Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Poetry Chronicles-Prospect of Release

From the dog days to the doldrums. In my last post I promised a trio of offerings on some classic Western films. Upon further review, I'm not really sure they're ready for sub-prime time. Besides which in the interim I fell quite ill with a vile sore throat. I'm almost all better now, which is good, since Julie Carr and her husband, Tim, are about to visit us and we shall go climb into a cool pond nearby.

Illness, as Woolf notes, is altered consciousness. A magnification of the microscopic. A weird humming along the fractal ley lines of the wounded body. But that was before antibiotics, ibuprofen, and TV, and in particular before the advent of Apple TV and streaming. Streaming is a glorious, obscene thing. Why obscene? Because it makes good on the promise of late capital to deliver us to our toxic desires. So I have immersed myself in unspeakable pleasures. Namely, superhero cartoons. This requires a deep blog post which right now I don't have the cognitive juice for. Suffice it to say that the two prime forces which shaped my early imagination were the Catholic Church and Marvel Comics. I'll leave it at that for now.

Below is my 1999 review of Tom Mandel's extraordinary Prospect of Release, which first appeared in Christopher Reiner's WITZ. I cherish this book, all the more so now that my own parents are gone.


The problem of transmission is fundamental to Judaism, indeed to the idea of culture itself. The anxieties of establishing continuity go to the very heart of what we mean by memory. How may the past be guaranteed to the future? How is culture carried over and mediated from one generation to the next? How is identity formed and re-formed in its endless conversations with the dead? And how do the dead speak to us? Charles Reznikoff opens his great poem, “By The Well of Living and Seeing” with these lines:

My grandfather died long before I was born,
died among strangers; and all the verse he wrote
was lost --
except for what still speaks through me
as mine.

Here, transmission is envisioned as something enacted with a degree of autonomy, not necessarily to be read as genetic, but rather, perhaps, as a set of codes perpetuated in and by language itself.

Tom Mandel’s haunting Prospect of Release undertakes the task of recovering the lost primary mode of transmission -- the death of a parent. In this intricate series of 50 sonnets written in elegy for his stepfather, Mandel articulates the iterations of sorrow with all the rue and gravity of rabbinical injunction. Austerity becomes the principle not of denudation but replenishment. To start at Aleph, the zero, the nadir -- the place of irremediable loss -- is simultaneously to engage the plenitude of language as response to the dead, to make from the bare ruined choir of an unrequited antiphonal longing the forms of solace, that are also the forms of inheritance, of transmission.

For Mandel, as for Jabes, to confront death means to confront the very nature of language itself. How do we mourn the loss of the Other, these poems ask, while knowing that the words we use to connect also betray us with every breath? The form of all our knowing is language -- "the King's highway" -- as Mandel calls it. How we travel on this road, and what congress it maintains between its own public discourse and our private soliloquies, is just one of the many themes this book so brilliantly engages, not so much through elegy as by the quest for -- and the questioning of -- elegy.

Long associated with Language Poetry, Mandel in his previous book, Letters of the Law, began an investigation of the relationship between language, consciousness and codification which drew deeply on the tradition of Jewish law and mysticism that has always made those concerns its own. Prospect of Release in many ways continues that investigation, but on a much more intimately modulated and poignant scale. The marvel of the book is that the poignancy is achieved through a stripped down diction that plays alertly and harmonically on key ideas and phrases, and by a subdued, formal rhythm perfectly consonant with the starkness of the poet’s grief, his sense of loss.

Loss here remains loss -- what cannot be replaced -- and yet: “Don’t lance his healed wounds,” the poet enjoins, following the steps of the ancient Judaic prescription for mourning, its stern psychology. Loss is also what enables transmission from one person to another to occur; it creates a “reverence modeled on absence.” The form of language -- “our rigorous oral tradition” -- encodes the way of compassionate living. “Not stasis, neither gnosis is your goal.” And even though, as the poet laments, “Grief’s code of desire cannot be read,” it is nevertheless through language that he is permitted entry to the ongoing engagement and renewal of the world, a process not to be confused with history, or even nature, both “idols formed from false propositions.” “Of the ten things made at twilight/the greatest was ‘speech-act.’” Therefore, “vowels, bring on morning. Consonants, cause the sun to set.” Through utterance, we embody a world.

In the Sefer Ta’amei ha-Mitsvoth, according to Gershom Scholem, souls cluster in communal groups and may return to aid the living during times of crisis. “For the dead of each and every family ... are like the roots of a tree, and its branches are the living, for the living exist by virtue of the merits of the dead.” Mandel’s poems seem to draw nourishment from this idea: “Like the living the dead are many,/connected in all traces to the common social order.” This affirmation of communality takes its strength from Judaic tradition, but also recalls Joyce’s “the cords of all link back: strandentwining cable of all flesh.” To link to the dead, for Mandel, is both the expression of grief and the nominalization of a self in opposition to an absence:

I speak to establish my
isolation from you, the object of
my address, whose silence unattainable

listens but cannot respond. Only tears
interrupt such words; tears are
a trope for the presence of the dead.

