Yes, More American Poetry-And Aztec Gods

Robinson Jeffers January 10, 1887 – January 20, 1962 Photo at Tor House by Nat Farbman, 1948

The old pagan burials, uninscribed rock, 
Secret-keeping mounds,
Have shed the feeble delusions that built them,
They stand inhumanly
Clean and massive; they have lost their priests.
“Delusion Of Saints”~Robinson Jeffers

Last Friday, my day wouldn’t maintain its gyre. I was supposed to grade and then blog (and then bake lasagna) but I couldn’t seem to keep my hands off this one. So I put it aside and did what needed doing. Now I can get back to what wants doing.

I meant to just write about Xochiquetzal and Xolotl (as you can see from my brief post earlier today)—but the Aztec pantheon has always made me do handsprings into some murky memories. So, inevitably, I ended up trolling an opaque lake or two in my psyche. I posted my X post and had to revisit my psychic acrobatics.

The first of these handsprings is Robinson Jeffers. I know, another American poet. However, though I’d love to tell you why Jeffers wants America to  “Be Angry at the Sun”  or how his  “Shine, Perishing Republic”  (or even “To the Stonecutters”) bleeds wretchedness for the America Whitman dared to hope for, I’m just going to tell you about the mythology in his poetry.

And about how detecting it almost ruined my life.

Almost a solid decade ago, I was finishing graduate course-work. It was my intention to  do  American poetry—I especially loved the middle generation: Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co., as Suzanne Ferguson calls them. Anne Sexton, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman. But it wasn’t until my last poetry course that I got sufficiently exposed to Robinson Jeffers.

And the whole course was so traumatic that I’m surprised I still like Jeffers. Heck, I lurve Jeffers—he’s right up there with O, Captain and Huffy Henry. But, like I said, the course was traumatic and I shifted my interest to film. (I talked about it more than I should have in  Unnecessary Roughness.  So, I’ve already said too much.)

Damn, grad school made me stop writing poetry. It’s not until this moment that I realize it made me stop reading poetry for goin’on ten years. Feck.

This is from my class notes—if you’re not into academic blahbiddy-blah, go ahead and skip it; the point will remain the same:

I chose Robinson Jeffers as the focus for my final project because I had detected something in his poetry that was unlike anything coming out of the Modern era. It seemed almost non-Western, certainly non-essentialist in that it seemed like there were some larger forces creating the cohesion between his lyrics and his narrative poems. At first glance, I contributed what I was hearing to his philosophy of  inhumanism,  the notion that androcentricity is the dividing force in American culture. As I read and re-read the narratives–and even more markedly in the lyrics—I had the feeling (as Jeffers would put it,  the certitude ) that everything was off-center from what I had come to expect from a (particularly male) Modernist. The characters are allegorical, never one dimensional or interchangeable like Hemingway’s injured men and officious women. The function of myth in Jeffers’s poetry didn’t fit the bill I expected either; Eliot’s allusions are indefatigably Western: Christian or  Classical  mythology. Jeffers’s system of allusion includes multi-layer planes of Judeo-Christian myth, Greco-Roman myth, and North American aboriginal myth, often within the same figure.

. . . .

His amalgamation of Anglo-Christian mythology with Native American and Mexican folklore creates a completeness in Jeffers’s narratives that is unparalleled in most Modernist texts that forget (or ignore) the previous cultures of this geographical location. Further, there is an advanced layer of scientific schemata; to his spiritual philosophies is added a conception of microcosmic certitude. From these manifold perspectives, Jeffers combines realism and spiritual philosophy into his idea of  inhumanism,  a unique device in his texts. 

And that’s not even the paper—it’s just  notes.  What the paper ends up doing, as you can prolly guess, is to walk the reader through the  amalgamation  of Jeffers’ use of myth. When I began a close reading (of, specifically,  The Roan Stallion  and  Tamar —but also  Shiva  and  Cassandra ) I was astounded at his use of non-Western mythology. I was further astounded to discover that, in using non-Western myth, Jeffers was able to create a non-essentialist landscape: his poetry tends to be very critical of assumed patriarchal roles.[1]

After a really horrible semester in which a junior-classmate was allowed to run roughshod all over the rest of the course, I had a hard time getting arsed up to write anything for my final. In the end, I wrote the paper from the perspective of a feminist Pagan shouting  Boo-yah!  for Jeffers. And really, there wasn’t any theory in the paper—it was simply a close reading that reveled Jeffers’ non-Western, non-patriarchal content. But my (female) professor was (is) staunchly anti-feminist and told me that I “wielded feminist theory like a blunt object”  and granted a B—an insult. The big problem was that I had asked her to lead my dissertation. A week after finals, we agreed that  perhaps my interests lie elsewhere.

I tucked the paper and her comments away and never looked at them again. I tucked all of my poetry books away and dust them occasionally. I made a complete 180 and moved on to Alfred Hitchcock. (Anthony Hopkins, squee!)

