Robinson Jeffers, who died in 1962, was the author of 13 large collections of poetry. From the 1920s to the 40s he was reputed to be one of the greatest poetic voices produced in the USA and was compared with Shakespeare and Homer. He always believed he was writing for a public of one thousand years from now. After WWII all that changed and he was relegated to the lunatic fringe of the right-wing because of his isolationism during the war years.
Michael Werboff, one of the world’s foremost portraitists, was born in the Ukraine and died several years ago in New York at nearly 100 years old. Frequently in Who’s Who, his portraits of kings and presidents, writers and other painters, hang in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the Prado in Madrid, the Tretyakov in Moscow, and in many other galleries and theaters of the world. Also a classical singer, he once gave a recital in Carneige Hall.
Both dressed in Santa Claus suits and carrying identical little brass money buckets and strings of silver bells, Werboff and Jeffers collided butt to butt near the Four Rivers Fountain under the towers of the illuminated St. Agnese church. Whirling to confront their antagonist, their suppressed snarls and grunts gradually degenerated into disgruntled ahems and hmms, and finally settled into investigative glares.
The undaunted California poet lifted his beard to scratch his gaunt cheeks in a purposeful display of nonchalance. The Russian painter scrutinized the other’s narrow face, pulled down his own postiche beard with a loud snap, and leaned toward his twin Santa Claus.
“Haven’t I seen you before?”
“Yep!” the other replied without hesitation. “We met in nineteen thirty-nine, my face you copied truly fine, but the real true me you could not really see. Whilst out of oceanic depths….” Jeffers sighed, looked down, planted his hand on top of the head of a small boy grabbing at the white border of his red jacket, and brushed him away like a fly.
“Vade retro, puer, vade retro! … I cannot stand these little brats.”
“I see you haven’t lost that old cynical look I once captured,” said the portraitist, casting his fake white whiskers to the stones and smoothing down his own flowing mustache. “Or your attitude either. You never did like children, did you?… Anyway, as you well know, my fame is based on my ability to see into the very souls of my subjects.”
“Maybe you saw one me, I avow, but not the real one…. And my fame is based on my enmity of civilization – if that is what this is today…. Oh, these sniveling dark urchins, I ask you, what god is so daring as to make them?”
Jeffers jerked the skirt of his jacket out of the hands of the tenacious boy and with both hands on the kid’s ass again pushed him away: “Sta viator, heroem calcas!”
“O poet! What does that mean today so long after? Was it just a question of age?”
“That may be but I do not know if of yours or mine.”
“At least there’s that doubt. I mean that it was you, not me.”
“I used to think that in our lives we hardly change but I learned otherwise in maturity.”
“Well, Robinson, you’ve made progress since I painted you.”
“O you of the brave! You dare to call this that we witness around us progress.” The poet lifted himself up on his toes, ripped his jacket out of the kid’s grubby hands, and leaned forward to rap him on his little knuckles:
“Retro!” he shouted so loud and so viciously that the three priests nearby frowned and turned their gaze on the two Santa Clauses. “Vade in pace. Et tu ne cedes malis!” he added, and smiled an evil smile toward the priests.
The two Santas stared past the clerics toward a loudspeaker stashed behind a 16th century pillar from which childrens’ voices rang out over the piazza –
“Tu scendi dalle stelle, O, Re del Ci-e-e-lo….” All around bag-pipes of wandering Abruzzi mountaineers squealed their unidentifiable melodies.
“e viene in una grotta
al freddo e al g-e-e-l-o…”
“Do they not ever turn that obnoxious racket off,” Jeffers yelled.
“Not for at least a month….You know, Robby, you’re more open than you were then,” Werboff said with a smirk, “though your character is just as malevolent as ever. Back then though you seemed convinced of every truth … I never thought you loved your poetry much.”
“Oh I was certain I knew the big truth. But only the many little truths really mattered. I once wrote that,
‘All the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their
Children and dogs ran among the labyrinth of stalls and booths offering strings of toys, holiday decorations, stick candy, roast pork, pre-filled red stockings. Painters and caricaturists manning the sprawling open-air studios chatted among themselves. In the early night air the Christmas passion was being played out – a thin Santa Claus had a fat adolescent on his lap, a juggler tossed his pins in the air and sang a strange song and laughed, a trio of professional gypsy beggars strong-armed some old ladies, a suspect Peruvian band blew their flutes into the open door of the Tre Scalini Restaurant, little white lights blinked around a manger scene, ghostly mimes stood silhouetted immobile against the mounting plebeian chaos.
