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Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.


diatomhero: religious poems

The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?

It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:

“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.

The good ones are absorbed into His system,

And the bad ones pass right through it

And drop out into Hell,

Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.

Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed

Inside the camera of the body for so long.”

Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.

But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):

I was two places at once:

One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into

Oneness, like an inkblot,

The other sketching the actual picture,

Past and present lives

Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.

After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:

Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,

A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,

“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.

I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.

This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.


Digressions on God

The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:

Today I will have a conference with God,

And then I will boil a potato.

Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.

As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.

So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says

One must find the most reasonable solution

to the problem of despair.

One must come to some conclusion about God

without upsetting

the order of ordinary miracles.

What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:

I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,

reovering lost memories in the stench

of fih markets, finding hidden meaning

in a city train.

I am consoling your busted heart

in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride

which plagues my spirit. I am mad

with the desire to go mad with desire.

Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.

PHOTO by Marco Muñoz.

I’m going to put the next few terms under the larger sweep of synecdoche, a word that is dangerous to delve into since theorists and language experts, in their mania to confine, have proven themselves enemies of it: synecdoche, in its Greek form, is an amazingly useful and valuable term. It pretty much means: “It’s understood.” And we can break “it’s understood” down into three or four classes:

1. It’s understood that the part means the whole: “The arm of the state.”
2. It’s understood that the whole means the part: “The state called today and said I owe them my first child.”
3. It’s understood that it’s not to be taken in a hyperbolic way, although said in a hyperbolic way: “She’s a wreck.” This third one is so close to metaphor that you could call it that if you wanted to be a jerkwad, but it’s a shabby metaphor that, in this conversational situation, works much better than a well polished metaphor: “She is a graceful sloop splintered upon the merciless waves of misfortune.” (Yeah, right.)
4. It’s understood in terms of object, time, space, emotional condition, even though it may not be a time, a space, an emotional condition: “That’s guy’s a player’” or “Doesn’t she know she’s eight years past her expiration date?” (She’s going to get dumped).

More or less, synecdochic speech and all its subforms are understood even though it’s either not said—except when said in part or in a whole that means a part—or… well, you get it. It’s all the speech around things: inference, metaphor-but-not-exactly, half-said things, things said wholly that don’t mean the half.

In the Greek, it’s a beautiful word that pretty much tells us what the linguists, experts, and rhetoricians refuse to admit: language is often a hopeless (thank God) matter of almosts that fail to be 100 percent accurate and are, therefore, understood far better and fruitfully than they would be (and misunderstood far more dangerously) than if people were uber-precise at every turn and spoke with the absolute literalism of someone with high functioning Aspergers (I believe Aspergers students are a lot more adept at almosts than given credit for, and not because they “get it” but because language can never be truly “gotten.” An Aspergers student who learns by rote what others “just know” will be far more precise, and their language, when cleansed of figurative speech, is far more “post-modern” than most emoters. I see high functioning Aspergers as a post-modernist emphasis on T-factor—the thinking faculty in the Myers-Briggs…but more on that later).

I don’t believe in the neat distinctions between learned and hard wired behaviors, and believe most behaviors are some hybrid ration of the two, so my own theory on language, as to what is hard-wired, is this: as with math, where there is a center for the brain that controls precise calculation (2 plus 2 equals 4) and a related yet independent area that controls approximations (2 plus 2 equals 3 or 4 or 5, but never 4,344), we will find that language also has such a split. Children go through a stage where all non-human animals are called by one animal. This is “good enough,” just as it is good enough in some parts of the world to denote all color by red, black, and white, but snow has as many as forty types (the crayola deluxe denotation of snow). Depending on what part of your brain is more developed or more dominant, not only overall, but at any given moment, and in any situational context, you will be moved toward precision or toward “good enough,” towards information/denotation based language or form/synecdotal utterance.
Now, the greater our love of data, facts, and information becomes, the more our society fancies denotative/informational speech: rigorous nomenclatures exclusive to a certain field (the jargon of post-modernist theory), information, or “just the facts Ma’am,” unencumbered by any rhetoric or emotionally charged utterance. As Kenneth Burke—my hero—said in Counter-Statement, “The hypertrophy of information leads to the atrophy of form.”

Here’s the weird thing: as post-modernism and the scientific stress on T-factor moved us away from form/synecdotal writing, we became more and more obsessed with metaphors! It is kind of hilarious to hear scientists and theorists speak of metaphor because very often they do it in a step-by-step, uber-empirical way that smacks of high functioning Aspergers. No one can ruin metaphor and the joys of metaphor (but not the joys of comedy) more than academics obsessed with metaphor. There is a good reason they are obsessed with metaphor: they don’t “get it” really, and they want to. They fail to realize that it is not to be gotten and is gotten by not getting it. It is the almost, the “understood” part of the brain lighting up, that part which never calls for precision without ecstasy, or for ecstasy without precision (an almost, that is just so).

I want to connect this to another term: hendiadys. Hendiadys is the “understood” through the conjunctive. It can be sonic, intellectual, emotional, sensational relation. When it is intuitive relation, it usually exists in the realm of the surreal or the comical. It is, in this instance, a “blasphemy against the expected that gives pleasure.” I like to think of hendiladys as “handy ladies.” I must have a cockney gene somewhere. Anyway, examples:

All Sound and fury (emotive, or figurative)
of Mice and men (both categorical and sonic)
God and world (conceptual)

As I have said before, the wonderful word “and” both joins and separates. I see it as the chief relational in the English language. It both yokes and sunders. It is the ultimate melding of dialectic with aporia. It is the one word I would write a musical for!

Take “love and death.” It is understood these two go together because of usage, but what does love really have to do with death? Suppose I say, “Love and little men picking their noses at a bus stop while discussing Proust.” This is what I call comic hendiadys. It is used in many postmodernist, surreal structures. It is “Wrong” for all the best reasons. I can even get rid of the word “and.” I can write, “It was a day for true love. We all realized it. Men stood at the bus stop, picking their noses while discussing Proust.” Believe me, that is at the heart of postmodernist structures: to emphasize the disconnect of “and”, very often for the sake of either a deeper connection, or as a critical disavowing of connection, or for the comic energy of the incongruous. It destroys understood and agreed upon priority, but, if it is done for comedy, it affirms an order by disobeying it. I also believe there is an “Aspergian” form of this hendiadys that truly does not recognize “understood” categories. A high functioning “Aspergian” might take exception to “all sound and fury.” They might think “well the sound must be a sound of anger or loud, or it can’t be fury.” This emphasis is not necessarily bad in a post-modernist structure. Two of my best creative writing students have high functioning Aspergers. Their forthrightness can go from the tender to the comically literal such as when one of them, being a forthright and decent girl who couldn’t stand when people used the words “shut up” (she knew it as rude) said to her disconsolate boyfriend: “I know you are sad. Don’t be sad. I will give you a blow job tonight,” in front of twenty people. She only realized this was odd from the reaction. She was not being funny. She was being considerate. Approximation is never innocent. Precision often is.

Assignment: look up hendiadys. Play with things that have never been joined by an “and”: “Despair and beefy truck drivers masturbating at a rest stop.” Remove the “and” and tell the narrative as I did above. Good luck.

A footnote: Someone like Andy Warhol was able to have such great power because he was dadaist–not ironic. When Andy Warhol said, “I just adore a really good murder,” he was aping the innocent lack of social cues peculiar to Marilyn Monroe. Read his diaries. He was not innocent, but he understood the power of it like no one else. Absolute literalism is irony made conspicuous by its absence.