Thursday, December 02, 2010

Peter O'Leary: Luminous Epinoia

[Peter O'Leary, February 2008]
We were talking at the pub last night about the sensation of reaching a certain age – a certain point at one's life – where one can see the overall "curve" of the careers of one's culture-heroes – musicians, writers, etc. As usual, I took it as an opportunity to lament impending senility etc. But truth to tell, I don't feel particularly old, or even particularly middle-aged. In some senses, I feel that my poetry has only within the past 5 years or so emerged into what I think of as a "mature" voice; & suspect that a decade from now I might dismiss what I'm writing right now as juvenilia.

I'm comfortable watching poets a few years older than me, folks like my friend Norman Finkelstein, emerge from being pretty damned good poets to being really breathtaking,
big poets – poets I'd mention in the same breath as the great poets of the 1920s or 1930s generation – as Norman's done with his last two books, Scribe (blogged here) and Inside the Ghost Factory.

It's a little more unsettling – but simultaneously exhilarating – when I see one of my coevals breaking forth into something like "major" status. I've known Peter O'Leary for something over a decade. I suspect we hooked up by means of Ronald Johnson's work: I've been writing on Johnson as long as I can remember, and Peter, after corresponding with him for several years, was named Johnson's literary executor upon his death in 1998. (Since then he's lovingly shepherded thru the press a number of Johnson projects:
The Shrubberies, To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems, and a reissue of Radi Os.

I've followed O'Leary's poetry, both in his first two full-length collections,
Watchfulness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001) and Depth Theology (2006), his chapbooks, and his periodical appearances. I was even, I'm proud to say, a press reviewer for his excellent critical study Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. But nothing has prepared me for the impact of his brand new collection from the Cultural Society, Luminous Epinoia.

I haven't even tried to reproduce the cover, as I've yet to see a photo that does justice to this book's visual presentation. It's a Quemadura (Jeff Clark) design, but bears no resemblance to Quemadura's typical combination of slurred visuals and hard-edged, sans-serif lettering. Instead, the book's a jacketless hardcover in blinding silver, etched white repeated designs (snakes, crosses, & stars) surrounding a Gothic "L. E." (The insides, equally scrumptuous, are more recognizably Quemaduran: sans-serif running heads, Gothic epigraphs.) It's a book to be immediately struck by – but the real beauties are inside.

I'll admit that I fall back on comparisons when my critical/descriptive skills falter. What's this book like? Well, imagine a poet whose worldview, and whose visionary tendencies, are akin to those of Dante (in the
Paradiso) or Henry Vaughan; whose vocabulary is as ornate (tho nowhere near as pretentious) as Edward Dahlberg's; and whose sense of form, of diction, and of general poetic movement is near kin to Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, and Nathaniel Mackey. Throw in a generous dash of Freud (& even Jung), an outraged political sensibility, & a kind of deep, radiant, tender humanitas, & you have something like Peter O'Leary.

Not being a believer, I do not write religious poetry. But I do appreciate religious poetry (if I didn't, let's face it, this past semester teaching Milton would have been more than unpleasant), and so far as Christian poetry goes I find a clear distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic poetics. Milton is the great Protestant poet; Geoffrey Hill is the best Protestant poet writing now. Dante is of course the preëminent Roman Catholic poet. (Oddly enough, I read Hopkins, despite his holy orders, as more Protestant than Catholic in his poetics.) Raised as I was in fundamentalist, text-based Protestantism, I relish the wrestle with the law's letter, with the philosophical paradoxes of faith; but I find myself more often than not left cold by the literary manifestations of ecstatic, mystical religious states.

Or rather, I find it hard to mix the religious & the aesthetic. I love visiting ornate churches & cathedrals; but I find myself bulldoggishly resistant to the "beauties" of the service or the mass. I am as low church as low church can be.

But O'Leary's work moves me, and moves me deeply – so deeply I'm puzzled. He is, yes, a Roman Catholic poet, one whose work is redolent of incense and wine, is shot thru with the light of both stained glass windows and the sun; his poems are almost a series of icons, dense with human detail but alight with hammered gold. Like his mentor Johnson, he relishes science's untangling of the physical and chemical bases of our existence – and he finds in them powerful metaphors for the relationship of God to humanity, even – at some head-spinning moments –
explanations of that relationship.

These poems are more personal in many ways than O'Leary's earlier books, including a longish "Spiritual Autobiography" towards the end. It is something of a
Vita Nuova crossed with The Interpretation of Dreams, embedded within the Paradiso of exploration and praise that is the book as a whole. Luminous Epinoia may be one of the stranger titles you're likely to encounter – roughly speaking, it refers to one's creativity, conceived I take it as an emanation or a reflection of the divine creativity – but it shouldn't put off even faithless readers (like this one). It's a terrific, rich, mysterious & moving book. I'm almost moved to devotion; but alas, am quite certainly moved to envy.



E. M. Selinger said...

Lovely, generous post, Mark--I'm ordering it today.

Suggestion: can you make the typeface a bit bigger? It seems smaller than usual in this one.

Mark Scroggins said...

We're having technical difficulties at this end, E. My eyes aren't what they used to be, either...

Anonymous said...

just hold down the "command" key and press the "+"
symbol to enlarge....

get a new bifocal prescription...

adams24 said...

Why is Herbert left out when you name stunning delicious Xtian poets?