Message from the President ~ September 2020

Message from the President

September 2020

 
“September again.” These two words, from the opening section of Hungerfield, do not refer to the changing of the seasons, or to the turning wheel of time. They refer, rather, to the way life stopped for Jeffers when Una died, September 1, 1950. A year after his “awful loss,” grief was unassuaged. Even the beauty of Carmel was dimmed. “The gray grass, the gray sea” and the “ink-black trees” around Tor House reflected the “gray ashes” of his distress. By literally (or poetically) wrestling with Death in Hungerfield, however, Jeffers achieved a measure of peace. At the end of the poem, his gray despair has lifted, and he finds Una in the resplendence of the natural world. “You are earth and air,” he says; “you are in the beauty of the ocean / And the great streaming triumphs of sundown.” With eyes open once again, he could see Una “alive and well” everywhere, even in “the tender young grass rejoicing / When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds float on the dawn.” “I shall be with you presently,” Jeffers says in the last sentence of the poem—soon, that is, and always.
 
I was led to these reflections in the wake of our recent webinar, when Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, Susan Shillinglaw, and I, led by Tim Hunt, discussed “The Purse-Seine.” In preparing for that discussion, I looked for net imagery in Jeffers’ poems and discovered that nets, webs, and traps pervade Jeffers’ work and provide a key to his world view. A very early reference can be found in “To Helen About Her Hair” from Flagons and Apples, where love-struck Jeffers, addressing Una as his archetypal “Helen,” describes the “splendor” of her “long, lovely, liquid, glorious” hair, and implores her to “comb it carefully, / For my soul is caught there, / Wound in the web of it.” And so it was, through all the halcyon and turbulent times to come—which might explain why Jeffers left Una’s hairbrush on her dresser after she died, as a lasting symbol of their bond.
 
Perhaps we can explore the nature of Robinson and Una’s creative partnership in a future webinar. Our first webinar appears to have been a success. Nearly a hundred people registered for the event, presented in partnership with the Tor House Foundation. A recording of the discussion can be accessed here. We are currently planning our second webinar, which will take place next month. Information about it will be provided soon.
 
The next issue of Jeffers Studies is nearing completion and should be ready for distribution before the end of the year. In an effort to expand the journal’s reach and to open it to as many voices as possible, we are hoping to commission at least two special issues, conceived and organized by guest editors. An invitation to participate in this program can be found here. Meanwhile, we welcome submissions for our regular issues. If you have an article ready for consideration, please send it to editor@robinsonjeffersassociation.org.
 
Tim Hunt has completed the initial phase of our website overhaul. Our existing website is still active, but we will soon be switching over to a new host. Once we do, we will introduce improvements to the user interface, along with some preliminary changes to the menu. We will then be ready to add content and upgrade the website’s appearance. If you would like to help with this endeavor, even if only to offer suggestions, please contact webeditor@robinsonjeffersassociation.org.
 
Our treasurer, Charlie Rodewald, is stepping down from his position later this fall. As a dependable officer of RJA, his presence (and dry wit) will be missed, but he leaves with our deepest gratitude for his years of cheerful, dedicated service.
 
The majority of Charlie’s responsibilities will be assumed by Brett Colasacco—our new, I am very pleased to announce, Executive Director. I will capitalize the title for now simply to emphasize the importance of the position, which has been vacant for nearly two years. Brett has been a member of the advisory board since 2018, so he brings a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to his new role. An example of Brett’s behind-the-scenes work is before you right now, for he prepared the electronic format of this message and handled distribution.
 
In normal years, a “Call for Papers” would be issued in September for our annual February conference. Because of ongoing uncertainty resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, however, this is not a normal year and the conference has been canceled. We still hope to partner with the Tor House Foundation for the 2021 Fall Festival.
 
After wrestling with Death in Hungerfield through a dark September years ago, Jeffers continued to think about his adversary for the rest of his life, not just with Una in mind, but himself as well—as such classic poems as “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones” and “Vulture” attest. Beyond Una and himself, he also reflected on death for others close to him, and in widening circles of concern—through poems like “The Shears,” “Passenger Pigeons,” “An Extinct Vertebrate,” “End of the World,” and “Epic Stars”—for all beings, and ultimately for everything that exists. In “De Rerum Virtute,” which begins with a Hamlet-like contemplation of a human skull, Jeffers turns attention, as he always does, toward the “the immense beauty of the world” and to “the transhuman intrinsic glory” of the cosmos as a whole, where light and dark, life and death, being and non-being, are seamlessly woven together. Whatever the universe is, Jeffers says in a late untitled poem, “It flows out of mystery into mystery: there is no beginning— / How could there be?—and no end—how could there be?” All we have is here and now.
 
James Karman
Emeritus Professor
Department of English
Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities
California State University, Chico

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