An Alphabet of Poets – E is for Eiseley

To celebrate National Poetry Month I am featuring a new poet for each day of April. I will be at my abecedarian best and go through the alphabet from a to z, with a few letters getting more than one post!

It Is The Rain That Tells You

Strange, strange, how in the end it is the rain that tells you,
tells you the years are done, that there is nothing left but rain.
the girls all gone, the parking lot deserted, or, in the fields,
there still is only rain;
rain in the night, rain through the open window, rain in the eyes
till you can scarcely see,
rain from the wars, rain from the past that kills you.
It does not drip most gently through spring leaves.
Rain is the world’s intent, it lashes every furrow,
stifles all cries of parting or farewell
beneath the sounds of eavespouts and of gutters.
Now bolts split, windcocks spin, skies open;
this rain is driving to the end of time.
No sudden hush, no light toward morning ever
will break this steady pouring.   I depart
just as I came, at midnight, with rain falling.
It is the rain that speaks last to the heart.

Lorne Eiseley from The Innocent Assasins, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1973

“In Bimini, on the old Spanish Main, a black girl once said to me, ‘Those as hunts treasure most go alone, at night, and when they find it they have to leave a little of their blood behind them.’

I have never heard a finer, cleaner estimate of the price of wisdom. I wrote it down at once under a sea lamp, like the belated pirate I was, for the girl had given me unknowingly the latitude and longitude of a treasure – a treasure more valuable than all the aptitude tests of this age.”

Loren Eiesely from his essay The Mind As Nature from The Night Country, Scribners’ & Sons, 1971 and reprinted in American Poetry Review, November/December 2010.

Lorne Eiseley (1907-1977) – was a renowned American naturalist, archeologist, anthropologist, bone-hunter he would say, distinguished university professor, philosopher, best selling author of five non-fiction books (mainly of essays) and a poet. Yes, a poet. A great one? Likely not but one with his naturalists keen eye, scientist’s mind, and philosopher’s heart, well worth reading.

Recipient of more than 36 honorary degrees including one fromCanada’s UBC in 1967, Eiseley, although he made his reputation as a scientist, became nationally and internationally recognized as a writer and was lauded by many other great wiriters of his time including Ray Bradbury, W.H. Auden and the poet Howard Nemerov.

I discovered Eiseley the essayist in 1970’s but only came across Eiseley the poet in the 1990’s. In his poems death and change haunt him while at the same time he marvels at the natural world we find ourselves in, one that keeps finding ways for some things to keep living while others die away. For him we humans walk on a midnight walk of unknowing.

In the preface to one of his poetry books he says: “Some have called me Gothic in my tastes. Others have chosen to regard me as a Platonist, a mystic, a concealed Christian, a midnight optimist. Like most poets I am probably all these things by turns, or such speculations are read into me by those who are pursuing some night path of their own.”

Here are two excerpts from the poem of his I first discovered years ago – a poem that haunts me still especially its last lines.

Where Did They Go

Why did they go, why did they go away –
plesiosaurs, fish-reptiles, pterodactyls of the air,
triceratops beneath an armoured shield and frills of thorn,
tyrannosaurs with little withered hands, but jaws more huge
than anything that stalks the modern world –
why did they go?

Eiseley was so haunted by the passage of time and the end of things, the mysterious end of some species, the unlikely survival of others and the surprising emergence of new ones. In an essay he wrote “ I do not collect…..neither the living nor the dead. Death is the only successful collector.”

Here is the last part of the poem:

Why did they go? Because
time and the world love change.   No answer really, but I stare
and ask
what clock ticks in the heart. We, too, have come
most recently from caverns in the rock.  Our flesh is linked
to these
great bones that we recover.   Have a care
even in the symbol-shifting brain we may be
unable to escape prophetic things.   We may
be wandering our own way on the roads of night, hearing the howl,
the guttural laugh of that which will replace us.

Soft-stepping cats, even the great wolves from the endless snow-
I will come and lie beside you comfortably.
It is the way
written in rocks,
the way
of that mysterious nature I have ever followed.
Only the cause escapes me.   I am restless,
comprehend quiet, am prepared to sleep
as few men are, given the time when plants from the wild fields
shower their seed and carefree rabbits hop
upon Fifh aAenue, when all of us are gone, not I alone.
Why do we go? The rocks give back
strange answers, if at all.    Brother pteranodon,
I would have liked your wings;
your lifted head, proud sabretooth, to snarl;
mammoth, to trudge the world.
I am not sure I love
the cruelties found in our blood
from some lost evil tree in our beginnings.
May the powers forgive and seal us deep
when we lie down.
May harmless dormice creep and red leaves fall
over the prisons where we wreaked our will,
Dachau, Auschwitz, those places everywhere.
If I knew how to pray I would pray long for this.

I was reminded of my love of Eiseley in late 2010 when the American Poetry Review republished one of his long essays on teaching and the poet Donald Revell wrote a laudatory reply. But I was struck that no where in the brief biography of Eiseley or in Revell’s short piece was there a direct reference in this poetry journal to Eiseley the poet.

As close as Revell came was to describe some of Eiseley’s prose as poetry:

“All poets,” Revell says, “ in the making of a poem, are both teacher and child unto themselves. And the poem, crossing a threshold into being, is the uncertainty they love. No surprise then, that as it comes to its conclusion [Eiseley’s essay] becomes poetry.

‘ I am trying to say that buttercups, a mastodon tooth, a giant snail, and a rolling Elizabethan line are a part of my own ruins over which the weeds grow tall….I know not how, yet I know also that I have been created by those lost objects in the grass.’ ”

Yes this is poetry but here during National Poetry Month I want directly to celebrate Eiseley the poet; the poet, who in the explorations of his poetry has left some blood behind and made me too, in my reading of him, leave some blood behind as well.

And now I give him the last word – a repetition of the last words from his poem above, words that chilled and haunted me when I first read them and chill and haunt me still – demand some of my blood.

I am not sure I love
the cruelties found in our blood
from some lost evil tree in our beginnings.
May the powers forgive and seal us deep
when we lie down.
May harmless dormice creep and red leaves fall
over the prisons where we wreaked our will,
Dachau, Auschwitz, those places everywhere.
If I knew how to pray I would pray long for this.

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