Big Sur Essay Part IV: Day 4: Tor House, a Poetic Tour
Day 4: Dec 7
My final full day in Big Sur. I took my coffee on the narrow porch outside my cabin door and gazing at the creek below I smoked a cigarette. Everything I feel is washing into me, washing out of me, washing me clean. A blue jay flew onto the railing before me, hopped onto the redwood trunk a few feet from the porch and performed a sort of dance by burrowing its beak into the crevices of the bark, flying away then returning, approaching the tree from another angle. I watched it for a few minutes and then it flew away. It was looking for something it believed the bark held, and not finding it, flew away. Maybe I am doing the same thing, that is, looking for something in Big Sur that may not be here, or have I found it already? Was the experience of the night before the reason for my coming? I extinguish my cigarette and walk inside. I retrieve Janet Burroway’s book on Writing Fiction, and I turn to the end chapters on revision. I find a story there written by Bob Schacochis. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob, drinking with Bob, having Bob sign his book for me this past year, during my final full semester at USF.
A bearish man, he appeared in Fromm Hall's main stage more than a little tipsy and I turned to one of my writer friends and said so. His condition made me feel uncomfortable and yet I was fascinated. Untethered, wild, his intellect formidable, Bob reflected the personality of a true writer. While reading from book The Immaculate Invasion, he kept interrupting himself, launching polemics against the US government, its foreign policies, raging against the narcissism of Bush Jr., and decrying America's ongoing victimization of the Haitians. Here was an angry man, at times shouting, at times whispering. His thick beard, shoulder length hair, glasses, made him, for that hour at least, a prophet, unafraid to tell it like it is. He used words to express truth. He felt that reality should be embraced, in all its hurt horror. Here we were, swimming in the university's engineered experience, enamored by a man who had lived, truly lived. Swimming in alcohol, he launched epithets, using language that would make a Jesuit priest blush. He seemed to me a hurt hawk, because he is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse. At a distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head. I loved his reading and hearing the sheer power and beauty of his descriptions, the grace in them, the truth in them, I was left in awe of the man. Here was a real writer, damaged, sensitive, beautiful and wild-- all who hear and read him remember him in their bones.
After he had received his questions which he answered tangentially, eventually addressing in that same vitriolic candor, after he had received his final applause, tepid and then building, his reading was over. A short while later, I found him outside Fromm Hall on a bench smoking a cigarette. A few of my fellow students kept their distance from him, perhaps seeing in him someone ruined and failed. I saw in him a man of singular genius. I had just bought his book from the table the university book store had set up beside the stage, and I approached Bob, thanked him fro the reading and his speaking the truth and asked him to sign his book for me. We spoke of my then current project, a book about the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he listened graciously. He took his book from my hands, asked me to repeat the spelling of my name, then offered me advice, “Don’t fucking give up telling it as it is.” I offered him a cigarette then told him we should have a drink. “What a fucking great idea!” He said. David Vann, one of my professors slinked out from the building and found us. Vann smiling, pleased yet a little perturbed at the way things "went down," asked Bob if he could take him back to the hotel. David had found fame by exploiting his own father’s suicide in a collection of short stories and I suspect felt a measure of protection for Bob. I respected David's intellect (his ability to recite verbatim and with the proper pronunciation entire passages of Olde English Poems); but I always found his artistic choices troublesome and his reasons for being an artists problematic. "Fuck the hotel," Bob drawled, "Let's get a drink." We settled on a place, our writer’s drinking spot, Hobson’s Choice on Haight.
Hobson's as we call it, bills itself as a Victorian Punch House, a place known not just for its largest selection of Rums in the country ( I think), but also an unpretentious place, whose energy builds every hour. As more and more people pour in, the voices grow in pitch, laughter roars as does the music. It's a decidedly San Francisco's version of an Irish Bar. It has no antecedents as I can't think of a single place that resembles it. It is in some ways a platitude for writers--a place to go and drink and to drink and to drink. I found Bob in the back room, a vodka and tonic (I think) cupped in his hands. The seat beside him was empty so I settled myself in. We talked, or rather, he talked and I listened, mostly about his life as a writer, about the failed choices, he'd made, about him working for twelve years on a book he didn’t have a hope in hell of publishing. His writing, like his speech, like his candor, seared. “You never heard of me till today, have you?” he drawled. I told him I did, lying, his name conjured up then forgotten a decade ago while I was completing my undergraduate courses. “You’re a fucking liar,” he drawled, when I told him I had heard of him. And here he was, in the same book I had read and studied while completing my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing.
I started the story and after a few pages put the book down. I can’t read anything right now. I don’t want to read anything. The creek beyond flowed past and all I could think of doing was being around the ghosts of famous literary men.