I was convinced, given this and a completely different but equally wounding experience with poetry in academia, that poetry just wasn’t for me. I knew that the professor was unnecessarily rough with me, but I retained that awful nagging that it just wasn’t good. In my mind it became a spotlight of shame, The Worst Paper Ever, and I would cringe whenever the memory would rear its head. God forbid anyone try talking about Jeffers.

And when I imagined the paper, I simply saw a twenty-six page jumble of words and half formed ideas. I expected to open the file and see crayon scrawled across my screen:  Jeffers good. Patriarchy bad. BAM! I whack you with my anti-phallus.

But that’s not what happened. I opened it last week (rather than grading) and glanced it over. It’s actually quite elegant. It’s entirely logical. And my memory of the paper is correct—there is no feminist theory in it. Sure I imbedded some feminist-flavored arguments, but there’s no mention of theory. The paper is foremostly about mythology. Now, I wonder if she even read beyond the first page. I honestly wonder. And I feel a little less stupid. It’s not the worst paper ever; it’s actually quite good. (I do feel some regret about having changed the path of my life over it, but que sera, sera.)

That bifurcates my brain in a way that only Jeffers’ narratives can do.

My first thought—and the one that is nagging at me with its immediacy—has to do with re-reading my old blogs.

I was convinced, given two equally wounding experience with pagan “friends,” that this shit just wasn’t for me. I knew that the others were unnecessarily rough with me, but I retained that awful nagging that I was just Bad. In my mind I became The Worst Witch Ever, and I would cringe whenever the memory would rear its head. God forbid anyone try talking about blogging.

After a year of being told that I had written this or that I went back to see what was what. Turns out, I’m not crazy.[2] I opened the old Files and expected to see blood spatter across my screen:  This and That.

But that’s not what happened. Over the last few weeks, I’ve realized that most of my arguments are actually quite elegant (as blogs go). Most are entirely logical (as blogs go). And my memory of previous posts is correct—there is no this or that in them. Sure I imbedded some double entendre footnotes for the two or three folks (like The Husband and The Bestie) on the in, but, despite my having told you that this blog would be a tell-all,  there’s no overt mention of this or that. The posts are foremostly about Witchcraft and ethics in general. And I feel a little less Bad. I’m not the worst Witch ever; I’m actually quite good. (And to round off that parallel paragraph—I do feel some regret about having changed the path of my life over it, but que sera, sera.)

My second thought gets more to the crux of what this post is supposed to address: Aztec mythology.[3] In the Jeffers paper, I wrote quite a lot about Tlazolteotl, with whom I have had a strong connection since the late 90s. And that’s my second handspring.

For the weekend.

[1] And, I think I told you, I gave my American Lit class an assignment to create a distinctly American mythology. I didn’t remember writing this, but I said of Jeffers:

The narrative poems are complex labyrinths. Jeffers draws from various intersecting cultural mythologies to invent a distinctive, unified, specifically American mythology. In doing so, Jeffers formulates a (nearly pantheonic) lineage within specifics of time and place, as well as revelation of the surrounding world–suggestions of war and human political developments–but the allegories have a ostensible agelessness. . . . I don’t mean to infer that Jeffers is imitating the mythologies of other cultures; my position is that Jeffers is creating a uniquely American mythology and that thematic intersections are inevitable.

[2] Have you been watching Homeland? (Spoiler alert.) I have been feeling a lot like mid-season-two Carrie Mathison: “I was right!”

Walt Whitman

I teach American Literature so I have had my hand at teaching Walt Whitman for a good decade or more. I took a graduate class called “Whitman and Dickinson” in the late 90s. But, unlike my ongoing affair with Giles Deleuze, it wasn’t the academic jargon and the erudite theory that made me fall for W.W.; it was the gritty repetition of work-a-dayness that I discovered while still a lower-class grub in high school.

Strangely, this had nothing to do with my English Teacher, Mrs. C, one of the best teachers I’ve ever known (and who, along with an eighth grade teacher guy named Miles, may be the reason I became an English teacher myself), who was more for Shakespeare and Madrigals than she was for Howling beatnicks. It’s too bad. I could have used some advice about what happened Under the El[1] before finding out about that particular brand of up-close-and-way-too-personal by myself.[2] However, nothing coarse or profane ever worked its way into Mrs. C’s class. I mean, the randiest thing I remember from that grade is The Mayor of Casterbridge. (Mr. B the year before taught us that there was nothing in poetry except sex and death and childhood memories. Only he said it like it was a bad thing.) It was Miss Louise, my drama teacher and the choral director, who chose the musical Working, the songs of which are all based on Whitman’s poetry, when I was a Sophomore in the mid-Reagan years. It was at the point when I too heard America singing and fell hard for the hairy, horny, horn blower.

The mason, the waitress, the farm worker, the fireman, the factory worker, all had a beautiful place in a poetic flow of a nation’s infrastructure.

And I was not a product of the academy; I was the child of a factory worker and a truck driver, granddaughter to sharecroppers all around.

