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Mysticism

The setting, Yahia reminds me more than once, is a little absurd. We meet at McGinty’s Irish Pub in Silver Spring, situated in a bustling commercial environment, across from a cineplex and multi-storied shoe store. This woodpaneled simulacrum of authenticity, shutting out as much sunlight as it could, served as our original meeting place, a year and a half ago, to discuss Yahia’s book Trial By Ink. We had sipped beers and discussed his intellectual and spiritual awakenings, my recording device picking up the ambient noise of soccer, classic rock, and the increasing din of patrons. Today, the environment is a little sunnier, and much warmer, but still not exactly conducive to discussing mysticism.

The pub, and Silver Spring itself, very much constitute what Yahia, in The Artist As Mystic, a new book of conversations with fellow aphorist Alex Stein, calls the “here-world”: “Silver Spring,” he assures me in a way that only subtly hints of irony, “has restaurants, bookstores, cinema, and the general feeling that something is happening. What else can you ask for?” But the artist’s often troublesome relationship to the “here-world,” the humdrum of taking out the trash, answering the phone, and trying to live each day as a citizen, husband, etc., is a subtext of this book. Its subtitle is “Conversations with Yahia Lababidi,” but Yahia calls them a series of “lyric interviews…controlled hallucinations,” in which he “eavesdrops on [his] dreams,” then speaks them out loud to Alex. Alex, through his “creative listening,” provides the “music” of their arrangement, turning them into a viable, readable book. Their ruminations address the general topic of art and mysticism, or, the extent to which artists are able to navigate the “here-world” of lived life and the “there-world” of their own dreams.

To speak of this problem Yahia allows himself to be “spoken by” major figures whom he consistently refers to as “these guys”: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Kierkegaard (among other minor characters such as Bataille, Eliot, and Ekelund). Just how “Any biographer is one who is clever at confessing through the mask of another…They can very discreetly tuck themselves in…They’re lending it their own breath, their everything,” Yahia uses these figures as masks through which he can dramatize his own inner conflicts. But this is the point – he reminds Alex in the introduction that “mortui vivos docent,” the dead shall teach the living, that we are always in conversation, and therefore a conversation, he tells me, was the “optimal form for expressing ideas that are too slippery for other forms…We were letting these ideas have play. You are a midwife. You show up with a body, because ghosts need a body to communicate, then as soon as you can get them to hold hands, you can say ‘please never mind me.’” But, he reminds me, “I don’t want to make the artist sound too precious because they are just a metaphor for everybody…the artist draws from the same well; he only makes a bigger show of the pulling, prodding, and partaking of its contents.” Artists self-consciously display the things that we all inherently struggle with; “[these thinkers] are talking to one another, and we’re talking through them.”

The conversations with Alex are Yahia’s way of demonstrating that “between any two artists there are more similarities than differences,” and that the closer you look, the more their affinities arise. Their affinities, Yahia and Alex argue, reside not in the life of the mind. “I was exasperated with the mind aspect,” Yahia asserts, “I’ve arrived at the very edge of my mind and it’s thin and flat and I’m not interested in it anymore.” For too long “these guys” have been examined and critiqued like specimens, the spiritual urgency of their visions suffocated beneath the trappings of the academic; “we are rescuing dear friends from a stuffy academic party and saying ‘come out!’” The Artist as Mystic uncovers just how each of these figures “comes out” to touch a level of being beyond the “here-world.”

These artists recognized that their existences were “exalted,” which means, Yahia affirms in the book’s introductory discourse, that they were “called to service…The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing.” Indeed, for some like Baudelaire, it may lead you to become a “neurasthenic idler,” wallowing in the paralysis this condition may bring. It is a lonely condition, which consists, Yahia asserts, quoting Heidegger, of “longing [which] is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” “That got me,” he says, “It seemed that it was right there. It! I could almost brush it with my fingertips. But it wasn’t right there.” For those who can break free of “neurasthenia” one concept rings true: “I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer…I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic. The thing I want to say: In my dreams, it is blinking that brings me back to the ground…When I have fallen, I don’t know how to get back into that state. But if there is a formula, I think it must have to do with attention.”

