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morning at elizabeth arch

In the past I’ve discussed what I mean when I call myself a “Catholic Poet”, and I want to expand on that. This is an excerpt of a review that appeared in New Pages of my book, The Plumber’s Apprentice.

Joe Weil looks at beauty and sees the bloated underside where ugly makes a home; tells beauty to take a walk and falls in love with ugly. He examines his faith and everyone else’s to see it fail; tells faith to take a walk and revels in small depravities. He stares loss in its face and spits whatever was retained; Tells loss to take a walk and carry all the rest with it. Despite the darkness, Weil leaves us a kind of determined strength. In “Clap Out Love’s Syllables,” he writes, “Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise / the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.”

This is a book that invites bereavement to sit down, then fleeces it by cheating at poker. All the rules we thought written on stone have faded; the stone was wax. We were mistaken. I will surely wear this book out.

The review, like its claims for my work, is hard to cipher as positive or negative, though the end is an affirmation: “I will surely wear this book out.”

What the critic got at here is the chief thematic aspect of my work based on the Sermon on the Mount and Isaiah, the ontological source of all my poetry: reversal of values. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, the mountains shall be leveled and the valleys raised, fair is foul and foul is fair, the transubstantiation of shit into God, and God’s saving power in shit, not the reality of semiotics or of success/failure, but that deeper reality of Eucharist which can only be gotten at when we have stripped ourselves of every piety and stand naked before the covenant—halt, lame, bawdy, incapable of redemption save through the violence of ontological grace—grace within mere being—being as the ferocity of value, the smallest, most discounted thing on earth as manifest in the creative force of God.

This is at the center of all my poems, even the dirty raunchy ones, even the poems in which I am cursing God, in which the voice of the poem is a scoundrel, even in those poems where I seem merely to be shouting blasphemies. I did not decide to have this as my theme. It had me. All my life I have been haunted by the dialectical reversal of values in Isaiah and in the words of Christ. Rank, privilege, even the rank of what is beautiful and what is ugly have always seemed to me the most suspect of human cognitions. How do we judge? How can fleabane–if seen at an odd hour and known at just the right moment and under certain situational coordinates–not outdo, not awe us as much as an alp? If this is not possible, then there is neither alp nor fleabane, but only our petty and smug constructs of values that go with them and we are imprisoned in a series of judgments which are final because they are without mercy. It is the lack of mercy and possibility in judgment, not judgment itself which I deplore. Always judgment is a necessary angel that is a good angel only if it carries in its arms the book of “but perhaps.”

In my poem Dandelions, the narrator kicks the old ladies at six o’clock mass who are compared to dandelions when they go to seed. He kicks them, lifts them up on his boot. He does so gleefully, and the old ladies do not protest but beg to be kicked, because, contrary to the violence of the act, it is the intimacy of celebration and love—the violence of all true contact.The poem ends

The things of this world

cry touch me. The things
of this world cry
dandelion.

The poem is meant both to exalt the reality and blaspheme against the pieties surrounding the value of the old, of the discounted, of those things we deem weeds. It insists on exalting, but at the same time, deconstructing and degrading, making a farce out of the cheap epiphanies and gentle smugness of sentimental attachment to the old. They have value not as sentimental tropes, but as the sacred and fierce text of mere being—that text Wallace Stevens insisted we approach. For in that text, fleabane is as likely beautiful and wonderous as a Swiss alp.

In another “review” I discovered on the internet, a student at Lafayette College wrote of my visit and reading at that school:

Weil believes we live in a world devoid of positives and negatives, a concept that often leaks out in his poetry, which can be simultaneously funny, depressing, sardonic, profound and “irrepressible” (to quote one of the event organizers, professor Lee Upton). One poem he read, entitled “Ethics for Huey O’Donnell,” was about a young friend of Weil’s whom everybody considered beautiful and charming before he died in his twenties of cancer. It is a deep and complex conflation of emotions that express the multiple layers of man.

Another poem he recited, “I Am What I Remember,” talks about personal identity and turtles before becoming a tiny treatise on life. Weil writes, “I am only what I remember: / the brief, peripheral touch / of a woman’s hand / on my lower back / as she squeezed past me / in seventh grade.” But truly most astonishing was the way he read, or perhaps more appropriately, performed. The man sung with outstretched arms and played piano while singing a song about virgins, a bright smile across his face while the crowd laughed at the undeniable humor.

Again, at the center of my work is contradiction, or rather I wish to reconcile contradiction if only for that moment, for, like all people with a high functioning case of Asperger’s, I do not get contradiction, am not gifted at nuance, and must take both sides of any issue with absolute conviction (sometimes all at once) in order to approximate nuance. Contradiction does not come from God claimed Thomas Aquinas, and I agree with the good saint. But the world, while God-created (parent), God redeemed (child), and God haunted/inspired (Holy Spirit), is certainly not God oriented: it is motley, hidden away from God behind a thousand conflicting tropes of willfulness and streben. The answer to this on the part of postmodernity is a rather too tepid, and, at the same time, too strident and absolutist embrace of uncertainty and the hyper-qualified, or, worse, the yawn of the fop, the grade z dadaist, the yawn that is thrice borrowed from Rimbaud via the French surrealists as sponsored by a hipster beer commercial in Brooklyn. No thanks.

