Skip to content

Poetry Review: Devotional Poems by Joe Hall

Beast and Christ are the protagonists of this volume. In scenes of tranquility as well as scenes of horror, they swim around each other, away from each other, then into each other. Here, Beast and Christ are confused but not quite identical, and not quite opposed. Usually when they come together they come as an interjection, a cry of desperation or amazement. And usually when they come apart they appear more name-like, pointing to powers in or behind the world. From the opening poem, “Trailer Park”:

O Beast! O Christ!
in the mother fucking sound and the mother fucking light
the iterations of thunder, the bass so high
it hurls you into the grass, Beast!
Only imminent, you cannot be found, waiting to subsume, fuck up
them cities, bring murder into the bridal chamber
and force armies to copulate in the killing field mud
Delete all images of yourself, crash this party, sink this continent
To petrify latitudes of soy and corn
to perform plastic surgery on everyone
beating the B while the rest of the alphabet watches
in a berserk horizon scouring clarity, Christ!

Beast and Christ are perhaps being presented as two different sides of the same hill, and these poems are perhaps telling a Taoist story in the vocabulary of Christianity. In the “O Christ! O Beast!” refrain, there is either a denial of an all loving, all knowing and all powerful God or an affirmation of one. From the “Abyss has Nine Names and I have Shown you Three” section of poems:

I believe in the Cowboys, the Yankees, and the Holy Ghost
I belong to the father, the son
Through this logo I deny the devil in Christ, God
Behind a heavy door, I etch myself in the image
of you on promontory, a recluse collecting records
of the shape of the world, where we walk hand in hand
in a field of heather, letters scrolling up out
of theater darkness, taking turns on a one hitter
getting loose, kind of stupid

The word “logo” perhaps wants to reduce theodicy to a marketing campaign, and by the negative connotation of consumerism perhaps the rhetoric is advocating for the Beast/Christ duality over the Trinity. Or perhaps when we read “logo” we are meant to remember its etymology and the opening chapter of the book of John.

Beast and Christ are united yet distinct, like two sides of a hill – or like two branches of a tree. And trees are often in the scenery, providing hints about what these poems want with the world. From “Gasoline Chainsaw Jesus:”

O Beast! O Christ! Zombie
rapture thing, survivors cling
to hell, Nazareth, what needs repair, what you
seat beside you is not a body, like copper
ripped through walls, flowers made of
Blah blah blah, what you salvage
is a mobile of nerves on an electrified wire
writhing in the ecstasy of
Trees don’t understand sin – a column of expanding fire
pushing through mounds of sassafras and rising insects
so why sit in your accelerator’s ring
under rusting constellations on long ruined axes giving
smashed particles a name?

In what way do trees not understand sin? A tree has branches but does not choose between them. In the gospels, Christ tells us that life is a limb with two branches: Death and a simulation of an idealized life. He labels one transversal of this tree sin. Similar biases are imposed upon the other trees that rule our world. Darwin’s tree of life is pruned by natural selection, thereby favoring certain transversals. Chomsky’s syntactic trees of language favor some branches by labeling them grammatical (or grammatically convergent). An individual can fight the favored transversals of a language – but still a choice is made. Trees do not understand sin, but they are the medium in which sin is defined.

And trees are at the intersection of this volume’s religious concerns and a second preoccupation with information technology. There are algorithms, iterations, pixels, and circuits. The very first image given to the reader (again from Trailer Park) is “an algorithm of trees exploding in your face.” Algorithms are already trees, branching at their if-then-else statements, and circuits decide which actions through them are sanctioned, their transistors deciding which branch to send electricity down.

Another example, from “Even Iron Heals:”

I spend
all weekend in bed, Lord I do – I
want you when the wind blows
let it blow the altar an opening
built from split and charred wood, stones
from incomplete circuits and algorithms growing
abortions made of petals, the altar prayer as movement through
between its scaled, black limbs or
a river, wading toward you through the not weak
current, to the center, the altar being to descend
beneath, to be there, among what
pulls hard and no air in the river or a hand
on my neck in a cold rain that erodes proposed
worlds like mud clods,

“Abortions made of petals” is particularly salient for me. The line pulls forward earlier images of flowers being simulated by pixels on a screen, but now it’s the flowers that perform the simulation.

