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Lust, lyricism and liturgy

Dark God of Eros: A William Everson Reader, Edited by Albert Gelpi, Heyday Books: 410 pp., $22.95 paper

August 17, 2003|Gary Young | Gary Young is the author of five books of poetry, including "No Other Life," which won the Poetry Society of America's 2003 William Carlos Williams Award. He edited with Christopher Buckley "The Geography of Home: California's Poetry of Place."

On Dec. 7, 1969, Brother Antoninus, a poet and lay brother of the Dominican Order, removed his friar's robes during a reading at UC Davis, dropped them on the stage and left for Stinson Beach to marry Susanna Rickson, a woman 35 years his junior. This dramatic act by the poet Time magazine had christened the "Beat Friar" marked the end of nearly 20 years of monastic life and a return to the secular world as William Everson.

Everson's celebrity may have peaked with this episode, but his influence has been far-reaching and continues to grow. "Dark God of Eros" is a welcome arrival and offers a 60-year retrospective of Everson's poems, essays, autobiographical writings, interviews and letters, as well as reproductions of his work on the hand press. Albert Gelpi, who also edited Everson's selected poems, "The Blood of the Poet," has gathered an impressive range of texts that chronicle Everson's immense poetic, artistic and critical achievements.

Everson envisioned a cumulative poetic oeuvre -- the record of his own lapidary existence -- as a collected whole, which he called "The Crooked Lines of God." He divided his work into three volumes that correspond to the three major phases of his adult life: "The Residual Years 1934-1948," "The Veritable Years 1949-1966" and "The Integral Years 1966-1994." Gelpi's selections reveal not only the trajectory of Everson's poetic career but the course of his dramatic life as well.

Everson liked to say that he'd led "an archetypal life," and he moved through the world with extraordinary intensity. His searing intellect and his mystic's yearnings were uncompromising. His spirituality was ecstatic, and he had faith in the instinctual human capacity for transcendence. He lived in an incarnated world where "sex is the consciousness of materiality," and he often justified his conversion to the church by saying, "[I]t gave me a God I could eat." He spent a lifetime attempting to reconcile the two poles of his nature: Eros and agape, erotic love and a hunger for God.

I met Everson two years after his departure from the Dominicans. He had accepted a position as poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz and was teaching a course on poetic vocation, Birth of a Poet. His meditations were a rare blend of personal reflection, autobiography and vast erudition; one of the few disappointments of "Dark God of Eros" is the absence of any sections from the Birth of a Poet collection.

Everson was born in Sacramento on Sept. 10, 1912, and grew up in the San Joaquin farming town of Selma. While taking classes at Fresno State College, he chanced upon the poems of Robinson Jeffers, and the result, he says, "was essentially a religious conversion." He became a pantheist and a devoted disciple of the reclusive poet of the California coast. While his poems from this period show the influence of his master, Jeffers, and his affinity with the erotic mysticism of D.H. Lawrence, he was forging his own knotty, muscular lyricism. "The Rain That Morning" is distinctly Eversonian:

We on that morning, working, faced south and east where the sun was in winter at rising;

And looking up from the earth perceived the sky moving,

The sky that slid from behind without wind, and sank to the sun,

And drew on it darkly: an eye that was closing.

Everson and his first wife, Edwa, tended their vineyard in the San Joaquin Valley until 1943, when Everson, a conscientious objector, was ordered to the civilian public service camp in Waldport, Ore. The marriage did not survive their separation. After the war, Everson settled in San Francisco, where he joined a group of poets and artists that included Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth.

Everson had helped establish the Untide Press in the camp at Waldport and, after his discharge from alternate service, set up his Equinox Press. The press accommodated Everson's dedication to literature and to a devotional activity that was both chastening and rewarding. "The poet needs a printer, and the printer needs a text." He was instrumental in the revival of fine printing in America, which saw a renaissance in the second half of the last century that continues today. Not since William Blake have we seen such a sublime fusion of poet and printer. The three pieces on printing presented here and the reproductions of Everson's presswork are a welcome addition to this compendium.

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