Book Review

At the start of the twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor tried to reconcile what he referred to as mysterium ineffable—the comingling of body and spirit within the human form. In his numinous text, De unione corporis et spiritus, the theologian supposed that, while the distance between the two substances is great, there are unseen channels through which “the body rises, and the spirit descends. . . . Think of Jacob’s ladder: it rested on earth and its top touched the Heavens.” Some eight hundred years later, it is this same mystic, ineffable, unknowable distance to which David Mutschlecner’s Icon affixes his reader’s attention.

Rather than engage the void as one to be filled or understood, the poet settles us in an effervescent unknown. Mutschlecner writes:


The questions

racing in
to the blackness

break up
and do not

come out
as answers

On the multitudes contained by the poem, discursivity gives no purchase—the “syllogistic stairs” lead nowhere. Just as cosmologists find planets through the pull they exert on their parent stars, so must we as readers search for answers by attending to the larger questions that they orbit. As the philosopher Robert Musil writes, “Whoever seizes the greatest unreality will shape the greatest reality.” Mutschlecner has cast the widest possible net into “unreality,” shaping the space between two candle flames, between rain-soaked pages, between form and body, between desire and the object thereof.

In charting these distances, the poet turns often to his predecessors. The ghost of William Blake lurks in the phenomenological movements of “Between Two Candles,” as does H.D. in Mutschlecner’s evocation of “Beatrice / Athena.” The poet accrues and pairs disparate figures, stitching them together through “anamnesis” as Doolittle did Isis, Astarte, and the Virgin Mary—figures of history that become phantasms of one another, that assert a mystic cyclicality of lives, minds, and myths. Aeschylus, Dante Alighieri, and Herman Melville’s words braid with those of Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Emma Jung. As Mutschlecner himself offers, in the course of this work, “Past present and future collapse / like three sliding cylinders / of a telescope.” As the complex of voices deepens, the net of questions blooms.

In reading Icon, in speaking with these thinkers so intimately as to almost feel their breath, we are like Mutschlecner’s swaying cottonwoods—our minds “full / of beautiful wind.” Evoking both Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan in his work, it is clear that Mutschlecner ascribes to that most salient insight of the former’s letters to the latter, “I believe—there’s room for it all, all, anything—no matter—if life informs it.” Icon makes room for it all—his poems’ ceilings are vaulted; their chambers are spare—and insist that the readers occupy that space themselves.

Across the book, Mutschlecner cradles his layered world “in words that are naked,” in a coherent poetic integrity, with images that melt authentically into the folds of his ideas. Seams show only in those moments at which the poet draws our attention to them—to compel us to think reflexively on the words at hand, or elsewhere, to place the poet himself in the work. As he writes:

but to be present
where love is the form

to be
a worker in the Work

Within this industrious text, Mutschlecner is nothing if not a “worker.” Those poems that involve the most intimate “I” are also those of the utmost humility and toil, as in “The Sculptor of Sleep”:

All afternoon I worked on the bronze statues with a steel brush, cleaning off the excess wax that had left a white sheen as of milk or soap streaking in the waves and folds of metal robes, pooling in the pockmarks, pallor sinking into the tooled grooves and flecking the smooth uplifted faces

Moments like this speak to the fundamental ethics of the poet. Mutschlecner’s task is not only to create, but also to maintain, to restore, to apprentice himself to the piece at hand. One is reminded of works like The Cloud of Unknowing, of the monks whose devotion to God so exceeded ego as to leave their luminous books unauthored. For Mutschlecner, it is nearly the same; all meaning is shared with the bygone artisans to which the poet is at once custodian, guardian, and inheritor.

This toil, Mutschlecner knows, is an ultimately futile one. As he writes, “The rain / will treat all books the same.” Thankfully, the poet’s metaphysics exceed time. In the fleeting present of the poem, nestled in the edifice of his predecessors, Mutschlecner endeavors “To speak from the hollow of Love’s grail”; to discover meaning in the statues, the predella, the “great bronze baptismal font” to which he tends; to find in himself the humility needed to learn from what he cannot understand, across moments onto which he cannot hold.

Where Mutschlecner himself appears in the text, he fulfills that vital promise that he makes to the reader:

Let me speak freely
of what I do not know

and in so speaking
know you



Across its varied concerns, Icon is a book invested in image. Some of the most striking are found within Mutschlecner’s examination of the archetypal tree—variously apple, cottonwood, locust. The poet writes:

The locust tree dreamed
in spiny tufts
of inch-long thorns
purplish against the gray bark, hard
as ironwood

Within the locust tree, as within each of the poet’s transcendent images, the reader is called to find “The signified / dreams / beneath the sign.” Polysemous visions—extensions of that greater void—impregnate each image with its meaning, rippling out to serve the poem proper. Within the tree, one finds the Edenic “leafy mind of God,” the Norse Yggdrasil, the site of the crucifixion, and the human body itself, forming in the mind of the reader a palimpsestic dream catalyzed by the poet’s own vision.

And so, “The locust tree dreamed,” calls forth Miltonic Adam’s sleep and “fancy,” from which—to quote the poet Dan Beachy-Quick—“to wake is to find it true.” Just as Jacob dreamed his ladder, just as H.D. and Dickinson and Duncan dreamed theirs, Mutschlecner’s work offers his audience a singular picture of this oneiric expanse. More so, it offers the foot- and handholds for each of us to close the ineffable distance into which the poet writes. It is for the reader as it was for Adam—to turn from Mutschlecner’s Icon to the world that it questions, illuminates, and obscures, is to wake and find it true.

About the Reviewer

Daniel Schonning is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. His work has appeared previously in Seneca Review.