Lee Altenberg's Home Page | Papers | Library | Archives | E-mail me


A poem written in 1937 to contemplate on the eve of the Year 2038 Bug...

The Purse Seine

by Robinson Jeffers

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon;
      daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
      phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off
      New Year's Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
      sea's night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
      and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.

                                              I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
      crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
      other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted
      with flame, like a live rocket
A comet's tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
      narrowing
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
      sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.

            Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
      I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful
      the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
      into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
      of free survival, insulated

From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
      dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they
      shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children's, but we and our
      children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
      -or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy,
      the mass-disasters.

                       These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
      its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splin-
      tered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
      cultures decay, and life's end is death.