Friday, May 27, 2016

Two Poems by Kenneth Rexroth

The Bad Old Days

The summer of nineteen eighteen   
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall   
My father died and my aunt   
Took me to Chicago to live.   
The first thing I did was to take   
A streetcar to the stockyards.   
In the winter afternoon,   
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the   
Squalid streets, looking shyly   
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.   
Debauched and exhausted faces,   
Starved and looted brains, faces   
Like the faces in the senile   
And insane wards of charity   
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,   
Under the green gas lamps, and the   
Sputtering purple arc lamps,   
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with   
The last pulse of hope or courage,   
Some sly and bitter, some smart and   
Silly, most of them already   
Broken and empty, no life,   
Only blinding tiredness, worse   
Than any tired animal.   
The sour smells of a thousand   
Suppers of fried potatoes and   
Fried cabbage bled into the street.   
I was giddy and sick, and out   
Of my misery I felt rising   
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.   
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is   
Everywhere, you don’t have to   
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

Kings River Canyon

My sorrow is so wide
I cannot see across it;
And so deep I shall never
Reach the bottom of it.
The moon sinks through deep haze,
As though the Kings River Canyon
Were filled with fine, warm, damp gauze.
Saturn gleams through the thick light
Like a gold, wet eye; nearby
Antares glows faintly,
Without sparkle. Far overhead,
Stone shines darkly in the moonlight—
Lookout point, where we lay
In another full moon, and first
Peered down into this canyon.
Here we camped, by still autumnal 
Pools, all one warm October.
I baked you a bannock birthday cake.
Here you did your best paintings—
Innocent, wondering landscapes.
Very few of them are left
Anywhere. You destroyed them 
In the terrible trouble
Of your long sickness. Eighteen years
Have passed since that autumn.

There was no trail here then.
Only a few people knew 
How to enter this canyon.
We were all alone, twenty
Miles from anybody,
A young husband and wife,
Closed in and wrapped about
In the quiet autumn,
In the sound of quiet water,
In the turning and falling leaves,
In the wavering of innumerable
Bats from the caves, dipping
Over the odorous pools
Where the great trout 
drowsed in the evenings.

Eighteen years have been ground
To pieces in the wheels of life.
You are dead. With a thousand
Convicts they have blown a highway
Through Horseshoe Bend. Youth is gone,
That only came once. My hair
Is turning grey and my body
Heavier. I too move on to death.
I think of Henry King's stilted
But desolate Exequy,
Of Yuan Chen's great poem,
Unbearably pitiful;
Alone by the Spring river
More alone than I had ever
Imagined I would ever be,
I think of Frieda Lawrence,
Sitting alone in New Mexico,
In the long drought, listening
For the hiss of the milky Isar,
Over the cobbles, in a lost Spring.

Kenneth Rexroth had published numerous books of poetry, among them are In What Hour, Macmillan, 1940; The Phoenix and the Tortoise, New Directions, 1944; The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Decker Press, 1949; Thou Shalt Not Kill, Good Press, 1955; In Defense of the Earth, New Directions, 1956; Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poems, New Directions, 1963; Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1968; Sky Sea Birds Tree Earth House Beasts Flowers, Unicorn Press, 1971; New Poems, New Directions, 1974; (posthumously): Selected Poems, New Directions, 1984; Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems, New Directions, 1991; Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, Copper Canyon Press, 1997; The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, Copper Canyon Press, 2003.

His poems had been published in many periodicals such as Poetry, New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, Hudson Review, Parnassus, Virginia Quarterly Review, Harper's, Prairie Schooner, Washington Post, and many others. 

Kenneth Rexroth (December 22, 1905 – June 6, 1982)

1 comment:

  1. I lived in the Back-of-the-Yards area (the actual name of the Chicago Stock Yards to the south) from 6th grade through high school - from 1956 to 1963. The yards were closing down and unemployment accompanied by abandoned houses were rampant. That was the year John F. Kennedy was killed.
    I knew one thing for certain at that time. Even though I lived there, I sure as hell wasn't going to die there.
    Rexroth tells you why.