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On "Canticle to the Waterbirds"


John Elder

Everson's canticle to the birds is an exhortation for them, in their turn, to lift their songs to God. Theirs becomes, in this way, a service of mediation: they are capable of a directness of response to the world beyond the human. The waterbirds' life is in the holy present, across which there falls no shadow of anxiety or regret; they "assume each instant as warrant sufficient of His final seal." Because they are determined in their songs--"the strict articulations of your throats"--as in the rest of their behavior, they achieve a fullness of harmony with that divinity immanent in the natural order: "But mostly it is your way you bear existence wholly within the context of His utter will and are untroubled." In some ways Everson's cosmic design here is parallel to Dante's, since the souls in the Paradiso are also blessed precisely because of the perfect accord of their wills with God's: "E'n la sua volontade e nostra pace," "In His will is our peace."

Dante is unable to remain in the luminous order of heaven for long, but must descend to earth to articulate his experience as best he can within the limits of mortal language. Everson, in a similar way, Must pitch his song to harmony across the chasm of his own humanity: "You keep seclusion where no man may go, giving Him praise; /.... / And where His true communion-keepers are not enabled to enter." As the second of these quoted lines makes clear, Everson's parallel with Dante is finally accomplished through an inversion. The birds are closer to God and the earth because lower in a scale of free-will, self-consciousness, and, in accord with orthodox theology, spiritual authority--"our lessers in the rich hegemony of Being." Though he sings to the waterbirds, Everson is not able to talk to them in the Franciscan spirit of fraternal love: they are both purer in their presentness and, by another measure, less conscious than man, "Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices."

Its Catholic vocabulary notwithstanding, Everson's poetry resembles that of Robinson Jeffers, who struggles to free himself from humanity, or even from organic life, in his desire for a granite oneness with reality. Like Jeffers, Everson is thus involved in a paradoxical affirmation, couched in terms that question the validity of the affirming self. Such a stance results from passionate rejection of traditional anthropocentrism, with its disregard for the worth of the nonhuman world, and for the nonintellectual dimensions of human reality as well. In an essay entitled "The Giant Hand," from Everson's book Fragments of an Older Fury, about Robinson Jeffers, he defends the poetic principle that

. . . the initiating locus of energy (the archetype) must determine the configuration of its effect. To maintain otherwise is to betray the fact that the actual motive in play is not to register the naked truth of the subject, its essence, its truth of being, but is rather to situate it in our mental world, a secondary thing, locate it in some power-complex in the ego (Tradition, Politics, Religion, etc.), imposing definition from without. While all art is admittedly born of the tension between these two psychological polarities, the creative writer inevitably takes the plunge into the depths of the former....

Everson's values lead him to reject both conventionally based judgments of proper poetic form and the brutal subordinations of warfare and technology. Such impositions are alike in taking the immediate experience of the physical world to be "a secondary thing." The waterbirds of this canticle, by virtue of being "lesser," become primary in their value and contribution . . . .

In its own terms, "The Canticle to the Waterbirds" also achieves a primary and present quality beyond the endless relativism of selfconsciousness. Because he values the birds' nonhuman presentness, the poet is closely attentive to their particular lives and cries. This is a catalog of birds, like the catalogs filling the pages of Leaves of Grass. Especially in Everson's first two stanzas and in the last one, there is an ecstatic listing that identifies the eye and ear with all of the specifics of a world of creatures. Delight in the dimensions of creation thus makes the poem's body conform to the body of the world, in the same way that the long breaths of the verse echo the cries of wheeling, mixed flocks of birds at surf's edge: "Curlews, stilts and scissortails, beachcomber gulls." Although all human knowledge occurs in the waves and undertow of consciousness, the poet can go beyond the idea of waterbirds, as he uses human language to sing their songs with them.

There is a great tradition of birdsong in American poetry. Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" bursts at its crises into the whistling, slightly varied reiteration of the mockingbird calling for his mate:

Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain'd note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.

And Denise Levertov's piercing hymn to the white-throated sparrow, "Claritas," as it strives to attain the ringing purity of the bird's voice, concludes with imitation:

Sun
light.
        Light
light light light

This is the grace conveyed in the cries of Everson's waterbirds: their "direct astuteness" to the natural order gives the poet a worthy model for imitation. The poet's eye and ear, fixed on the birds, practice obedience to the world.