Another poem from “The Abyss has Nine Names and I have Shown you Three” section:

While the eye intervenes between
nerve and bone, shaves and
planes, building a ghost from
a body, his hand behind the saw
as ribs unfurl like cardinal wings, a factory
fills my voice – Disembody, offer
an alternative totalitarian system
know not even nothing perfectly
and steal from me me me me me

A body builds a ghost from a body. Though body as body already is a ghost, a disembodied totalitarian system, a simulation of nothing. And I would add: Only body as body and body is a body, an alternative from itself. And only body as ghost and ghost is a word, is an act of communication, is an algorithm of trees exploding from your face.

Anyway.

Much of this volumes emotional energy comes from three facts: We die. And while we are alive, often we are afraid of death. And while we are alive, often we hurt each other. The world has built many engines which are powered by the second fact and which try to change the third. Do these poems aspire to be such an engine? Or do these poems lament the inadequacy of such engines, standing witness to the horrors we still commit against each other? Or do these poems resent such engines for exploiting the fear we may ourselves covet for our own ends? Or do these poems resent such engines for only offering simulations/metaphors/forgeries of what we want?

I dunno. But I see these images of grief, cruelty, and also love being repeatedly sucked away from themselves by the diction of information technology and religion. It is this suction, perhaps, that mixes them into their musical surreality, their simulation of dreaming.

Whatever this book wants from us, what it gives us is beautiful language. It’s a good book. It induces emotions and dizziness. I recommend that you read these poems when you have space to be dizzy and time to think about the entities Above and Below language.

Devotional Poems is Joe Hall’s second volume from Black Ocean Press, following 2010’s Pigafetta Is My Wife.

Poetry book review: In Time’s Rift by Ernst Meister, translated by Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick

Like Buddhism, this volume presents life and death, light and dark not as opposites but as inter-dependent duals, each in the process of creating the other. But, perhaps unlike Buddhism, these poems have chosen to look at that equation standing on end of it. That is, light is seen as dark, and life is viewed as death, rather than the other way around:

Und was
will diese Sonne
uns, was

springt
aus enger Pforte
jener großen Glut?

Ich weiß
nichts Dunkleres
denn das Licht.

And what
does this sun want
with us, what

leaps
from the strait gate
of that huge glow?

I know
no greater darkness
than the light.

A word yokes together certain aspects of certain memories, but, paradoxically, with this gathering an opening is formed, a rift in time, through which spectres of the future reach us. Consider, in particular, the word death:

ER ist ER, obwohl
einzig ein Wort,
Erbe der Zeugenden. Er
entspringt, wenn ich falle,
ganz beraubt, vom
Rücken der Tierheit.-
Ich sei nun getroffen oder
verwelkt, ER ist,
Wort aller Worte, ein
Leeres in mir.
HE is HE, though
only a word,
heir of those who procreate. He
leaps forth, when I fall,
entirely robbed, from
beastliness’s back. -
Whether I’m now struck or
shriveled, HE is,
word of all words, a
blank in me.

Hope and fear are emotions we feel about things that haven’t happened yet, experiences we haven’t had – so necessarily they’re built from experiences we have had. Necessarily, when I fear my death, it is not my own death I’m thinking of, it’s someone else’s. And since the narrator feels so acutely his own mortality, I am confident the answer to the following question is in the affirmative:

Wir hatten
Spielwerk,
wir hatten, von Namen,
Tod, den
unerlebbaren Punkt, wir
hatten Sprache – aber
gab es Wir?
We had
toy clockwork,
we had, of name,
death, the
unexperiencable point, we
had language – but
was there We?

And this demonstrates one of the productive tension in these poems. The poems are dense with grief, but the narrator keeps twisting its presentation – denying loss, claiming lamentation itself is lost and needs to be lamented, or inverting grief into that fear of one’s own death. From the poem beginning “Old lamenting:”

Tritt hinzu
im Harnisch einer,
will, daß ich
das alte, frühe
Klagen klage.

Spricht mirs vor,
ich sprech die Worte
frühen Klagens,
alten Klagen.

Ihre Wahrheit,
ich erbrech sie
über jenen
Blütenzweig.

Stepping up
in armor, someone
wants me
to lament the old, early
lamenting;

recites it for me -
I speak the words
of early lamenting,
old lamenting.

Its truth -
I vomit it
over that
budding sprig.

How does such simple, repetitive diction become so effective! In this poem with just over fifty words, the word lamenting/Klagen appears nine times. In prose (or lesser poetry) such repetition would become tedious. Before I could empathize with the narrator of a novel, she would have to spend a long time describing a particular scene, a particular person lost, and a word like lament might not even come up, for fear it would distract from all that detail. But here, with almost no detail at all, I’m able to empathize, because instead of description I’m given some symmetries in the structure and a couple of well-timed, straight-to-the-point metaphors. We’ve all seen a budding sprig, and we’ve all vomited. These are the visceral images that allow the word lamenting to drill directly into my private experiences with loss, even though the narrator knows nothing of them.

