Tuesday, January 03, 2017


I haven't been to the annual Modern Language Association conference for maybe six or seven years, but I'll be in Philadelphia later this week. It'll be my first visit in a long time that hasn't been overshadowed by job-market responsibilities and their attendant angst; and of course it'll be my first visit as a recovering academic—though I suppose, since I'm giving a paper at an academic conference, that sort of makes me an academic anyway.

At any rate, I'll be talking about Peter O'Leary's dazzling poem The Sampo. The talk's called "The 'twilight machine': Nonhuman Poetics in Peter O'Leary's The Sampo." Come hear me Thursday afternoon. Here's the first couple of paragraphs:

Peter O’Leary—a devout but profoundly syncretic (perhaps even heterodox) Roman Catholic poet—has long been devoted to investigating the nonhuman. His first three collections, written very much under the influence of his mentor the visionary late modernist poet Ronald Johnson, are explorations of a deity conceived in emphatically non-anthropomorphic terms, if mediated through centuries of religious tradition. In his fourth book, Phosphorescence of Thought (2013), O’Leary brings his poetics to focus as much on the natural world as as the supernatural: this long poem, modeled to some degree on Whitman’s Song of Myself, envisions the processual whole of nature, from the minute details of the poet’s hikes along the Des Plaines river (birds, the movement of water), to the chemical processes of life itself, to the neural transactions by which human beings strive to make sense of their environment, all as a manifestation of deity.
            This ecopoetical shift in O’Leary’s work has ramified in interesting directions in his latest publication, the 2016 narrative poem The Sampo, which adapts passages from the Finnish national epic the Kalevala. This poem marks a number of shifts in O’Leary’s writing. Perhaps most notably, while his earlier poetry takes the lyrical, ruminative, and paratactic forms characteristic of such (broadly speaking) modernist poets as Johnson, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and Wallace Stevens, The Sampo is a narrative poem: and a fantasy narrative, no less, a story that might even be categorized among the much-reviled “sword and sorcery” subgenre of fantasy. 

And it gets better from there...