If on some level all poetry seeks to heighten one’s sense of the present, then one important distinction found in poetry that inclines to a visionary mode might be the way it seeks to accomplish this heightening by connecting past to present in such a way that the present comes to seem, not merely sensually, but literally elevated. For the poet, this translates to something like a new vantage point. If this shift in perspective extends one’s sense of the horizons, one’s sense of time is naturally skewed as well. Seen from here, the ‘still-to-come’ may elide itself with the ‘already-happening.’
Consequently, works inclining to a visionary mode are always freighted with allusions to previous works, and may, for better or worse, flirt with the allegorical. This occurs as the alluding artist attempts to come to grips with the work, or works, alluded to—works which they are consciously or unconsciously revising and reworking so as to fully integrate them within the singularity of their own project. If the products of this mode never fully abandon the present, they create the illusion of leaving it momentarily in order to return to it, whereupon its contents are discovered to be altered.
From Ronald Johnson’s ARK: The Foundations, we can appropriate a terse formula for at least the initial end of this process: ‘We dream the root to leaf the now.’ This notion, evocative of a radically oneiric re-shaping of the present, suggests to me an apt place from which to consider two new, but very different, collections of American poetry: Peter O’Leary’s Depth Theology and Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids. Aside from being second books, these works appear to have little in common, save that they are innovative and challenging, sometimes even recalcitrant, products of each author’s considerable lyric gifts.
What I find most interesting, however, about the temporal elision revealed in these works applies to the way they announce the restoration to high lyricism of an authenticity that has been undermined at least since the rise of the Language poets. And they do so by incorporating elements of the Language aesthetic into intelligent syntheses of the modern and the postmodern, looking forward to a new lyric utterance. In order to assess the courses suggested by these tendencies—and to shade in some of the implications attached to the way these poets’ respective ‘nows’ leaf out on the tree of contemporary poetics—I will consider each work separately and then, to what extent possible, in light of each other.
As with O’Leary’s first collection of poems, Watchfulness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), Depth Theology is immersed in traditions of the sacred, leaning decidedly toward the mystical and the arcane. The taproot of O’Leary’s poetics is fixed in the Bible, but there is also commerce with Zoroaster, Greek and Vedic deities, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Zohar and the sefirot, and Byzantine literature.
For those (whom I assume to be the majority) not well-versed in the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian or Nicephorus the Solitary, the most striking aspect of O’Leary’s work may be its extreme foregrounding of the poet’s erudition, a product of his training as a Divinity scholar. This is not only apparent in the abundance of explicit references to all sorts of theo-literary arcana, but also at the level of diction these references invite. I can’t think of another thirty-something poet currently writing in English whose lexicon so consistently eludes both OED and Internet search engines. Here are the first three lines of his poem ‘Book of Giants’:
Torahtic architect who listens to hybrids of women & angels—: they would be
grasshoppers in Deuteronomical eyes; fulcrum-legged nephilim Noah would
never know of. Enoch
is their doxologer, hoary-born ascensionarian. Elijahan forerunner.
It’s easy to imagine readers who might be thrown by these lines, yet as statements they are nonetheless remarkable for their clarity. They initiate a speculative retelling of some curious circumstances only just alluded to in Genesis 6:4. Namely, that angels once mated with human females; that the offspring born of this miscegenation, ‘fulcrum-legged nephilim,’ were wicked ‘giants’ whose influence over humankind precipitated a divine decision to destroy the earth by flood and to punish the angelic progenitors, despite Enoch’s intercession on their behalf. O’Leary’s penchant for the fantastic or, in other words, for what makes the apocryphal and the pseudepigraphical so tabloidishly engrossing, points toward one of the problems his Depth Theology avidly engages, one that the opening of another poem—in contrast to the one above—articulates baldly:
Sophists have stripped myth from the world like varnish
from a rec room wet bar.
These lines begin ‘The Collected Poems of Sigmund Freud,’ a poem that appears in a section of the book called Theopathic Anxieties. I believe it is one of the central poems in the collection, and one that links up to an important sense of the phrase ‘depth theology,’ about which O’Leary offers this gloss in his copious ‘Notes and Acknowledgments’ at the back of the book:
Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss physician who was Carl Jung’s director at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital, is generally credited with coining Tiefenpsychologie—’depth psychology’—for describing a psychology of the unconscious. I take depth theology, then, to be a religious knowledge of the unconscious.
‘A religious knowledge of the unconscious,’ i.e., a theology of the unconscious: this is ‘depth theology.’ I want to return to ‘The Collected Poems of Sigmund Freud,’ but, first, I think it’s best to trace some of the earlier poems’ movement toward its lamentation for the stripping away of myth from the world.
The first poem in Depth Theology begins where one might have anticipated: ‘God visits the cranial shell in fireworks. He footraces fissures / loosening the seams with epiphany.’ Yet how unanticipated is the aspect of this ‘God,’ especially where—or perhaps more correctly because—internalized: ‘His arms scarred with pendants / of psoriasis. Jewels glister at the ends of enamel. Thus / he appears Aztec, fringed in / symbolism.’ The ‘loosening of the seams’ marks the site of an important counterforce to this book’s relentless inward drives which, oddly enough, occasionally threaten to blinker the scope of its poetic, if not its spiritual, vision.
That on some level the poet is sensitive to these threats is apparent. Depth Theology is packed with descriptions of bodily functions and states, and these function not so much as contrasts to spiritual states, but as integral components which attach themselves to the cumulative body of its ‘religious knowledge of the unconscious’—even should they manifest themselves, paradoxically, as a kind of interference. Note how much of this imagery evinces an anxiety pertaining to clogging and to closure: ‘Since / I was fourteen, my throat has been slowly closing.’ (‘Plasmic like a Gel of Oxygen’); ‘Melancholia fouls the body, clots it.’ (‘Narrative of an Inefficient Combustion’); ‘The people in their / similitudes, the gurgle of phlegm in their throats.’ (‘Obsession’); ‘A mother expecting might worry her prolactin into hiding / its hordes of vital allergens.’ (‘A Farewell to Kings’).
The title of one piece, ‘Fear of the Innermost Body within the Body That We Call the Heart,’ suggests the difficulty involved in judging whether O’Leary’s somatic portraiture has been squeezed out of his attempts to penetrate the hidden and the essential, or vice versa. To my notion, the best poems in Depth Theology derive their intensity from border skirmishes between body and spirit, waking and dreaming, concealment and revelation—precisely because in them we encounter the greatest reciprocity of movement.
For this reason, I believe, Depth Theology’s most pervasive motifs are winged emblems of the liberation had by such movement. The book’s first section takes Auspices, or ‘fortunes read in the patterns of birds in flight,’ as its title. As tension embedded in the corporeal evokes the spiritual, so that in the seen evokes the unseen; birds become a symbol of this tension, flying in and out of the poems mysteriously. One encounters them throughout, sometimes under cover of taxonomic nomenclature (‘a purple gallinule’; ‘[o]ur largest larus’; ‘[a] pugnacious trochilidus’; ‘the accipiter in its suicidal plummet’), but more frequently we recognize them by their common names: ‘buzzards overhead’; ‘[t]he raven who steers through a pine sea’; ‘tiny menace, this owl’; ‘inside a sparrow’s heartbeat.’ As with the third person of the trinity, in Jungian psychology birds function as a symbol of spirit; their lineaments are echoes of spiritual states. But as O’Leary weaves them in and out of the poems, their ultimate meaning can never be reduced, much less stabilized:
In a badlands of frontier America,
alluvial flats are Babylonian tablets of clay.
Bird feet work like gravers. Recording what riddles?
The world is made of the joining of stellar ash—cold as outer darkness—
& eruption. There it hung in a jesuitical dope of space,
heating and cooling into meticulous terraces of isotopes. Divinities.
