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Four Chapbooks

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

 

Gaha (babes) Noas (of the abyss) Zorge (become friendly) and “poetic fictions”
Jesse Glass
New Sins Press
ISBN Number: 978097965629

          As its title may not indicate, this wonderfully weird and slippery chapbook is actually two long poems, the first of which is an excerpt from a much longer piece that began as a fairly unorthodox poetic experiment with a rather obscure 17th Century text. As Jesse Glass explains in the introduction to the piece:

         This project was initially begun as a collaboration with the British poet Alan Halsey. Both of us began with copies of A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, by Meric Casaubon (1659), as our common source. This wonderful volume is an edited version of the scrying sessions held in England and in Continental Europe by John Dee and the infamous Edward Kelley between 1583 and 1607. Kelley would gaze into a black, table-tennis paddle-shaped piece of obsidian, or into a smoky crystal ball and relate the visions he saw to Dee, who would write them down. Among proto-surrealistic landscapes and symbolic acts of poppets and monsters, a genuine language called Enochian was dictated to Dee via Kelley…I used a small crystal skull (large enough to lay within my left eye socket), and a crystal ball, and attempted to replicate the conditions of the scrying session  and thereby touch the Enochian well-springs, as it were, of the text.

          Being unfamiliar with both Casaubon’s text (though not with the misadventures of Kelley and Dee, an Elizabethan alchemist and sorcerer), I can’t discuss the interplay between the original text and Glass’s interpretation, though such a study would likely be exciting (and possibly a little unnerving) to undertake. However, the interpretation itself is an enticing and hypnotic read through which I walked more times than I usually do when reviewing a book.

          Typically, when one labels a poem as “dreamlike,” the word is used to indicate a number of qualities readers associate with dreams when awake. The term often connotes strange or surreal imagery such as Dali’s melted clocks or events where logic and cause and effect seem to have come unmoored, like gravity upon a space station. Rarely, however, do people use “dreamlike” as a descriptor for language. Even so, dreams do have a language of their own, a language that frequently exists without the niceties of grammar and syntax but which makes perfect sense to the mind in REM. This is the language in which Glass writes and through which the waking reader must move.

          And while movement is challenging, it is not impossible; however, moving through the poem often requires the reader to take on the same mindset as one does when scrying or when trying to watch the first sprouts of dreams when falling asleep: focused yet at ease and willing to let images come without forcing them into an interpretation. This is the best way, I think, to read passages such as the following one which, like many in the poem, appears to be about an oracle.

          He set a Womans head upon a French Boke, and he promised unto us that the head should reveal which of us was wise & was in love. We that understood not that Pastime were troubled at it, as if that Oracle should be pronounced by help of the Devil, but they that observed the Jest, laughed at it. The business was thus: The Boke stood upon four Pillar, like to feet, and one foot was hollow set under the Boke that was perforated quite through that hole, and all the table was covered with fine Tapestrym that the hole of the Boke should not be seen: upon that place stood the head: the Pavement also in that part had a hole made through, where the hollow Pillar held up the Boke, that from the lower Room to the upper, and from the upper Room to the lower a voice might proceed. Whereupon she that as in the lower Room putting a Pipe into the hollow pillar of the Boke, and setting the other part of the Pipe to her ear, heard with ease what the other in the upper Room asked, and she answered according to his questions.

          Ultimately, I am not sure what to make of Gaha (babes) Noas (of the abyss) Zorge (become friendly) and the equally dreamlike companion “poetic fictions” other than to simply call them an experiment, as Glass himself does later in the introduction. In doing so, I would like to stress that the term “experiment” and “experimental” are not derogatory, despite having become code for poetry that is obscure, pretentious, or “difficult.” Experiments, after all, are the means by which scientists test hypotheses today and were the means by which such alchemists as Dee laid at least some of the groundwork of modern chemistry. Language, too, is an organic human endeavor and should, therefore, be pressed to and beyond its limits regularly, as Glass does here. For this reason, those who can appreciate experimental and daring work should look into the phantom language included in the scrying stones of this book’s pages and let it work its subtle influence.

