Always a poet of extremes, from the beginning of his career, William Everson expressed both need and fear, compulsion and revulsion, toward those things in his life most important to him. Much of the tension in his poetry seems to arise from his mind knowing what his heart would like to deny—that is, all is transitory, all is mutable, and there is no permanent security in life. Indeed, the major recurrent theme throughout his canon is that of thwarted love. While this is certainly not a unique theme, nor one limited to modern consciousness, Everson’s attempt to understand the ongoing internal war that he suffers (between his heart and mind) leads him, in psychological terms, to his encounter with and ultimate victory over the personal shadow-side of consciousness, and to repeated sought-after encounters with the anima or feminine side. In fact, it is the feminine side in his own consciousness, as well as that embodied in woman, for which he expresses both the greatest need and, paradoxically, the greatest fear throughout his career.
These Are the Ravens
In the 1930’s, the world was a fearful place for young Everson, as he composed his first collection of poetry, These Are the Ravens; even nature, which he would consistently portray as feminine, seemed hostile and malignant. In his earliest poem, “First Winter Storm,” the speaker is one who hunkers indoors, afraid of the unknown and ominous unpredictability of the elemental life force that moves outside his walls (“I felt the fear run down my back/ And grip me as I lay”). Humans, in this early volume, are rendered more or less passive in the face of nature’s seemingly conscious enmity toward all life, and this human condition is indicative of the poet’s own relation to the world of adulthood and experience. Everson was seventeen years old when the Great Depression began in 1929. He had no career plans when he graduated from high school in 1931; he had not prepared to go to college, so his first term there proved fruitless. He returned to his parents’ home to live but realized that he had become a disappointment to his father. He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps for a year, returned to Fresno State for a year, discovered the poetry of Jeffers, and made a lifelong decision to be a poet.
Unable to support himself while pursuing his chosen vocation, however, he had again moved in with his parents, and he would remain with them until his marriage, three months before his twenty-sixth birthday in 1938. However, because he had been unable to break away from his dependence on his parents, he grew, as he wrote in Prodigious Thrust, into “the full status of his ambivalence with the father-hunger and father-fear, the mother-hunger and mother-fear at war within him.”
The “ambivalence” he suffered manifested itself in his inability to identify with the masculine or feminine in his own personality. The constant dark moodiness he experienced he attributed to his agnatic heritage (stemming, that is, from his masculine precursors), and this he eschewed because he believed it to be related to male savagery and patriarchal dominance. In “I Know It as the Sorrow,” for example, Everson attempts to explain the “ache” in his blood, and his recurrent “waking as a child weeping in the dark for no reason,” as a psychic condition he has inherited and for which he is not, therefore, responsible. This “sorrow,” he says, lies in “the secret depths” of his soul; however, while he may not be responsible for his temperament, the “warriors” of the past which he calls up, as well as their “women/ Shivering in the cliff-wind,” are integral to his own perspective of life. In short, at the a priori level, he views the masculine as dominant, savage, and strong, and the feminine as receptive, docile, and weak. Although he vehemently eschews his masculine heritage—stating, at the conclusion of “Fish-Eaters,” that “I find no hunger for the sword”—what he implicitly praises in heroic terms is the very thing he denounces—that is, the assertiveness of the male libido.
“Who Sees Through the Lens”
By consistently portraying women as weak and passive creatures, while at the same time portraying men pejoratively as the exact opposite, Everson leaves himself neither gender with which to identify; in other words, by dividing himself from both his father and his mother, from the patrilineal and matrilineal inheritances, he divides himself. He becomes, therefore, the “watcher” in “Who Sees Through the Lens” (from San Joaquin), a man who spends his nights staring through a telescope up at the stars, a man “fixed in the obsession of seeking, the dementia for knowing,” and a man so determined to understand and explain the meaning of life that he intellectually vivisects his own being for understanding. Whereas his “cold mind needles the rock” of stars at night, during the day, he divides his mind from his body as he “fumbles the sleeping seed, pokes at the sperm.” This seeker is reminiscent of Jeffers’s Barclay, in The Women at Point Sur (1927), filled with a kind of self-loathing for the corruptibility of his flesh; thus he denies his body for the monomaniacal glorification of his intellect—until, that is, his alienation becomes too painful to bear and he then strives to submerge his consciousness in sexual ecstasy. Significantly, it is in “Who Sees Through the Lens” that Everson for the first time categorizes woman as receptacle and comforter for man’s intellectual frustration—a role she will be forced to play often throughout the poet’s career. After he describes the “watcher,” therefore, the poet beseeches him to “give over;/ Come star-bruised and broken back to the need;/ Come seeking the merciful thighs of the lover.” It is between the feminine thighs, in short, that surcease may be found for the intellectual man; indeed, she offers him a momentary, mindless oblivion that he both desires and fears.
