Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fat-Hearted Men

Note to visitors:  This post contains a photo Yosemite Starry Night by Sam Rua (click link for Mr. Rua's photo galleries).  The photo is paired with a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, "The Great Nebula of Andromeda." Astronomically, Mr. Rua's photo is of the Taurus constellation, not the Andromeda of Rexroth's poem.  Aesthetically, though, it's just right for the atmosphere evoked by that poem.

   Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology):
   Marvin Gaye

In 1971, Marvin Gaye recorded "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)." Its second verse goes:
     Oh, oh, mercy mercy me
     Oh, things ain't what they used to be
     No, no
     Oil wasted on the oceans, and upon our seas
     Fish full of mercury ...

Marvin Gaye wrote "Mercy, Mercy Me" and, forty years on, the unfolding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revivifies its lyrics.  While there are many aspects to this disaster –– scientific, legal, ethical, political, ecological, financial –– what mostly stays with me is stupefaction.  It is hard to comprehend this oil spill, thoughts are slow in coming.  Even music fails me here, Marvin Gaye notwithstanding.

In quantitative terms, between 20 and 44 million gallons of oil have leaked into the Gulf to date.  Numbers of this magnitude turn to mush in my mind –– but in local-geographical terms, and for those in the Northeast, such a quantity of oil would cover the entire states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and most of Massachusetts.

Adding to my stupefaction is the fact that British Petroleum knew back in 2005 that they were in a "frontier province" of deep water drilling, and that they would have to possess "the capability to respond to the unexpected" (see Our Fix-It Faith).  But evidently BP insufficiently respected the complexities of this "frontier province," as well as their stated care in entering it.

By definition, when at a frontier we are at a place beyond knowability and preparedness: past this border lies an unknown universe.  A recognition of the limits of our knowability might have tempered exploratory optimism with substantive contingency planning.  There might have been –– there should have been –– an attitude of awe at the largeness of this move into the unknown, with an attendant and grounding humility.  Instead, there was a "can do" hubris in which BP befogged itself, losing sight of the ramifications of what it was actually doing.  Rather than respectful awe, we find detachment and a scrabbling to do catch-up.  BP stupefied itself.

   Bed of Stars: Amy Lauren

But here comes a poem to relieve stupefaction.  It is "The Great Nebula Of Andromeda" (1956), by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982). Rexroth included it among a suite of poems, The Lights In The Sky Are Stars, written for his five year old daughter Mary when the poet was fifty.  The setting is likely the Eastern Sierras in California; it is night and Rexroth and his daughter are camping.

     We get into camp after
     Dark, high on an open ridge
     Looking out over five thousand
     Feet of mountains and mile
     Beyond mile of valley and sea.
     In the star-filled dark we cook
     Our macaroni and eat
     By lantern light.  Stars cluster
     Around our table like fireflies.
     After supper we go straight
     To bed.  The night is windy
     And clear.  The moon is three days
     Short of full.  We lie in bed
     And watch the stars and the turning
     Moon through our little telescope.
     Late at night the horses stumble
     Around camp and I awake.
     I lie on my elbow watching
     Your beautiful sleeping face
     Like a jewel in the moonlight.
     If you are lucky and the
     Nations let you, you will live
     Far into the twenty-first
     Century.  I pick up the glass
     And watch the Great Nebula
     Of Andromeda swim like
     A phosphorescent amoeba
     Slowly around the pole.  Far
     Away in distant cities
     Fat-hearted men are planning
     To murder you while you sleep.

These are arresting images: eating macaroni by lantern light, stars clustering like fireflies, stumbling horses, a child's "sleeping face/ Like a jewel in the moonlight."  The images are perceptual and concrete, they catch like a burr: we smell the macaroni, see the stars, hear the horses.  And the words themselves are simple and clear, as in a child's storybook.

