Treasure Island

Robinson Jeffers

(10 January 1887 – 20 January 1962 / Allegheny, Pennsylvania)

The Purse-Seine


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 inter-dependence; 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,
splintered 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.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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  • Jack Austin (8/26/2006 6:59:00 PM)

    I first read this poem in 1978. I have changed. It has not. This alone is not its power, it is the honesty and truth of this metaphor. The perspective of self-capture provided by the obvious alignment with the concept of becoming fishers of men and realizing we had already fulfilled this prophecy before it was made. Isn: t that always the way. (Report) Reply

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