By Ray Greenblatt
Kenneth Rexroth was considered the senior member of the Beats. He was writing experimental free verse and lengthy exhortations to the world as early as the 1920’s, a generation before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the West Coast poets.
But I think he has been overlooked for his exquisite love lyrics. These poems are often set in the wildest of the back country. Let’s insinuate ourselves into these scenes of love to observe how Rexroth illuminates them:
You beside me
Like a colt swimming slowly in kelp
In the nude sea
Where ten thousand birds
Move like a waved scarf
On the long surge of sleep. (“Camargue”)
Rexroth loves to look minutely at his lover. Indeed she becomes part of nature:
Eater of moonlight, drinker
Of brightness, feet of jewels
On the mountain, velvet feet
In the meadow grass, darkness
Braided with wild roses, wild
Mare of the horizons.
It’s enough that the green glow
Runs through the down on your arms
Like a grass fire and your eyes
Are fogs of the same endless light.
Let the folds and divisions
Of your anatomy envelop
All horizons. (“Air and Angels”)
The following poem opens with imagery that Rexroth remolds in his conclusion:
Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
You move against me like a wave
That moves in sleep.
Your body spreads across my brain
Like a bird filled summer.
My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
Your body moves in my arms
On the verge of sleep;
And it is as though I held
In my arms the bird filled
Evening sky of summer. (“When We with Sappho”)
Sometimes the locale shifts to a foreign city, but the intense sensuality remains:
Your face topples into dark
And the wind sounds like an army
Breaking through dry reeds.
We spread our aching bodies in the window
And I can smell the odor of hay
In the female smell of Venice. (“Sottoportico San Zaccaria”)
At times Rexroth removes all censure so that our faces redden at the intimacy, as in “Floating”:
Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
As this river slides beyond this lily bed,
And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
In our mortal, timeless flesh.
The poet is also able to capture moments of a lover’s personality:
Suddenly you laugh, like a pure
Exulting flute, spring to your feet
And plunge into the water.
A white bird breaks from the rushes
And flies away, and the boat rocks
Drunkenly in the billows
Of your nude jubilation. (“Still on Water”)
So many of his poems are like scenes caught by a painter—nuanced details, striking movements often in open air held fast in bright colors:
A fervor parches you sometimes,
And you hunch over it, silent,
Cruel, and timid; and sometimes
You are frightened with wantonness,
And give me your desperation. (“Between Myself and Death”)
As Kenneth Rexroth’s art matured, his view toward love developed deeper feelings and interpretations. In “Incarnation” after a day of climbing, the narrator returns to camp and glimpses his love in the distance:
The crinkled iris petal,
The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
And the obscure cantata
Of the tangled water, and the
Burning, impassive snow peaks,
Are knotted together here.
This moment of fact and vision
Becomes the person of this place.
Of love realized and beauty
Seen burns in a burning angel
Real beyond flower or stone.
The lover remembers all his past loves, the highs and lows:
Under this tree for a moment,
We have escaped the bitterness
Of love, and love lost, and love
Betrayed. And what might have been,
And what might be, fall equally
Away with what is, and leave
Only these ideograms
Printed on the immortal
Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone. (“Lyell’s Hypothesis Again”)
Sometimes we must apologize for mistakes to let the relationship heal and continue to grow:
Now my heart
Turns towards you, awake at last,
Penitent, lost in the last
Loneliness. Speak to me. Talk
To me. Break the black silence.
Speak of a tree full of leaves,
Of a flying bird, the new
Moon in the sunset, a poem,
A book, a person. (“Loneliness”)
An outer and inner peace can be achieved eventually as seen in “Quietly”:
So quiet, our bodies, worn with the
Times and the penances of love, our
Brains curled, quiet in their shells, dormant,
Our hearts slow, quiet, reliable
In their interlocked rhythms, the pulse
In your thigh caressing my cheek. Quiet.
At times Rexroth infused a religious tone into his poems of love:
Let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts—
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves. (“Lute Music”)
“She Is Away” is from a more mature poet’s point of view:
I who am lost and damned with words,
Whose words are a business and an art,
I have no words. These word, this poem, this
Is all confusion and ignorance.
But I know that coached by your sweet heart,
My heart beat one free beat and sent
Through all my flesh the blood of truth.
Kenneth Rexroth lived from 1905 until 1982. His first wife Andree died in 1940, and he always revered her memory in several lyrics over the years. A very touching one simply titled “Andree Rexroth” concludes:
Bright trout poised in the current—
The raccoon’s track at the water’s edge—
A bittern booming in the distance—
Your ashes scattered on this mountain—
Moving seaward on this stream.
In the realm of poetry there is almost nothing more difficult to write than an original love lyric. We have looked at a number of passages. To conclude I would like to quote in full a short but very effective poem #X by Rexroth out of a series of linked poems titled “The Thin Edge of Your Pride”:
Out of the westborne now shall come a memory
Floated upon it by my hands,
By my lips that remember your kisses.
It shall caress your hands, your lips,
Your breasts, your thighs, with kisses,
As real as flesh, as real as memory of flesh.
I shall come to you with the spring,
Spring’s flesh in the world,
Translucent narcissus, dogwood like a vision,
And phallic crocus,
Spring’s flesh in my hands.
All poems are taken from: The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
You can find the book here:
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.