Ernst Meister is a very compelling poet, and I’m very glad Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have made this effort to adapt some of his work to the English language. In Time’s Rift is published by Wave Books.

Poetry Review: As Long as Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen

From “Feather:”

We can laugh like a whip crack
on tune

to replenish me

::::  trees be the church

Me, I’m an animal with a fixed number of limbs that will only move me in one direction at a time. Trees, they don’t have that problem, with all their branchings, pushing themselves out in an exponentially growing number of directions.

Here are some things I learned about trees in grade school: Eventually, the branching terminates in leaves. The leaves absorb light which is converted into chemical energy. This storage of energy is at the center of its metabolic process, allowing the tree to choose when and how it will be released to drive the synthesis and movement of other chemicals. Meanwhile, the water necessary for this conversion is carried up from the ground through a ubiquitous internal vascular system. However, much of that water remains unused and is released through pores into the atmosphere, contributing to the production of clouds.

From “Hexagram #1 Poem:”

Great first head

The thinking stars?

 Light vibrating molecule
       (truth seed)

The outside is the inside  the wall is a door

If this were a riddle, I’d say “the outside is the inside” is referring to language: Language is one’s interiority made physically manifest while also, in relation to the physical world we perceive, carving out our internal consciousness. The inside is the outside. But this isn’t a riddle. Riddles move the mind in a single direction – they have a definite answer. A poem branches out, a ship with multiple bearings at once. I still want to say what I said about language, but with the acknowledgement that it doesn’t solve the poem; it merely scurries along one of its branches.

From “So Obvious:”

 So obvious  feathers on a heart pen
or beneath violet insides  Open
center when your heart is a
small baby born

Horn cup held inside and you wear
a gown with dark torn
a dark train
and starry yellow
flags for me maybe also
summer cicadas

“Heart,” “horn” and “held” all begin with an aspiration (the h sound); “born,” “horn” and “torn” all end with the orn sound. And visually, “feathers,” “beneath,” “heart” and “wear” all share the letters ea (though pronounced differently in each case). This volume just opens the door to the coincidences of English, and so uses the energy of chance to convert music into sugar… not meaning, but a stored potential for meaning and intention. Something prior to and necessary for meaning and intention; something that I can carry around with me that will drive the synthesis and movement of my interactions with the world. Kinetic energy becomes potential energy; heat is kept in cups and bowls to be spilled at the heart’s discretion. From “Absence and a Cushion:”

                 Heated heart
Carolina Wren
you hear stabbing gold

Is tea to drink  why reach to steep
if why is the brown cloth
of me pulled taut to reach you there

Out of hearts  Heat
Stab a day
dear Heart
that stays and spills

We keep us vowed  Cup of keep
pink there and brown  a heard hurt

Out of that we spill

Tea of you are days

Away I am
out there
sucking at leaves

I love how that last stanza plays on the ambiguity of leaves – the noun referring to foliage, and the verb referring to departure.

In contrast, often a word will be used, and then quickly repeated in a very different context, as with the word “outside” in the poem “Letting It In.”

Orbs circle  light outside
and dance squibs

Hatch in your hat
outside of time and I sit
on my flower

It feels very fine
being a girl

Notice, this isn’t the exploitation of homonyms/ambiguity (you wouldn’t need different dictionary entries for the two uses of the word “outside”), but a probing of its possibilities, at its center (a literal use of the word – “light outside”) and then at its border (the figurative “outside of time”). The leaves of a tree don’t have to be different in kind; difference in position and orientation allow them to accept different streams of the sun’s generosity.

Other times, a word will be used and then almost immediately repeated, where the only change is that a different aspect of the same situation is being described, as with the word “frog” in “Unused Baby:”

 You have your apparatus
being the Frog Husband and I burn
your frog skin to keep you
in the shape I prefer

Not just the word is being repeated, but also the information is being repeated. We could infer that the husband would have frog skin, since we were already told he is a “frog Husband.” We get this again, and more obviously, with the word “place” later in the same poem:

 Wasp friend landed on my
shoulder sparkle to say   This place
we are in       is a place

The word is double clicked to re-center the scene on that word’s significance: This place we are in is a place – we are being told that what matters isn’t the particular features of the narrator’s extension in space, but that she has a particular extension in space. Rather than augment facts, tautology is used to tighten the readers connection to a given fact. The tree needs a trunk, needs a center, needs to be held to the earth.