“I remember those lines well,” Werboff said, patting the pouting youngster on the head and giving him a sudden hard shove toward the priests, “Non ora! We’re not accepting requests now,” he said in a stern aside to the boy.
Then again to Jeffers, “You recited the same lines sitting in that straight chair out in Carmel just as I was putting the finishing touches on your smaller left eye. It’s still smaller! The poem ended,
‘…among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.’”
“Bravo, pictor! I do wish my life had been simpler, even if life is always good.”
“I don’t wish for any changes. I wanted it just as I lived it. I would do it again exactly as before.”
“Blessed, Michael! The blessed pill of happiness resolved all your problems.”
“Not at all! I thought I had it right then but when I later saw some of the portraits I did, it made me sick. Many are still gathering dust in my old Manhattan studio. What happens to us, do you think? Were we wrong then, or are we wrong now? Are we never right? Or is this all just a dream?”
“I always thought I was right - but I was wrong. And this is a nightmare.”
“Tell me one thing, I always wondered, were you really a Fascist back then, as they said?”
“No, I was not. They wanted to destroy everything. I just wanted to conserve things as they once were…. What is that disgusting little brat sniveling about now?”
“What things do you mean?”
“Like language! I have always thought our language is adequate. We just do not know how to apply it.”
“Jeffers, as I remember you hated small talk back then. Now you’re so loquacious….”
“This is not small talk, Pictor…. Uh, may I call you Misha?”
“Da, da. Koniechno. You made me feel nothing was worth talking about. And that I wasn’t worth wasting words on.”
“It is just that I wrote so much. I could hardly speak without fearing I was quoting myself.”
“I learned by heart several of your poems before I painted you – that was my system. I still remember your lines that reminded me of the Navaho I had painted the year before you:
“I sadly smiling remember that the
flower fades to make fruit, the
fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through
the spring exultances, ripeness
and decadence; and home to the
“Yes,” Jeffers said with a deep sigh. “Exquisite! Did I really write that?”
“Beautiful! But you don’t care for man much, I know.”
“I just cannot believe this humanity is the main point of the great secret…. Misha, look at that!” He pointed toward a fat young man in a yellow sheepskin jacket twisting his head sideways and somehow inserting an entire stick of pink cotton candy into a crater-like mouth.
“We were taught that man is in His image. That man is then His favorite. But is it true? Maybe He loves a black cockroach just as much. Besides, I wonder, what is God without man? Is He not just a part of creation, too?”
At that moment a heavy hand descended on Jeffers’ shoulder and a high Irish voice penetrated the brouhaha of the brumal evening: “What heresy are you spouting, Santa?”
The three priests in black cassocks, their faces red and merry, had stood shoulder to shoulder on the steps of St. Agnese surveying their sinful and greedy flock. The tallest of the priests now stood at the head of the clerical trio gathered around the poet and the artist, a severe expression on his red face, one arm draped protectively around the same snotty little kid, stubborn and tenacious, nodding his head and pointing up at Jeffers and saying, “Si, si, Padre, Babbo Natale!”
Jeffers looked down at the boy and back at the Irish priest and said, “Sic transit Gloria Mundi. De profundis. Dixit!”
“What? What’s that?” said the young Irishman, a bewildered look in his bright blue eyes as he looked at his holy companions waiting for a translation. From the church steps across the piazza, now louder than ever –
O bambino mio divino, O Dio bea-a-a to….
“Between man and God stands man’s sin,” Werboff said solemnly, one hand reassuringly stroking the forearm of the Irish priest, while with the other he unbuttoned his red jacket. “Not death but mortality is the issue. Being mortal, man has no need to accumulate riches. We are mortal – today alive, tomorrow in the coffin. Meanwhile the process of transformation is never complete.”
“Who… who…. who are you?” said the priest, pushing away the pleading groping hand of the oldest clergyman, a short, red-faced Italian. “Padre, padre, wait,” he said in Italian. “Wait a moment, I’ll tell you later. I don’t understand anything they’re saying.”