By John Elder. From Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Copyright 1985 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Richard Gray

Everson has favoured such devices as incremental repetition and a paratactic syntax. In his case, though, the poetry that results has a rugged quality to it, an austere intensity. None of his work has the flat speech rhythms that characterise so much contemporary verse. On the contrary, it fluctuates between a long, wavering line that can approach the stillness of a moment of contemplation, and a line that tightens together into an abrupt, insistent rhythmic unit. Whether recording the harsh landscapes of the West Coast and the "wild but earnest" forms of life that inhabit them, or rehearsing more immediately personal experiences of love, religious faith and doubt, his work is notable for a diction that ranges between the brutally simple and the lofty, imagery that can be at once primitive and apocalyptic, frequently incantatory rhythms and a general tone that recalls the work of Robinson Jeffers (a poem to whom Everson has professed an allegiance). "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" is exemplary, in many ways. It opens with an invocation to the birds, inviting them to "make a praise up to the Lord." The Lord they are asked to praise is no gentle Jesus, however, but the creator and overseer of a "mighty fastness", "indeterminate realms" of rock, sea, and sky. And the praise they are asked to give is not so much in the saying as the being. "You leave a silence" the poet declares, "And this for you suffices, who are not of the ceremonials of man". "Yours is of another order of being, and wholly it compels", he goes on, "/ But may you, birds, . . ./ . . ./ Yet . . .teach a man a necessary thing to know." For:

God has given you the imponderable grace to

be His verification,

Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices;

That you, our lessers in the rich hegemony of Being,

May serve as testament to what a creature is,

And what creation owes.'

What Everson celebrates, in fact, is the capacity these creatures possess for living in the Now; they have none of the human taint of selfconsciousness, no compulsion to look before and after. They act with purity, simplicity, and instinctive courage, as part of the processes of creation. To live beyond evasions and inwardness: this is the lesson taught by the waterbirds. For that matter, it is the lesson taught by Everson's tough yet oracular poetry, which represents a sustained assault on the idea of a separate self - and which is insistently reminding us of "the strict conformity that creaturehood entails, ... the prime commitment all things share'.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright 1990 by Longman Group UK Limited.


Lee Zimmerman

Consider one of Everson's best-known poems, "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" (57-59). As representatives of the nonhuman world, the birds have access to a God who must remain remote from humans. The water birds -keep seclusion where no man may go, giving Him praise; / Nor may a woman come to lift ... her clear contralto song / To honor" Him; indeed, they 'sanctify His hermitage rocks where no holy priest may kneel to adore, nor holy nun assist." But the birds can so partake of God precisely because they can sacrifice their own beings so absolutely and can remain aloof from the temporal concerns and fears that virtually define the human condition:

But mostly it is your way you bear existence wholly within the context of His utter will and are untroubled.
Day upon day you do not reckon, nor scrutinize tomorrow, nor multiply the nightfalls with a rash concern,
But rather assume each instant as warrant sufficient of His final seal.
Wholly in Providence you spring, and when you die you look on death in clarity unflinched[.]

Likewise, the birds 'leave a silence' which for them "suffices," since they are "not of the ceremonials of man, / And hence are not made sad to now forgo them."

Like Jeffers, Everson might decry the human hubris that denies the nonhuman world, but he doesn't here counterpoise a vision of humankind's embeddedness in nature. Rather, we see a God (expressed in the natural world) whose "utter will" is the mirror image of human hubris, denying humans as they have largely denied nature. In its utterness, it gathers to itself all authority, all true Being, reducing otherness to mere reflection. Thus "man" is excluded or utterly absorbed.

It turns out in the poem that the birds, "utterly seized in God's supremacy," can after all teach us something: "the strict conformity that creaturehood entails." Just as Keats becomes a 'sod' and Emerson a "particle of God," interchangeable and anonymous, the self - to achieve its sacred creaturehood - here must shed all particularity and strictly conform. To break out of enclosed ego is to obliterate it. To be all is to be nothing.

Even in the act of maintaining this opposition, however, the poem calls it into question. Partly this involves the passion with which the poem renounces passion (recall Elder's description of Everson's passionate rejection of ... anthropocentrism"). But more centrally, the opposition is undermined by the way the poem begins and ends with a stunning catalogue of the names of the water birds addressed. The particularity of each kind of bird is scrupulously maintained in the distinctiveness of its name and of its specific environmental niche (we get a catalogue of names and places); yet, in Whitmanesque fashion, even as its particularity is rendered, each bird is seen to be part of a larger whole, the catalogue itself. Everson would have them all say the same thing - "His name" - but the variety of sounds we hear in the careful articulation of each particular name makes clear that each bird will say that same thing in a different tongue. Despite itself, then, the poem makes us see that "conformity" needn't be "strict," that nature is in fact single and multiple, that the opposition Everson offers to humans (to be either isolated or "utterly" subjugated) is at odds with how the natural world that he sees as sacramental actually works.

from Contemporary Literature 33.4 (Winter 1992)


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