Ezra Pound (in)famously defined the epic as a “poem including history.” Julian Gewirtz’s debut collection, Your Face My Flag, whose poems unflinchingly include—as Pound’s Cantos actively sought—overlaps in Economics and Power as they’ve played out both in China’s global ascendency and our increasing dependence on the technologies produced there, technologies that hide the human cost of their manufacture behind a sleek façade, complicating that equation. Wonderfully enough, Gewirtz’s collection is no epic, nor does it want to be. Instead, these poems revitalize an aspect of lyric poetry easily lost sight of—not that a poem must include history, but that a poem occurs within history and against it, too. We live our lives in the theater of large forces in whose machinations we are a mere calculation, but lyric embeds within itself a human resistance to such totalizing systems, roots us in the old economy, those complexities of the human heart and all it desires and fears, love primary among them. Algorithm that. It’s this level of the human itself, the I, the you, I-you, that sings indelibly in this vision, as in “Aubade, as the Addressee” where Gewirtz writes:
. . . human
turning toward me over small
distances, seconds, sunrise a small
white sheet on the floor and you speak
the first words of the day to me, your voice
a shaking hand, clink of two quarters
folded in, and loosely, the cool of them,
the smell of them, can’t get it out—human
I say in sunlight and shrug.
The aubade might be not only the signal form here, but a kind of grammatical mood—every poem cast in the light of love’s long goodbye, no glib claim of the post-human, but instead, a deeply felt portrait of utmost human feeling on the edge of endangerment. Perhaps the poem most emblematic of our condition is “To X (Written on this Device You Made),” written in response to the suicides at Foxconn facilities, and fully aware of the moral complicities it bravely explores, the hypocrisy (or is it the necessity?) of writing poems on devices that deny the humanity they promise to record:
your village you
miss her free
garden of plums
ravenela a language
screws Do you type
your poems in it
lychee verbena. Bougainvillea
In this world where even the weather can be weaponized (see “Own Weather”), Gewirtz writes lyrics not to spite history, but despite it. His vision recalls Wallace Stevens’s definition of lyric work: “A violence within that protects us from a violence without.” The hope here isn’t to resolve or absolve us of our human complexity, but the ethic is better: to keep it open.
History haunts Keith Jones’s Echo’s Errand much differently. Perhaps that difference is figured in Echo herself, nymph Hera cursed to have no words but those others say, body wasted away to nothing but her voice, as she pined away for love of Narcissus, who pined away for love of himself. Echo as primary speaker teaches us to understand that our own words are but repetitions of words already spoken—and that the Western ideal of the self-willed, self-made self, whose language is emblem of sui generis being is an illusion our own words foist upon us, promising individuality where there is only an anonymous collective. Worse, our words don’t get us what we want. We love something unable to love us back, as if every verb were secretly intransitive, and we find ourselves weird witnesses to desire gone fatally astray.
Jones’s moral concerns move backward through the monstrosities of our history, from Vietnam to Jim Crow South to slavery to Middle Passage to wars on the cusp of recorded time—Xenophon in retreat with his 10,000 men. “Blown Rake of Tears” exemplifies both voice and how large concerns fill it:
or do they, or are they, she says,
loss you can do
to silence, silence
worsens the roar,
wake of wave,
to the void. a tired
“four Black girls,”
napalm. cruel mounds
where the heart-wrench
is, where wrong
is, where wrong
lies in fields
& seas, un-
I quote at length for many reasons, not the least of which is to offer a sense of Jones’s voice, the quicksilver lyric fragment that floats in the midst of its own utterance before the helpless collapse back into content, back into the fact of its heartache, its care. Those “confessions / from above” seem both a quiet repudiation of the gods who let such violence happen in the world below their impervious power, and Echo’s own condition, in which every word ever said is somehow still spoken in the air—and if so, then every cry of help, every injustice caught however briefly in words, continues to speak. The wrongs that lie “in field / & seas, un- / buried” are exhumed yet again with every utterance, measureless above us, depthless below.
