Tell Jeffers To Go Away

I suggested the other early morning that I never write on paper anymore except to take a note (or make a shopping list) in my pocket notebook. That's not true, I realized this morning, as I woke up with something in my head and reached for another notebook I keep by the bed. Alas, it has not made it's way back from my office, where I'd transcribed into a Tinderbox folder a few harebrained ideas and schemes that may someday make it into one of my magnum opuses, "Confessions of an Overambitious Underachiever," which, of course, will never get finished. It's all about the harebrained ideas and schemes I've had for magnum opuses in many media, including pure commerce, over the years.

Someone gave me a more elegant, spiral notebook with pages that have colorful personages with monkey faces and sayings from the Bhagavad Gita in it and that's by the bed, too. But I hardly use it. "The yoga practitioner whose mind is unbridled can never attain self realization," it says, for instance. "Only one who has mastered the self and who strives by right means is assured of success." Well, I wouldn't be writing if my mind had mastered the self, and I've always bridled at the very thought of being bridled. What good is a notebook that confirms your suspicions that you're doomed to failure?

Being a Bronx Catholic schoolboy of a certain vintage  — see "Doubt" — I grew up using fountain pens. I still like using them — one of the few vestiges of the nuns' regimen that I look back fondly upon (this may be the roots of my bridling at being bridled, by the way). I particularly like the aural and palpable resistance that the nib of a fountain pen produces when it goes up against paper of a well-matched weight, as if it were asking, "Are you sure you want to say that?"Usually, I haven't and so I've very little of import to show for a career spent avoiding assembly lines and phone banks. It may be unfortunate that the laptop has made it so easy to commit writing, and the Internet so easy to commit publishing. May most my sins be venial. (Come to think of it, that's really not the right way to approach the making of something grand and substantial, but there you have it —  I aim to make contact rather than go for the fences.) 

Riding back home in the car last night, I took a break from the pounding rock and R&B and popped into the CD player a disc  of someone with a stentorian voice reading Robinson Jeffer's poetry. I'd gotten the CD last year on a visit to Tor House, the stone tower and home Jeffers built on the Carmel, Calif., shore. I'd never had a chance to listen to it in its entirety. While I was in Tor House, I took a photograph from inside the window that Jeffers wrote about in "The Bed by the Window."

WindowByBedfor Web

Jeffers suggests he chose this view of the rocks and sky and water and trees, when he built the house, as the last that he would every see. As it turned out, years later it was.

Jeffers has been a favorite writer of mine since I was 18 or so, but he long ago fell out of literary favor. His poems are as craggy and cranky and unsentimental as the beauty he perceives in insentient or amoral objects like granite stones or swooping vultures. His words have little use for humanity as an enterprise, but he unabashedly embraces those close to him — his wife, Una; his faithful, if dead, English bulldog. And so, his philosophy of "inhumanism" doesn't seem so inhuman at all to me. It seems dead-on correct about about our utter insignificance except in the relationships we build with others.

Having overdosed, I suppose, on Jeffers' foreboding words on the I-84 out of Scranton ("Shine, Perishing Republic" is guaranteed to give you the heebie-jeebies), I woke up with the words "half life " in my mind and took off from there.

When I discovered that my notebook was missing, I made do. First I grabbed the nearest pen, a ballpoint from Sam's Italian Restaurant rendered in the green, red and white colors of the Italian flag. Then I looked for a page with some white space on it in the nearest magazine, The New Yorker. It turned out to be, I later discovered, an ad in the inside back cover for General Electrics "imagination at work." It trumpets all sorts of creative endeavors like fuel-saving locomotives, credit instruments to "help companies grow and people reach their dreams," and the vague, timeless and unsubstantiated boast that GE "will entertain and inform more than a hundred million people." Jeffers willingly settled for a far smaller audience, and you and I are a vastly more intimate group than that, indeed.

Here's what I scribbled:

Nearing the Half Life


What's that? Now you know why I don't write on paper? Okay:


Nearing the Half Life

Why this obsession

with shadows?

Foreboding penumbra.

Every omen

fraught with dispassion

like Jeffers' murderous vultures.


I am 25, aren't I?

Still diving for line drives

with resilient bones.

My scraped knees heal.

I need no prosthetics.

My magoolike left eye is corrected.

My teeth abridged but biting.


I ran out of both space and words and came downstairs to blog about it. Such is the general fate of my poems, which generally are incapable of standing on their own feat. You see why I cannot write in bound notebooks.

If this poem, in particular, is to go anywhere, it will need much work, starting with "half life" in the title and all that shadowy stuff that follows. And then it needs an end. Something that ties together the angst I woke up with and the reality I summoned to chase it away. I do still dive for line drives, though I do not intend to admit that I've stopped even when I do.

Half life, as we all know after having consulted Wikipedia, is really "the interval required for a quantity to decay to half of its initial value." It's dynamic, in other words, not fixed. Is middle aged fixed, though?  Or is is dependent on the vessel carrying it, mine different from yours? Is there an early-onset middle age? What is it to someone who dies at 102? Or, in the Zen spirit, if you have only one second to live, is middle age the half second before you die? 

My head aches. Let's go to Jeffers' "Return":

A little too abstract, a little too wise 

It is time for us to kiss the earth again.


And later:


I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,

That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,

The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks

So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.

Jeffers is in my mind like one of those tunes you can't get rid of. I should go build a stone wall someplace, but I'm going to do my taxes instead.



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