The Thickening Center
When I went to Carmel I was just a kid. To be clear, I was 18, what most adults might refer to as a kid, but I felt like a grown man because I was in my first year in the Marines and out for my first weekend liberty from Camp Pendleton, out for a spin along Highway One, the famous highway that still knocks me out with its changing views of the Pacific. Drunk on the sunshine and ionized Pacific air, I fell for Carmel. What I really fell for was Tor House, the poet Robinson Jeffers’ house that he built himself, with lots of help from a gifted stonemason, using the natural rocks of the coastal hills and waters. Riding shotgun in a friend’s open convertible I breathed the sweetness of the air and basked in the vast blue feeling of being one with the sky, spinning along past the kaleidoscopic beaches and trees on the edges of cliffs looking away from the land. The places where I had spent my first eighteen years were behind me, back in the prairies of the panhandle of Texas, and I was becoming a new person, an adult serving my country, just recovering from boot camp in San Diego, obligated to fulfill my four-years of active duty at the western edge of my country.
I wonder how I ever talked myself into enlisting in the Marines. I was a nerd all the way through high school in a dusty little town of 800 people on U.S. Route 66, east of Amarillo. I always wanted to see the house that Robinson Jeffers built. I had watched the hawks soaring over my prairie home in Texas, and his “Hurt Hawks” poem stirred my excitement about poetry. I joined the Marines because I knew from reading Jeffers and other poets that there was so much more to my life than what I had learned growing up in the plains.
I never should have sat down and thumbed through Robinson Jeffers’ poems. His words inspired me to be enlightened, and more than fifty years later, I am still seeking enlightenment.
One poem that kept pushing me to escape my small world and venture into a vast land of my own undiscovered country was my favorite when I was a high school senior. “Shine Perishing Republic” summed everything up for me. I was an eighteen-year-old idealist. I remember what Jeffers wrote in the most moving part of the poem, for me, which advised that I should avoid the “thickening center,” which I understood to mean the increasing complications of a more crowded, urban world.
It was 1958 and I didn’t know that what Jeffers called “the thickening center” was about to intrude in my life. Now, in 2019, I know life is much more complicated. Many of us have moved to the cities where life seems much more demanding.
That young marine riding in an open convertible along Highway One was heading for a lifetime of inexplicable catastrophe combined with a world view that exploded in the face of my innocence. I was about to enter an unimaginable new world, one that would challenge my ideas about life in America, the country I thought I knew. Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Watergate, 9-11. It was what Jeffers had been foreshadowing, telling me throughout my four years of high school. He and his poems had been introduced to me by my second mother, my high school English teacher, who had the unlikely, metaphoric name of Mrs. Alberta Bones. She saw in me what I did not see. She often told me I was going to become a poet someday, and she gave me a copy of Leaves of Grass.
Jeffers must have been influenced by Leaves of Grass and other of Whitman’s writing. “The Dalliance of Eagles” is one that draws my attention to what it must have been like to build such a house on the edge of the Pacific. Of course, Jeffers was only an apprentice in the building process, but he had the spirit and the vision for the entire project. Hawk Tower still looms above me in my memory after all these years. I think of Jeffers writing “Hurt Hawks” and wish I could come up with something like that. He was a great environmentalist. He lived in the perfection of the west coast.
“Whitman was a strong influence on Jeffers,” Mrs. Bones often said. “You will see it when you read this book,” she explained as she handed me a copy of Leave of Grass. “There are many similarities between Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers,” she said.
When I arrived in Carmel, I stood at the house Jeffers built with his own hands (and his supervising stonemason) and his own sweat. I imagined how proud he must have been as he put the final touches on his handiwork, much the way he must have felt as he finished the hard work of a poem. I had helped my father build a house in Texas, so I had a small understanding of what it must have been for Jeffers to find the rocks and stones to use, and then play a role in building a home of his own. It still stands, and I had the opportunity to see it, to touch it, to imagine I might feel a little of how Jeffers felt.
When anyone mentions Carmel, I immediately have a vision of my imagined version of Robinson Jeffers serving as an apprentice stonemason in the building of his Tor House, stone by stone.
Hawk Tower stands tall as a testament to Jeffers’ imagination. Even now, in 2019, one can look out over the Pacific and imagine how it must have felt to be a part of one of the most memorable structures ever built under the supervision of a famous poet.
In these days some lines from Jeffers seem particularly relevant. I wish we could have a world in which such things were not so common: he was an iconoclast, a loner, a builder of houses from native stone. This is the theme of many of my favorite Jeffers poems:
I think of Jeffers’ poetry when I feel bad about what is happening to our country and the world lately, and the damage being done by politicians and other corrupt leaders. Robinson Jeffers reminded me that corruption is not compulsory.
So, I am off to Carmel again, to fortify my faith in this country of mine and these years that continue. I hope to spend time looking out at the Pacific, breathing the ions, feeling the wind as it blows through what little hair I have left.
John Garmon’s poems and stories appeared in Ploughshares, DoveTales, Prairie Schooner, Aji, Radius, Florida Review, Commonweal, The Lyric. Southern Poetry Review, and many other magazines. He is a writing assistant at the College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas.
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