Review: The Fathomless Tides of the Heart by Peter Thabit Jones
In 2015 the Swansea poet and playwright Peter Thabit Jones started to visit Big Sur on the California coast, a majestic sweep of coast where the surf cannonades against rugged rocks and relentlessly pounds the land. It’s a wild, wind-tossed place that has inspired legions of musicians such as John Adams and writers such as Robinson Jeffers, Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. There’s even a Henry Miller library, set among the towering redwoods alongside Highway 1. Here Jones spent time as a writer-in-residence, living in a cabin, communing with nature and meeting some of the members of the busy artistic community that had gravitated here.
One of the writers who was drawn to the area was Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, a poet and visual artist who became one of Jones’ friends. She soon felt sufficiently close to him to entrust him with her voluminous journals, written over the course of three decades living in her house atop a mountain. These chart the daily rhythms of fog and sun, calm and storm as well as the inner pulses and insights of her own creativity.
So she tells of the daily patternings of days when ‘The skies are virgin blue and scarce with cloud. Shadows are coming to life in the approaching twilight. Hummingbirds throw lyrics from the eucalyptus boughs gilded in the sun’s dying beams.’ Some days those skies are full of ‘the clotted cream of clouds’ while others see giant black ones gather ‘like seamless quilts’ and it begins to hail, ‘as if the sky were falling into the earth with its winter burdens.’ It’s a worldview that suggests, in her own words that ‘The mind does not stand apart from nature but is a reflection of the natural forces. As the body is subject to changing temperatures and climates, the imagination also generates her own environments and creates new worlds.’
Living in her hilltop retreat is so very different to Kleefeld’s upbringing, which was one of enormous wealth and privilege. Her father was a property developer who established the First Charter Corporation of Beverely Hills as well as building a home in this exclusive location for his family. It meant the young Carolyn might meet Jane Fonda when out riding or party at the tennis club with the likes of Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman. She was a keen and very accomplished dancer who was offered a place at The Bolshoi Ballet School. But she was also an avid reader, who fell in love with the stories of French writer Guy de Maupassant at the age of twelve. The seeds of the later writer were sown.
Her life changed when she bought a home on an isolated steep cliff, 500 feet above the sea. Her “dragon’s crown” as she put it, has commanding views. In summer, after the fog has lifted it can get ‘as hot as a desert rock’ while in winter ‘the anger of the winds is amplified and accelerated and they bully the whole place relentlessly.’ Here Kleefeld dedicated herself to the making of art, be in painting or poetry, generating hundreds of canvases and reams of verse.
The ocean was a constant influence both aural and visual. ‘The ocean, the sleepless currents embraced the rocky shoreline below. The pines were silhouetted against a fading pink horizon. Surrounded by the elements of wild beauty, I absorbed the tidal chant; the music of existence seemed to inhale me in its pulsing splendour.’
Reading this lavishly illustrated book one is constantly struck by the dedication and sheer energy of this artist. She worked devotedly in her studio or in the California sun outside, had many lovers, opened her own art gallery and published best-selling volumes of poetry that hymned nature and explored the inner landscape of the self. She was part of that counter-cultural generation that turned to Eastern philosophy and hallucinogenic drugs, which led to her friendship with the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and the English writer Aldous Huxley, who had explored the ways in which drugs could expand the mind in The Doors of Perception.
At one point Peter Thabit Jones makes the comparison between Carolyn Mary Kleefeld and Esther Greenwood, the central figure in poet Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, suggesting that they were both ‘battling with the social expectations placed on post-Second World War middle-class and upper-class young women and the creative soul’ which had been put to sleep.
The portrait of Kleefeld he paints in The Fathomless Tides of the Heart is of an artist very much alive and awake to both experience and influence and to the muse-like properties of friends and lovers. But, most especially, there is nature in all her moods and multiplicities, the extensive wilderness and ample wildlife.
For as Kleefeld herself put it ‘I am the vessel of the forces that be and I am humbled.’
The Fathomless Tides of the Heart: Carolyn Mary Kleefeld, American Poet and Artist is available from The Seventh Quarry Press.
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