In this sense artistry borders on meditation, which requires the focused channeling of the whole being. One can see how this might lead an artist to become a bit of a misfit, or even a frail neurasthenic, or worse. So, I ask him, how do you negotiate these two modes of existence? “With extreme difficulty,” he says, “I have gross tendencies toward imbalance…But you used this great unstuck simile last time. You said I am unstuck from space and time, like an aphorism, scurrying to find some balance, always.” As for these guys, and the new book about them, Yahia and Alex agreed that “the balance of light has to outweigh the darkness.” Yahia admits that he has his moments where he is “marinated in irreality” and he’s able to work with precise uninterrupted attention. But for the most part, he says, especially as we get older, it’s harder to find those moments of sustained purity. They are replaced by what he calls “interstices,” which resemble dream states, which more or less occur accidentally, appearing like Alice’s rabbit hole. But, ultimately, the goal is “to turn an accident into a summer home, where you return with some sort of intentionality and regularity if you’re lucky.”  Spending time with Yahia and, to use his words, “breathing in” his energy, I can see how important the quest for interstices is to him. He elaborates:

At the risk of sounding completely like a mad person, it’s like a dream state, whether it’s a daydream or an actual dream. It’s a noncommittal state; you’re abstracted enough in the world of ideas. It’s a diffusion of vision, not an everyday life. You abstract, you see everything around it and beyond it. Solitude helps, silence helps, reading helps, to sort of rev up. Another person helps, to sort of nudge you there. To be really fair, it’s always grasped at, it’s not like you show up and say ‘It’s me again!’ [knocking, now, on the table]…The cage seeks the bird. The violin seeks the wood. I’d be flat out lying if I said I’d found a way to go back. If anything I’m trying to find a way not to be denied going back. I know the things I need to do to not be denied from going back. Work is one way of doing it. You do what you need to do throughout the day and you don’t expect it.

His candor about spiritual things is refreshing, but most of its resonances in the book are filtered through “these guys.” To be with Yahia in conversation is to encounter the full range of his feelings on the subject. I begin to see how the book took shape, over the year plus of dialogue with Stein.

Alex used a phrase to describe the core of these spiritual movements. He calls it a “rage for transformation,” which he perceives in each of the figures discussed in the book, centering, for example, on Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its monumental final line, “You must change your life.” “You could have said ‘Boo!’ and I would not have been more surprised,” Yahia confesses. But it’s this desire for transformation that drives these artists beyond the “here-world” and into, yes, mysticism. Yahia tells me:

Transformation – yes brother – yeah [clasping his hands together], that’s what it’s all about. But again that’s where the writer is a metaphor for everyone. This is not some academic, esoteric, rarefied project. This is something where everyone is going about in their own ways, maybe without declaring it as such, but it is about transformation. All of these guys, if they have anything in common, that’s the ultimate thing. But it doesn’t belong to philosophy as it does to mysticism. And that’s where we’re comfortable talking about the mystic enterprise vs. the spiritual one. Because the mystic is the one who’s denounced as heretic, because he’s gone too far. There’s no measuring stick; maybe they’re the ones who have to go too far to make someone else realize what is the way. They have to declare themselves divine and then go mad and then backtrack a little bit and realize that that’s an imbalance. All of these guys somehow suspect that they are imbalanced. That’s the difference between the balanced spiritual life or the philosophical life that is very rational…and the mystic, who is reckless and very keen to arrive at once and risk everything, not caring one bit what’s at stake. And these guys interest me now [for] this recklessness, because they didn’t hold anything back, and they didn’t calculate, or care very much, for what they might lose. Everything might just be enough – it might not be enough – but it might just be enough. When you don’t give everything, that space in between might be depression, madness. You’re gambling with that.

It is a constant quest without arrival, a pushing to the edges of parameters, “using the mind to overthrow the mind. Using words to overthrow words.” “It’s a continual clearing of the way,” he muses, “You’re always mid-leap. That’s why you’re always aching. That’s because you can never relax into a normal sitting position.”

Toward the end of our conversation, it became more apparent that Yahia prefers balance to the dangers of approaching the mystical. I asked him, expecting him to reply with one of “these guys” or another like them, if he could only read one person forever, who would it be? Without hesitation, he says:

At this stage, I’m less interested in these guys than I’ve ever been. It was very difficult for me to return to them…The Book of Tao – it’s impersonal enough that I’m not wrestling with one person, especially when I have to return to [these thinkers], but I’m very aware of the all-too-human dimension behind it all. I knew that they shat, or slept, or ate, or betrayed their effervescent persona. They were creatures of their own time and they weren’t always aligned to their own version of themselves. Because of that and because of their psychosexual specificity, I’m done with that, because I’ve got my own psychosexual specificity to deal with. I’m also getting older…meaning it’s unbecoming for me to be under the sway of anyone. It’s not as necessary or valid for me. Something like the Tao is a freer space and something that I don’t want to be reading on a daily basis, but every time I return to it – I really think I’d give up all these guys for this one book.

