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Poetry Review: Devotional Poems by Joe Hall

January 23, 2014

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.

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