Arts & Events

Books: William Everson: The Poet as Mystic By PHIL McARDLESpecial to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

When the poet William Everson (1912-1994) came to Berkeley shortly after World War II, he earned his living as a fine art printer and, at one time, as a janitor at the UC Press. He became part of the group known collectively as the Berkeley Renaissance—Ro bert Duncan, Mary Fabilli, Josephine Miles, and others. Despite local objections, critics fold the Berkeley Renaissance into the San Francisco Renaissance, which in turn is subsumed by the Beat Generation. In little more than a decade, however, he created a new identity for himself and stepped clear of such categories.  


The residual years 

In 1934 the poetry of Robinson Jeffers inspired him to begin writing. He has described his discovery of Jeffers as “essentially a religious conversion.” Jeffers showed him, he wrote, that God was “incredibly alive” in the California landscape. Although he quickly found his own voice, Everson’s early work owes a solid debt to Jeffers, and his admiration for the older poet lasted throughout his life.  

In Jeffers he foun d a strong, clear vision of the world, but he also found a reliance on violent imagery and a Calvinistic moral tone that resonated within him. “For the first time,” he wrote years later, “I grasped the corruptness of man and the reality of an Absolute aga inst which that corruptness must be measured.” This showed in “The Stranger,” a harsh poem in which a young woman is punished for parading her “bed-lore brag.” She is impregnated by a men who infects her and her baby—at its conception—with a venereal dise ase. Despite such lapses, Everson’s early work was well-received and recognition confirmed him in his vocation as a poet. 

He married, and settled down on a farm. He might have spent his life there, but the cataclysm of World War II pushed him in a differ ent direction. He registered with his draft board as an anarchist and a pacifist. In 1943 he was sent to a work camp for conscientious objectors in Oregon. In “Chronicle of Division” he candidly described life in the camp and how his marriage reached a pa inful end while he was there. 

Kenneth Rexroth edited the first collection of Everson’s work, The Residual Years (1948). Years later he still marvelled at “how deeply personal these poems are.” But by the time the book appeared, Everson’s life had again m oved in a startling new direction. 


He had met, fallen in love with, and married Mary Fabilli, a very gifted artist and writer. A lapsed Catholic, she was on a spiritual voyage back to the Church. They began attending Mass together and, he said la ter, this brought him to “the threshold of the Faith.” During Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, 1948, when he experienced what he described as an intense, mystical awareness of the Divine Presence in the tabernacle, he crosse d that threshold. 

He and his wife, resolving to become practicing Catholics, found themselves in the unhappy situation where (as dramatized in novels by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh) there is a conflict between human and divine love. Mary’s first marri age was canonically valid. Told they could not be married in the Church, they separated. Everson formally joined the Catholic Church in 1949. After his conversion he continued to have mystical experiences, and in 1951, this anarcho-pacifist joined the Dom inican Order as a lay brother; that is, as one who has taken minor orders, but not taken final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 


Return to the world 

After a decade in the monastery, William Everson reappeared in the literary world transfigured. C lothed in splendid Dominican robes and writing as Brother Antoninus, he published three substantial books within eight years—The Crooked Lines of God (1959), The Hazards of Holiness (1962), and The Rose of Solitude (1967). It seemed that by committing him self to an orthodox religious view, he had found a clear position from which to explore his personal themes and a renewed vitality of expression. Such poems as “A Canticle to the Waterbirds” and “The South Coast” are magical evocations of Divine immanence. 

Most religious traditions recognize mystical experience, and provide disciplines and practices through which believers may seek visionary moments of union with God. In the monastery Brother Antoninus turned for guidance to the great 16th century Spanis h mystics, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. 

They taught that the soul can obtain knowledge of God through a process of purgation, illumination, and union. St. John famously called purgation “the dark night of the soul,” and St. Teresa descr ibed illumination as “the prayer of quiet,” when the will surrenders itself to God. She described union as an experience of spiritual peace and fulfillment beyond explanation. “O Soul in God,” she wrote of this rapturous experience (as translated by Art hur Symons), “What more desires for thee remain,/ Save but to love, and love again,/ And, all on flame with love within,/ Love on, and turn to love again?” 