His preference for the Tao seems to indicate a new turn in Yahia’s spiritual quest. Replacing the mad searching with a balanced rendering of the scale between “here-world” and “there-world.” But will he miss these guys? Ultimately, he finally says, “Writing is a way of looking away from something, so you can look on to something else. It’s a way of saying that they are alive and they are relevant. They are worth picking up. But it’s also a way of saying a grateful goodbye.”

The Artist As Mystic emphasizes this gratitude. It captures the earnestness and urgency of Yahia’s discourse, which is really only fully encountered in conversations like these. Since our first encounter, he and I have become friends, and he never ceases to exude a refreshing spiritual energy. He’s worth reading for that alone. But this is a viable critical/biographical work of any of these figures – Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard – for the very reason Stein and Yahia claim. That is, while Yahia breathes knowledge of the life and works of these men, the main aim of the project is one of recovery. It’s not a “study” of them as much as a grateful encomium, an example of how spiritually enriching criticism and biography can be written. Therefore the book is ultimately a way for Yahia to be “spoken by” these guys, to offer his own take on art and mysticism through his formidable interlocutors. I am grateful to be spoken by him, even if for a brief interstice.

The retrospective sayings of the mystic become the regurgitated maxims of the pedant.

The mystical experience is ineffable, by definition, and yet mystics are invariably compelled to write. What the mystic writes after the fact is not meant to be systematic, comprehensive, or even an accurate representation of his mysticism. But leave it to the gate keepers to ruin the words of another. Pendants pilfer from the mystic’s coffers and reduce those marvelous and contradictory emotions to dogmatic maxims.

A verbal articulation of an entirely non-verbal experience necessarily falls short. What pedants do to the mystic, they also do to the poet. In both cases, clinging to footnotes, journals, and excessive psychoanalysis, the original experience (mystic or poetic) is concealed within a labyrinth of pseudo-intellectual criticism.

An excellent poem appears simple in its complexity, and above all easy in its difficulty. A poem appearing strained or artificial (though it is regularly both) is a failure.

While we marvel at the final product, any thought of the artist is secondary to the immediate experience of excellence. There seems to be something wrong with what so many critics do: reconstructing the scaffolding around the living poem, presenting the sketches and precursory plans for it until the life of the poem is altogether extinguished.

The problem is not what kind of followers performs the investigation, but the mere fact that they are following and not being their own leaders.  Here the singular and spontaneous sayings of the sage are reduced to religion.

Sages like Confucius spoke not absolute maxims but rather what the unique moment demanded, never to be repeated.  King Solomon did not mean for every child to be cut in two, or even for any child to be cut in two. And this is what made him wise: knowing what the present moment demanded and answering its call. What pedantic followers do is corrupt the original spontaneity of saints and sages to magico-mechanical maxims, a readymade “cure” for any situation.

Joe Weil wrote about these asinine “keepers” of a poet’s legacy in his piece The Inward Soul: Dickinson and St. Theresa of Avila:

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins….To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus.

What Christians do now – conservative and liberal – is to obsess over historical fact and both ignore the admonition to unconditional Love. I hope Ananda Coomaraswamy proves right: “Most likely Christianity also in the near future will succeed in breaking the ‘entangling alliance’ of religion and history, from which the mystics have already long emerged. There cannot be an absolute truth which is not accessible to direct experience.” We do not need the mediation of history or criticism to encounter what is omnipresent.

The “gate keepers” of religion and of poetry are one and the same.  The pedantic critic is blind, leading others into a pit of his own creation. The pedant (since he cannot see) ensures that no one else can see. The critic gouges out the eyes of the other. Similarly, Jesus condemned the false knowledge of the Pharisees: “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Followers soften the ferocious words of the ones they follow into palatable household sayings – comfortable, no longer feral, no longer dangerous, no longer potent.  Civilized critics attempt to tame the God/Beast in the poet, saint, or prophet. It is the domestication of the saints which gnaws at the heart of this household idolatry. Their vitiated words may be present in a home, but their spirit is long absent.  No longer appalled, we are encouraged. By making these words ordinary and robbing them of all strangeness, we are robbed of actually encountering those words at all.

