Daniel Y. Harris
The Underworld of Lesser Degrees
NYQ Books

Reviewer: Ricardo Nirenberg

          Our modern esthetics of space began around 1890, when Heinrich Hertz detected the electromagnetic oscillations predicted by Maxwell. Until that time, space had been a determinant both of difference (as that which lies between different bodies) and of identity (bodies occupying the same portion of space had to be the same); however, when I was a child and learned how by turning a bakelite knob one could go from The Shadow to Artie Shaw, how Carlo Butiwould slowly intrude, blend, melt, then vanish into Lady Patachou, and all of that with me staying at the same spot in our living room, space became layered—a variegated, inexhaustible collage. Pascal was terrified by the eternal silence of those infinite spaces: we need not be, for we are aware that no portion of space is ever silent or ever empty.

          Harris is a master of the poetic scissors. Right on the front cover of this new book we see his “Lilith on the Stairs” (mixed media sculpture and installation, 2001): unlike Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2,” which is a showcase of abstract rationality, Harris’s Lilith, a demon whose course leads to the under shades, is a garish cut-and-paste doll with crimson esophagus. Toward the center of the book we find an homage to Jess Collins, earlier master of the cut-and-paste technique, and in it a fond description of Harris’s original instrument:

I have ten pairs of scissors, Jess.

I had only one when I saw my first Jess. A Fiskars. I have kept
that pair though it is dull and rusted, the orange loops bow to
the metal ring next to a clevis pin. Most affectionately yours.

          The book opens with a bestiary of infernal monsters, all or most (I suspect) companions of Lilith as told in Isaiah 34. This Lilith on the stairs is definitely going down, to the Underworld. Here then, at the beginning, we experience that which, far from being a paradox, is emotionally real: our infinitely layered modern space, nowhere silent, nowhere empty, is also and at the same time our oldest space, that which is told in the oldest myths of the Sumerian & Akkadian Lilith or Inanna, the grim space to which we are all driven and from which no one returns. In our hearts, the newest and the oldest are the same. The ancient beasts—griffins et al—are provided with state-of-the-art cybernetics —“hybrid bots,” “hybrot skull, plasma spine, nano heart.” Harris takes delight (is that the word?) in cutting-edge technical terms.

          Not that this hell is lacking in the more traditional elements, shit among them, just as in Dante’s Inferno XVIII.  In the poem “Holy Shit,” Harris offers a bit of Lesser Degree anthropology:

—that we aren’t one of His
bad moods, but rather His dysentery bursting

after climax between davar and breshit…

          In Greek these last two words became logos and archē; we humans, His latest and supreme creation, are archetypically logorrheic, and again and again this poetry forces us to confront our oral dysentery.

          But to be thus forced we have to work hard: Harris is not an easy poet; I don’t hesitate to call him esoteric. Reading poetry, more often than not, fully to catch or to be caught in the web of classic mythical reference and allusion, it is enough to be familiar with the Bible, Hesiod, the epics, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses; with Harris, in addition to those and besides other scholarly skills, you have to be a Talmudist versed in Kabbalah, as you can see in this “letter” addressed to “Dear Yahweh”:

I erase traces
of theogony. I replace exegeticals with rebuses,
desperate to identify sinews that connect
the burdens of our names.

—me the fissure, the dark chasm,
groping for a rib, which is The Book—to
count the letters, the veins—the hapless
jubilo of distress, that I, Rayin Lev,
make of your monodies of trust.

          However much or little we can pin down by way of reference, we can’t miss the deep music here, surging upward, a tune almost prophetic in its ethical inwardness—Harris’s own monody of trust.

          Yes, surging upward: after the cyber beasts, the shit, and the hopelessness of the underworld, the tone of the poems changes, though not suddenly, not continuously, rather in cut-and-paste, and reaches the peace and beauty of, for example, “Orchard”:

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.

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

          Rabbi Akiva, according to the Talmudic story Harris quotes, was the only one of four sages who were admitted to the “orchard of mystical knowledge,” survived, and “departed in peace.” Let us add that “sequenced through pardes” refers primarily to the rabbinic fourfold interpretative system of the Torah, Pardes (akin to Dante’s four levels described in his Epistle to Can Grande); Rabbi Rashi in his commentary suggested that in the orchard (which in Hebrew is called pardes) “the mystical shape of the Godhead” is visible. The Hebrew pardes comes originally from the Avestan (Northeastern Old Iran) and is first cousin of the Qur’an Arabic firdaws, of our English paradise, and of course of Italian paradiso. Yihudim is the Kabbalistic art of “untying the knots of the soul,” in the prophetic kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia: once those knots are untied, the soul is free to join the Infinite One. A few years later Dante too, in his own testimony, performed the soul untying in una selva oscura.

          Till here my unschooled sight will go. That last line in “Orchard”: “which is the arrival, before a name occupies our attention,” I must mull, perhaps forever—what it says in Kabbalah and what it says about poetry.

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