round earth.
My eyes following the lights of an airplane,
Red and green, growling deep into the Hyades.
The note of the engine rises, shrill, faint,
Finally inaudible, and the lights go out
In the southeast haze beneath the feet of Orion.

As the sound departs I am chilled and grow sick
With the thought that has come over me. I see Spain
Under the black windy sky, the snow stirring faintly,
Glittering and moving over the pallid upland,
And men waiting, clutched with cold and huddled together,
As an unknown plane goes over them. It flies southeast
Into the haze above the lines of the enemy,
Sparks appear near the horizon under it.
After they have gone out the earth quivers
And the sound comes faintly. The men relax for a moment
And grow tense again as their own thoughts return to them.

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

Then quietly at first and then rich and full-bodied,
I hear the voice of a young woman singing.
The emigrants on the corner are holding
A wake for their oldest child, a driverless truck
Broke away on the steep hill and killed him,
Voice after voice adds itself to the singing.
Orion moves westward across the meridian,
Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, marching in order,
The great nebula glimmering in his loins.





Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter’s Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.

Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.

All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blond hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons.”





August 22, 1937

For a month now, wandering over the Sierras,
A poem had been gathering in my mind,
Details of significance and rhythm,
The way poems do, but still lacking a focus.
Last night I remembered the date and it all
Began to grow together and take on purpose.
       We sat up late while Deneb moved over the zenith
And I told Marie all about Boston, how it looked
That last terrible week, how hundreds stood weeping
Impotent in the streets that last midnight.
I told her how those hours changed the lives of thousands,
How America was forever a different place
Afterwards for many.
                                          In the morning
We swam in the cold transparent lake, the blue
Damsel flies on all the reeds like millions
Of narrow metallic flowers, and I thought
Of you behind the grille in Dedham, Vanzetti,
Saying, “Who would ever have thought we would make this history?”
Crossing the brilliant mile-square meadow
Illuminated with asters and cyclamen,
The pollen of the lodgepole pines drifting
With the shifting wind over it and the blue
And sulphur butterflies drifting with the wind,
I saw you in the sour prison light, saying,
“Goodbye comrade.”
                                         In the basin under the crest
Where the pines end and the Sierra primrose begins,
A party of lawyers was shooting at a whiskey bottle.
The bottle stayed on its rock, nobody could hit it.
Looking back over the peaks and canyons from the last lake,
The pattern of human beings seemed simpler
Than the diagonals of water and stone.
Climbing the chute, up the melting snow and broken rock,
I remembered what you said about Sacco,
How it slipped your mind and you demanded it be read into the record.
Traversing below the ragged arête,
One cheek pressed against the rock
The wind slapping the other,
I saw you both marching in an army
You with the red and black flag, Sacco with the rattlesnake banner.
I kicked steps up the last snow bank and came
To the indescribably blue and fragrant
Polemonium and the dead sky and the sterile
Crystalline granite and final monolith of the summit.
These are the things that will last a long time, Vanzetti,
I am glad that once on your day I have stood among them.
Some day mountains will be named after you and Sacco.
They will be here and your name with them,
“When these days are but a dim remembering of the time
When man was wolf to man.”
I think men will be remembering you a long time
Standing on the mountains
Many men, a long time, comrade.





Autumn in California is a mild
And anonymous season, hills and valleys
Are colorless then, only the sooty green
Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep
Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;
The steep pastures are tracked deep by the cattle;
There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.
All night along the coast and the mountain crests
Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.
Only in the mountain meadows the aspens
Glitter like goldfish moving up swift water;
Only in the desert villages the leaves
Of the cottonwoods descend in smoky air.
       Once more I wander in the warm evening
Calling the heart to order and the stiff brain
To passion. I should be thinking of dreaming, loving, dying,
Beauty wasting through time like draining blood,
And me alone in all the world with pictures
Of pretty women and the constellations.
But I hear the clocks in Barcelona strike at dawn
And the whistles blowing for noon in Nanking.
I hear the drone, the snapping high in the air
Of planes fighting, the deep reverberant
Grunts of bombardment, the hasty clamor
Of anti-aircraft.
                             In Nanking at the first bomb,
A moon-faced, willowy young girl runs into the street,
Leaves her rice bowl spilled and her children crying,
And stands stiff, cursing quietly, her face raised to the sky.
Suddenly she bursts like a bag of water,
And then as the blossom of smoke and dust diffuses,
The walls topple slowly over her.
                                                             I hear the voices
Young, fatigued and excited, of two comrades
In a closed room in Madrid. They have been up
All night, talking of trout in the Pyrenees,
Spinoza, old nights full of riot and sherry,
Women they might have had or almost had,
Picasso, Velasquez, relativity.
The candlelight reddens, blue bars appear
In the cracks of the shutters, the bombardment
Begins again as though it had never stopped,
The morning wind is cold and dusty,
Their furloughs are over. They are shock troopers,
They may not meet again. The dead light holds
In impersonal focus the patched uniforms,
The dog-eared copy of Lenin’s Imperialism,
The heavy cartridge belt, holster and black revolver butt.
       The moon rises late over Mt. Diablo,
Huge, gibbous, warm; the wind goes out,
Brown fog spreads over the bay from the marshes,
And overhead the cry of birds is suddenly
Loud, wiry, and tremulous.




