Tuesday, June 20, 2006

peter o'leary's DEPTH THEOLOGY

Peter O’Leary, author of GNOSTIC CONTAGION: Robert Duncan & the Poetry of Illness, is author also of DEPTH THEOLOGY, a book of poems published by University of Georgia Press. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. It is no surprise, then, that his poems are learned and theologically driven. In a long endnote called "Notes and Acknowledgments," he explains that depth theology is "a religious knowledge of the unconscious." The four parts of the book are "components" of this theology. Explanation is revelation in these poems, except that what is revealed is usually mysterious or remains at the level of human poetic incomprehensibility, a kind of highly charged stammering before the divine. To pick a passage at random, here’s the opening of "A Supersensual Utility in the Sun, and Stars, Earth, and Water."

Confined to the innermost shrine, something gentle settles, homotropic buzz.
Fertile. Theologic. Glue burns inhalant throughout the minor swale of
divination. Objects on the altar decorated with shells of crabs &
freshwater pearls.
What phantom hugs your breath to its chest, motionless?
In conjuring the image of God, dislodged by a turbulence
from a pinched diaphragm, I have chosen
a transcendent lammergeier massive with alpine

Even the poetry explains, even in the midst of its fevered rush to capture the ineffable. That’s where the excitement and tension lie in these poems. This is a poetry of instruction in religious mystery delivered by a modern-day priest with no orthodoxy, as we imagine early desert hermit monks to have been, other than what can be assembled out of a good library. What other poetry than Milton’s, were he alive today, would give us such words as petrific, theophony, psalterium, limbic, prolactin, theriomorph, thurifer, Torahtic, insufflating, etc.? Or, to put it in more recognizable terms from our intellectual life, this is another poetry committed to "primitive," pre-industrial consciousness AND knowledge of a sort we have had since industrial man discovered the noble savage or Robinson Crusoe found himself almost alone on a southsea island. Direct homage is paid in these poems to that aspect of Charles Olson’s thinking, its Mayan incursions, its defenses of the pre-Socratic mind, its allegiance to Carl Sauer and Stanley Diamond.

Guy Davenport gives a quick digest of this movement in the arts in his essay, "The Symbol of the Archaic" from The Geography of the Imagination (1981). It was part of Modernist (call it Romantic and post-Romantic) thinking to disparage what we had become. We no longer make "our clothes or houses or anything at all." We have "drained our symbols of meaning," "divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars." "Modernity" has become "a kind of stupidity." Davenport is here speaking of Olson, but it’s a condition he says we find at the heart of the work of Joyce, Pound, Lawrence, several movements in painting beginning with cubism, and so on. Hence the yearning backwards we find in so much Modernist work. "If we say, as we can, that the archaic is one of the great inventions of the twentieth century, we mean that as the first European renaissance looked back to Hellenistic Rome for a range of models and symbols, the twentieth century has looked back to a deeper past in which it has imagined it sees the very beginnings of civilization." (Pp.20-21) This is the ideology, if you will, out of which these poems spin, rather than, as one might suspect from much of the material quoted and discussed, the contemporary re-interest in standard religions.

One of the late poems, "Lux Contemplatio," offers a description/explanation of "prayer." Given the book’s Modernist roots, this description is quite ecumenical, trans-orthodox, but steeped in texts out of which Christianity arose. Said to be a form of migration (much of the book’s information and imagery comes from birds), prayer, now that the physical globe has been seen, must be understood as an "inward" migration. No more outwardness. Antarctica, the last wild place reached by man "means now an interior domain." Not, not certainly, to be reached by Freudian means, but by prayer.

Prayer is our migration; stillness is our movement....
Come then to the house of your own knowledge:
strive to confine
your incorporeal being within
your bodily house.

Strong echoes here of Olson’s essay, "Projective Verse."

Fine, but at some point, it seems, someone has to say, wait a minute. The Enlightenment has been villified enough. Modernism continues early Romanticism’s critique of the Industrial Revolution, what the Enlightenment achieved in the area of industrial production. No one denies that the Enlightenment was not as fully informed as we would like it to have been. Mistakes (and worse) were made in its name. Man’s intellect can only reach so far. Man’s desire for improving the lot of humanity, like everything else, runs up against what is perhaps too easily called the lust for power. Pound called it usury, Williams cupidity. As the conservatives among us are quick to say, everything is corruptible. That being true, shouldn’t we have expected things to go awry when ideas and inventions were found to improve man’s lot? Must we conclude that what the philosophes unleashed came to absolutely nothing? Should we revoke ether, return electricity to the sky, tear up the U.S. Constitution because we had the guillotine in France and the Cultural Revolution in China? Is "progress" simply a dirty word, a euphemism that hides brutality and not very well? These are, perhaps, over-heated questions to be putting to Peter O’Leary’s poetry, but his book brings us to these issues in ways that raise questions. As a poem with the telling title, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences," says,

We’ve spent millennia chasing the outward world, hapless
experts at exploring it. We need now to look inside. In exchange
for any lost progress, I will give you one hundred years of inwardness, a century
of the soul’s spiral movement, labor,
prayer, reading, inner energies coalescing from lower domains,
a private flaming ministry, the most Miltonic knowing.

I’m sorry, but this being a platform, albeit a poetic/spiritual one, it is thereby arguable. I don’t see how it will address our "outward" needs, which seem to me to be as large as they ever have been. Extinction is in the wind, and I don’t mean just for the spotted owl. Of what use are "a hundred years of inwardness" or "inner energies coalescing from lower domains" to people dying of starvation, aids, and genocide in Africa? To a family of six in West Virginia living in a mobile home on $18,000 a year? To a species that is running low on safe drinking water? And what of real science which today probes deeper into our physiology and brain function? I remember, in the collapse of political consciousness in the 70's, those who said hopefully that if we just took care of our inwardness, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, that turned quickly into a platform for looking out for number one and a license for greed.

Well, ok, we can’t expect poetry to address all issues. But we can expect a poetry to know the limits of its reach, its own futility, if it comes to that. I like the crazy energy in O’Leary’s best poems, his fascination with arcane and unpronounceable diction, his faith in persuasive utterance. It reminds me at times of Christopher Smart. But Smart was commitably crazy when he wrote his best, and his appeal to us comes from our seeing and knowing the limits of his mind (he would appear not to have known them) and, surprisingly, his joy inside it.