Mostly, though, I like that the poem draws me in and out of two spaces. There is magic afoot here.  The concrete imagery pulls me into the Eastern Sierras of the poem-world.  I am there, in the dark with Rexroth contemplating eternal things of stone and star, then am brought back by Rexroth to an internal “me" space, pondering human transience and temporality.

Yosemite Starry Night 
(Credit: Sam Rua)

Rexroth's magic is hard to get at, but I think it has to do with reverence for both spaces: vast “outer" space and limited “inner" human space.  Rexroth himself, while camping, goes out into this vastness and then back into his head ... where, either on the spot or later, he writes a poem.  In turn we read the poem, which is our own "little telescope," and which acts upon us the same way the Great Nebula of Andromeda acted upon Rexroth –– as a star-portal.  We are drawn so fully into the poem-world that briefly our world is left behind us.  Taken out among the stars, we then re-enter personal space –– with its issues of time, death, fragility: the territory of our human transience.

(Recall the setting: a middle-aged man, a thoughtful man, lies awake in the dark in the mountains, looking up at the night sky, then down at his five year old daughter –– perched between the infinite and the finite.)

Kenneth Rexroth with Mary (1955)
Credit: Harry Bowden

Both spaces matter.  Rexroth is as absorbed in Mary's sleeping face as he is in the Great Nebula of Andromeda.  His attitude toward the particular movements of one lived life is as reverential as is his attitude toward the swimming movements of Andromedan star dust.  He is not in both places at the same time but he very nearly is, with a bi-focal awareness of what's happening. Which is that we are here a short while, and we live against a natural backdrop that was here before us and will be here after us.  A fitting attitude toward both our brevity and that timeless backdrop should be absorbed reverence.

And the "fat-hearted" men ... well, they lack this attitude.  They are removed, far from an attitude of awe at life, time, and nature.  People and nature have become usable objects, and murder becomes possible –– we remember that men died at the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf, with ecosytems fouled, and habitats of diverse species threatened.

In the end, "The Great Nebula Of Andromeda" relieves numbness by restoring perspective.  It does so by taking us back to what matters in our brief time here.  This is not an abstract perspective, its details are concrete as a daughter's sleeping face, the smell of macaroni, the "star-filled dark."  Given the hubris and detachment of the "fat-hearted men," it seems insufficient to counter with only a perspective, a belief about what matters during our time here on earth.  But a belief trumps being dumbstruck, and it can counter rapacity with reverence, and it can be shared.

Belt of Orion
I will let Kenneth Rexroth close this post.  In a later poem from The Lights In The Sky Are Stars, "A Sword In A Cloud Of Light,” he describes a Christmas Eve scene in San Francisco.  On Fillmore Street, he and Mary are caught up in throngs of holiday shoppers, noise, nighttime city-bustle.  Mary looks up at the sky:

     You say, "There's Orion!"
     The most beautiful object
     Either of us will ever
     Know in the world or in life
     Stands in the moonlit empty
     Heavens, over the swarming
     Men, women, and children, black
     And white, joyous and greedy,
     Evil and good, buyer
     And seller, master and victim ...

And moving to the end:

     ... It would do
     No good to say this and it
     May do no good to write it.
     Believe in Orion, Believe
     In the night, the moon, the crowded
     Earth.  Believe in Christmas and
     Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
     Believe in all those fugitive
     Compounds of nature, all doomed
     To waste away and go out.
     Always be true to these things.
     They are all there is.  Never
     Give up this savage religion
     For the blood-drenched civilized
     Abstractions of the rascals
     Who live by killing you and me.


Doug Schelleng said...

Rexroth finds beauty in two contexts, analogies of each other: the nebula against the night sky and the daughter's face on the pillow. Who hasn't looked at either stars or sleeping children and been transfixed?

Thanks, Kit

Anonymous said...


Are you my fathers adopted brother? Please tell me the truth...

Love you and all your many internal/external spaces. Beautifully thought out and written, you gave me many things to ponder.


Comments are appreciated: