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transubstantiation

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.

In a word, Jason Schneiderman is a poet of the helix. In his new book, Striking Surface, he turns and returns a fine Merino wool finer. By refrains; bits of anaphora; tonally and topically, he returns to his concerns in cycle after cycle, rending or revising earlier understandings, and leading new ones up new twists. Scattered throughout the book’s three sections are cycles that include “The Children’s Crusade,” “Stalinism,” “Ars Poetica,” “Physics,” “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha,” and “Hyacinthus.”

The middle section of the book is entirely a cycle: an unforgettable family of elegies that address his mother’s death with tenderness and probity, in a casual voice talking through grief without flinching and without sentimentality. From “Elegy I (Work)”: “Whatever dead is, you are, and how you must hate that, / busy fixer of problems, busy stitcher of crafts.” Soon we learn the role crafts played before death—how they were a kind of tacit conversation between father, mother, and son—and the roles they assume, still unfinished, in the afterdeath. Here, in “Elegy IV (Tallis)”:

I don’t tell Dad that you never finished cross-stitching
the tallis piece because you were punishing him.
You wouldn’t tell him, so why should I? I finished
the curtains you were planning, though I didn’t line them.

Picking up the thread, in the next elegy:

I wish I could see the dead as completed instead
of stopped, that some monument in my head
would be erected to you, instead of these scraps
of uncatalogued memory.

And again, in “Elegy VI (Metaphors for Grief)”:

____________________________I’d think,
why finish this if Mom won’t see it, or why
go to work if my mother is dead? She had never
been the axis my world turned on, but suddenly
everything seemed to revolve around her. No.
Not an axis. A skewer. A spit.

Throughout the book, we encounter a philosophical version of transubstantiation that an object or subject undergoes when it has been taken from us or is otherwise no longer in reach. In “Elegy V (The Community of Mourners),” Schneiderman calls it “a trap”: “Mourning’s a trap, / isn’t it? A way to pretend that what you lost / was better than what you had,” a delicious riddle that obviates our thinking those two things (people) are the same, with the bereft feeling that they are not. It’s a trap revisited in the last section of “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” which begins, “Death tricks you twice. First about yourself, / and then about others,” and ends:

Does Sarah Jane owe her dead mother
more than she owed her live mother?

Of course not—but she can’t deny her dead
mother what she denied her live one.

Having gathered impressions of her sense of humor, her quietly persistent love, and her humiliating, de facto last rites before the surgery that would be her death, we feel we know this woman—this arch, in its stone and filigree—just in time for the keystone eighth elegy, which—in its omnivorousness (including a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who returns from being buried in an earlier elegy); in its valences and ambivalence through which an earnest love reflects—seems to accomplish something of Shakespearian ambition (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”), even as a stand-alone poem:

Elegy VIII (Missing You)

I thought I’d find you here, that I’d finish these poems
and you would stand out as clear as the day. As bright
as the moon. I hate those poets who tell you that
they love, but never make clear whom they love.
My mother’s eyes are nothing like the sun. How do I
miss my mother? Let me count the ways. So where
are you? I couldn’t believe you let yourself
be filmed for the video they showed at your tribute,
and I wanted to tell everyone, That’s only her voice
when she’s nervous. That’s only her face when she
has to be on display and she doesn’t like it. But at least
you were there. Everyone knows you can’t write
your way out of grief. Everyone knows that grief
never turns into anything but grief, and OK, I can grieve
you forever. But I wanted you here, in the middle
of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost
or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile.
Your denim dress.

Schneiderman addresses another, closer-to-literal kind of transubstantiation in “Adorable Wounds.” An epigraph from Hopkins invites us to “approach Christ in a new way” and cast ourselves “into His sacred broken Heart and his five adorable Wounds” (a fitting bit of pronoun play between a man and his apotheosis). Longinus of Caesarea already having stuck his spear into the body of the crucified Christ, pre-poem, the poem’s speaker asks:

Is it blasphemy
to be the nail,
the spear? To want
to be the nail,
the spear?

These fives lines—in their deceptively simple revision and reiteration of that deceptively simple question—ask as much of us as any nineteen syllables I know. “A simple truth miscall’d simplicity,” as Shakespeare might have said and did, in Sonnet 66. Substituting “question” for “truth,” we have a working description of Schneiderman’s quest to understand.

In all three sections of Striking Surface, understanding is key and a key to the poems. From “Ars Poetica II”:

I’m trying to say:
Forgiving is the end of love.

The end of hate.
The end of strong emotion.

A poem should be
an understanding.

A forgiving.
But not the end of love or hate.

The poem comes to doubt itself directly (“Maybe this / isn’t a poem”), before ending up at a new understanding:

If understanding
was the wrong thing,

I asked
for the wrong thing.

It was what I wanted
when I asked.

Besides the candor of these lines, what makes them feel natural and accessible is their role in a dialogue into which the poem is structured. The poem’s speaker addresses the world-as-poem and world-as-parted-intimate simultaneously, a parted intimate who responds:

Look at all the sense you keep

trying to make.

You should know better.

That’s why I did what you think

I need to be forgiven for.

Another theme these poems thread and rethread is the nature of identity—in theology and philosophy, called the problem of haecceity (essential “thisness”). Schneiderman pinpoints the requisite subtleties with a weaver’s needle. In his death-by-flower poems (“Hyacinthus I” and “II”), he turns a wry eye upon the notion that Apollo had preserved anything of Hyacinthus in his eponymous flower, ending the first poem with, “Who are we fooling? // I’m just plain dead,” and the second with:

Who wants
to be a flower?

Better that weeds
should mark my grave

than the stars
should hold my face.

This frames the issue in a smart(ing?) little star-rimmed face. In “Echo (Narcissus)”—a sort of third wheel or three-way for the “death by flower” pair—the Narcissus myth is restored to its context of male-male love, and (as always in these poems, with a twist) it speaks for an Echo who learns to say “No.”

In “Probability,” the problem of haecceity comes more clearly into relief:

________The statistical probability of being a dinosaur
at the moment that the meteor hit is impossible to calculate,
because you would have to know whether any given dinosaur
was as likely to be any other given dinosaur, or whether
any living thing is as likely to be any other living thing—
but no matter what, the chance was tiny. No matter how you do
the math, every single dinosaur was statistically safe from
meteors. But then again, here we are, you and me, as human
and furless as we might have hoped, tiny teeth, opposable
thumbs, and all the birds locked out of our safe, insured
houses.

Here we see another large-looming theme, really a component of the problem of haecceity. If something is essentially ‘this’—an exact and unique something—then it can’t be exchanged for something very much similar, or even something identical in all its properties (Leibniz argued: if two things are identical in all their properties, those two things are really one thing). But look!—Schneiderman’s poems ask between (and within) the lines—at how exchangeable and reversible we and our circumstances are. By a fluke, we’re the ones insured, for the moment. The oscine dinosaur descendents are in the garden singing… for the moment.

In “Sailor at Nostrand and Bedford,” the non-uniqueness of exchangeable things is again brushed against. Here, from the poem’s second section:

There was a sailor, once.

What we wanted

was the same,

and each other

was the last place

we’d looked.

And in “The Book of the Boy,” the issue is fully foregrounded, pleading loudly:

____________“Why was I made?”
and the answer comes: “Because we
wanted you,” which puzzles the boy.

“But there was no me to want,” the boy
protests, and the answer comes: “Well,
we wanted something like you.” And the boy asks

“Would any small person have done?”
and the answer comes: “Any small person
we made. It was critical that we be the ones

who made it.” The boy hesitates.
The answers are getting angry. At last:
“So I was interchangeable? Then?

Before I was made?”

The poem ends exasperated and without resolution. Hiding in dreams, “maybe / by morning, he’ll be someone / specific and loved and necessary.”

Near the end of the book, in the four-part poem, “Notes on Detention” (in effect the title poem: in the second part we learn that there are six striking surfaces on the human hand, and the strongest striking surface is the elbow, according to the latest interrogation manual), we once again snag this braided issue of identity. We encounter a mine-detonating robot that has done its work so dutifully that it’s lost all but one of its legs, and is continuing to scrape along on its last before an army colonel “declared the test inhumane and stopped it. / The robot’s inventor was surprised, as this / is what the robot had been designed to do.” Then comes the crux:

________Perhaps the robot stepped
through the same door into humanity
that every victim steps out of. Perhaps
we should find that door.

In the next, the book’s penultimate poem, “The person you cannot love,” we’ve reached the end of probing the issue until, in the final poem, we’re asked to bury it in a bed of flowers that Schneiderman’s husband tends. “I Love You and All You Have Made,” wraps up the triple helix of identity—transubstantiation, exchangeability, haecceity—into a convincing and moving three-line finale: “Some days, I flatter myself to think / that I’m one of your flowers. Some days, / I flatter myself to think I’m not.”

Viewing this book through one (or three related) of its themes, much that recommends it has been passed over: its several senses of humor; its pop-culturings sprinkled handsomely throughout; its rabbinical backstories; its children’s crusades; and its wise and wide-eyed meditation on war—“Billboard Reading: War Is Over / Billboard Reading: (If You Want It)”—that puts Prometheus in dialogue with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the Aztecs, and the 1952 film, High Noon, to name a few. Nor have I mentioned my favorite poem in the book, “The Numbers Wait with God for Humans to Invent Them,” which involves Two’s being kissed, Four’s hair being tussled, imaginary numbers “who screamed at night / the things they knew,” and—almost free of charge, almost subliminally—a parable about the freedom that is division.

Fearless and affectionate, Striking Surface is a book of lyric poems that neither emphasize narrative nor shy away from it. The story, when it comes to a poem, seems to come across a music already being played; an understanding already being groped; an Ariadne’s thread already followed halfway back. Schneiderman’s are exuberances on dark topics, trimmed to their essentials, and plangent (rung up and down turns of thought and feeling) in what remains.