My Muse: Brother Antoninus/William Everson
On this, the weekend that Christians observe the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, allow me to introduce my muse and ancestral spirit guide: the shaman-poet William Everson (AKA Brother Antoninus). He taught me the power of the written and spoken word, the imprint that landscape makes on our souls, the depths found when journeying within, the acceptance of one's shadow, and how to listen to one's vocare.
I discovered him my first semester of grad school in 1994. Fresh into a poetry writing course at Central Michigan University, my mother, a professional genealogist, called to tell me that my paternal grandfather’s first cousin, William Everson, had recently died at 82 years old--and that I might be quite interested because he was a beat poet and literary critic possessing a modicum of fame. When I mentioned this to my professor, he was stunned, blurting out, "Brother Antoninus? He was your cousin?!?" He informed me that Everson was a former Catholic monk considered one of the great American poets--and that we had an Everson scholar right there at CMU, so "coincidentally" had all of the works by, and about, him in our library should I want to learn more. And, learn I did.
Among other achievements, Everson won a Guggenheim Fellowship, was nominated for a Pulitzer, won several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and earned the PEN Center USA West Body of Work Award. He was in the league of Allen Ginsberg, Robinson Jeffers, Jack Kerouac and others in the San Francisco Renaissance, but his poetry was like no other. It was vulnerable, vivid, mystical, erotic:
I AM LONG WEANED
When I for good, then evil came, and when I waited for light, then came darkness. My bowels boil, and rest not.
—THE BOOK OF JOB
I am long weaned.
My mouth, puckered on gall,
Sucks dry curd.
My thoughts, those sterile watercourses
Scarring a desert.
My throat is lean meat.
In my belly no substance is,
Nor water moves.
My gut goes down
A straight drop to my groin.
My cod is withered string,
My seed, two flints in a sack.
Some day, in some other place,
Will come a rain;
Will come water out of deep wells,
Will come melons sweet from the vine.
I will know God.
Sophia, deep wisdom,
The splendid unquenchable fount:
Unbind those breasts.
I felt unbound by his poetry; it was as if I had already known his art somewhere in the recesses of my body and soul.
I also learned of his unique and textured life. Everson played football in high school in California, studied poetry at Fresno State, registered as an anarchist and pacifist with the draft board and served in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a conscientious objector during World War II. It was in the Oregon CCC camp that he spent his free-time perfecting the hand printing press--and his poetry. His poems were regional in nature, drawing upon the rich landscape of his California home, but critic Donna Nance writes that, "[his] poems are neither pastoral nor idyllic in the general manner of nature poetry, but rather infused with a somber awareness of the violence inherent in the natural world—and by extension, in man’s collective nature.” Our struggle with violence became a very timely theme as the U.S. entered WWII and his pacifist works was well-regarded well into the Vietnam Conflict years.
On Christmas Eve 1948, Everson experienced an intense religious experience while at mass with his second wife. They divorced soon after and he entered the Dominican Order taking on the name "Brother Antoninus". For eighteen years he studied, prayed, and wrote, becoming the leading exponent of erotic mysticism in the Church. He saturated himself with archetypal psychology by studying, and meeting with, his contemporaries C.G, Jung and Joseph Campbell--the result of which is the poem "River-Root: A Syzygy" which critic Albert Gelpi called "the most sustained orgasmic celebration in English, perhaps in all literature".
Along with Thomas Merton, Brother Antoninus enjoyed a reputation as one of the two finest Catholic poets since Gerard Manley Hopkins. Publishing hundreds of poems and several collections, his writings were evocative, transcendent, and well-received, until in 1969, during a poetry reading at UC Davis, he dramatically threw off his friar's robes and walked off stage to marry a woman 35 years his junior. The literati had little use for him after the shroud of mystery surrounding this passionate "Beat Friar" was lifted and certainly the Catholic Church wasn't keen on publishing the ex-monk's work either. He retreated to his rustic cabin north of Santa Cruz with his new wife and stepson to listen...to his vocare, to the land, to the animals. It was then that he took on the new mantle of shaman-poet. He soared again as he found an audience for his work that raw, lyrical, passionate, and full of love--love for his new family, for his hero Robinson Jeffers, for God, and, of course, for the rich landscape around him (later writing the book: An Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as Literary Region).