The concepts of inside and outside are explored quite a bit. And cups and bowls keep appearing, which are notable for having insides that aren’t in anyway closed off from an outside; they are readily filled and emptied, filled and emptied. I’m made to feel by these poems that interior and exterior are not defined by their separation, but by their relation, their communication. I’m reminded of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors tease —
I'm feeling for the Air —
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear —

A power of Butterfly must be —
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty implies
And easy Sweeps of Sky —

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine —

Emily Dickinson is definitely my favorite American poet, and Hoa Nguyen’s work seems to learn a lot from Dickinson, in a way that I haven’t seen in other contemporary writers. This is exciting for me.

Hoa Nguyen has authored several previous books and chapbooks, including Your Ancient See Through and Hecate Lochia. As Long as Trees Last is published by the consistently brilliant Wave Books. Trees!

Visualizing Phrasal Scansion

I recently read Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction by Derek Attridge. It’s an engaging survey of the topic, as informative as it is readable. It even included an illuminating few pages on the rhythmic workings of rap. But what I found particularly exciting was the last thirty pages, presenting the idea of phrasal scansion. The only frustration is that these scansions get rather complicated, so here I’d like to explore one possible way of presenting visually everything they tell us about the structure of a poem. Here’s an example of what I’m going for, and then I’ll explain how we build it and what it means:

Slowly he moves
to and fro, to and fro,
then faster and faster
he swishes up and down

Roughly, the idea of a phrasal scansion is to divide a poem into it’s climax, the part that anticipates the climax, and the part that extends the climax. Those three sections are again sub-divided in the same manner, and that process can continue all the way down to the lexical level, if you wish. These three sections are labeled anticipation (ANT), statement (STA), and extension (EXT). Actually, Attridge uses a fourth category as well, arrival (ARR), which he uses for statements when and only when they preceded by one or more anticipations. No new information is thereby added, so these categories can be conflated without loss.

The best way to show what’s going on is with an example. The symbol ‘>’ means the section continues on to the next line, while the symbol ‘|’ signals the end of a section. This example is taken from Attridge, except, as I said above, he uses ARR for STA that are preceded by ANT:
1 STA____________________________>
2 ANT____________________________>
3 STA____________________________|
4 ANT_________|STA_______________|
Ask me no more where Jove bestows,
1 ________________________________|
2 _______________|STA_____________|
3 EXT____________|
4
When June is past, the fading rose;
1 EXT___________________________>
2 ANT___________________________|
3
4 ANT_______________|STA________|
For in your beauty’s orient deep,
1 ______________________________________|
2 STA___________________________________|
3
4 ANT_________|ANT________________|STA__|
These flowers, as in their causes, sleep.

Awesome. But trying to see everything that we’re being told by these scansions can be difficult. The first thing I noticed is that we are effectively parsing the poem, implicitly using the following simple phrase structure rules:

STA -> (ANT)* STA (EXT)*

ANT -> (ANT)* STA (EXT)*

EXT -> (ANT)* STA (EXT)*

The parentheses mean the category is optional, and the symbol * means there can be more than one. Actually, the main reason I wanted to conflate the STA and ARR categories is because it simplifies these grammar rules. Looked at in this way, we can turn the above scansion into a tree diagram:

Now that we have these trees, we can do some fun stuff. Consider the path from a phrase to the root of the tree (the STA at the top). For example, the phrase “Ask me no more” has the path: text — ANT — STA — ANT — STA. I’m going to use these paths to assign a background color to each phrase. This path tells us all the different functions the phrase is participating in at different levels. In particular, the number of ANTs tells us how much a section of poetry is building up tension, the number of STAs tells us how central it is, and the number of EXTs tells us how much its concluding or cooling things down. Then, we can assign these values colors. The choice is of course some what arbitrary, but I let ANT be green, STA be red and EXT be blue.

The depth of a phrase (the total length of the path to the root) in the tree also tells us something. How deeply nested a phrase is tells us how directly relevant or important it is to the whole poem, so we’ll make the darkness of the background inversely proportional to the depth.