Woman, like everything else in life for Everson, is not to be trusted with his heart, as she changes and thus forbids his dependency on her. He is, he says in “Abrasive” (from San Joaquin), “torn by the wars of perpetual change,” and he finds that one side of his psyche longs “to slip yielding and drowned in an ocean of silence,/ Go down into some abstract and timeless norm of reality,/ Shadow the eyes, the uneasy heart, and be done.” However, while woman can grant him the momentary oblivion of consciousness, as well as the anodyne for his “uneasy heart,” another side of his nature scoffs at such a need and reminds his heart that “the sun makes a fool of you,” for this symbol of the masculine principle flaunts life’s transitions, “shocking with seasons” those individuals who search for stasis.
The Masculine Dead
Although Everson married Poulson in 1938 and in a sense fulfilled his emotional needs while suffering his own mental chiding for succumbing to the belief that a commitment such as marriage could last, he wrote no poems to or about his wife or his love for her; instead, he wrote such poems as “The Illusion” (from The Masculine Dead), wherein he denigrates those people who sit in the comfort of their homes, surrounding themselves with the security of a family, while all around them people are being destroyed by the unpredictable, as “they pitch and go down with the blood on their lips,/ With the blood on the broken curve of their throats,/ With their eyes begging.” What he, in his heart, wanted desperately to believe possible (that, for example, emotional security could be sustained), he found himself unable to accept intellectually; therefore, he kept his wife at a distance, for she was part of “the illusion” that made him emotionally vulnerable.
In his life, Everson took definite steps to minimize his vulnerability. He had a vasectomy, which he explains in “The Sides of a Mind” (from The Masculine Dead) as his attempt to avoid guilt for the pain life would inflict on his children (“each shiver of pain they ever felt/ Would ripple in to the moment of my act,/ And I will not yield”). As he writes in Earth Poetry, another step he took was that of subordinating his marriage to his career: The mistake I made . . . in regard to being an artist . . . was when I married I sacrificed the inner viability of my marriage to my career . . . I denied the primacy of her person. By reducing her to an object and sacrificing that object even to a school of thought, I denied the reality of the situation.
When the Selective Service Act was instituted in 1940, and when the United States’ involvement in World War II seemed imminent, Everson took yet another self-protective step by registering as a conscientious objector. Throughout The Masculine Dead, which was inspired by the moral revulsion he felt over the war being waged in Europe, Everson continued to denounce his father’s world of masculine and militaristic aggression. In “The Sides of a Mind,” he describes himself, a poet, sitting at a table and struggling to articulate some comprehensible explanation for the confusion and destruction in the world; suddenly a political activist bursts into his room and criticizes his physical passivity: “We have time no longer for the seeds of your doubt./ We have time only for man and man/ Facing together the brute confusion of the stubborn world.” Because the poet is unable to embrace his father’s ethics and values (as a young man, for instance, his father had been beaten and jailed for his efforts to establish a typographical union), he learns to embrace the old man’s disappointment as a testament to his own, the son’s, authenticity: “Father, whatever you hoped for,” he says in the second section of the poem, “I am not what you wanted./ I sit hunched in a room.”
What Everson once viewed as weakness, consequently, he now views as virtue in the feminine; furthermore, in “The Presence” (from The Residual Years), he suggests that an individual and a nation are corrupted by such a thing as war only insofar as the feminine psychic principle is corrupt. What he views as “the presence” is primal, savage, and masculine, as it “stoops in the mind, hairy and thick,” destroying “norms” and “modes of arrest” when it becomes actively motivating in the conscious mind. By this “presence,” he maintains, women “will be used” if they relinquish their “precepts of will” (“Throwing their bellowing flesh on the tool/ That eases the rutting sow”). By taking the pacifistic stand against the war, therefore, Everson chose to accept for himself what he saw as the traditionally feminine response to life, as he states in “Now in These Days” (from The Residual Years): He will “wait in these rooms,” he vows, accepting “the degradation of slavery and want” imposed on him in a camp for conscientious objectors.
“The Chronicle of Division”
In January, 1943, Everson was conscripted and sent to a camp in Waldport, Oregon. He would remain incarcerated for three years, during which time he composed his longest sequential and confessional poem, “The Chronicle of Division” (from The Residual Years). While this poem describes poignantly and incisively the human deprivation suffered by men locked up for their beliefs, the underpinning and gradually overriding focus is on the psychological condition of men without women. Paradoxically, while it had been the feminine temperament that Everson had espoused and embraced as a necessary response to what he perceived as a war caused by masculine aggression and warmongering, it was the feminine embodied in his wife that proved to be the most devastating to him. Because there had been no “primacy” in the relationship (and he gradually came to see his vasectomy as a testament to this), and because of the indefinite length of their separation, Everson’s wife fell in love with another man...
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