I am a narrative poet, but my narratives go about sniffing the world. Dogs meander and crisscross on their path because they are keeping the scent of things at the center of their wandering. This is the large part of their reality, roughly in the center of a cone–a sort of core and focus by way of digression. Me and the dogs have a lot in common.

If I look at my poems, with the exception of a few that are merely for fun (well, a lot), I can see the theme of reversal of values, or confusion of values in all of them.

“Ode To Elizabeth” (see page 23): The poet speaks of “grimey Elizabeth,” goes to great lengths to depict a town where people keep plastic on the furniture and watch double features of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal And yet it is a poem of praise)

“Elegy for Sue Rapeezi”: Poem in which an ugly, girl considered a whore, a dyke, and a dick tease teaches the snob narrator the first things he learns about love

“Morning at The Elizabeth Arch”: “The winos rise as beautiful as deer.” Enough said.

“Fists”: Poem in which the broken and gnarled fists of a factory working father are given mythological value.

“Ethics for Huey O’Donnell”: A poem that tries to deal honestly with the contradictions at the heart of friendship and how one can be both true and false at once.

I can go on. My language is also motley and contradictory insofar as I move sometimes wildly between lyrical moments and blunt, even flat sentences, move between romantic imagery and cuss words. I believe in liveliness and exuberance as beauty. I believe the false gentleness and political correctness of our current progressives is as likely to get us killed as the pompous vulgarity and bloated bravado of our reactionaries because both are incapable of the true ferocity of which Christ and Isaiah before him spoke: the ferocity of love, the heaven that is taken by storm, by complete and ferocious belief in the value of all life. This is what is meant by Blake and by Jesus when he says “the violent bear it away.” Heaven is taken by storm. I am not interested in a new wrinkle on the early 20th century “Tango face.” I am not interested in the cult of the cool and the detached. If I want to kill someone, I’d prefer to feel my hands around his neck, not send a drone to do my dirty work. I can respect the hot and the cold. The lukewarm makes me vomit.

So what is possibility? It is certainly no whore of failure or success. It is a feeling that you may be on to something–in the midst of something whose worth you cannot exactly measure and whose results you cannot predict. This was poetry for me, and music, and ballet, and art. I never cared that El Greco was a success. I cared about how he used blue and how it excited me, and how I wanted to join that blue.

This is what I find missing from my life to the point of wanting my life to end. Failure means not eating, and success means feeling empty even when you eat well, but that blue–Oh my fucking God! That means failure or success do not matter, and trusting you can live on the couch of a friend, and wake up with the blue still inside you. Without that, I would rather die.

In my worst moments, I roamed aimlessly through Manhattan hearing the insane voices of vagrants, and yet I never thought they were failures–for all their suffering. I thought they were prophets–and not because of some romantic myth, but because they were speaking beyond all failure, all success. I saw their spiritual reality and that made me write my poem, “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch.” It was this transcendence of the binaries. All art was always post-modern in this respect. The binaries will never be enough for an artist.

Once, after having my heart broken, I rode the bus back to Binghamton and a young woman sat down next to me. She was insane, but, like many of the insane, gentle and kind. She asked if I would hold her hand. I was so broken, I said OK, and I held her hand all the way from Manhattan to Binghamton (She was going to Cleveland). She said angels told her I would hold her hand without trying to hit on her. She was black, very beautiful, and lesbian. She was also right (at that time, I had no desire except to die) and I think angels did tell her.

In the course of those three hours, she told me angels spoke to her all the time. She said she was a singer, and ran away from home because the songs grew so intense inside her that she could not stay in Cleveland anymore. When she told me this, I wept, and I said: “your mother loves you, and many bad people will take advantage of you. Go back to Cleveland and sing your heart out, but rest in your family. They are not perfect. No one is perfect, but they love you because no one can be as nice as you are, if they were never loved.”

She played me a tape she’d made. She had a beautiful voice, I mean truly beautiful, and this made me even more sad because I thought about insane artists who God had touched with the power of grace, and I was scared for her. She told me: “You are angry for all of God’s children, and you need to stop the anger, not because it is bad, but because people can’t hear you when you are so angry.” We hugged, and exchanged numbers, and she went on to Cleveland. She called me a couple times, and she said: “God knows your anger. God will forgive you, because it is not against God. It is against yourself, and God will not forgive your anger against yourself because God loves you more than you could ever realize. God does not punish us for our sins against God. God correct us when we do not enter our full glory.” Then she thanked me for holding her hand from Manhattan to Binghamton, and I never saw or heard from her again.

This is a strange story. It is liable to get me laughed at, but it is exactly what I was raised with when I heard Christ’s words. We do not know what has value. We do not know where grace will visit us. We must have faith that there is value and grace and it will come–from a fresh spring we did not even consider drinking from. I expect to be wrong in what I value, and, out of grace, I expect God to correct me. Sometimes, we can only feel possibility when we are dragged down into our worst moments. I wish it could be different. I never cared about failure or success as much as I did about encountering grace. I believe in it. Maybe I am a moron. I don’t know.