Okay, so here are the formulas I use to assign values to the redness, the greenness and the blueness of each phrase, using the RGB color model:

\displaystyle\mathop G=450\centerdot\dfrac{freq(ANT)}{height}

\displaystyle\mathop R=450\centerdot\dfrac{freq(STA)}{height}

\displaystyle\mathop B=450\centerdot\dfrac{freq(EXT)}{height}

Freq(ANT) is the total number of ANT nodes in the path, and freq(STA) and freq(EXT) are similarly defined. The height of the tree is the maximum depth of any phrase. It, along with the constant 450, makes up the normalizing factor.

Now, let’s see what we can see when we apply this to a poem. First, we’ll try this with another example from Attridge. Based on his phrasal scansion, here’s a visualization of the poem “Boy on a Swing” by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali:

Slowly he moves
to and fro, to and fro,
then faster and faster
he swishes up and down

His blue shirt
billows in the breeze.
like a tattered kite.

The world whirls by:
east becomes west,
north turns to south;
the four cardinal pointsmeet
in his head.

Mother!
Where did I come from?
When will I wear
long trousers?Why
was my father jailed?

The orange-red of the phrase “he moves” corresponds to how it works as a false center for the poem. At all the lower level, it’s functioning as part of statement (red) and only at the highest (well, second highest, if you count the whole poem) does it serve to anticipate, giving it a bit of green (red plus green is yellow in the RGB color model). All of the purple and blue (extension) of the first three stanzas represents the poem’s creation of misdirection; with all this extension, we feel poem is coming to completion. Then, the phrase “mother!” tells us that in fact something big is coming up. The dark green indicates that’s it’s directly relevant to the whole poem and broadly anticipatory. The subsequent bright green is the height of suspense, followed by the poems true climax – the completely red word “jail.”

Let’s compare this to the poem “At North Farm” by John Ashbery. This one isn’t in Attridge’s book, but I worked out its phrasal scansion in accordance with his guidelines as best I could:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents,
through narrow passes.

But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Without even reading the poem, the colors tell us a lot about its structure. All of the green in the first half reveals its dedication to immediately establishing and building a sense of suspense. Notice how different that looks from the “A Boy on a Swing” poem. The grey in the second half tells us that, overall, these sections are participating equally in anticipating, stating, and extending, which may suggest a sort of neutrality.

So this is fun! And, beyond the visualization, seeing the phrasal scansion as a phrase structure grammar brings up a lot of questions about its relationship to syntax. ANT, STA, and EXT are reminiscent of Spec, X, and Comp in X-Bar theory — how well would they actually correlate if we parsed these poems syntactically? But I digress.

Poetry Review: My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

From “First Contact:”

Name this:

If you buy shoes
from a factory where children work
so many hours then go blind then die
you have agreed that those children should
go blind & die? She like a whisker
measures each body in relation to her body:

He is mostly in the other room
unknotting his laces. LET ME SPEAK.

The question posed would be an excellent one for any ethicist to address. What is it doing here and why is it immediately elided?

Since Romanticism, writers keep going into the forest/ocean/desert/arctic, to raise the poem as though it were a way of retreating, but each time an interdependence is revealed among the words we find there and the lives we live here (in cities, with technology, in front of our computers). This volume is inspired by the notebooks of Richard E Byrd, a naval officer known for his expeditions to the North and South pole. I think we can read the title – “My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer” – in three ways: Love can refer to Byrd; love can refer to poetry; love can refer to the act of loving others. This corresponds to a three-way metaphor between exploration of the natural world, exploration of language (poetry), and exploration of Other (love). What is discovered to be central to these three activities is the sublime— pleasure that can only exist in the medium of pain (to paraphrase Kant). A favorite symbol for this among American poets seems to be snow, as is attested by Stevens’ Snowman, Dickinson’s Water, is taught by thirst, or Lasky’s Emotions. And here, for example from “Architectures:”

Someone’s dead.
Pain on the floor, hurts like snow.
Soft at first.

Fundamental to it functioning as such a symbol, snow must be chosen. One must want to walk into the snow in order to be in the snow, and not as a means to finding food or having sex. In “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” the insightful Josef Pieper divides our behavior into three categories: Work, or pain we accept as a means of acquiring future pleasure; idleness, or pleasure for its own sake; and leisure, or struggle that is its own pleasure. Pain, pleasure, and pleasure-pain. Leisure is at risk of being dominated by work and idleness. He writes:

Of course the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.

