In the Sierra

I walk in the random survivals of the orchard.
In a patch of moonlight a mole
Shakes his tunnel like an angry vein;
Orion walks waist deep in the fog coming in from the ocean;
Leo crouches under the zenith.
There are tiny hard fruits already on the plum trees.
The purity of the apple blossoms is incredible.
As the wind dies down their fragrance
Clusters around them like thick smoke.
All the day they roared with bees, in the moonlight
They are silent and immaculate.

(Kenneth Rexroth, from ‘Toward an Organic Philosophy’)

I picked up In the Sierra: Mountain Writings for the subject, rather than the author.* Kenneth Rexroth is one of those writers whose work I know of, rather than know; his translations of the work of Chinese and Japanese women poets were among the first books I bought when I was first starting to read poetry, but I hadn’t any of his own volumes. I don’t know much about the Sierra Nevada either, but having spent a few days around Yosemite I was keen to read work responding to it.

The main focus of the book is Rexroth’s poems, published between around 1940 and 1974, many of which contain autobiographical elements (references to specific trips, etc). There are also extracts from his prose writings, including An Autobiographical Novel and newspaper columns he wrote in the 1960s, which include reference to how important the mountains were for his poetry, to people he met and conditions he encountered in his early experiences in the mountains, and to his thoughts on conservation-related matters. In addition, the book has a small number of extracts from Rexroth’s correspondence with James Laughlin; some pieces by Laughlin on Rexroth; a 2012 essay by Carter Scholz on Rexroth’s astronomical references – their overall precision and locatability in time; and the editor’s introduction and notes, which include some nice sidebars (such as the fact that the ‘price of admission’ to meetings of the Libertarian Circle, which Rexroth initiated in 1945 to discuss anarchism, was a bottle of red wine).

It’s a slightly odd mix, but I liked it. The inclusion of the essay on astronomy was particularly unexpected, but makes an interesting contribution, especially given how often the stars make an appearance in Rexroth’s writing here. It also underscores a sort of documentary quality to the poems as a whole.

One of the advantages of seeing the poems together is that they provide a context for each other: there are recurrences, previous experiences are revisited, preoccupations become apparent, shifts occur. You get a sense of relationships between them. Other key relationships also become apparent – familial and political, as well as Rexroth’s central sense of relationship with the region. The prose sections further amplify the connections, and add to them.

I was surprised to learn that burros were used in the first half of the century to carry camping gear into remote wilderness; intrigued by the fact that Rexroth experimented with ‘Cubist’ poems; and charmed to find that among the highly practical information he included in a 1930s guide to the mountains was the recommendation that a group camp work ‘like a miniature anarchist community, straight out of Kropotkin’:

Each goes about his appointed task quietly and efficiently, the functions of the group are shared with spontaneous equality, problems are settled by consultation rather than controversy, and whatever leadership exists is based solely on experience and ability. (p.130)

I was interested, too, in Rexroth’s connection of ‘conservation’ with ‘spiritual courtesy’ (‘It is a Confucian virtue. Confucius had a word for it, he called it “human heartedness”’); and by a change he thought had occurred in him as he grew older – from considering his time in the Sierra as a ‘getting away from it all’, to a ‘getting with it’ – refreshing himself against a ‘mechanical’ view of other people, so that ‘the living perspective comes back’.

* Kenneth Rexroth, In the Sierra: Mountain Writings, edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. New York: New Directions, 2012.