01 June 2011


The California poet Robinson Jeffers had a breathtaking reach of vision, a capacity to remain himself and yet see through many eyes beyond his own.  While many might think such vision integral to poetry, it's actually quite rare.  Here, in its entirety, is the lyric "Vulture," written when Jeffers was seventy-six years old.

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean.  I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing.  I 
                understood then
That I was under inspection.  I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring.  I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you."  But how beautiful he 
                looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over 
                the precipice.  I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him.  To be eaten by that beak and 
                become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment, what a life after death.

Enskyment: how beautiful and right that word is, sky burial as sublimation.  Read the line without it, and the poem recedes, becomes almost trivial: the alien beauty of the word suddenly makes manifest the transcendent arc of the poem, so that we see the vulture suspended in the vastness of the sky and we see the vast world through the vulture's eyes.  To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the eye with which the man sees the vulture is the same eye with which the vulture sees the man, and is the same eye within which the sky contains them both.  It is the daring of 'enskyment' which makes Jeffers not just a poet but a great poet. 

1 comment:

  1. well we disagree about r jeffers, himal - i find him to be a humourless old pagan. but your post is beautiful!