Pieper’s concept of leisure corresponds to Ackerson-Kiely’s concept of exploration, which is similarly threatened by an obsession with logic to the exclusion of art. To reject these poems because they contain too many unanswered questions and incomplete sentences is to reject curiosity. Language isn’t being reaped, cooked and served; language is being wandered through and gathered from. It’s the difference between a farm delivering a product to a restaurant and a forest evolving an intricate ecosystem. From “Waitress Address:”

The body was a language and it talked to itself. The body was a chopstick, a kettle, a regrettable dishwasher holding the crystal to the light, saying, not quite yet[...] The body waited for response. It grew tired proffering plate after plate bearing death that was inconsequential. The death on the plate absolutely silent as when they remove a man’s hands, according to Shari’s[...] To raise the fork as though it were an explication,  each tine an independent song, hither and thither to this, thine mouth. I did not understand the cutlery tray.

Ackerson-Kiely understands that for language to be a living ecosystem, for language not to be silent, we must respect the essential role that accident plays. Mentioning “ankles” is a perfectly good motivation for describing something else as “angling.” The two words do, after all, sound similar. That is, they are next to one another in our lexicon, and the author goes where the terrain takes her. She places her hands on a place that is not her own. From “This Landscape of Request:”

Petitioned reciprocation
of my hands on your face

in any of the above landscapes.
Called for gentleness,

the somniferous monogamy of grass
brushing the ankle, sky above bleeding

blue. Were I to quit this angling,
this remittance. Appeal to the pocket

of your overcoat that my hands
might fill. Had we a home.

Had I ever been pleased.

The language was a body, and it felt itself. Or language is body, is the body realizing it is not alone, is the body making itself part of a deeper, wider syntax and thereby achieving a greater unity, and thereby transcending into family, community. To me, by far the most exciting poem in this volume is the one that bears its name. From “My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer:”

Waiting for his love to take, I held him clumsily. His face was without form and darkness moved upon it. I was told: You must keep him still for six days. I needed to be sure he did not try to leave, so I asked: Let there be light, and the sanatorium became light and it was a soft yellow light, and good to his features[...] He called out some names on the sixth morning. He said Barstool and dispatch and megawatt and Thermopolis, and all of these things became as he called them and it was good, it was good to have a list. Late that evening, after he described fortitude and unctuous he said a word I had not heard begore but it made my teeth ache and a slow itch spread down my forearm and i thought I felt a dainty woman wearing one of those fuzzy pastel sweaters with a plunging neckline standing close to me – her soft breath against my neck – and I wanted to kiss someone really bad but also to remain still forever so that this feeling might be known to anyone who happened upon me. He said Helper and he made a motion with his hands, like he was breaking an egg onto a hot frying pan while a hissing sound emerged from his mouth, after which he lay back on his bed with his arms thrown across his chest like dirty laundry. Although I knew not of dirty laundry at the time, I understood he was naming me and it was good. It was good to place my head in my very hands, which were not as I imagined them – hatch batter downers, Pious, wincing shovels – but as he named them: Your Hands. And with this knowledge I rested. I dreamt sweetly.

The biblical parallels here are obvious, but two incredible contrasts are also apparent: The cosmological scale is brought down to that of interpersonal relationship, and the roles of creator and created become confused and unfixed. The sublime is presented as a shared act of convalescence,  the body emerging into love and language, then returning to itself and knowing itself for the first time (“my head in my very hands, which were not as I imagined them”). Similarly, each word can be understood as an independent unit of meaning, but only once they are all experienced in interdependent relationships with other words – in sentences, in poems, in a wider syntax. We cry “LET ME SPEAK,” and then discover that our ability to do so is only achieved by listening, by exploring.

Of course, always and necessarily, eventually the explorer is dead. But the exploration is built (built, I say) outside of time. The presence of the sublime is what makes us conscious of death, but the embrace of the sublime is what makes death obsolete.

I’m afraid this discussion doesn’t do justice to the lushness of the poetry. Paige Ackerson-Kiely offers immersive descriptions of (among other things) robustly autumnal autumns and wintry winters. (Living in Texas while having grown up in Indiana, this makes me feel quite nostalgic.) Let the poems themselves convince you of their worth in these regards.  My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer is her second book of poems, coming after 2007’s In No One’s Land. Both are from the wonderful Ahsahta Press.

Book Review: Forge by Jan Zwicky

Though it never appears on the page, I read these poems thinking often of the word forage. The pair of words forge and forage in their similarity of sound seem to unveil the dual nature of invention and discovery. And surely these works forged on paper are made with materials foraged from the mind. Here is the first part of the opening poem, “Music and Silence: Seven Variations.” Zwicky does not say “who can name the absence? music,” though delightfully that possibility is projected by the lineation:

Who can name the absence
music is, who draw that space,
the cold breath, sudden and empty
that will own you the rest of your life?

