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ESSAY: The Passionate Pilgrim

By Gary Young
Appeared in Los Angeles Times Book Review
Dark God of Eros: A William Everson Reader
Edited with an Introduction by Albert Gelpi 410 pp.
A California Legacy Book Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California Heyday Books, Berkeley, California $22.95

On December 7, 1969, Brother Antoninus, a poet and lay brother of the Dominican Order, removed his monastic robes during a reading at the University of California, Davis, dropped them on the stage and left for Stinson Beach to marry Susanna Rickson, a woman thirty-six years his junior. This dramatic act by the poet Time magazine had christened the “Beat Friar,” marked the end of nearly twenty years of monastic life and a return to the secular world as William Everson.

Everson’s celebrity may have peaked with this episode, but his influence has been far-reaching and continues to grow. Dark God of Eros: A William Everson Reader is a welcome arrival and offers a sixty-year retrospective of Everson’s poems, essays, autobiographical writings, interviews and letters, as well as reproductions of his work on the handpress. Albert Gelpi, who also edited Everson’s selected poems, The Blood of the Poet, has gathered a range of texts that chronicle Everson’s immense poetic, artistic and critical achievements.

Everson envisioned a cumulative poetic oeuvre—the record of his own lapidary existence—as a collected whole, which he called The Crooked Lines of God. He divided his work into three volumes that correspond to the three major phases of his adult life: The Residual Years 1934-1948, The Veritable Years 1949-1966, and The Integral Years 1966-1994. Gelpi’s selections reveal not only the trajectory of Everson’s poetic career, but the course of his dramatic life as well.

Everson liked to say that he’d led “an archetypal life,” and by any measure he moved through the world with extraordinary intensity. His searing intellect and his mystic’s yearnings were uncompromising. His spirituality was ecstatic, and he had faith in the instinctual human capacity for transcendence. He lived in an incarnated world where “sex is the consciousness of materiality,” and he often justified his conversion to the Church by saying, “it gave me a God I could eat.” He spent a lifetime attempting to reconcile the two poles of his nature, Eros and agape, erotic love and a hunger for God.

I met Everson two years after his departure from the Dominicans. He had accepted a position as poet-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and was teaching a course on poetic vocation, Birth of a Poet. His meditations were a rare blend of personal reflection, autobiography and vast erudition; one of the few disappointments of Dark God of Eros is the absence of any sections from the Birth of a Poet collection. The bearded, gray-haired bard had by now replaced his robes with a new, secular habit (broad-billed hat, buckskin jacket and bearclaw necklace), “the regalia of the Old West.” He was newly identified with the iconic mountain man and with the cultures of indigenous Americans, and he intended to shift his identity “from poet as prophet to poet as shaman.” Like the hero of archetypal myth, Everson had returned to the place he’d started his journey decades before, chastened now by religious conversion and years of monastic solitude.

William Everson was born in Sacramento, California on September 10, 1912, and grew up in the nearby farming town of Selma. While taking classes at Fresno State College he chanced upon the poems of Robinson Jeffers, and the result, he says, “was essentially a religious conversion.” He became a pantheist, and a devoted disciple of the reclusive poet of the California coast. His poems from this period show the influence of his master, Jeffers, and his affinity with the erotic mysticism of D. H. Lawrence, but the knotty, muscular lyricism we read in “The Rain That Morning” is distinctly Eversonian:

We on that morning, working, faced south and east where the sun was in winter at rising;
And looking up from the earth perceived the sky moving,
The sky that slid from behind without wind, and sank to the sun, And drew on it darkly: an eye that was closing.

Everson and his first wife, Edwa, tended their vineyard in the San Joaquin Valley until 1943 when Everson, a conscientious objector, was ordered to the CO camp in Waldport, Oregon. The marriage did not survive their separation, and after the war, Everson settled in San Francisco where he joined a group of poets and artists that included Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth and others.

Everson had helped establish the Untide Press in the CO camp at Waldport, and after his discharge from alternate service, set up his Equinox Press. The press accommodated Everson’s dedication to literature and to a devotional activity that was both chastening and rewarding. “The poet needs a printer, and the printer needs a text.” He was instrumental in the revival of fine printing in America, which saw a renaissance in the second half of the last century that continues today. The three pieces on printing presented here, and the reproductions of Everson’s presswork are a welcome addition to this compendium. Not since William Blake have we seen such a sublime fusion of poet and printer. It should be mentioned that the design and production values of Dark God of Eros are superior to those of most trade books, a worthy home for Everson’s texts, woodcuts and reproductions.