So, you see, it’s no surprise that despite my deep and abiding love for My Captain, I was never able to convey such adoration to a set of undergraduates who longed less for urban poetry and more for the imminent end of the semester.

After I left high school, I went to work at a factory too. The bend-lift-straighten-flip-turn-dump-bend-lift repetition of my days and nights and overtime-weekends would send me into reveries of singing my body electric as I watched products, from which I was ultimately estranged as Marx called it (little did I know at the time that there was a word for what I was feeling-like-a-cogg-in-the-machinery), roll up the undulating conveyor belt like pink salmon driving to their spawny-death.

Death and sex and childhood memories.

But now, PhD’d, clean and respectable, only occasionally getting tipsy and committing candor that horrifies my peers, I don’t read Whitman for the joy he brought me—I teach him for the core curriculum. You see, I was told not to let my students see that I am “human”—and though I usually chuck that advice where it belongs, every once-in-a-while I think, “They don’t need to know that side of me.” And in this case, it’s true. They don’t need to know what happened to me on Ashland, on Kedvale, on Morgan, in Burbank, in Brighton Park, or at that fancy South Shore penthouse. Aw, hell, nobody needs to know that shite.

So—I suck at teaching Whitman.

Until this year.

This pretty little thing wandered her way into my life and scared the feck out of me. I didn’t see myself if her, if that’s what you are thinking. She just loved Whitman. For his grunge—not in spite of it. We stayed up all night talking through a common-mess we’d both been marinated in, and we might have had a spot too much to drink. The next day, I did not have a clue about what I was going to do in class. I’d make a quick PowerPoint, I guessed, and force-feed Leaves to begrudging, entitled George Strait fans. Then I thought—how would I teach this to Hazey? I imagined a sympathetic audience instead of a hostile one.

I made a Power-Point, yes. But I set it to run a series of 19th century faces and bodies—mostly bodies, some human, some not: white men, white women, poor folk, old folk, slaves on the auction block, prostitutes, pigs in the streets of Manhattan, the Golden Gate and the water below. Then, I did the unthinkable. I didn’t lecture.

I read:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

And then I’d tell a little bit about Whitman’s life—kinda like I was talking about my granddad. How he thought abolitionists were full of shite and hot-stink while he lived in New England but then he moved to NOLA and saw what he saw and knew what he knew. All while these images of bodies flashed behind me. And through urge and urge and urge, I think they heard me. The way I meant for them to hear me. The way W.W. meant for them to hear him. I’m sure of it because one young man, the one who had said horrid things about Bradstreet, sat in the back with his eyes welled-up and the edge of his desk in a white-knuckled grip.

At that moment I thought—this is sort of like magic.

OK—not magic—but teaching magic.

I have taught students from a purely theoretical standpoint where I’ve totally thrown my back into the teaching before—and they got it. They didn’t loooove it, but they got it. When I didn’t throw my back into it, they seemed to love it much more. And Whitman is very Pagan-friendly in his god-imbued-nature-and-humanity-is-cool-especially-when-united-in-its-stinky-and/or-naked-ness anyway. So, next semester when I have a new set of preps in ground classes (well, one brand-new—one I haven’t done in a few semesters) and two brand-spanking new preps Online, I think I’ll take the less aggressive route and let the material do the work for me.

I mention all this because it’s (conveniently) a make-up post for my W week and I am starting a new set of classes this upcoming week and I’m a little twitterpated, as usual. I have a full-to-capacity Seekers class (and running-over—I may have to tell two students that they had to wait for the next session, I hate that feeling!!) and a comfortably full Neophyte class and straggling students at other levels. My concerns run from “Where is everybody going to sit?” to “Will I get back in time from belly-dancing to change before teaching X, Y, or Z?”

Maybe I’ll just flash naked bodies on a screen and call it a day.

This post is part of a year-long project. Rowan Pendragon’s The Pagan Blog Project; “a way to spend a full year dedicating time each week very specifically to studying, reflecting, and sharing . . . .    The project consists of a single blog post each week posted on prompt that will focus on a letter of the alphabet” (http://paganblogproject/).

[1] A line from Howl.

I wrote a poem called “Under the El” in 1990 while organizing and performing in local “Slams”—remember those?—making a prolonged metaphorical connection between the poet and the rapist: “I use my tongue / to invade your space . . . my verse / [fills your mouth] / with the bitterness / and you can’t breathe / gasping / gulping / your chest won’t expand / and yeah . . . you really don’t / want me / to / stop.” I look back at the absolute violence of the entire poem (bits of which I will not publish here) and I wonder how the feck, given the first-hand nature of it all, I got out of the 80s alive.

I also wrote a poem about heroine—called it “screaming Hyacinths”—and proclaimed myself, “a fabulous junkie.” At that point in my life, I felt that “Scraping the bottom / with my mirror and razor / was better than floating in cinder-block / office wall mediocrity.”

[2] I mean, I was with my sister when she was mugged when I was only three-years-old, saw my first DB while in second grade, and was never really a stranger to sexual cruelty—but this shit is different, y’all.