I dressed. I decided to drive to Carmel and find Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House, a house as much as a refuge as it is a testament of a way of life long gone, before Carmel became what it is today, a place where the uber-wealthy live and play. To build a testament to love and family, I think, isn’t this what every artist does? Tor House, from what I know of it, seems the embodiment of authenticity.
I have much to do today. After Tor House I'll visit Carmel by the Sea, perhaps take a trip into Monterey to experience the bustle of the city, and later visit the Henry Miller Library, then Julia Pfeiffer State Park and its waterfall. I want to see condors gliding across the cliffs past Pfeiffer State Park. I want to take roads I haven’t still yet gone. Make a plan, I say. No, don’t! Let your eyes take you where they may. Follow your feelings to see where they may go. You may discover things yet unseen. This journey I am on is not unlike writing, each moment, attuned to it, feels poetic.
When the modernist poets were decrying the loss of civilization, Robinson Jeffers, standing aloof, was raging against its successes. He carved for himself a solitary life, a fiercely individual one, settling in Carmel when the area was still rugged, craggy, difficult to navigate--now it has been tamed, with seaside mansions, and all the opulence of Carmel by the Sea, a shopping playground for the uber rich. I once found a pen there at Bittner Fine Pens, one manufactured by David Oscarson, the Henrik Wigstrom Trophy fountain pen, costing $4900 dollars. Who in their right mind would buy such a thing? Collectors, of course, pen enthusiasts. The store is a pen pornographer’s dream. Back to Jeffers.
I had read his poems as an undergraduate, been drawn to his imagery and in particular to his fascination and reverence for nature; not Whitman’s nature, an Edenic place robust with goodness and grace, but nature as a wild, raging, dangerous place. In my favorite poem of his Hurt Hawks, he writes:
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week waiting for death, there is a game without talons.
Addressing the sad fact that hunter becomes prey, I think of the sea bird I found the other day at Pfeiffer Beach, that sea bird with its claws upended, lying smashed in the rubble of rocks. Eaten by flies, gnats circling its head in death and oblivious to us, I think how it was still animated, the world working on the wings and talons its mechanisms, breaking down its molecular form. The bird would no longer fly, its owl-like feathers fluttering away bit by bit, like Jeffers’ hurt hawks, it could no longer derive from the wind currents its meaning and purpose, and I think, if the heart of a poet dies, then his poetry dies. And I think, if you kill the architect’s emotional connection with the land, the environment inspiring him, you kill the meaning of architecture. Tor House, a monument to love and creation stands in opposition to the manufactured space. It conveys meaning and method.
I feel cities have been planned in haste. Rooted in expediency and irrespective of the landscape upon which towers have risen and city halls spread, colonnaded walkways offering nothing more than the view of grounds engineered, city planners have always, it seems to me, sacrificed one thing for another, viz. beauty for functionality. They've added parks and spaces of reflection and recreation as an afterthought. Even the best parks, New York’s Central Park, for one, seem impoverished somehow, seem like consolations. Compared to this. For without a Big Sur to gauge our reaction towards city spaces, we lose our perspective. Big Sur is necessary, like the Mallorcan Coast, the Grand Canyon, like Alaskan Glaciers, Ketchikan forests, necessary to provide for us those natural spaces from which all inspiration draws us out of ourselves, makes us believe in the grand. So, I share something in common with Whitman; I too believe in nature as an Edenic place, yet I also share in common with Jeffers--the belief that sometimes nature can turn against us, clip our wings, leave us like the hurt hawks, or like a sea bird crashed into the cliffs, to die if we fail to give nature her respect, appreciation, awe.
For ages men have attempted to control nature and nature always fights back, in earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, in cyclones and hurricanes. How can you tame a hurricane? No one can tame the heart through love desires to create. No one can tame God inside the breast or Satan in the beast.
Tor House, I read, was named after the “tor,” or craggy knoll on which it was built, long before anything like a community took shape here. Carmel, then, unlike now, was a wild and barren place, though still, I suspect, windswept. Construction began in 1918 and by 1919, having apprenticed himself to the builder, learning the art of making “stone love stone” the house was complete. He built the house and adjoining hawk tower using using granite pilfered from the Carmel Bay’s rocky shoreline. Horses pulled the boulders up to the promontory where around it stood nothing. Jeffers in more than one sense (both in poetic vision and the will to carve himself his own identity and place in the world) reflected the pioneer spirit.