In the still light, you put your feet down,
this own, that one, then this one,
again on the yellow earth. Your happiness
was like the trees': golden and tattered.

Who could you have told? Leaves
fell around you, half shrug, half sorrow.
And the wind sprang up off the water
riding you, fierce, unbiddable, already lost.

Parent and child are at the park. With gesture, shared attention is brought to a geranium. The parent says “look at the blue flower.” Now, the particular sequence of sounds blue will be flooded with the vibrancy of the sensory and emotional experience. Later, the child learns to read. She reads the word blue. If that word is used haphazardly, I feel something has been stolen from the earlier memory. If the word was first forged as a crown for nature, what can the poet do with it that will justify its use? Create form and music, of course. The building and breaking of patterns that constitutes play, so that reading becomes its own experience with its own vibrancies. And so in the poem “Nojack”, the artificial light from lyric gives a listing of colors their color:

What is it a woman can do for a man,
his grief so deep it’s colourless, like sunlight -
her own deeper. How she made him stop
and scooped snow from the ditch
to clean the windshield. His surprise.
Or later, her body nearly weightless across his,
head in the hollow of his shoulder:
the distance of it. Where were they going
anyway, that day? Sundogs
brilliant to the south, meltwater
sheeting the highway, poplars, black spruce
jutting from the far ridge and beyond them
the solstice slowly filling the horizon: purple, orange,
pink, cream, blue, turquoise,
white.

Perhaps the relationship between forging and foraging has something to do with the relationship between love and listening, the exploration of which seems so central to this volume. Here’s the opening section of the poem “Practising Bach:”

There is, said Pythagoras, a sound
the planet makes: a kind of music
just outside our hearing, the proportion
and the resonance of things – not
the clang of theory or the wuthering
of human speech, not even
the bright song of sex or hunger, but
the unrung ringing that
supports them all.

The wife, no warning, dead
when you come home. Ducats
in the fishheads that you salvage
from the rubbish heap. Is the cosmos
laughing at us? No. It’s saying
improvise. Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when it’s dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

There it is: A sound that makes music the amorphous name of the orbiting of love and listening. Amorphous because I imagine Zwicky won’t be bothered if while reading this poem we think not of Bach but whatever music we most appreciate at the moment. Orbiting because love and listening are both falling toward and fleeing from one another. Those last nine lines again:

Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when its dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

A careful arrangement of accidents (the coincidences of sound and meaning) that gives us something essential. I remember here a line from Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, “love is knowledge of the individual.” And I remember a statement from Feng Sun Chen’s poem ‘Concerning Nothing’ – “Souls are eardrums.” And I remember a sentiment that Tolstoy attributes to Pierre in War and Peace. From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation:

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

I feel that Tolstoy is saying the same thing as Zwicky, but from the other side. The narrator of “Practising Bach” tells us we can get to love by way of listening. Pierre tells us we can get to listening by way of love. Are these two stars the binary system at the center of language?

Consider the sun. Here there is fusion. Two atoms come together. They decide they have too much. Something comes apart. Here there is radiation. An effusion of light. Is that like language? In any case, it is an imperfection of unification that travels from the sun to the earth, that facilitates the projection of mind into mind by way of sight, that facilitates a further unification. And injustice, the imperfection of our unification, does that serve something, the way light serves us? It is too much to answer yes, but it is not enough to answer no. Those lines again:

Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when its dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

The scene cannot be unexpected. So why do we have to be told, and every generation told again? Here’s “Lying down in My Hotel Room, Thinking about the Day:”

I have spent too long
telling the world is the world to the world
and poetry is made of language.
Today at the Bedford platform, I began
the great poem: weeping openly on the public
telephone – the way some were staring
as they swirled past, the way some
weren’t – yes: it was the truth
at last.

Whether the apple falling or the peach being eaten, it is poet philosophers and philosopher poets who must convince us of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, who venture out across the “turf of dailiness” and bring back the most incredible tellings. That potato is the only leverage we have against the dying. That is the hand of our impossibility made visible.

Forge is published by Gaspereau Press. Jan Zwicky is Professor Emerita in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria. You should read these poems.

