Book Review

Enigma and Light by David Mutschlecner, reviewed by Timothy David OrmeIf a poet’s work is words—the words that call forth the sun, that cause the sun—the poet’s work must be a site of divination, a place where the poem both creates and causes the world. “I divine from what’s under the sun / the poem’s first cause.” Like the world of the mind, the work of the poet is infinite, “a complex gestural nest,” but also “an empty nest holding claim / on us,” a work that is “a place in us we fill and fail to fill.” A poet knows there is a knowledge that failure sustains, and bravely sends a voice into the void, into the world, as an attempt to recover an irrecoverable eros, all the while knowing that recovery is always lost at the moment of its greatest realization. Language betrays the world only to return us to it. The poem is not only the site of that desire, but the space wherein that desire enacts itself. In David Mutschlecner’s fourth book, Enigma and Light, that desire becomes a work of rigorous intellectual and poetic inquiry, a work of a transcendent lyric poetry that, in its inscribing, both weaves and unweaves the very nest of its existence.

In this book, the poet’s work is never epiphanic, but instead Platonic, dialectic. It’s a work whose poems bring together two thinkers (poets, philosophers, visual artists, etc.) within each title (“Gertrude Stein / Agnes Martin,” or “Charles Burchfield / John Henry Newman”). These titles establish the primary actors of the conversation (but these conversations are frequently visited by others—for example, Pound and his “radiant gist” are always close to the work’s thought), holding the two thinkers together in one title whose slash recalls the sign for a poem’s line break: Here the schism connects.

This is not a poetry that pits one thinker against another, but a conversation that does its greatest work by allowing each voice to interact with another. Through that interaction the voice of the poet is birthed. In a poem such as “Robert Duncan / Dante Alighieri,” the poetic speaker must not only place word against world, idea against thing, but also risk conflation of the poet’s voice with the voices in dialogue (and by extension, all voices); the poet here risks finding a position for the self in a world of constant becoming:

The poem is always all quotes,
the whirling of a thousand voices from a poet who was not afraid
to call himself derivative and dilettante.

These poems know that the poet is always dilettante, that the voice of the lyric poet is never a voice wholly one’s own, but that it always becomes another, always consumes itself in “a vision / where sight arises from its pyre.”

The Pyrrhic nature of Enigma and Light is almost palpable as the work eschews any kind of didactic impulse in favor of the image, the locus where the ideas can move from “thing to thing, / from whole to whole.” In “Martin Heidegger / Ezra Pound [An Enigma Lies a Priori in Every Relation],” the poet’s observation of “buffalo grass” that “edges / the parking lot” leads to a “question of being,” specifically Heidegger’s notion of “dasein,” which the poet ties not directly to himself but to the “cyclic / lyric spun … self- / searcher … The front man / in the heavy metal band” who also “runs along the jetty from the stage.” This brightly lit front man “sings / at the center of incredible volume / of which he is a part,” and yet the audience also becomes his voice. It is through this wireless, unconnected rock star’s performance that the poem realizes:

We have done our best;
we have come
close as we can
to severing being

from meaning, seemingly
unaware that once
the tendon is cut,
both are lost to us.

And yet the poet continues to probe this edge of voice, self, and object (“the undistorted / presencing of the thing”) until the front man’s voice is “lost / in a stillness that reclaims us / even while the solo sears us.” It is “Alethia,” which the poet translates for us as “revealingness,” but that also translates as truth, disclosure. The poet names again: “Alethia: / a flower’s name / when opening,” and one thinks of Oppen’s sense that “the emotion which creates art is also the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose.”

The poetry in Enigma and Light is ekphrastic, but it’s also work aware of the chain of words that, calling one thing by any name, leads to a clarity that isn’t some kind of clear vision. Nor do the poems lead to a reclamation of either the word or the world’s meaning. Each poem, committed to its thinking, acknowledges what it does and does not know. This movement is like a branching of concentric circles, each extending into another’s circumference, a Venn diagram whose overlapping area becomes somehow not smaller as more variables are introduced, but larger. Each poem must work not to its end, but to its next thought, an utterance made possible by adding another voice, another poem to the conversation.

This work understands that knowledge is in the work toward itself and is always able to discover its own dithering path, a path filled with both enigma and light, that which is inscrutable, complicated, and yet still illuminated.

About the Reviewer

Timothy David Orme is a writer and filmmaker. His first book of poetry, Catalogue of Burnt Text, is available through BlazeVOX Books. His second book, Oponearth, will be published in 2013, also by BlazeVOX Books. A chapbook of the first chapter of Reflummuxology: Or, A Navel Inverse, his novel, is currently available through Alice Blue Books.