In 1948, Everson married a lapsed Catholic, Mary Fabilli, and at Christmas midnight Mass in 1948, he experienced a religious conversion. Because Fabilli had been married in the church before her marriage to Everson, the two found it necessary to part. Everson soon took the name Brother Antoninus and entered the Dominican Order as a lay brother. The selections from his autobiographical Prodigious Thrust reveal the profound nature of this decision, and his recurring preoccupations: “that quenching of elementary hunger, that primordial satisfaction of corporal union, part groping on part, the tongueless flesh coiling in its depth of mutual immersion. . .this is very great, and one ought never deny it; only God can make it.”

The poetry Everson wrote as Brother Antoninus is thought by many to be the greatest Catholic poetry produced in the second half of the last century (T.S. Eliot takes honors for the first half), and two of his greatest poems, A Canticle to the Waterbirds and The Poet is Dead: a Memorial for Robinson Jeffers, date from this period. Most of Everson’s poems beg to be declaimed, and A Canticle to the Waterbirds, written shortly after his conversion and overflowing with passion became Everson’s signature poem. Exuberant, stately and musically rich, its deep attention to the natural world is matched by its ardent, reverential music:

Clack your beaks you cormorants and kittiwakes,
North on those rock-croppings finger-jutted into the rough
Pacific surge;
You migratory terns and pipers who leave but the temporal clawtrack written on sandbars there of
your presence;
Grebes and pelican’s; you comber-picking scoters and you shorelong gulls;
All you keepers of the coastline north of here to the
Mendocino beaches. . .
Break wide your harsh and salt-encrusted beaks unmade for
song,
And say a praise up to the Lord.

Everson was keenly aware of the distinction between regionalism and the archetype of a region as it’s manifested in that region’s writers. In his long 1976 essay, Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region, Everson identified the locus of recurring motifs, the archetype in West Coast literature “manifesting itself through local attitudes, a habit of mind.” His focus was on the ethos of the coast, the particular stain the region leaves on the psyches of its inhabitants. The two chapters excerpted here from Archetype West identify the chief architects of the western ethos as manifested in poetry—Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth—to which we should add Everson. There is a reassuring synchronicity that Dark God of Eros has been issued concurrent with The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth and several new editions of Jeffers work, including one edited by Gelpi, The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers. These poets are the spiritual fathers of new generations of poets—Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Larry Levis, et al.—whose task, at least in part, is the articulation of the ethos of the Pacific Coast region.

It has been nearly thirty years since Archetype West was published, and it’s message is more salient than ever. In A Conversation with Brother Antoninus, Everson admits, “I carry a lot of regional bitterness against the East, because I feel the power of criticism lies in the East, while the power of creativity seems to be out West.” The growing independence of West Coast writers, the coherence and ever-expanding body of achieved work that attends to a Western ethos rather than aping or deferring to the dominant East Coast bias, proves the fundamental soundness of Everson’s vision. Of all his critical works, this investigation should remain seminal in a consideration of the literature of the West, the terminal position on the continent, the coast of sunset and oceanic vistas at the edge of the world.

Everson considered each woman he loved throughout his life to be not only his muse, but the embodiment of his anima, his feminine side, which he believed could be opened like a receptive sex for penetration by the Holy Spirit. While in the Dominican Order, he fell in love with Rose Tannlund, a devout Catholic with whom he had an erotic though not a sexual affair. Everson’s poems from The Rose of Solitude chronicle the affair and its effect upon Everson’s struggles with his God. The poems suggest a man overcome with sexual longing, no matter how they’re presented as a spur to a union with Christ. Gelpi stresses the benign aspect of the relationship, but there is something Gnostic, even perverse to all this approach and avoidance. Certainly Everson’s mystical longing was peeked, but so, too, was his passionate ardor for the unattainable female. The enforced celibacy of Everson’s years in the Order produced poetry of grave spiritual and erotic power, but also a perverse attraction to denial:

O Christ & Lady
Save me from my seed!

O Christ & Lady
Save me from my tongue!
. . .
O Christ & Lady
O Christ & Lady

Save me from myself!

Everson’s book-length poem, River-Root, is emblematic of his attempt to reconcile the carnal and the divine. The poem juxtaposes the action of the Mississippi River with a married Catholic couple’s lovemaking, and Gelpi is correct in calling it the “most sustained orgasmic celebration in English.” As such it might also be the most strained. It’s impossible not to smile at times at Everson’s relentless eroticizing:

Spending, to spend, his whole libido: to spend is his sex.

For the River is male. He is raking down ridges,
And sucks up mud from alluvial flats, far muck-bottomed
valleys.
. . .
For deep in his groin he carries the fore-thrusting phallos
of his might. . . .

