Reviewed By Broc Rossell
- The Cultural Society (2010)
- 128 pages
For all the innovation and diversity in contemporary American poetry, there is a lexicon that can sometimes feel familiar, a predominant voice at once colloquial, elliptic, and discursively metonymic. The other day I heard someone say, “It felt like summer, but it might have just been the last day of the quarter,” and I thought that the implied logic of that statement, and the speaker’s relationship to it, are almost common in our genre today. To say one thing is another by a means that undermines one’s own authority, and in so doing maintain autonomy—is a misdirection that substitutes for actual emotion in a “post-lyrical” poetic economy. It acknowledges that one’s subject is beyond description, and the morality of this stance is derived precisely from its refusal to accept authority, even of (or over) itself. One problem with poetry in America today is that this voice, which is ubiquitous, is not only a productive mode of marvelous poets—after all, “the poet listens and hears intensely as he writes”—but also a refuge for the bloodless, passive poetry that sometimes passes for experimental work.
If you crave a lexical register that is altogether distinct, or if you wish to read a poet who is unafraid to engage a concern with all his might, or to read a real experiment, Peter O’Leary’s Luminous Epinoia is what you’re looking for. The first thing you’ll notice is the material object housing the work: a silver-threaded cloth hardcover, embossed with white foil symbols and sheathed in electric blue endpapers. The next might be epigraphs from Mandelstam, Bachelard, and one Marsilio Ficino, a fifteenth-century humanist philosopher who ushered in the Renaissance by translating Plato into Latin. Notes at the end of the collection explain the title as the gnostic articulation of “creative or inventive consciousness sent to Adam by God in the form of Eve,” or, in contemporary terms, “the most refined mode of consciousness receptive to revelation.”
These clues barely intimate what follows: a poetry that not only evokes the mystico-religious, but revitalizes its lexicon and, as a result, its concerns. The register of Luminous Epinoia might be the most elevated in American poetry since Hart Crane (“The amygdaloidal, animating enclosure / God is”): exalted religiosity, ranging from the exegetical to the epiphanic, completely heteroclite to contemporary poetry—to say nothing of vernacular speech! So strong is the voice and so unusual its themes that one might initially suspect the book to be another conceptual work: a profound misreading. Luminous Epinoia is a collection of acutely felt, deeply invested poems that happen to be written with such lucid, articulate dexterity that one might mistake its concerns for its content.
For all O’Leary’s almost heroic battle to describe the indescribable, the collection is finally devoted to an examination not of the divine itself, but of our relationship to it. In the end, the deity these poems celebrate is the chant itself, the music we send to the skies. In an early poem, “What Could Be More Valuable than the Facts?” O’Leary writes,
Religion is when you find a new vowel
in a book
on your tongue.
O’Leary, the holder of a doctorate in divinity and the executor of Ronald Johnson’s literary estate, is a twenty-first-century poet with a thoroughly gnostic sensibility (he also wrote a fascinating and fittingly titled book of criticism about Robert Duncan called Gnostic Contagion). The traditional gnostic concern of identifying the demiurge, or the creator of the material world, has a long history with poetry, and the word (in addition to the political concerns it also addresses). This gnosticism is both tempered and enflamed by language, so that while Luminous Epinoia seems to be brimming with theological and ontological investigations, a satisfaction with unknowing abides in the work, in the vertiginous swirl of O’Leary’s wordbook. Because we are exploring mystical knowledge, and because the text employs a vernacular that is, while appropriate to its investigations, enigmatic and esoteric, this attitude is initially obscured; one feels as if one must first become versed, or at least familiar, with the terms—poem titles include “Anacoluthic,” “Lepra,” “Agiologos,” “Aera Umbrata,” and “To Epithymitikon (The Soul’s Desiring Power)—before making sense of what’s presented. That, too, would be a misreading; one need not open a dictionary to appreciate the latter half of “Anacoluthic”:
sticking my hand through an opening
nature, scripture an
where it is braced. An interior portion of the box is on a wheel, rotating
like a turbine. — a severing, guillotining motion —
A LADY, HOLY AND ALERT, APPEARED. SHE SAID:
Master, who is this!
STARS UPON HER MOUTH. Awaken.
AND THE SINGER TURNED FOUL, MADE LIMP, THE LADY TORE HER GOWN. THEN HER BELLY WITH A SICKENING SLASHING MOTION
HANDFULS OF VISCERA. EXSANGUINATION.
GAGGING FITS IN THE NOXA. BEGUN AT 14 UNCEASING.
A rotation of the wheel earns a distortion on my wrist. There’s a ball I need to hold onto.
The turbine twists my wrist so that I want to drop the ball. But this I must not do.
“let us find the opening
by which you may enter.”
In addition to the expressive mastery of form evinced here, various quotes in Latin and Greek, references to the mysterious DNA protein XPC, and the use of Greek letter theta Θ as a kind of post-modern typographical marker are contributions to an aural and visual texture that elevates its sense of possibility as much as it does the intelligence of its discourse.
Much of the weight, I think, and beauty that imbues O’Leary’s collection stems from the impression that the poet is keenly aware of the sacrilege these devotions constitute; if the mysteries explored here are often questions fundamental to human experience, they have nevertheless remained questions for as long as we’ve asked them. Like all good poetry, possibility itself, how beautiful the possible might be, is at issue here. Beauty is its own kind of activism, since it shows us what’s at stake. As bright and orchestral as Luminous Epinoia is, its poems are also, among many things, descriptions of silence. “We’re the Word’s simpletons,” writes O’Leary, “ruining the world into an explanation of it we might understand.”
Broc Rossell is a poet from California. He earned degrees from the Iowa Writers Workshop and the University of Denver. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he teaches poetry writing at Simon Fraser University.