I set my navigation system and head North on Highway One. I pass fields and the lighthouse high on the peninsula, a gated access rad preventing me from visiting. I pass a beach on my left whose surf looks like a thick cream, crashing onto beaches that look like sponge cake. I am leaving Big Sur behind and as I drive, I feel how different I am from the man who drove South to Big Sur a few days ago. How experiences truly change us, and sometimes for the better. But I also fear that this feeling will be forgotten, like dew that had settled on the pastures of my soul evaporating just as soon as I reenter the city. I feel strange driving into a more densely populated place, with neighborhoods and parking lots and shopping centers. I feel strange waiting in cue at a stoplight. I turn left, off of Highway One and enter a residential area which takes me to the edge of the ocean and my navigation system tells me I have arrived at my destination. Looking to my left I see a rustic house constructed on a rise and in process of renovation. I don’t stop to consider the meaning of renovating a historical house. I fail to see.
Parked by its fenceposts stand several landscaping trucks and construction vans. A few gardeners on break, eating sandwiches sit along the short rises. My navigation system is silent upon my arrival and I shut it off. I must be here. This must be it. There is nothing around it that remotely resembles this, for it stands as a rustic testament to all that Carmel once was, not yet defaced with a crop of suburban houses. The walls faced in bulbous rocks the color of sand, look like something a poet would build. There seems a strength and solidity about this place, much like Jeffers’ poetry: Ah, the extraordinary patience of things! It seems to stand in defiance of the seaside cottages with their peaked roofs, gabled windows, clapboard outer walls. It defies quaintness and modesty even; a house trembling with knowledge, but most of all, shouting its freedom from the Plebian. This must be it. I park down the street and wrestle my camera from its case and walk back through the road whose houses seem to stand in judgment of me. What is he doing? They seem to ask. Who is this man with his camera and his solitary airs and his determination to live in a sort of magical thinking?
I am taking pictures of the house, circling around and up a narrow alleyway to its frontside, then step to its Northside, passing into a crowded concrete pathway, taking pictures, violating its occupants’ privacy, when I realize there are no placards anywhere to indicate this is a historical site, that this is Tor House. Where is the tower? I suddenly realize, I am at the wrong address. Green and blue garbage cans stand adjacent the walls of a garage, a green rubber hose rolled up and pegged to the side of the house, and metal dog bowls. This isn’t it, though I would soon see, it is a mimic of the original: a fraternal twin. This is not the “inevitable place.” This house is an accident, a purposeful accident, meant to throw the traveler off.
Acting nonchalant, I walk across the street, passing the servicemen again, their eyes on me. Acting nonchalant, I step onto a small concrete border that divides the street from the wilds of the sea, and I think, How many times did Jeffers stand here and gaze upon the water, seeing in the swirling patterns of diving willets and circling pelicans and hopping cranes the inspiration for poems? I cross onto the rocks twined with some kind of fibrous thread where no farther than fifty feet white seabirds gather, flap their wings, argue and jostle for positions where the sun cuts a swath of light. In a few seconds all those histrionics are over and the birds settle themselves. What am I missing? I ask. The coast to my right turns in a wide lopping arch. The beach is tan as a woman’s skin. Below me sit all manners of rocks and boulders in strange manifestations, bulbous and curved, pitted and grooved, stone made interesting by erosion. I take a few more pictures, wondering how many times Jeffers must have stood here, or sat here amidst these rocky jumbles and wrote his adaptation of Medea for the Broadway stage? I pick up a stone and roll it across the rocks where it clatters and settled in some nook and I wonder, had Jeffers once rolled the same stone?
A few couples, elderly couples, pass overhead, watch me as I snap a picture or two. I turn my camera this way and that, looking for new angles, using the viewfinder to frame just the image I need to transform this space into a photograph. Selecting, directing, editing, this is what we do when we create, transforming the raw material of the world into some purposeful form and call it art. This is what Jeffers did when writing the lines,Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found the honey of peace in old poems.
I return to my Jeep, set the navigation again and pull the shifter into drive. I roll no more than ten feet when the navigation says again, You have reached your destination; your destination is on the right.” I look to my right and see a sculpture of a hawk fashioned from white sandstone in the yard and I realize I am, I was, already here.
What truth? I survey my surroundings. What am I missing? I ask. What more is there to say? There is nothing here but lovely little houses, lovely little views, the air scented with briny charm. Something is missing. There is not the wild, uninhabited, rocky wisdom of what drew Jeffers here. Though each house looks as individual as the next (no two alike in posture and style), each having earned its right to exist shoulder to shoulder with Jeffers’ house, something feels missing from them. Some perfume of fame? I think, I wouldn’t mind living here; the houses neither ostentatious nor cowering in shame in their proximity to Hawk Tower. These house still somehow belong. All the houses, even the smallest ranchers, exude architectural poetry; they are all well intentioned spaces, houses that feel less like machines of living than sacred spaces, in which people carve out their dreams. What else is there? The trees, yes, and the landscaping, and the streets, idyllic and empty of play.
It is noon already, and my journey is still ongoing, so I climb back into my Jeep, roll out of this neighborhood and drive towards Carmel by the Sea.
(To Be Continued)