Pantheistic wrestlings chastened and redeemed by God.

The publication of The Veritable Years by William Everson (Black Sparrow Press, 1978) was a major event. Better known as Brother Antoninus, Everson is assembling his life work in a trilogy with the overall title, The Crooked Lines of God. The Veritable Years is the second volume; the first volume, The Residual Years, published by New Directions, contains poetry written before he became a Catholic Christian in 1948. The third volume, The Integral Years, will contain the poetry written since he left the monastic order in 1969. The Veritable Years contains all the poetry he wrote and published as Brother Antoninus. Reading it is an overwhelming and moving experience.

These poems powerfully present Everson’s religious wrestlings. Although his intellect is sharp and active, his poems are not limited to the rational consciousness; rather, the depths and heights of the human self speak in his lines.

As a college student in 1934, Everson was converted to poetry and pantheism by the poems of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers remains a major influence on his work. The ruggedness of the California coast, the fierce and violent grandeur of nature, and the terrible drama of humanity are present in the work of both men. He also speaks of Walt Whitman as one of his fathers. As much as he may have learned from these two poets, as much even as he may resemble them in abstract ways, Everson is his own poet. The most obvious difference between Everson and his poetic fathers is his Christian faith.

This faith is expressed in a variety of ways in The Veritable Years. “Book One: The Crooked Lines of God: 1949” has several retellings of biblical stories, which gain much of their power and immediacy in Everson’s view of California that likens it to Palestine.

Albert Gelpi in his “Afterword” to The Veritable Years insists on the strongly incarnational quality of Everson’s faith. The gospel narrative is incarnate in California. The holy family became contemporary and real in our world. The holy story shares in our history. This fresh perception does not compete with the biblical account, but returns us to it with deeper sight.

Before Everson joined the Dominicans, he worked at a Catholic worker house in Oakland. His poem “Hospice of the Word” draws on that experience. As the following lines show, it conveys a powerful perception of Christ in the poor.

O my brothers! Each brings his

sin-deforméd face

To the greasy pan!

Or there on the nail above the sink

… the townsman’s culled linen, smutched,

Gives back the Divine Face!

These lines reflect Christ’s injunction to “do unto the least of these, my brethren.”

Later poems in The Veritable Years present Everson’s struggle with the monastic life. The Woman is perhaps the single most dominant theme in these poems; she is temptress, wife, lover. In later poems, especially “Book Six: The Rose of Solitude: 1960–1966,” the Woman becomes both a real individual whom Everson knows, and a numinous being perceived in more original images. Here is the last stanza of the title poem, “The Rose of Solitude”:

Solitary Rose! The Spanish pride! The Aztec death!

The Mexican passion! The American hope!

Woman of the Christ-hurt aching in moan! God-thirster!

Beautiful inviolable well-deep of passion!

In the fiercest extravagant love is the tangible source of all wisdom!

In the sprint of your exquisite flesh is evinced the awesome recklessness of God’s mercy!

Although quotations give a poor idea of the poem’s impact, these lines show not only the intense meaning of Woman for him, but also his ability to make the abstract concrete and the immaterial tangible.

Love for a woman, who is now his wife, led Everson to abandon monasticism but not Christianity.

Two poems, “In All These Acts” and “God Germed in Raw Granite,” reflect Everson’s earlier pantheism, but a pantheism chastened and redeemed by God. “In All These Acts” describes an elk killed by falling trees. The last stanza begins “In all these acts / Christ crouches and seethes, pitched forward / on the crucifying stroke.” It continues, “These are the modes of His forth-showing, / His serene agonization.” Here Everson takes more seriously than most of us both creation and incarnation.

The pivotal point of The Veritable Years is “River-Root: A Syzygy.” Although written in the fifties, when Everson was a lay brother of the Dominican order, “River-Root” was not published until 1976. It is a 32-page narrative of eloquence and power. Its plot is simple—a husband and wife, married for some years, have had a misunderstanding that has estranged them. Trying to talk it out has not helped. Then, in sleep, they have a sexual experience that not only overcomes their estrangement but also gives them a mystical union. They conceive a child.

This bare outline does not suggest at all the strength of the poem. “River-Root” begins with an evocation of the least perceptible origins of the river: “Place a hand under moss, brush back a fern, turn over a stone, scoop out a hollow—/ … No more than this is needful for source.” The course of the river is traced to the sea, and the fecundity of the life along its banks—from bears and elks to frogs—is emphasized. Then the city, where the husband and wife live, is placed along the river, the river the commanding image throughout the poem. Christians need the healthiness and joy with which Everson presents sexual union; we have too often retreated from lust into a fear and hatred of the body, rather than celebrating it as God’s good creation and an essential part of who we are.

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But there is more; the syzygy in the title refers to the Jungian concept of the union of opposites, in this case sexual opposites. In their love, the couple fuse the fragments of life, “And now in their night / They know the incarnational join: body to body / Twain in one flesh.” Because the lovers are married in God, the culmination of their sexual union is also an intuitive, unconscious mystical union with God. “River-Root” is even more difficult to quote briefly. Everson portrays redeemed sexuality in a closely-knit whole. Reading it is a moving and edifying experience.

Eugene Warren is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Rolla, and poetry editor for Christianity & Literature.

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