 

Unio Mystica
Daniel Y. Harris
Cross-Cultural Communications
ISBN Number: 9780893042615

          Whenever I review a book on a subject with which I am only partially familiar or entirely unfamiliar, I like to state my limitations upfront; and when it comes to the Jewish mysticism explored in Daniel Y. Harris’s Unio Mystica, I am on deeply unfamiliar ground. As readers may have noticed (and will see later in this review), I am a Catholic who is more at home with the mystical work of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avilla, and St. Hildegard of Bingen than I am with the Kabbalah, about which my reading has been sparse and ventured little beyond adolescent curiosity. My lack of dialogue with this text is the biggest limitation I face when discussing this chapbook, which is grounded largely in Jewish mysticism, Talmudic commentaries, and rabbinical writings. Though I will proceed as carefully through these gaps in my knowledge as I can, I may still make a number of errors. Thus, I beg the more informed reader’s patience and charity.

          Even with allowances made for my own ignorance, I can say that Unio Mystica is a startling and provocative collection that dazzles both in image and execution, and which, I think, will push most readers (even those familiar with Jewish mysticism) towards dictionaries and encyclopedias of angels and philosophy in order to better engage with its mysteries.

          Helpfully for novice and master alike, Harris has included quotations from the works that inspire each of this chapbook’s thirty-four pieces. Indeed, the following poem often reads like a commentary on the idea or quotation that precedes it. Consider, for example, “Orchard” (which, coincidentally, Harris has dedicated to Cross-Cultural Communications’ founder and publisher Stanley Barkan).

Four entered into the orchard of mystical knowledge: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher and Rabbi Akiva…Ben Azzai looked and died…Ben Zoma looked and was affected mentally…Aher cut down the plants…Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.
                                    —Talmud: Tractate, Hagigah 14b

This is where peace is shaped through declensions
of nothing: Eckhart’s nicht, Saint John of the Cross’s nada,
the Taoist wu, the Buddhist sunyata, and the Kabbalist

ayin. This is where peace is ghost-faint, sun-dark
and sequenced through pardes, the pomegranate orchard,
Edenic alias, where Akiva eyed the mystical shape

of the Godhead. The sacral grid emits the words of Akiva’s
vassals, generations later, and we hear the shibboleths,
idyllic as anyone who emerges unscathed from millennial

hysterics. This is where peace, then, is the colored strand
of yihudim—the future primordial, unified, departing in peace,
which is the arrival, before a name occupies our attention.

          The four holy men mentioned in the Talmudic quotation are the four rabbis of the Mishnaic period, and from what I can understand this account of their visit to paradise (“pardes”) is a fairly famous story. As with all mystical accounts, the story is multilayered, as is the term “pardes.” From what I have gleaned while doing research for this review, pardes is also an acronym that stands for an understanding of the Torah on four different levels: literal/simple, allegorical, comparative, and mystical. It seems to me, then, that the four rabbis symbolize these levels in ascending order. For example, one who understood the Torah on only a literal level would be overloaded in front of the full godhead, and one interested only in dissecting the Torah (the comparative level) would cut down the plants of paradise. Only the mystic (who arrives at this understanding only through mastering the preceding levels) can look on paradise unscathed.

          Although paradise is often conceived of as a place of blithe and rather unremarkable happiness in today’s popular culture, Harris (and these four rabbis) sees it as a far more dangerous plane. It is, Harris explains, a null place, a place of peaceful nothingness that many world religions and their sects speak of and which few individuals can understand without proper reflection. It is a slippery place that names alone cannot describe, as it is often the very act of naming which takes away from or undermines a pardes-like (prerequisite) understanding.

          As you can probably see, Harris’s poetry touches on deep and deeply complicated themes and concepts, and each piece must be read on multiple levels, which means that exploring each poem in any detail requires near-Talmudic commentary. While I would very much like to wrestle with more of the poems in Unio Mystica, doing so would, unfortunately, take up the bulk of space allotted for the other two chapbooks slated to be reviewed. The desire to do so, however, exists, which means, I think, that Harris’s work has accomplished what mystical poetry of all religions sets out to do: invite the reader into meditation, thought, and an openness to sitting with the unknown. This is a dizzying and deeply satisfying book for me simply because it has whetted my thirst for the divine and further contemplation.

