With the sheer bulk of writing out there, and the utter banality of much of it, I am surprised when I come across pieces that shake me up as much as these two poems I saw today do. I won’t attempt to introduce them, but just reproduce them here:
Robinson Jeffers – “Original Sin”
The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world: they had dug a pitfall
And caught a mammoth, but how could their sticks and stones
Reach the life in that hide? They danced around the pit, shrieking
With ape excitement, flinging sharp flints in vain, and the stench of their bodies
Stained the white air of dawn; but presently one of them
Remembered the yellow dancer, wood-eating fire
That guards the cave-mouth: he ran and fetched him, and others
Gathered sticks at the wood’s edge; they made a blaze
And pushed it into the pit, and they fed it high, around the mired sides
Of their huge prey. They watched the long hairy trunk
Waver over the stifle trumpeting pain,
And they were happy.
Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise,
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers; the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meat slowly to death.
These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.
Robinson Jeffers, “Original Sin” from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Copyright © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers, renewed 1966 and © Jeffers Literary Properties. With the permission of Stanford University Press, http://www.sup.org. Source: The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 1988)
Denise Levertov – “Come into Animal Presence”
Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
as the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm bush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings,
in white star silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.
Reproduced in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences
These poems sort of say the same thing, but very differently. And the astonishing thing, for me, is the way they describe the ugliness of humanity without being misanthropic or encouraging hatred. It seems to me that what these poems attempt to get at, with a self-conscious sense of failure tempered by a beauty of imagination, is an awareness of the non-human world that steps beyond human judgment, and into a primal state of being that humans have lost because of civilization. They lament the de-spiritualized mode of perception that is imposed by humanity’s current way of life, or perhaps a loss too deep to put into words, something that explains our sense of alienation and nihilistic impulses far better than Marxism, Existentialism, or any political, religious, or philosophical ideology ever could.