The motions of grief are one and the same with the motions of remembering. The conjuration of the dead, that is so necessary for establishing the sense of communal continuity, is performed not by some necromantic apostasy, but through the sanctifying figurations of the poem. That which is absent is again made present, if only at a distance, if only at that remove inaugurated and solemnized by the gestures of invocation. Seen this way, it is the living who endure an exile from the dead, one that is redeemed by the tropes of memory. Above all, this exile is redeemed by the highest of speech-acts, the poem.

In his essay on Judaism, “The Indestructible,” Maurice Blanchot writes that Judaism exists as a means to affirm the nomadic quality of being human: “through exile ... and exodus ... the experience of strangeness may affirm itself ... as an irreducible relation ... so that ... we might learn to speak.” The project of living, which is also the project of life’s relation to death, might be described in just the same way. By the death of He-Who-Is-Loved, the poet is compelled to express the exactness of that relation between the dead and the living, the fulcrum and the hinge from which depends the all-that-is-sayable:

Interrupting each other thus, we make
language whole, grounding in speech
both isolation and resolution. We give
exemplary articulation to life and death.

Forming one meta-sonnet, these poems sustain their meditation on death and the possibilities of language through a structure both hermetic and open, enacting a syntax of repetition which continually questions and re-affirms language’s power to transmit “our rigorous oral tradition.” Unlike traditional elegies, these poems don’t presume to circumscribe grief by leveraging memory into the recreation -- the buyout -- of the vanished Other through an accumulation of mundane detail. Rather, they subject the appeal to memory, and its assumptions, to what might be called a poetics of absence. By signifying absence -- the total evacuation of the self -- presence may actually stand out beyond itself, revealed in the aura of its unsignifying numinosum. Blanchot, again, from The Space of Literature:
the lack is the being that lies deep in the absence of being ... the lack is what still remains of being when there is nothing ... when everything has disappeared, there is still something: when everything lacks, lack makes the essence of being appear, and the essence of being is to be there still where it lacks, to be inasmuch as it is hidden (252-53).

Dwelling at the margins of the sayable, Prospect of Release rescues the relation with the Other from the totalizing gesture of language. This steady refusal to collapse difference, not to annul the anxiety it stands in through appeals to conventional sentiment, gives these elegies a uniquely ethical distinction. Mandel’s concerns are not unlike those of Emmanuel Levinas, who writes of the Other in his Totality and Infinity that: “The relation with the other does not nullify separation ... does not establish a totality, integrating me and the Other ... Rather ... the relation of me and the Other commences in the inequality of the terms.”

You are my second, one says to the other,
whom repetition changes and explains,
bearer of identity, yet other --
my stand-in and myself.

Identity is both the measure of the gap between selves and what passes over that gap via transmission, the utterance and re-utterance of words, instructions, even those tears that are “a trope for the dead.” On the King’s Highway, “repetition transforms our route.” Or as Mandel writes in another sonnet: “an ultimate letter/chants the text it changes ...” In this sense, all writing is an enacting of a colloquy with the dead, with what has already passed, figuring through the ancient and various tropes of emptiness and absence a presence, it may be, that is beyond presence.

Do not speak of these
words but repeat them, accompany me,
understand the strength of transmission,

the authority of the lonely in the meaning
of words

In the meaning of words, the authority of the lonely is that which insists on itself, which makes of its isolation a bride to a meaning that the dead once occupied, and once invested with their living. But even to say so is already to have moved on, to have passed, and in passing reject both history and nature, those “idols formed from false propositions.” Instead: “the answer is/to be what’s named, the category/of person ...” By the authority of the naming, the task of the living becomes the transmission of a new code, a re-naming and a re-drawing of the circle which embraces both the living and the dead. (“Es war ein Kreis,” Mandel quotes Celan in the book’s epigraph - “it was a circle” -- and indeed, the entire sequence of sonnets moves in a circularity whose action continually re-inscribes the relations between self and other, performing a shuttle between the question and the affirmation, the call and the response).

These profoundly moving poems are a speaking for the dead in which the dead continue to record their fevers: what they burned for when alive, and what still burns the living. But the dead are also the metaphor through which we try to speak the presentness of our living: the instantiating moment that both eludes and propels us -- the sense of our own otherness, in opposition to the non-being of the dead, as it comes to us through the medium of their unending transmissions. Prospect of Release not only performs a reinvigorated Kaddish, a new inscription and recuperation of the Book of Departure, it also recovers for us what might be called a Bardo for the living, a set of instructions from which we may learn how to endure and reconfigure the absent presence of the dead. “The story that prepared us,” the text of the father, “has died.” Yet the process of re-inscription is fructifying, as Mandel makes clear in his beautiful translation of Isaiah:

Like dew, rain and snow descending
to fructify earth, my word falls from my mouth
to do my will and does not return
unfulfilled but completes the task of my intentions.

To become an interlocutor with the dead, of the dead, for the dead, as Tom Mandel has done in these poems with such an extraordinary combination of tenderness and acuity, is still and always to assay mortal things -- to go up against the place where, as Derrida says, “limits tremble,” and the tongue breaks off. The elegy becomes nothing less than an effort to recover first things by naming last things. Negation, the erasure of self and of form, is transformed. The poem enacts the supreme moment of chiasmus, of the intersection between convergence and divergence, between embodying presence and self-empyting absence. Out of absence and silence, it re-constitutes a new form and continuity, here where we always are, at the horizon of speech.

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