Spuyten Duyvil Books
Are innovative poems about the holy still possible? Poems which are able to escape the rhetoric of piety that mars so much of the later work of Denise Levertov, for instance, or makes poets like Edward Hirsch and Robert Bly appear for what they are, etiolated imitators of Rilke and Rumi? And if so, what might such poems look like? Peter O’Leary’s vibrant and exciting first book, Watchfulness, presents us with the possibility for articulating the spiritual in a whole new register. His erudition and his models encompass modern poets working in the western Hermetic tradition like Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson, as well as ancient masters of spiritual techne from the mystical schools of early Eastern Orthodoxy.
The distinction between the Orphic and hermetic modes of poetry made by Gerald Bruns set up antinomian tensions that remain largely unresolved in contemporary poets intent on working through the twin legacies of Mallarme and Stevens. O’Leary invokes hermetic themes, only to move the poems themselves into a modernist Orphic modality. He balances these two strains with great skill and sophistication, though in the weaker poems the effort required shows through. In fairness, these poems represent apprentice work. O’Leary’s more recent efforts, which can be found on-line at The Cultural Society and For Immediate Release, demonstrate an amazing formal vigor accompanied by what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “spiritual audacity.”
In a 5th Century spiritual tract collected in the Philokalia, St. Hesychios advises us that “Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart.” The heart here is considered as something more than a trope for the emotions. It is a psychic and spiritual space, the place, as Augustine put it so movingly, “where I am myself,” implying both a unification and a bifurcation: a kind of utopian nexus, in much the same way that a poem might said to be. In the interior space of the heart, a space that is both there already and yet still awaiting our instructions for making it, attention to the dyslexic stream of awareness becomes the instrument for building the vehicle of light, that ancient mode of theogenesis. The rites for such building take form as an architecture of music, as in “Nipsis”:
Caritas of exquisite
stars arisen in
skies of ice whose resplendent
rites, untiring, unite.
The poems in Watchfulness comprise an arch-hymn to light: to the gold effusions of icons inside Orthodox basilica, to the luminous architectures of Louis Sullivan and the aureate desires of the legendary King Midas, to the ineffable splendors of the inner light outlined in the Philokalia and Jewish mysticism. All these are invoked, displayed, unfolded with an exuberant combination of austere minimalism and baroque saturation. This is poetry that honors both the small, still voice of the soul and the clamor and rush of kerygma, or pure proclamation.
At the heart of O’Leary’s poetics is the conviction, buttressed by deep and learned immersion in the heady mysticism of the Greek Orthodox tradition, that the true function of litany in prayer, as in the poem, is to guide and direct the flow of attention, channeling its energies into spiritual awareness. The language of liturgy raises the cathedral of the poem, just as Sullivan raised the first skyscrapers in Chicago and “the antique Holy Spirit iridesced /& smote its new lumen through American fingers and eyes.” The wisdom of the ancient East puts down new roots in the brash dream of a republic of continual self-invention. Straddling history and spirit, these poems work an alchemical process until gold, finally, figures as both the crass fetish of mercantile exchange and the embodiment of divine transfiguration.
The magnanimous economy of these poems, their repeated, indeed, insistent, gestures toward a life of inner largeness, in which the acknowledgement of “the gift of stars” marks the opening to a broader range of feeling and attunement, is a bold and risky one. At a time when the metaphysics of presence has been thoroughly trounced, it seems, by cultural materialism (and what is cultural materialism anyhow? only Marxism without the tears), they dare to affirm for poetic language a stage of action that is overpowering and mysterious. At the heart of their implicit critique of so much of today’s vapid vanguardism is something more radical by far than what has been imagined by either the smart-alecks of the moribund NY School or the indoctrinated cadres storming out of Buffalo. Namely, that the poem is a gateway to the mundus imaginalis.