 

Only Wings: 20 Poems of Devotion
Donald Lev
Presa Press

          Regardless of the religion or deity it addresses, devotional poetry is typically that which exults in an unshakable knowledge and consistent experience of one’s faith. Rarely is the descriptor applied to the poetry of spiritual struggle and confusion as it is in Donald Lev’s latest chapbook. The twenty short poems between its covers are not so much about the long, dark night of the soul as they are about the struggle to notice that the long, dark night of the soul has indeed descended, and the question as to whether the morning will bring any greater spiritual insight than the moonless sky provides.  Though atypical poems of devotion, they are nonetheless powerful and deeply affecting.

          Lev begins the chapbook with “Within The Pale,” in which the speaker reveals what appears to be not only his religious heritage, but also the gist of his spiritual quest thus far. Here, the speaker laments being unable to sing “with my fellow hasids” in the Russian Pale of Settlement because he does not “[know] their songs or they [know] mine” and tells a skeptical parson that he would “give my right foot to be devout.” Desperate to find both a cultural and a spiritual connection, he then attempts what appears to be a form of conjuration.

                                     I arranged to have
myself stand bootless in the middle of a chalk
circle, each big toe touching the point of a five-
pointed star. I waited for wind to start howling,
for the moon to be eclipsed, for my patience with
life to wear thin as the air in a lecture hall
where the state of the planet is being discussed.

God! Was there never anywhere I could belong?

          The raw shout and the rawer emotion of this last line alone are the perfect argument for the rest of the book, wherein the speaker searches for a place where he can belong spiritually. He gazes upon what appear to be the dolmens of Stonehenge in “Standing,” struggles on his knees up the steps of an unknown temple only to be told to come back tomorrow (“Reaching The First Step”), ponders the juxtaposition of the spiritual and commercial in one of the holiest weeks for Christianity and Judaism (“Good Friday”), and examines a “Holy Palace” on a mountain from the safety of the valley floor when his “car with its moribund transmission” and his arthritic foot refuse to let him make the journey to the top (“Angels”). While one might be tempted to dismiss the speaker for his spiritual waffling and the excuses he provides for not engaging with any particular tradition, his painfully honest self-awareness make doing so impossible.

          In “The Prince,” for example, the speaker lays bare his own faults by comparing himself to The Happy Prince, a character from Oscar Wilde’s fairytale of the same name (Wilde’s two collections of fairytales, incidentally, have deeply Christian themes). The prince in this story is a gilded and bejeweled statue who looks out upon the town and does not see his people’s suffering until he converses with a little swallow perched upon his shoulder. But while the Prince’s story ends with spiritual enlightenment, the story of the speaker in “The Prince” (which is reproduced in full below) only ends in more frustration.

The cold settled like a cloak around my shoulders
and for a moment I felt like a statue, like the
“happy prince”
standing in an icy park blindly watching
his city’s grandeur and disgrace.
But of course I realized I was not him.
I had no eyes of precious jewels
and no bird to tell me of people’s misery;
only my normal near-sightedness, and my stinginess.

          As a life-long Catholic, my own religious practice and the baggage it has accumulated over the years may be forcing me into an overly Christian interpretation of this poem. Even so, as an adherent of a religion that focuses on individuals’ sinfulness and encourages frequent confession and examination of conscience, I know how difficult it can be to recognize and admit one’s failings as the speaker in “The Prince” does here. The fact that he does so with humility, grace, and beauty is what makes this poem and others in this collection so moving. Lev’s speaker is not a privileged postmodern tourist, trying on and casting off religions when they fail to give him immediate gratification or perfectly match his self-tailored worldview. Instead, he is truly a pilgrim who thinks deeply on questions of spiritual weight and turns away in grief that he cannot have enough faith, that he cannot measure up, that he cannot find anywhere to belong.  