But, what is a shaman-poet? It is the archetype of following one's calling to culminate in cosmic awareness. This awareness interconnects the psyche with nature and Self and is made clear through the transfiguring power of American poet-shamans, who transmit what they are called by nature to convey: that an experience of the Self is a life-altering experience. The calling can be transmitted to a person through dreams, transformative relationships, in-depth psychotherapy, somatic work, breathwork, religious experiences, art, plant medicine, scientific endeavor, or through the hearing, reading, or writing of shamanic poetry. Everson pointed to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman as American shaman-poets--and I would add Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder. It was Snyder who observed that, “Poets and storytellers have throughout time stepped in to mediate between gods, nature, religion, and society”.
As a young lass in grad school, the idea of shaman-poet intrigued me for I had always seen writing as a portal to other dimensions--that which is buried in our unconscious selves and that which is beyond the veil. To me, writing is trance-like and ecstatic--an embodied experience. The words tumble and pour into--and out of--all of me. Anyone who has taken my Journey Writing workshop knows that Spirit will move us in ways that are unexpected; the connections and reflections seem to come from thin air--as if our bodies and minds are not our own. My clients will say that they are "in the flow" and wonder: "Where is this creativity coming from?" It is because our egos are de-centered; we are open and allowing the ideas and words to come in what Michael Harner calls the Shamanic States of Consciousness. Everson believed that the word is powerful and meant to be meditated, chanted, and passionately read aloud; it is not just the act of writing, but the communion of word and God and word and listener. It is transactional and transcendent alike. Imagine this rhapsodic 1957 poem of Brother Antoninus read aloud over and over:
A land of darkness, and of the shadow of death, without any order, where the light is as darkness.
—THE BOOK OF JOB
Nor any day gone,
Nor any night,
Measureless over the rimrock.
Nor those black imaginary suns
Roaring under the earth,
Roasting the roots of trees.
If I beg death, God, it is of you.
If I seize life, it is out of you.
If I lose, if I lose,
It is into you.
God of death,
Great God of no-life,
Existence is mine,
Broach a nothingness
Breached out of nowhere.
Always you are not yet.
Deep in my guts,
Choked on oblivion,
Split, hearted on annihilation,
A terror of emptiness,
Enormous over the snow mesa,
Enormous over the lava crag,
The wind-worked cloud.
Burns on your pierce.
My blood splits.
I shriek each nerve.
Suck me in!
Everson went on to teach a wildly popular course called "Birth of a Poet" at UC Santa Cruz where he was poet-in-residence. This was no ordinary writing class; it wasn't based on poetry at all; it was rooted in exploring one's vocare, or life's calling, through symbols, metaphors, dream interpretation, and Jungian shadow work. He created a spaciousness around the central question that all young people ask: what is the purpose of my life? He did this not through conventional lecture and assignments, but through meditative, repetitive and ecstatic readings and provocations. They capped the enrollment at 100 and many students couldn't get in, so the entire text of two courses from 1975 and 1976 were recorded and transcribed into a book by a student, and his later biographer, Lee Bartlett. Here is just the introduction to one class in which Everson lays the foundation of the lesson extemporaneously for his UCSC students:
"Thursday the 27th of February, and already the bland spring weather makes everything inert with its langour. A great sensuality settles over us and we are content not to think but simply to be--to soak up the sun and feel that torpor of physical lassitude which is such a blessed thing in the energy of our lives. It is like a blessing in its own right, as if something has been conferred on us. A sacrament of stupor."
A sacrament of stupor! A sacrament of stupor! A sacrament of stupor! A sacrament of stupor! That was just the introduction to the day's lesson on "The Opportune"--a meditation on what we would now call "the power of now" or cultivating a "peak experience". It wasn't unusual for a student in his course to mid-semester experience a powerful bolt of realization that her life's calling wasn't to be a clerk, but a physician; not a realtor, but an inventor. Many former students report being transformed—not into an image of their mighty professor whose voice was resonate and hypnotizing, but into a fuller realization of their true purpose for being placed on earth. Psychologist, engineer, farmer, Buddhist monk. It mattered not what they became, but that they were touching their inner springs, they were listening to that pure, true voice that would guide them in every aspect of their lives.
