Attention Span 2009 – Rachel Blau DuPlessis
I recently had the pleasure of blurbing (to say it more politely, offering a back jacket comment for) a book about varieties of spiritual experience presented in contemporary US poetries, all people writing long poems. And they are all poets working “on the dark side of the force”—am I getting tired of the debates among experimental, post-avant, avant-garde, innovative—or what? Norman Finkelstein’s book, to come out from Iowa in 2010, is called On Mt. Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry, and it talks quite lucidly about Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson, Nathaniel Mackey, Armand Schwerner, and Susan Howe. The list made me start wondering—were there more women writing long poems who were spiritual or who were variously interested in the sacred? I started thinking who some of them could be.
Turns out That Anne Waldman has just published (Penguin, 2009) a rather rousing and moving book, one long work, called Manatee/Humanity, with quite a striking cover by Kiki Smith. It is spiritual in the sense of being drawn from and mimetic of a ritual, and it is a haunting, incantatory book. Among its features is the articulation of human evolution in the voice of (probably) our foremother “Lucy.” Another is the pooling of thoughts and feelings within the poet’s consciousness in her identifying with—being spoken to and through– a manatee (a large water mammal, very gentle and playful, whose habitats are—whose existence is–endangered). Actually, the piece (hybrid and total) is pierced with voices from all sectors of the universe, from under water, from outside the galaxy, from our evolutionary past and our present. It seriously considers the question of human survival, and in a sense is one outcry, direly mixed between a scream and a hope. Waldman’s commitments to a transformational poetics as spiritual would make her and her books part of my (imagined) “next volume” of a book about long poems by writers invested in the sacred.
United States writers are not the only ones who have recently articulated an interest in the spiritual. Turns out that Anne Blonstein has just published her tenth book of poetry, The Butterflies and the Burnings (Dusie Press, 2009). Blonstein is a British national, living for the past years in Switzerland where Dusie is also based. This is another book length work approaching the question of the spiritual, quite differently, although, like Waldman’s poem it is similarly research based. This is a book of vocation—I mean this both as poetic vocation, but also as an investigation of the vocation of religious figures. In a wonderful pun (the scintillation of poetic surface is one feature of Blonstein’s work), she is “unfolding the vulvate” (108). She tracks mainly Catholic women saints—most of them from the long medieval period, but some across the ages. Along with—and this is important, as Holocaust materials figure strongly for Blonstein—the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was one of the few German clergymen who resisted Hitler publicly and tried to help overthrow him, and he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. Blonstein’s poem sequence to and through him is one of the high points of this unusual book, which dazzlingly animates a variety of spiritual figures and saints, from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Mary the Egyptian. Among the most striking works are dialogues or closet dramas—they would make really interesting radio plays (the Gertrude-gertrude-gertrude text is notable). The works are as if monologues from the surreal or post-real parts of their consciousnesses. All were sorely tested, all were visionaries, and the construction by Blonstein of a sense of a shimmering field of possibility amid their pain is remarkable.
We could also move to Canada for another spiritual long poem work. And this one is not a new book. In fact, it startled me to see that this year is its tenth anniversary. But the point about poetry is that sometimes one actually returns (gasp!) to something loved and admired so that it may strike you again. In this case, it’s Erin Mouré’s double titled work A Frame of the Book (shadowed by the title The Frame of A Book), published way back in 1999 by House of Anansi Press. This is a work, which, like Robin Blaser’s oeuvre, speaks of the erotic as an infusing power that is, by definition, spiritual. Not leading to the spiritual, but in itself spiritual, in the sense of self-transcending, and transformative. The frame of the book is love, sexual love, desire, physical longing, emotional yearning, amor loin and amour fulfilled. Jouissance is, here, an intellectual fulfillment too. In fact, body, mind and spirit are not riven, but made as one. That is a remarkable fact about the impact of Mouré’s language and book-construction (she both breaks the book open and rebuilds it, realigning its components, including typography, page-space, part-whole relations like top and bottom of the page, norms of where things go). This book is filled with diagrams, footnotes, different (from English) languages, “theory,” and in a way is an experiment with (noting an important statement from Lyotard that Mouré cites) inventing idioms that don’t yet exist for feelings of passionate suffusion. It is a remarkable book of the Book, almost a midrash on desire.
Well, I will circle round in this briefest comment on long poems and book-length works that show a variety of spiritual practices (as a case in point by contemporary Anglophone women) to come to something odd, perhaps, but anyway, as in the majority of Finkelstein’s examples, something by a US male poet whose whole career has been devoted to the long poem. I’d call this one a walking meditation. Putting one foot in front of the other, step by step, with every step (strange metaphor!) as if a slightly different pebble, carefully crafted out of generally unadorned language, and placed in a long row, and reaching a long way into naming without ever arriving at a destination. It is the journey that is the spiritual practice. I am referring to Ron Silliman’s Ketjak (1974—this year being its thirty-fifth anniversary), a work recently republished within a grouping of four works (and “satellite texts”) called The Age of Huts (University of California Press, 2007). This work is the mother lode of Silliman’s practice, the discovery that “You could start almost anywhere and find anything” (45), which I would call not only “sociological” or “historical” (etc.) but also spiritual. That is because his writing denominates what is. What is, in language. Every sentence has been fabricated; most look at the world, a few look at language (puns, tricks of resemblances) or at his own writing process (physical and mental). It is an account of “this this this this” (89), and it thereby shows a remarkable patience and ambition at once, a patience with what is seen (sometimes felt or remembered) and an ambition to offer it up in words, one thing after another, without hierarchy or flurries of affect, but simply as a deictic meditation. To look at in language, as Creeley said. “Thinking of the practice” (65).