While the phallic river, “dredger of female silt and engorger, sperm-thruster,” makes its run to “the uterine sea,” bucks mount does, rams copulate on the riverbank, moose and buffalo passionately mate and a grizzly “Mauls his fierce woman crazed with desire.” All of creation seems to be clownishly in rut, and yet in the end Everson convinces. He convinces because this eroticism is not simply an ardent libidinous jag; it is transcendent, compassionate as well as passionate, and it is beautiful:

Deep down under
The snapping turtle sulks in his cutbank hole. Over his head Bigmouth bass break water for joy. Far back on the bayou
One bull frog swells his organ-note gong: the syllable of
desire
Booms over the bog. And the River runs.

Gelpi tells us in his introduction that Everson believed “the poems of his third phase, after he had left the celibate monastery to marry Susanna Rickson and begin domestic life with her and her young son, lacked the raw tension and sublime reach of the Antoninus years.” I would disagree. Although poems from his Antoninus period include several masterpieces, the poems that comprise The Integral Years constitute an apotheosis of his earlier themes, and contain much of his finest work. Grounded in the natural world as all his best earlier efforts had been, the poet in this final period is a more humane being. He loves a real woman in real time, not an unavailable ideal or a psychological or religious projection in some dreamy eschatological realm.

Everson’s libidinous rhetoric at times succumbs to the same exaggerated oratory he employed in many of the Antoninus poems (“Crotch and thigh; she is reft. Let me break white flesh asunder to cock this woman.”), but there are glimpses of a tenderness that calms the rhetoric without reducing its forcefulness: “I have fastened my heart on the stitch of your voice, little wince of delight in the thicket. / Where the slim trout flick like a glint of tin in the pesky shallows.”

Everson had discovered a way to both subsume and exploit his sexual appetites within the confines of monastic life, and it would be a mistake to think that he had simply succumbed to lust and the wiles of a sexually provocative woman when he left the Dominicans. He was content with monastic life, and reiterated this fact often to those who expected him to be an ally against celibacy or the Church. To leave the Order for love of a woman required a colossal effort, and brought nearly as much suffering as pleasure. Everson invoked “the Cosmic Christ” to support him in his new life: “Dark God of Eros, Christ of the buried brood. . . Dark Eros of the soul, Christ of the startled flesh / Drill through my veins and strengthen me to feed / On the red rapture of thy tongueless need.”

There is a new humility in these final poems, not the humility of an aesthetic who has given up the world for spiritual gifts, but the humility of a man who has given up everything—security, identity—to answer love’s call. A ferocious tenderness marks the poems in The Integral Years, and sets it as a fitting capstone to his trilogy.

Sexual imagery, still present in Storm-Surge (“The river-tongue in the sea’s vulva, / The strength in the slot”), and in Cutting the Firebreak (“The mad scythe / Hisses in the vetch, a snake denied, moans in the yarrow. / Whumph! Whumph! Oh, the grunt of lovers biting each other, / Stroke on stroke coupling through hell”) is somehow more domestic (though hardly domesticated) in these poems. The High Embrace, Reaper and many other poems from this final period are profoundly moving and beautiful, mature in every sense.

A bitter irony is the impotence that befell Everson as his Parkinson’s Disease progressed. In Kingfisher Flat he describes a sexless marriage where “Woman and earth lie sunk in sleep, unsatisfied.” After a lifetime spent resolving the conflict between spirit and flesh, he was denied by nature what had been offered him by grace.

Everson was at work on an autobiographical epic poem when he died on June 2, 1994. He completed five cantos of Dust Shall Be the Serpent’s Food, and the rest of the epic had been plotted out. Canto Five, The Blood of the Poet, is the final poem in Dark God of Eros, and it shows further growth in Everson’s style and sensibility, synthesizing as it does his oratorical and high lyric styles with an acute psychological investigation of his own archetypal tale of a hero’s life.

At over 400 pages, Dark God of Eros is a dense, satisfying read. Still, the book is a bit of a tease. It’s as if Everson lived not one life, but three, and in each incarnation his writing was prolific and profound. Many readers of Dark God of Eros will no doubt be drawn to his critical books and to the three volumes of The Crooked Lines of God to experience the full presence and measure of the bard. They won’t be disappointed.

One afternoon during his final illness, I sat with Bill while he rested in his cabin. I thought he had fallen asleep when he suddenly squeezed my hand and whispered, “Angels, angels.” I do not think this was delirium or hallucination, but rather the fruit of a mind immersed in the Word, and a heart tied to a living God.

 
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