Ways of Believing

When I ask what is true, I am implicitly asking of what it is that I might be convinced. In so far as I see myself as part of a community, I must shift that first person singular to the first person plural. Of what can we be convinced? To discover this, to discover what is true, we must spread ourselves out across possible beliefs, adopting a diversity of beliefs, taking varying degrees of risk in terms of our divergence from current understanding. Since Adam Smith, we have understood that the future wealth of a nation is best served by an amorphous network of competing and cooperating individuals all with different ideas of how present wealth should be allocated. And at least since Thomas Kuhn, we have understood that acquisition of scientific knowledge is best served by different scientists responding to current evidence in a diversity of ways, some more rebellious, some more traditional. But somehow, outside of science, in deciding what is true we feel forced to choose between a rigid absolutism and a flimsy subjectivism. This is most adamantly insisted upon by those who are terrified of being convinced of anything they don’t already believe. The middle that this dichotomy would exclude us from is truth as an ecosystem. Life does not come to the world by the world having a rigid formula for what life is, nor by responding to all life on equal terms.

Just as life is served by different species taking on certain broad roles in their relationship to the ultimate source of their energy (the sun), so too is truth served by different broad types of belief. There seem to be three such basic types, all inter-dependent with one another.

Visionary belief: All understanding begins as an act of imagination, corresponding to the idea of intellectus in medieval philosophy, and the concept of divergent intelligence in contemporary psychology. Though ultimately constrained by the most rigid of rules, even in mathematics all conjecture and definition begins as an act of metaphor or metonymy (see Filosofia e Matematica by Carlo Cellucci). How we choose between visions depends upon the domain, and these domains can be roughly organized by how formalized and externalized these choices have become. In programming, the rules have taken physical manifestation in the form of the computer, and the validity of a program is determined by how it rides the rails of that machine. At the other extreme is poetry, where the reading of a work at a particular time by a particular reader is its proof or disproof. A visionary might like to command the world with the power of her vision, but a vision is a system of figures, and like all rhetoric, it is as likely to lead us as we are to lead with it. If language is a mobile army of metaphors, it is one no human can truly command.

Minimalist belief: Corresponding to the idea of ratio in medieval philosophy, the minimalist is a skeptic who accepts the least amount needed to survive. Minimalism holds on to Occam’s razor or any of its variants. In epistemology, it has converged upon science. In morality, it tends toward some form of utilitarianism. Its most precise manifestation is as Computational Statistics, where we see clearly the inevitability of our dependence on assumptions – how do we decide whether a model is more or less complex? Minimalism consumes vision, and too often we dismiss vision that isn’t of immediate use to minimalism as being of no use at all. This is especially true today, when we are drunk on the recent and important successes of science. With minimalism, we maximize are ability to anticipate the world, and therefore are ability fulfill desire. But our desires will be quite bland if accurate predictions is all we let our imaginations keep. Even if one does believe that ultimately the only valid form of belief is minimalist, the history of science demonstrates that the most radical progress in science has often relied on beliefs that were for decades, centuries, or millennia not empirically grounded but mere speculation – mere vision. Perhaps the most disconcerting for such dogmatists is the cascade of influences that leaves Bacon and Descartes in Homer’s debt. Anyone dedicated to the long-term success of science must be committed to the present endorsement of non-scientific beliefs.

Pluralistic belief: If minimalism is a kind of intersection operator, then pluralism is a union operator. The pluralist struggles to make our diversity of beliefs mutually intelligible and appreciable. The constant danger is that the possibility for authentic experiences of different beliefs will disappear when they come in contact with each other, and more frightening still, we won’t even realize this has happened. Some (like Richard Rorty) believe this necessarily will happen; vocabularies are either identical or incompatible. I’m far more optimistic, and that is precisely the position I’m trying to argue against. Pluralism is what all historians and critics must fight for. To the extent that there is an allegiance to a particular vision, the critic’s work is reduced to propaganda or mimesis. In the Common Era, what wonderful cultural innovation has come about by the constant variety of attempts to synthesis different aspects of the very different Greek and Hebrew traditions. And again, a pluralistic attitude is often what a science needs to progress, as when a problem is ultimately resolved not by choosing between two competing models but discovering some way of framing them in a compatible way.

If we’re convinced of the importance of a diversity of beliefs, the question that remains is what should our attitude be toward someone who disagrees with us. Among our many options are friendly competition, moral outrage, and avoidance. The answer will depend on the domain and our objectives. Certainly (certainly), we will need to begin from a basic set of universal ethical principles in order for culture to thrive. This is analogous to certain constants in the environment of all life forms – the same earth going around the same sun in the same way, year after year.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.