“We are thinking of God,” Jeffers said, now removing his red coat too and throwing it blindly into the dancing fountain waters. The poet leaned forward toward the trio of clerics, a helpful, cooperative look on his long, gaunt, close-shaven face, his big right eye shifting left and right, his silky brown hair still plastered flat from the St. Nick’s hat, the precise part on the right side of his scalp as deep as an irrigation ditch.
“God is like an old Basque shepherd,” he said, pushing his red overalls down to his ankles. “He has always been alone. He talks to himself. Solitude has got into his brain, beautiful and terrible things come from his mind.”
“Blasphemy!” gasped the Irishman, his feet pawing the stone pavement. “Anathema!”
“You know, Robinson,” Werboff said, stepping out of his pants too and throwing them in the Four Rivers Fountain, “at this moment you would look just like the Seventeenth Duke of Alba if you only parted your hair in the middle – you have that same tense look. In my long life I have found that poets and princes are never relaxed – always fearful of losing their power. I painted enough of them to know!”
“Here, pictor, have a taste,” Jeffers said, offering a flat leather-covered flask.
“You even drink now?” Werboff said, and took a long swig and handed the flask to the Irishman. “Robby, is all this really happening? You tell me!”
“How should I know?… I was always foolish enough to think I could stop time that way.”
“Timelessness, you said. Of course, that’s why I paint. But a word?” he said, reaching toward the flask that the Irishman lifted high above him and wagged his head, no no no. “Can a word be timeless, as unchanging as a portrait that fixes the subject forever in time?
“No!” Jeffers said in an aura of resignation.
Jeffers gathered his red pants and the string of little bells, took the few coins out of his brass bucket and pocketed them, and calmly threw the whole heterogeneous mess into Bernini’s fountain among floating paper wrappers and Marlboro packages and the red and white of their discarded attire.
“What a fucking comedown this was! Worst job I ever had. But, exceptis excipiendis errare humanum est,” he commented to Werboff, leaning forward and slapping the little boy twice across the mouth and nose – “Ecce! Ecce!” Hesitating a moment, he shook his hand vigorously and then held it up to the light.
“I knew it – green snot!”
“Here, let me see!” Werboff said. “Yes, yes, you’re right. It’s green. Hmm. Not a bad shade of green either.”
“Let me see too,” the Irishman said, grabbing at Jeffers’ arms and turning the poet’s sensitive hand to the light. “Yes, it’s a beautiful shade of green, nearly turquoise ” he said in his tenor voice and drew Jeffers to the other two priests.
“Nearly serpentine,” said the littlest priest in a soft emphatic voice.
“Malachite!” pronounced the fat older presbyter.
“What?” said the Irishman.
“Malachite green. Look at the concentric layers and the fibrous structure. Definitely malachite. Look!” he said to his colleagues, “see how it changes in the shifting lights. It seems to reflect a kind of heavenly illumination. Riflette un silenzio celestiale nei suoi riflessi,” he ventured, immediately interpreted by the Irishman:
“It mirrors a celestial silence within its reflections.”
“It’s part of His creation,” the shortest of them said in his quiet effeminate English, and paused to again slap the now bawling kid, shouting, “Silentium altum!” Then taking Jeffers’ moistened and now independent hand in his and examining it closely against the celestial lights, the little priest looked at the poet, at Werboff and then his companions, and murmured significantly, “The evening star suddenly glides like a flying torch.”
“O quanto ti costó
Jeffers glared at the priest, yanked his hand away, lifted it to hit the cringing boy again, and in sudden remorse let it drop to his side. “Compassion is my name,” he said as the kid broke the priest’s grip and scurried sobbing across the piazza.
“God’s little messenger!” he added with a grimace.
“Jeffers, you always had a poignant way of catching the permanent things on the wing,” Werboff said, admiration and wonder in his voice, and wiped his tear-filled eyes on the skirt of his smock.
“I think that beauty is the sole business of poetry,” the poet said, and smiling beatifically sauntered toward the Four Rivers Fountain with one of his slim fingers up his nose.
Werboff shook his head in admiration and the priests embraced while Jeffers examined his snotty hand against the lamplight, and baptized it in the cloudy waters among the trash and red suits.
© 2002 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is an American journalist who lives in Rome and now dedicates his writing life mostly to fiction. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See our E-book Library. Email: [email protected]