          In this way, the poems of Only Wings are some of the most deeply devotional and spiritual I have ever read, particularly in this era during which devotional poetry (at least for Christians; I can’t speak for any other religion) seems to consist so overwhelmingly of stories of triumph and unshakable faith. I am reminded in reading this chapbook of what draws me again and again to the Psalms of King David, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the writings of St. John of the Cross, and the essays and poems of gays and lesbians exiled from a number of denominations due to their sexual orientations. Faith is a cheap and fragile thing indeed if it is arrived at with little question or concern, and the fact that Lev’s speaker does not abandon his search when it ends again and again in grief makes these poems of doubt, disenchantment, and disconnection reassuring, even life-giving.

 

Commodity Fetishism
Susan Lewis
Cervena Barva Press
ISBN Number: 9780692006429

          The title of Susan Lewis’s newest chapbook hints that the poetry within will center upon capitalism and its discontents, but in this it is deceptive. Rather, these twenty-four short prose poems explore the niggling concerns that haunt a society beset by “late-Capitalist ennui”: pettiness, boredom, romantic struggles between men and women, self-obsession, and, of course, fetishism of commodities. Although these matters can often be grave ones,  Lewis nonetheless spins a critique of contemporary life in the U.S. that is as humorous and whimsical as it is pointed, and her light touch makes this chapbook eminently readable and entertaining.

          In exploring capitalism’s obsession with goods, for example, Lewis spins a Kafkaesque fable in the book’s title poem (here reproduced in full), the conceit of which is similar to that of Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist.”  The result is a story that gleefully mocks and melds the excesses of postmodern art installations and reality TV on the one hand while on the other exploring the individual and collective damage our bottomless entitlement and our equally unending demand for entertainment inflict.

Because he abhorred the notion of work, the young man turned his home into a museum, offering his life as the sole exhibit. Although at first there were few visitors, the curious were given to repetitive, even compulsive, attendance. Soon their devotion became contagious, and the museum’s patrons grew in number, especially as the exhibits explored themes such as Restless Yearning, Acceptance, and Doubt. By the time Reexamination was put up, scores of disappointed viewers had to be turned away. When Resignation made way for Peaceful Detachment, the public rioted, insisting the museum never close. Tearful strangers mobbed the old man with their grief and unreasonable need, forcing him to retreat the only way he could.

          Lewis continues her playfully serious deconstruction of contemporary living through poems about ennui (“Sometimes”), greed (“The Appointment”), the vicissitudes of dating (“Courtship”), and narcissism. Indeed, the latter concept is the axis upon which this chapbook turns, as evinced by Lewis’s dedication to a trio of poems on the subject,  in which she portrays the vice as a nexus of personal insecurity, societal conditioning, and, in “Introduction to Narcissism (III),” an ugly survival skill.

The point is, self-awareness confers little evolutionary advantage. We are not wired for objectivity. What’s more, the pain is relentless, staying with you longer than any friend or flattering memory.

          If all of Commodity Fetishism’s poems had focused upon playfully skewering human foibles, the book as a whole would have been an amusing and marzipan-light Horatian satire. But Lewis and her editor made a very smart move in seasoning the collection with just a hint of sober beauty in the form of “Half-Life,” which focuses on death, that most sobering fact of all. The poem follows the descent of a snowflake (perhaps a wry take on the tired assertion that people, like snowflakes, are special because they are one of a kind). The snowflake has “little time to be flabbergasted by” the world before landing on the back of a dog and perishing into water as the dog enters a house and trots up to its mistress. As the woman rubs her pet’s head, Lewis meditates upon not only the obvious uniqueness of each human life, but the lack of fanfare upon that life’s evaporation by creatures who will suffer the same fate.

She examined the moisture on her skin as if she was looking for some sort of sign, a remnant of that exquisite structure never witnessed or appreciated, and never to be repeated. Then she dried her hand on her sleeve, and resumed her own frenetic, multifaceted, and utterly absorbing process of decay.

          Commodity Fetishism is an exquisitely funny and sharp chapbook—a joy to read and a collection that has much to offer fans of Kafka and Dostoevsky, whose blends of bleakness and humor Lewis has down pat. The poet’s sense of whimsy and her frequent journeys into exaggeration will also delight those readers who appreciate magic realism and the trends that movement has inspired.


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