Poetry Sunday: The Poet in the Desert

Today’s Poetry Sunday introduces a new poet: the freethinker, civil libertarian, and Renaissance man extraordinaire, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

Born in 1852, Wood graduated from West Point in 1874 and served as an infantry officer in western campaigns, including the Nez Perce War. He was present at the surrender of Chief Joseph and transcribed (or possibly embellished) the old chief’s famous saying: “My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Following his military service, he became a progressive writer and attorney in Portland, Oregon, where he represented labor unions and “radicals” such as Margaret Sanger. He was a friend of Mark Twain, and served alongside him in the American Anti-Imperialist League, which called for independence for the Philippines and other territories conquered in the Spanish-American War. His anarchist sympathies were visible in his contributions to periodicals such as Liberty, The Masses, and Emma Goldman’s journal Mother Earth. But by far his best-known work is Heavenly Discourses, a collection of satirical essays that take the form of dialogues between famous figures of history and myth. Some of the similarities with modern-day news are uncanny, such as this excerpt in which God decides to wage war on Satan:

GABRIEL: I am afraid Heaven won’t stand for that. Jesus has preached peace too long.
GOD: …We must first frighten them, fill them with fear, then with hate. For example, headlines in the Heavenly Herald: “Horrible Atrocities of Satan,” “Make the Cosmos Safe for Jesus,” “Satan Threatens Your Halos,” “Satan Disembowels a Cherub,” “Satan Rapes the Ten Foolish Virgins,” and so on…
GABRIEL: But none of this will be true.
GOD: True? Of course, it won’t. Don’t be a fool, Gabriel. You can’t work up a war — preparedness, I mean — on the truth. This is war — I mean preparedness — and we simply must lie — the more horrible the lies the better.

In his later years, Wood lived in California, where he befriended another Poetry Sunday laureate, Robinson Jeffers, and won the acclaim of progressive journalists like Upton Sinclair for his fearless opposition to fascism. He died of a heart attack in 1937; his daughter, Nan Wood Honeyman, was the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Oregon. You can read more about Wood’s long and extraordinary life at Oregon State University’s biographical page.

From “The Poet in the Desert”

I have entered into the Desert, the place of desolation.
The Desert confronts me haughtily and assails me with solitude.
She sits on a throne of light,
Her hands clasped, her eyes solemnly questioning.
I have come into the lean and stricken land
Which fears not God, that I may meet my soul
Face to face, naked, as the Desert is naked;
Bare as the great silence is bare:

I will question the Silent Ones who have gone before and are forgotten,
And the great host which shall come after,
By whom I also shall be forgot.
As the Desert is defiant unto all gods,
So am I defiant of all gods,
Shadows of Man cast upon the fogs of his ignorance.
As a helpless child follows the hand of its mother,
So I put my hand into the hand of the Eternal.

I have come to lose myself in the wide immensity and know my littleness.
I have come to lie in the lap of my mother and be comforted.
I am alone but not alone – I am with myself.
My soul is my companion above all companions.

Behold the signs of the Desert:
A buzzard, afloat on airy seas,
Alone, between the two immensities, as I am alone between two immensities;
A juniper-tree on a rocky hillside;
A dark signal from afar off, where the weary may rest in the shade;
A monastery for the flocks of little birds which by night hurry across the Desert and hide in the heat of the day;
A basaltic-cliff, embroidered with lichens and illuminated by the sun, orange and yellow,
The work of a great painter, careless in the splash of his brush.
In its shadow lie timid antelope, which flit through the sage-brush and are gone;
But easily they become fearless unto love.
The sea of sage-brush, breaking against the purple hills far away.
And white alkali-flats, which shimmer in the mirage as beautiful blue lakes, constantly retreating.
The mirage paints upon the sky, rivers with cool, willowy banks;
You can almost hear the lapping of the water,
But they flee mockingly, leaving the thirsty to perish.
I lie down upon the warm sand of the Desert and it seems to me Life has its mirages, also.
I sift the sand through my fingers.

Behold the signs of the Desert:
The stagnant water-hole, trampled with hoofs;
About it shine the white bones of those who came too late.
The whirling dust-pillar, waltz of Wind and Earth,
The dust carried up to the sky in the hot, furious arms of the wind, as I also am lifted up.
The glistening black wall of obsidian, where the wild tribes came to fashion their arrows, knives, spearheads.
The ground is strewn with the fragments, just as they dropped them, the strokes of the maker undimmed through the desperate years.
But the hunters have gone forever.

The Desert cares no more for the death of the tribes than for the death of the armies of black crawling crickets.
Silence. Invincible. Impregnable. Compelling the soul to stand forth to be questioned.
Dazzling in the sun, whiter than snow, I see the bones
Of those who have existed as I now exist. The bones are here; where are they who lived?
Like a thin veil, I see a crowd of gnats, buzzing their hour.
I know that they are my brethren, I am less than the shadow of this rock,
For the shadow returneth forever.
Night overwhelms me. The coyotes bark to the stars.
Upon the warm midnight sand I lie thoughtfully sifting the earth through my fingers. I am that dust.
I look upon the stars, knowing that to them my life is not more valuable than that of the flowers;
The little, delicate flowers of the Desert,
Which, like a breath, catch at the hem of Spring and are gone.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Leum

    This may be the best post yet in this series. Makes a great read-aloud.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’d love to read the whole thing (it’s a book-length poem, I believe). Sadly, many of Wood’s works are out of print. I believe they’re due to enter the public domain fairly soon, if they haven’t already – it would be excellent to see them distributed on Project Gutenberg or some such site.

    EDIT: I also found this result from Google Books, which claims this book is in the public domain and includes a downloadable PDF version.

  • Leum

    Not being a fan of reading books online (though thanks for the link), I checked to see if any nearby libraries had a copy. Nearest copy’s over a thousand miles away. I may still use an inter-library loan, though.

  • E.B.

    Wow, it’s been just about forever since I last commented, but I just wanted to say that I’m loving the poetry series. My college’s library has a copy of this work in full so I’ll have to take a look at it after finals.


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