In his unique course, Everson alighted a generation—and a generation later, alighted me. It wasn't just his poetry, philosophy and pedagogy that touched me, it was his courage to follow his own bliss and live by his own convictions—whether it be for a commitment to peace, a passion for Christ, or the love of a woman. This person whom I only studied, never met, gave me permission to follow my unique calling and live my life unapologetically. When I started teaching my own college writing courses, I wasn't going to waste the opportunity of teaching young people to only concern myself with "outcomes and objectives" as stated by the university! I was going to use writing and research as the vehicle by which a student might find their passions, purpose, and inner springs. The methods I developed within the context of the technology-based classroom were unorthodox, but they worked: play-acting a thesis, snowball fights with argument papers, field research on an unfamiliar subculture, embodied writing exercises, randomly selecting books from library stacks, and so forth. I even had students burn up their past negative writing experiences in a fire bowl at the beginning of a course in a sort of cleansing ceremony (Grand Valley State University made me use a shredder for that exercise, but one time I had 250 students march from the Kirkhoff Center to the fire pit by the volleyball courts while someone held a box of their painful writings and threw it into the fire! So, we eventually got to burn some some stuff! Ah, catharsis!). Not only did my students become proficient writers and critical thinkers, they challenged their biases, explored their interests, took risks, felt their power, discovered their voice, and followed their own bliss. I am certain that if my muse and spirit guide William Everson hadn't had a warm hand on my shoulder, I wouldn't have led so boldly. This girl from humble Walker, Michigan should have been following the corporate educational line rather than reaching into the viscera of her students. But guts were laid bare, guts were followed.
Perhaps it was because I felt a kinship with my blood relative; perhaps it was because I was raised Catholic; perhaps it was because he ignited my youthful imagination. Whatever it was, I carried him with me as I left academia and started Shamama--this mission of which is to help people unleash their creativity, find their power, discover their purpose, and express their voice. But, I carry him with every other aspect of my life: the times when I doubt my iconoclastic tendencies, the times when I grieve over the inhumanity in the world, the times when my light becomes dim. Again and again, I listen to that inner wisdom, walk away from the comfort of what I know, journey into the unknown, and return transformed. When I first encountered Everson/Antoninus, he lit in me a fire that hasn't been contained all these 27 years, and I know that his work is enduring for many others as well. Critics and scholars still reflect on his works and, notably, a documentary of his life and work is currently in production.
So what, you ask, does Everson/Antoninus have to do with Jesus Christ and the resurrection story this Easter Sunday? Former student and psychoanalyst, Steven Hermann explains: as a Jungian, Everson saw "the identification of the poet with the Christ figure as crucial". The motif of separation-initiation-return is the hero's journey--and "just as Christ works out his destiny through that three-part process (his separation from the Father through his birth into the world, his initiation into the Divine Mystery through a series of trials, and his return to the Trinity through the symbolic resurrection and ascension), so too does the poet traditionally recapitulate the Christ myth in the discovery of his own vocation". For Everson, "the poet has finally, like Christ, a foot in each of two worlds: he lives in a man's (or woman's) corporeal existence in the daylight terrain of linear time, while through his art and his dreams he constantly crosses over into the dark night of cyclical time, the world of correspondence, symbol, and archetype".
I maintain that we are all poets and storytellers, and we are all the shamans of our own lives. When I take people on a "shaman walk" in the forest, many are surprised when I tell people that I am not a shaman, we all have the capacity to be our own leaders, our own heroes; we all can place a foot into that dark night. We can experience the death of our ego, surrender into the unknown of our inner wisdom, and return again and again transformed. And so, as you contemplate the mysteries and mysticism of spring renewal and Easter, I invite you to let go of that which must die, listen to your vocare, and passionately follow your bliss. As shaman-poet Mary Oliver said: "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
Everson, William. Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as Literary Region. Oyez. Berkeley, CA. 1976.
--Birth of a Poet: The Santa Cruz Meditations. Ed. Lee Bartlett. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, CA. 1982.
--The Blood of the Poet: Selected Poems. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Broken Moon Press, Seattle. 1994.
Herrmann, Steven. William Everson The Shaman's Call: Interviews, Introductions, and Commentaries. Eloquent Books, New York, New York. 2009.
Oliver, Mary. (2015) "The Summer Day." Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. Penguin Press. 2017.
Poetry Foundation. "William Everson: 1912-1994". www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/williameverson. Accessed 1 April 2021.
Tovey, Paige. "Snyder’s Post—Romantic Ecological Vision: The Shaman as Poet/Prophet."The Transatlantic Eco-Romanticism of Gary Snyder. The New Urban Atlantic. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2013. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137340153_5. Accessed 1 April 2021.