AUGUST 22, 1939

“. . . when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness, I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wildflowers here and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the tranquillity of the mother-nature, and I am sure she will enjoy this very much, as you surely will be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim; because they are your friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday, for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”
  (Nicola Sacco to his son Dante, Aug. 18, 1927)

Angst und Gestalt und Gebet (Rilke)

What is it all for, this poetry,
This bundle of accomplishment
Put together with so much pain?
Twenty years at hard labor,
Lessons learned from Li Po and Dante,
Indian chants and gestalt psychology;
What words can it spell,
This alphabet of one sensibility?
The pure pattern of the stars in orderly progression,
The thin air of fourteen-thousand-foot summits,
Their Pisgah views into what secrets of the personality,
The fire of poppies in eroded fields,
The sleep of lynxes in the noonday forest,
The curious anastomosis of the webs of thought,
Life streaming ungovernably away,
And the deep hope of man.
The centuries have changed little in this art,
The subjects are still the same.
“For Christ’s sake take off your clothes and get into bed,
We are not going to live forever.”
“Petals fall from the rose,”
We fall from life,
Values fall from history like men from shellfire,
Only a minimum survives,
Only an unknown achievement.
They can put it all on the headstones,
In all the battlefields,
“Poor guy, he never knew what it was all about.”
Spectacled men will come with shovels in a thousand years,
Give lectures in universities on cultural advances, cultural lags.
A little more garlic in the soup,
A half-hour more in bed in the morning,
Some of them got it, some of them didn’t;
The things they dropped in their hurry
Are behind the glass cases of dusky museums.
This year we made four major ascents,
Camped for two weeks at timberline,
Watched Mars swim close to the earth,
Watched the black aurora of war
Spread over the sky of a decayed civilization.
These are the last terrible years of authority.
The disease has reached its crisis,
Ten thousand years of power,
The struggle of two laws,
The rule of iron and spilled blood,
The abiding solidarity of living blood and brain.
They are trapped, beleaguered, murderous,
If they line their cellars with cork
It is not to still the pistol shots,
It is to insulate the last words of the condemned.
“Liberty is the mother
Not the daughter of order.”
“Not the government of men
But the administration of things.”
“From each according to his ability,
Unto each according to his needs.”
We could still hear them,
Cutting steps in the blue ice of hanging glaciers,
Teetering along shattered arêtes.
The cold and cruel apathy of mountains
Has been subdued with a few strands of rope
And some flimsy iceaxes,
There are only a few peaks left.
Twenty-five years have gone since my first sweetheart.
Back from the mountains there is a letter waiting for me.
“I read your poem in the New Republic.
Do you remember the undertaker’s on the corner,
How we peeped in the basement window at a sheeted figure
And ran away screaming? Do you remember?
There is a filling station on the corner,
A parking lot where your house used to be,
Only ours and two other houses are left.
We stick it out in the noise and carbon monoxide.”
It was a poem of homesickness and exile,
Twenty-five years wandering around
In a world of noise and poison.
She stuck it out, I never went back,
But there are domestic as well as imported
Explosions and poison gases.
Dante was homesick, the Chinese made an art of it,
So was Ovid and many others,
Pound and Eliot amongst them,
Kropotkin dying of hunger,
Berkman by his own hand,
Fanny Baron biting her executioners,
Mahkno in the odor of calumny,
Trotsky, too, I suppose, passionately, after his fashion.
Do you remember?
What is it all for, this poetry,
This bundle of accomplishment
Put together with so much pain?
Do you remember the corpse in the basement?
What are we doing at the turn of our years,
Writers and readers of the liberal weeklies?




Another Early Morning Exercise. The reference to armed pickets suggests that this poem was written during or soon after the San Francisco general strike of 1934. Mikhail Borodin was the representative of the Third International who in 1927, on Stalin’s orders, urged the Chinese Communists to rally to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang. They did so, and as soon as their guard was lowered by this alliance, the Kuomintang slaughtered thousands of Communist workers in the streets of Canton and Shanghai (see Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution).

From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion was originally entitled “March 18, 1871-1921” — the dates of the Commune and of the Bolsheviks’ crushing of the Kronstadt revolt exactly fifty years later. “The next morning, March 18, the Petrograd newspapers carried banner headlines commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune. Bands played military tunes and the Communists paraded in the streets, singing the ‘Internationale.’ ‘Its strains,’ noted Goldman, ‘once jubilant to my ears, now sounded like a funeral dirge for humanity’s flaming hope.’ Berkman made a bitter entry in his diary: ‘The victors are celebrating the anniversary of the Commune of 1871. Trotsky and Zinoviev denounce Thiers and Gallifet for the slaughter of the Paris rebels’.” (Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921.)

Requiem for the Spanish Dead and Autumn in California both refer to the Spanish revolution and civil war (1936-1939).

Climbing Milestone Mountain and August 22, 1939 were both written on the anniversary of the death of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists who were executed in Boston in 1927 for a murder they did not commit. The Rilke quotation, from the poem “Erinnerung” (Remembering), means “Anguish and form and prayer.” See the 1950s selections for another Rexroth poem about Sacco and Vanzetti. You can also see and hear Rexroth reading “Climbing Milestone Mountain” on YouTube.

Copyright 1940 Kenneth Rexroth. Copyright 2003 Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

More Rexroth Poems