Exchanges

—being in the form of a dialogue with Joseph Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904)

Under the cliff, green powered in from the open,
Changed and she
And I crouched at the edge
Five hundred feet above the ocean’s suicide in a horizon
And bubble of oil. Smog and sweet love! We had the music for the whale-death of the world. About us the environment crumbled
In yellow light. There was no forth-
coming of wave-silver, but silver would flash now
And then through, turning side-on in many mullet
To the sun to die, as I tuned
The wild guitar. This won’t get any worse
Until tomorrow, I said
Of Los Angeles, gazing out through “moderate eye
damage" twisting the pegs and under the strings
— The gray crane spanned his level, gracious flight
Knowing better than to come
To rest on anything, or touch
Zuma Point here and now.
—O sea
Of California, thou Pacific,
For which the multitude of mortals bound
Go trembling headlong and with terrific
Outcry are drowned:
Day-moon meant more
Far from us dazing the oil-slick with the untouched remainder
Of the universe spreading contracting
Catching fish at the living end
In their last eye the guitar rang moon and murder
And Appalachian love, and sent them shimmering from the cliff
— The burning season shone
On the vast feather-shapes of the open
Sea tranquilized by off-
shore drilling
where gulls flapped in black
Gold black
Magic of corporations—
—So here did mix the land’s breath and the sea’s:
Among the beautiful murders
Showering down ballad
After ballad on the rainbows of forever lost
Petroleum that blew its caps and turned on
All living things, we sang and prayed for purity, scattered everywhere
Among the stones
Of other worlds and asked the moon to stay off us
As far as it always had, and especially far
From L.A. I playing from childhood also
Like the Georgia mountains the wind out of Malibu whipped her
Long hair into “Wildwood Flower” her blue eye —whose eye
Was somewhat strangely more than blue
Closed
—and if we lived
We were the cresting of a tide wherein
An endless motion rose exemplified.
In
—The gentle ecstasy of earth
And ruination, we lay on the threatened grass
Of cliffs, she tangled in my strings, her dark hair tuned
To me, the mountains humming back
Into resolution, in the great low-crying key
Of A.
—I saw the moon and heard her sing.
I saw her sing and heard the moon.
O vibrating mountains and bronze
Strings, O oil-slicks in the moderately damaged eye
And the sides of fish flashing out
One more time birds black with corporations, turn me over to those
—Maddened with hunger for another world:
She lies in
Glendale,
In Forest Lawn.
O astronauts,
Poets, all those
—Of the line of wizards and saviors, spend your lives
And billions of dollars to show me
The small true world
Of death, the place we sang to
From Zuma. I read and imagine everything
I can of the gray airless ground
Of the moon sphere cracked and bombarded
By negation pure death, where death has not
Yet come
—where yet no God appears:
Who knows?
There might be some unknown
Consolation in knowing California
Is not the deadest world of all
Until tomorrow: might be some satisfaction
Gone spatial some hope
Like absolute zero, when the earth can become
— The last of earthly things
Carelessly blooming in immensity
and live men ride
Fleeing outward
—a white flame tapering at the core of space
—Firm-barred against the fearful universe
their hatches
until
In the easy-leaping country
Of death, beings —still armored in their visionary gold
Do human deeds.
What deeds?
Will Los Angeles rise from the Sea
Of Tranquillity, on a great bubble
Of capped breath and oil? Not yet;
The first men will see that desolation
Unimproved, before the freeways
Link it to Earth. Ah, to leap or lie
On some universal ruin
Not ruined by us! To be able to say—Am I dead
That I’m so far?
But where I stand,
Here, under the moon, the moon
—Breaks desperate magic on the world I know,
On Glendale. —All through the shadows crying grows, until
The wailing is like grass upon the ground.
it is I
Howling like a dog for the moon, for Zuma Point no matter what
The eye-damage howling to bring her back note
By note like a childhood mountain
In the key of A or, lacking that, howling
For anything for the ultimate death pure death
For the blaze of the outer dark for escape
From L. A. smoldering and eye-
burning along the freeways from rubber-smoke
And exhaust streaming into the endless shadow
Of my memory. —Let me grind alone
And turn my knuckles in the granite
Of the moon
where underfoot the stones
—wild with mysterious truth
lie in their universal
Positions, in a place of no breath
And one machine
and for these reasons and many
Another I was quartered and drawn
To Cape Canaveral, with my tangled dream of Los Angeles
And death and the moon, my dead girl still tuned to me
In my tangled guitar. The environment crumbled
In red light, and raised up by dawn
Almighty buildings.
—I felt a timelike tremor in my limbs.
I wished to be bound that morning
For the true dead land, the land made to sustain
No life at all, giving out the unruined light
That shines on the fish-slicks of Zuma.
—Are we the people of the end? Before
us all
The sun burst
From a machine timed slowly tilting leaning
Upward drawn moonward inch by inch faster
Faster a great composite roar battered
Like a board at the very bone
Marrow, and in the hard-shell case
I sat on, the strings vibrated not with
Mountains but made the shapeless and very
Music of the universal
Abyss
—and all the air
Was marvelous and sorrowful
as we beheld,
Exploding with solitude blasting into the eyes and body,
Rising rising in dreadful machine-
pain as we prayed as the newsmen fell to their knees as the quality of life
And death changed forever
For better or worse
—Apollo springing naked to the light.
Nothing for me
Was solved. I wandered the beach
Mumbling to a dead poet
In the key of A, looking for the rainbow
Of oil, and the doomed
Among the fish.
—Let us speak softly of living.

The present poem, delivered as Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa poem in June, is an attempt on the part of a living poet to hold a dialogue with one who is dead, the present-day poet furnishing the context and material which comments on or answers excerpts taken from the entire lifework of Stickney.