Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Leslie Scalapino 1944-2010

Considering How Exaggerated the Light Is

What would you glean

the long go-away-from-it plan
at hazard, sheer glass over

and the eking out
of syllables

ten cents-a-dozen
no rhymes


It would be occasion, return of the others from their something not right
I know, I could see them, moving down the aisle, that there should be
this music

This was the time when the dying brought in their wounded


The stippled
of light
tips forward

with pollen

and the promises of dust
stare back at us

give evidence of our having lived
the wrong questions

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Peter O'Leary

Peter O’Leary
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.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading Notes: Poetry in Cambridge, Spring 2010

Fanny Howe
Harvard University
April 5, 2010

In her introduction, Katie Peterson described Fanny Howe as a “poet of fear” and I think I know what she means. Howe’s work explores the trembling at boundaries, the spaces of in between that are rich with untapped being, and this is fearful business, spiritual business, the business of how to redeem a broken life.

For me, she is primarily a poet for whom compassion is a form of seeing and beholding a kind of rescue of the visible world and what goes on there; not just the wavelength of the beautiful but the difficult looking that requires recognition and reclamation. That takes place within what she calls “the glow of loneliness and humiliation.”

Howe’s reading consisted of a triptych, each long poem read in conjunction with still photos or imagery. The first set revolved around a series of time-lapse photographs taken by a friend of hers of a doorway to an abode home in a Mayan village. As children and chicken mysteriously appear and disappear out of its dark aperture, the poems act of attention makes palpable the ethical demands of discernment. The second series was more trance like: a series of poems read against footage taken from an apartment window looking over Memorial Drive at dusk. The twilight traffic ebbed and flowed, the shadow line of the river just visible, and the world hanging motionless. “Outremer” was the final piece. A poem on St. Francis and his struggles and what it means to live spiritually, it was read by the poet over haunting and evocative charcoal drawing animation done by her son, Maceo Senna. Slender images slowly emerged till a whole vivid landscape appeared: two men, a tree, the ground. Then all erased. “The supernatural is all the more wonderful for being natural.”


Norma Cole
April 8, 2010

Norma Cole’s work is continually alert to the tiniest nuances and to the possibility for the vastness of each one’s signification. Listening to her read, you get the sense that consciousness produces itself via lyric montage. Not just a random sequence of compelling images or phrases, but actual turns of thought, a deep thinking into language as event and the world as it seen and felt and registered continually. Objects are not merely named, but multiply-mediated. What calls our attention is seeing and seeing into and through language.

As in the series she wrote in collaboration with Ben Watkins, where she eschews the traditional format of ekphrasis and instead takes each of his photos as an invitation to respond, to make the poem not a comment on the photo, but an event enmeshed with its event, neither reductive nor overpowering, but alive to complexity.


Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop
Blacksmith House
May 3, 2010

Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop read at Blacksmith House last week, to a small, but deeply appreciative, crowd, which included the affable XJ Kennedy and his wife, Dorothy, Jericho Brown, Michael Franco, Jane Unrue, and Teresa Villa-Ignacio.

Rosmarie read first, staring with “Facts” from 1987’s The Reproduction of Profiles. I think of this as classic Rosmarie: the poem as a wry, playful, and even tender vehicle for dialectical disquisition that both honors and parodies the tradition of Continental philosophy.

Next she read from new work, entitled “Time Ravel,” a delicate and haunting meditation on memory and explorers. This poem, with its subtle sense of echo, traced a periplum of shifting contours that made, as it went, the map of an entire site.

Keith read, then, choosing poems entirely from Transcendental Studies. He began with “An Apparatus,” a poem of disjunctive apprehensions in which language names textuality itself as the site for Orphic testimony. This poem, like so many in Studies, generated a kind of quantum field of collage dynamics. The tone offers a reassurance – it has a steady pace to it – yet at every turn it contests content, insisting on form’s priority to organize linguistic experience.

He closed with “Stone Angel,” which is a masterpiece, if that word still carries any weight. Without ever sounding lofty, the poem manages to be both magnificent in its elegiac rhetoric and utterly hypnotic. Though at times it reminded me of Rilke, I can think of no poem closer to it than Valery’s “Graveyard by the Sea.” Far more personal than that, it nevertheless maintains, as does Valery, the fragile link between mortal regret and longing and the evanescence of the natural world as it shimmers through its durable forms.