Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Rim-Rock and Sage: The Collected Poems of Maynard Dixon. Introduction by Kevin Starr. Limited edition. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1977. Bibliography. Drawings. Index. 125pages. $25.00.
Reviewed by Ray Strong, landscape painter, and a friend of Maynard Dixon from 1934 to 1946.
It was my privilege to be one of the two friends who assisted Edith Hamlin Dixon on Maynard Dixon’s last mural of the Grand Canyon, finished a few days before his death in the fall of 1946. The other was the late Buck Weaver-woodcarver, painter, early Navajo traider, and a long time friend of Dixon. Our work was to stretch, scale-up, and paint the 5 x 64 foot canvas from Dixon’s small color sketch that he termed “a poster to sell tickets out of Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon for the Santa Fe.” One evening Dixon sat in his wheel chair, with oxygen tank attached, and surveyed our nearly finished job. The conversation centered on the spiritual insight and earth cycle awareness of the southwest Indians, and Maynard remarked that he thought he had come as close as any white man could to their way of thinking and feeling about nature. In Rim-Rock and Sage, you can share this deep perception in many of his poems.
All these poems are new to me with the exceptions of “At Last,” which serves as his epitaph, and “Sermon on the Hump,” which he gave to me in 1936, in mimeo form, at the Art Students League of San Francisco. The “Sermon” poem includes this excerpt:
Love of country?-yes, respect (if we can get it back)
for the deep old ground;-
not just something for us to walk on,
or to build roads over, nor to buy and sell;
but something given to us in common trust,
something for us equivalent to life.
If you are young and know neither the painter-muralist or poet Dixon, then Kevin Starr’s introduction to Rim-Rock and Sage on Dixon’s life and work is most worthwhile. If you are interested in parallel themes in Dixon’s poetry and paintings, look at the titles and plates in the section, “Social Commentary, 1930-37,” in Wesley M. Burnside’s Maynard Dixon: Artist of theWest(1974).
I am in awe and admiration of Dixon’s early sensuous poems on women, coastal hills, grass, earth, sky, and clouds. There is the poignant poem, “I am,” of October 1936, written between Dorothea Lange’s departure in 1935 and his marriage to Edith Hamlin in 1937. It is Dixon’s poetic affirmation of himself:
Now I go out alone to ride the free hills,
bare-breasted and stark, these hills that make no concealment;
where no woman is with me,-no woman shall ever be;
where stern and alone I face the thing that I am;
where I face the void of all that I fail to be,
and knowing my fear, shall be not afraid of that fear.
Now I put out my hand, touching the sky of evening. . .
reaching, reaching between the stars, and it seems
there could be no time at which I did not exist
and no time ever at which I shall cease to be,-
while here alone in my manhood-self I am.
The section, “Last Decade,” (1937-1946) of Burnside’s book, Maynard Dixon, includes the poem, “The Years,” which begins:
Now as the years pass more quickly,
and I become better acquainted
with the slowly approaching visage of death…
and ends with:
I must hold myself up, above petty disputes and distinctions,
keeping some largeness of heart
alike for those who trust me and for those who distrust me;
to share with them my long held vision of Beauty.
Yes, this is enough. So unhurriedly I will pass
peacefully, content under the desert stars.
Dixon’s drawings, which accompany the poems, are dramatic, beautiful, almost biblical. Rim-Rock and Sage is a tribute to Dixon as both artist and poet.