At the beginning of his poetry reading at Harvard last week, Brother Antoninus paced about the stage of Emerson D, glowered at his audience, and remained silent for several minutes. The protracted silence created an acute and almost unbearable tension. Then he spoke: "I look at you. I don't know you. Everywhere you are the same...."
The next day he admitted that this was a stock beginning for all his readings but said, "The silence was not a trick. I had to establish the seriousness of the situation with the audience. I wait until I sense their readiness, until it is almost too much for them to stand."
What was the "seriousness of the situation"? During his reading, Brother Antoninus explained his function as a poet: When I was walking here, I looked at the gulls circling in the sky--they know each other, they band together. That's really the way it is with us. I am taking you into a spiral, but it's not going to be an elevation: we're going down--down into the depths of the heart. I want to find a cranny in you that I can crawl through. That is the function of the poet: to create an aperture. The poet must be violent; he must crack the ego and reach through, or he is nothing. When something does crack the ego, for one appalling moment"--he paused--"we apprehend."
A poet identified with the San Francisco Renaissance headed by Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Brother of Antoninus published poems for many years under the name William Everson until he became a lay brother in the Dominican Order eleven years ago. As all poetry should, Brother Antoninus' writings have had an organic development which reflects the parallel development of his personal life. While much of his earlier poetry did exhibit some orientation toward God, it largely dealt with his attempt to find meaning in life through sensuality. He explained the cause of a rather sudden shift in orientation: after World War II he had become estranged from his wife, and married another woman whose marriage had also broken up during the war. His second wife was a Catholic who had fallen away from the Church and was struggling to regain her faith. He was drawn into this quest, and it had a profound effect on his life and poetry.
As a member of the Catholic Church, Brother Antoninus was provided with a dogmatic basis for his poetry. "The dogma has been helpful," he said, "in that it has provided me with subject matter and a frame of reference, and has made me concentrate my energies. But it has imposed a great inner tension that has been difficult to resolve: the polarity between spirit and flesh has been thrown into a different dimension by the religious context."
To understand God: this was his preoccupation. In "A Frost Lay White on California," he writes
"I have nothing to conceal," cried God, "from those deeps of your passion!
Why should I lie?
Read your own hate if you should know?
Would I squander blood on such as you if I didn't mean it?
Bah! I am always in earnest.
My hunger is plain as the pang in your gut.
Feed me! I am you!"
Explaining the general view of God in his poetry, Brother Antoninus said: "I seek constantly to use sexual union as an analogue of man's union with God. The relationship of God and man is like that of a bride and bridegroom; the human's role is feminine, while God's is masculine."
But even this attitude has gradually changed, and most of Brother Antoninus' listeners at Harvard last week were probably left with a firmly ingrained impression that the main preoccupation of his poetry is man's discovery of himself. "Without wholeness," he said, "there can be no holiness. In the search to find wholeness--when man finds himself--he will find God."
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