It’s an honest vision whose heaviness could go bleak if not for the lyric power imbuing bright hope within history’s darkness. It’s a hope that one’s life isn’t an inheritance of pain, but life—our own, our children’s—still unfolds into possibility. “Reft Ground” explores just such a rupture:
a star in her ignited a little rose
more than what theology means
bound to no epistle
a covenant that broods,
declares itself a nursery.
nebulous what one finds
said difficulties in—that things
do occur & do so birth
It’s a rare poetry that feels the reverberations of humanity’s long harming and being harmed, and yet can also vibrate with a nearly cosmic hope. The star that ignites in us a rose attends to universal cycles of destruction and creation—the nebula that is the death-shroud of one star is the nursery of many others. Stoic as such hope might be, it stands in great stead to “Kitty Genovese” mentioned in “Blown Rake of Tears” above. Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City coming home late from her bar job in March 1964. Early accounts of the crime claimed that thirty-eight people witnessed the murder, and not one called the police or intervened. While those claims were later disproved, such speculation makes us wonder who isn’t, if we’re honest with ourselves, a guilty bystander? But Jones’s poems also remind us that we’re more than passive witness—like Echo herself, we’re strange participant in trying to find a way to articulate our own life, with means meager but real as these words and “a little rose.”
In 1903, Jane Ellen Harrison wrote A Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, a book that upended classical scholarship by recognizing that beneath the clear, rational light of Olympian religion, something much darker, more superstitious, more haunted, more violent lurked—propitiations of ghosts, sacrifices of aversion, meant not to honor the gods, but to avoid them. John Tipton’s new translation from Ancient and Koine Greek, Believers, both emphasizes the point and furthers it, turning back to the god Dionysus, rooted in Greece but of Thracian origin, and extending Harrison’s vein of thinking to Christianity. Tipton’s method stuns in its direct juxtaposition, fusing together over seven sections dialogue from Euripides’s The Bacchae and The Gospel of Mark. In the former’s case, we witness Pentheus, King of Thebes, who does not believe Dionysus a god, even as the women of the city participate in the Bacchic revels, his mother, Agave, among them; even as Semele (Pentheus’s aunt) pregnant by Zeus, is the god’s mother. But Pentheus is fascinated by what he wants to deny, a nearly erotic curiosity undermines his iconoclasm:
They say a stranger has come
from the east who performs wonders.
He has lovely fragrant yellow curls.
Aphrodite smiles from winedark eyes
and day and night he tempts
young women with his ecstatic mysteries.
If I capture him he’s done.
I’ll stop this clapping and shaking.
I’ll cut off that pretty head.
And he does capture the god, not that he’s savvy enough to know it—thinking he has in his hands but an acolyte. Section 3, “Secrets,” is comprised in part of Pentheus’s ignorant interrogation of the god:
But tell us: Who are you?
I can tell you that simply:|
You know Tmolus, covered in wildflowers?
Of course—the country around Sardis.
I’m from there. I’m a Lydian.
And this religion—where’s it from?
The son of God sent me.
Some other Zeus . . . with new children?
The same one who married Semele.
He possesses you in your dreams?
He appears to those who see.
That phrase, “the son of God,” haunts Believers. Jesus echoes immediately in the mind. It’s a miracle of a strange sort, but a miracle nonetheless, to feel in the deep mythos of the imagination a Venn-diagram overlap of Dionysus and Jesus, these sons of gods who are themselves God, the nature of disbelief cast against the nature of belief, either position as troubling as its opposite. That overlap is neither Olympic rite nor Christian faith, but something in between, some composite for which I have no word, that mirrors back to us something of what it is to need to believe—it’s a troubling mirror.
The Gospel of Mark is filled with Jesus’s miracles. As is Euripides’s The Bacchae filled with the miracles of Dionysus. In the fifth section of Believers, “Madness,” I felt most shaken by Tipton’s vision—a vision all the more potent for never being uttered by any kind of authorial voice. He simply lets the voices speak against one another until the speak together:
There was in the hills nearby a large drift of hogs foraging.
And Legion pleaded with him” Send us to the hogs. Send us to them.
And he complied. And the unclean spirits left the man and entered the hogs and drove the drift over a cliff into the sea, about two thousand, and they drowned in the sea.
The juxtaposed text from Euripides that follows brings us Dionysus, who has freed himself from his fetters, and having convinced Pentheus to dress up as a woman, is preparing him to go and spy on the holy frenzy he both despises and would give anything to see. It is a trespass that ends in his own mother carrying his severed head back to the city, thinking she has killed a lion, torn limb from limb with her bare hands. But the Gospel resumes:
And the swineherds fled and saw the possessed man whom Legion held sitting clothed and sane. And they were afraid.
It is that fear I’ve been carrying with me since finishing Believers. That being “afraid.” The fear of what God is or a god can do. Fear of wanting God or a god. Fear of wanting to be a believer myself. Tipton accomplishes what few translations from ancient literature can hope to manage—usher is into the timeless now of utmost human condition.
About the Reviewer
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent books include Arrows, and a collection of ancient Greek lyric poems, Stone-Garland. His work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations, and he teaches at Colorado State University, where he is an University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.