Apr. 18, 2012

The Starfish

by Robert Bly

      It is low tide. Fog. I have climbed down the cliffs
from Pierce Ranch to the tide pools. Now the ecstasy
of the low tide, kneeling down, alone. In six inches of
clear water I notice a purple starfish—with nineteen
arms! It is a delicate purple, the color of old carbon
paper, or an attic dress . . . at the webs between the
arms sometimes a more intense sunset red glows
through. The fingers are relaxed . . . some curled up at
the tips . . . with delicate rods . . . apparently globes
on top of each, as at World's Fairs, waving about. The
starfish slowly moves up the groin of the
rock . . . then back down . . . many of its arms rolled
up now, lazily, like a puppy on its back. One arm is
especially active and curved up over its own body as
if a dinosaur were looking behind him.
      How slowly and evenly it moves! The starfish is a
glacier, going sixty miles a year! It moves over the pink
rock, by means I cannot see . . . and into marvelously
floating delicate brown weeds. It is about the size of
the bottom of a pail. When I reach into it, it tightens
and then slowly relaxes. . . . I take an arm and quickly
lift. The underside is a pale tan. . . . Gradually, as I
watch, thousands of tiny tubes begin rising from all
over the underside . . . hundreds in the mouth, hun-
dreds along the nineteen underarms . . . all looking. . .
feeling . . . like a man looking for a woman . . . tiny
heads blindly feeling for a rock and finding only air.
A purple rim runs along the underside of every arm,
with paler tubes. Probably its moving-feet.
      I put him back in. He unfolds—I had forgotten
how purple he was—and slides down into his rock
groin, the snail-like feelers waving as if nothing had
happened, and nothing has.

"The Starfish" by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems. © Harper Perennial, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1958 that the U.S. Government dropped its treason charges against the poet Ezra Pound (books by this author).

Pound had been arrested in 1945 because of speeches he had been delivering on Italian radio, in which he praised Mussolini and fascism, and criticized American policy. He was extremely anti-Semitic, blaming the world's problem's on the Jews. He practiced each speech before he delivered it, and he used various down-home American voices for each of them — he might be folksy one broadcast, speak in a drawl the next, and in a nasal Boston accent for the third. He kept careful notes of each broadcast and his performance — for one, he wrote: "Excellent delivery last night. Voice absolutely clear and every word 'visible,' except for a few Orful KRRumpzzz! of static or atmospheric or whatever that BLITZED out a few phrases." He continued with his speeches even after the United States joined World War II in December of 1941, so it was at that point that his work became not just offensive but treasonous.

After his arrest, Pound was extradited to the United States and committed to a federal asylum, St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Over his 13 year confinement Pound was visited by an odd combination of white supremacists who admired his politics, and distinguished American writers who admired his poetry or his history of generosity to other artists, among them Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Thornton Wilder, Randall Jarrell, Katherine Anne Porter, and T.S. Eliot.

Ernest Hemingway wrote to his friend Archibald MacLeish, who was campaigning for Pound's release: "Thanks for sending the stats of Ezra's rantings. He is obviously crazy. I think you might prove he was crazy as far back as the latter Cantos. He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warping and twisting and decay of his mind and his judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do."

Writers and the media pressured the government to release Pound, and on April 14th, 1958, a motion was filed for dismissal of Pound's indictment. Among the statements was one by Robert Frost, who wrote: "None of us can bear the disgrace of our letting Ezra Pound come to his end where he is. It would leave too woeful a story in American literature." On this day in 1958, the government agreed to dismiss the indictment against Pound, and the 72-year-old poet was released. He returned to Italy, where he spent the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of Beat poet Bob Kaufman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1925). His father was a German Jew, his mother was a black Catholic from Martinique, and his grandmother practiced voodoo. He had 12 brothers and sisters. He ran away from home when he was a teenager to join the Merchant Marine, then spent time in New York where he met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He ended up in the North Beach district of San Francisco, where he liked to stand on tables at cafés and recite his poems, and he was admired because he stood up to the police. When Kaufman learned that Kennedy had been assassinated, he took a Buddhist vow of silence, which he kept until the end of the Vietnam War.

He helped found Beatitude magazine, and his books include Second April (1959), Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965), and The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978 (1981).

He wrote: "I live alone, like pith in a tree, / My teeth rattle, like musical instruments. / In one ear a spider spins its web of eyes, / In the other a cricket chirps all night, / This is the end, / Which art, that proves my glory has brought me. / I would die for Poetry."

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