Daniel Silliman’s excellent blog captures this very spirit:

[R]ather than easy adoration, the first response to St. Francis would be to feel appalled, threatened and offended. It would mean wanting to tell St. Francis he’s wrong, wanting to disagree, wanting to fight.

What the sage says is not immediately tasteful. In fact, if you are not offended, you are probably no longer reading what that sage is saying. When Jesus is reduced to a comfortable position thanks to extensive speculative theology, we cease to hear his revolutionary sayings. In the same way, Siddhartha too is reduced to a God-man by lay buddhists and clergy alike – Jesus, Siddhartha, and Dickinson are all worshiped, but none are taken seriously.

Who actually hears the words of Jesus anymore? Perhaps it’s only those who have never heard all the retrospective explanations of Jesus who can hear him authentically.

Those who bastardize the spontaneous sayings of saints into comfortable maxims for coffee mugs make me want to kick them in the shins. I want to kick worshipers precisely because they make me not want to kick saints in the shins.

It’s not just others who do this (though it is, also) it’s always that clinging ego that is always mine which prevents me from encountering the words in front of me.  That egoic character might be in an Other, but that ego is always “mine” and solution is found in the spirit of the saints and sages.  To blame someone else for preventing me from entering the Kingdom of Heaven is for me to prevent myself. The best science occurs when ego is suspended (when “I” am removed from the equation). The most difficult thing to do is simply to let things be as they are.

When Jesus addresses the “rich young man” (in possessions, in knowledge, in morality), it is not simply physical possessions but the very sense of “mineness” which prevents the man from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only by dying to self that we can enter heaven or enter a poem.

“For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” It is always only the “least of these” who can enter the kingdom of heaven. The weak, the ignorant, the poor – these are those who, because they have so little in terms of worldly possessions, can suspend their everyday sense of self and encounter the world as it really is: they can see Jesus, and they can read a poem.

If I suspend my ego, I can, at times, be transported into the work before me – despite the residue of criticism. It’s not easy to do the simplest of things.

And then Jesus is criticizing me and no one else, St. Francis provokes the self-defensive urge to kick his shins, and Dickinson I forget as long as I read her poems.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Here’s a poem by Bob Kaufman. It’s what happened to many of the Beats:

Cincophrenicpoet

A cincoprhenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry or revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral and whirl.

Rejection of social norms and ideologies is pervasive throughout Bob Kaufman’s work and is represented in the anti-conformity and “rejectionary philosophy” of Abomunism, a thinly veiled term for the beatnik culture of which Kaufman was a part. This process of differentiation comes at a cost, however, alienating the rebel from his cultural and ideological context. This necessitates a search for alternative contexts and discourses to provide interpretative frameworks for experience. One may search outward, looking for principles independent of the rejected ideology. This option is reflected in Kaufman’s interest in eastern philosophy and mysticism, an interest shared by many of the Beats. Alternatively (or additionally), one may turn inward toward the self as a repository of memories and thoughts to reinvent the world in a more holistic, coherent fashion.

The turn inward is complicated, however, by the proliferation of mediated images and experiences of modern society, and the poet finds in himself many aspects of the American social landscape that he longs to escape and transform. Problematically then, the self is implicated in the reality he rejects, and the struggle to transform America becomes approximate to reinventing the self. Thus, the poet finds himself at war with himself as he attempts to contain contradictory identities.

The negative manifestation of this dilemma is the poet’s frustration, which often takes the form of a variety of mental illness, such as schizophrenia and insomnia. Schizophrenia offers an apt trope of the self torn into multiple, conflicted identities, and Kaufman employs the pathology as a metaphor for society as well.

In addition to illustrating the dynamics of the relationship between Beat culture and political forces, the “cincophrenic” is the poet himself, one who is at war with himself, thus illustrating the reciprocal relationship between the poet and society. In this poem, poetry exists as protest and results from the conflict between conflicting identities. It is resistance itself (“revenge”) and generates chaotic energy (“cross, spiral and whirl”). Society and the poet are interchangeable frames of reference, and the contradictions of society are manifested in the poet as forms of madness.

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.

In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).

Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.