These saints were not puritans, and their God was not Calvinistic. In this, they differed from Bro ther Antoninus. He could never join St. Teresa in describing prayer as “friendly conversation with Him Who we know loves us.” I’ve found nothing in their writings as violent as these lines from “Gethsemani:” “Good Friday/ Draws like a scalpel/ On the mordant/ Soul of man.” 

At times Brother Antoninus seemed to be trying to beat down the doors of heaven with his fists. 

Perhaps the difference is that St. Teresa and St. John, who had both taken final vows, were happy in their religious life. James Mitchner described them as “children bathed in sunlight.” We read them and believe their writings offer us metaphors with which to understand their mystical experience.  

With Brother Antoninus, we can’t always be sure when his language is metaphorical: he wrote o f sexual experience in exactly the same words he used for religious experience. In a significant number of his poems, it is not always clear which is which. “River Root” convinced more than one reader that Brother Antoninus did not have the gift of celiba cy. 


A birthday 

I was introduced to Brother Antoninus and his work in Los Angeles. A year or two later, when I was a new and disoriented student in Berkeley, as I was walking along Telegraph Avenue one afternoon, I saw someone I recognized—an inconspicuous figure, but the first familiar face I had seen in a week. I was used to seeing him in swirling Dominican robes, but there he was, unmistakably, in mufti. I greeted him, and he graciously invited me to join him in the Mediterraneum for a cup of coffee. It was his birthday, he said, and we chatted awhile about mutual acquaintances in Los Angeles. Then he explained Berkeley to me, describing it at length as a very Protestant town. After coffee, we went our separate ways and, though I heard him read several more times, I never spoke to him again. Sometime that day, perhaps after he walked back to St. Albert’s Priory, he wrote a poem which begins, “I am fifty years old,/ The midpoint,/ Of flesh but no lecher./ No lecher?/ I turn on that thorn...” 



Brother Antoninus had become one of the best known Catholic poets in the country. But in December, 1969, he announced he was leaving the Dominican Order to marry Susanna Rickson. It was almost unheard of in those days for members of the Catholic clergy to withdraw from their orders. Due to his prominence, this private matter became a public scandal. 

After eighteen years with the Dominicans, he gave up use of the name Brother Antoninus and became, once again, William Everson. Although his marriage was ble ssed by a friendly priest he incurred excommunication, and within a short time he and his wife left the Bay Area. He spent ten years (1971-1981) at UC Santa Cruz, as Poet in Residence at Kresge College.  



William Everson never repudiated the wo rk of his monastic period. Instead, he strove to reconcile his new life with what had gone before, reconfiguring his themes and writing new poetry and literary criticism. In volumes like The Masks of Drought (1980) and Renegade Christmas (1984) he provide d his readers with one more unexpected surprise. As confessional as ever, the language of his poetry became simpler and more transparent. In Archetype West he wrote a highly personal interpretation, brilliant at its best, of California writers and their w ork. (This was the last volume produced by his long and beneficial connection with Robert Hawley’s admirable Oyez Press in Berkeley.) But these vigorous activities were impeded by sickness (he developed Parkinson’s Disease) and other problems. In 1992, af ter twenty-two years of marriage, his wife left him. 

Before his death in 1994 he had become a Catholic in good standing once again and returned to the sacraments. He was given a religious funeral and interred at the Dominican cemetery in Benicia. Mary No rbert Korte, herself a poet and former Dominican nun, attended the services and wrote, “To be buried with all the bowing mystery of a Dominican funeral is to get a grand good-bye indeed, and Brother Antoninus Bill Everson’s Vespers and Mass took their place in a long tradition of those Birthdays into Heaven read to us in the Daily Martyrology.”