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Climbing Milestone Mountain by Kenneth Rexroth

I know Rexroth (internal link) from his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. I have none of his books anymore because I always gave them away. Those collections are that beautiful.

Here we have a personal poem with Rexroth in the Sierra. Not “Sierras” but I will forgive Rexroth since a poetic license is a strong one. This must have been about the Spanish Civil War.

Every liberal on the planet thought it a just cause to war against Franco; perhaps this time their socialist dreams would come true. Unlike that messy Russian Revolution that simply replaced Czars for dictators.

George Orwell served in Spain in an unarmed role and later wrote a great book on how infighting among countless factions doomed the struggle against Franco. It was called Homage to Catalonia. I think Hemingway went over, too, as an ambulance driver. But I could be wrong..

Back to the poem and the mountains.

Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937

By Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982)

For a month now, wandering over the Sierras,
A poem had been gathering in my mind,
Details of significance and rhythm,
The way poems do, but still lacking a focus.
Last night I remembered the date and it all
Began to grow together and take on purpose.
We sat up late while Deneb moved over the zenith
And I told Marie all about Boston, how it looked
That last terrible week, how hundreds stood weeping
Impotent in the streets that last midnight.
I told her how those hours changed the lives of thousands,
How America was forever a different place
Afterwards for many.
In the morning
We swam in the cold transparent lake, the blue
Damsel flies on all the reeds like millions
Of narrow metallic flowers, and I thought
Of you behind the grille in Dedham, Vanzetti,
Saying, “Who would ever have thought we would make this history?”
Crossing the brilliant mile-square meadow
Illuminated with asters and cyclamen,
The pollen of the lodgepole pines drifting
With the shifting wind over it and the blue
And sulphur butterflies drifting with the wind,
I saw you in the sour prison light, saying,
“Goodbye comrade.”
In the basin under the crest
Where the pines end and the Sierra primrose begins,
A party of lawyers was shooting at a whiskey bottle.
The bottle stayed on its rock, nobody could hit it.
Looking back over the peaks and canyons from the last lake,
The pattern of human beings seemed simpler
Than the diagonals of water and stone.
Climbing the chute, up the melting snow and broken rock,
I remembered what you said about Sacco,
How it slipped your mind and you demanded it be read into the record.
Traversing below the ragged arête,
One cheek pressed against the rock
The wind slapping the other,
I saw you both marching in an army
You with the red and black flag, Sacco with the rattlesnake banner.
I kicked steps up the last snow bank and came
To the indescribably blue and fragrant
Polemonium and the dead sky and the sterile
Crystalline granite and final monolith of the summit.
These are the things that will last a long time, Vanzetti,
I am glad that once on your day I have stood among them.
Some day mountains will be named after you and Sacco.
They will be here and your name with them,
“When these days are but a dim remembering of the time
When man was wolf to man.”
I think men will be remembering you a long time
Standing on the mountains
Many men, a long time, comrade.

Kenneth Rexroth, “Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937” from The Collected Shorter Poems. Copyright © 1966 by Kenneth Rexroth. From The Collected Shorter Poems (1966)

Purple clusters of sky pilot flowers (polemonium eximium), Sierra Nevada, California

By thomasfarley01

Business writer and graphic arts gadfly.

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