Each atmosphere is the tracery of bird life.
Muscle bunches at the shoulder blade where acupuncture
mimics the pattern of goldfinch in flight.
Uprush & twirl of feathers.
birds people airs with circumflexes. They are no more familiar
to their keeper than science to theophany; than heron to crane; than tongue
(from ‘An Auspex’)
We might draw any number of compelling interpretations from these lines, particularly in regard to the bird / script connections, and that is their beauty. One imagines that a truly skilled auspex (i.e. the priestly Roman official who reads and deciphers the auspices) must have had not only the ability to see patterns in all bird flight, but also to see bird flight in all patterns. Where it appears, this kind of wide-ranging poetic vision—evident in O’Leary’s imaginative locating of the ornithological in graphemes on clay tablets, in ornamental atmospheric effects, in the acupuncturist’s pinpricks, in diacritical markings—imbues Depth Theology with a strange cohesion, marshalling its more devotional impulses into the half-light of the pleasantly unfamiliar. In so doing, its horizons seem to expand in all directions.
The cover art of Depth Theology appears to take pains not only to be precise about the locus of Depth Theology’s relentless inward drive, but also to bestow a sacerdotal dimension upon the symbolism of its bird presences. It reproduces an oil portrait of a featureless human profile, in front of which floats a censer whose base—almost as if perched on the human figure’s shoulder—extends upward, culminating in a smoking bird-shaped chamber superimposed precisely over the human figure’s braincase. The verbo-visual pun at work here—a play on censer / sense, and perhaps even an arch allusion to a shared, albeit prehistoric, reptilian ancestry—is clearly meant to emphasize the neurological, or neuro-psychiatric, literalness with which O’Leary’s poems undertake their depth theology:
The poem is the oracle. Thunder is nerves, hormonal
alacrity & siege. God in me is an endocrine. God
has snared his most secret body in my central nervous system
spread with most perfect fear.
These lines are from ‘Fear of the Innermost Body within the Body That We Call the Heart,’ the first of the ‘theopathic anxieties’ mentioned earlier. ‘Theopathy,’ as the notes indicate, refers to ‘an intense receptibility of the feeling of God’s divinity.’ The bird presence in ‘Fear of the Innermost Body’ is established in an allegorical ‘tunnel’ where a ‘sickly thunderbird’ is ‘tended by a sickly keeper.’ The thunder bird
over an egg. Now only yolk & protein, the new thunderbird
will feed on worms of darkness once it’s hatched. It will learn
to fly on cavernous sound waves amplified
through tunnels, &—. But enough hermeticism; enough
simpleton’s allegory. Here it is: the tunnels are aortae; the caves ventricles &
the heart is the little bird; you are the old and sickly one.
This repudiation of the poem’s own ‘simpleton’s allegory’ is an odd maneuver. It is framed first by
metaphors of thunder,
thundering hills, reiterated thunder, epileptic
thunder. Parables of the origins of thunder. Eliot’s
Ultimately the poem’s ‘inner thunder,’ its ‘fear of God,’ attaches itself not to the cloud-gatherer, Zeus, but to Pan, source of our word ‘panic.’ From here the poem takes an even stranger, almost comical, turn:
The god Pan like a swarm of buzzing flies comes down,
like a tempest of allergens…
to make a batter of the lungs, a large looseness of the bowels.
… he harasses the domain of nerves.
Thus, the poem concludes, ‘Anxiety / is the information. Its news // is God.’
While O’Leary’s work is consistently brilliant, its tone is sometimes difficult to gauge. It is possible that some readers may feel blunted by its often hortatory nature. It seems to me that O’Leary is still working out his countermeasures to a sense of vertigo induced by his visionary perch. Thus, where it surfaces, O’Leary’s sense of humor is almost always a nervous one, slightly distracted by its strong sense of anxiety. Sometimes it can be difficult to judge the precise level on which the poet is engaging a referent like ‘A Farewell to Kings,’ a title lifted from an album by Rush:
The Lords of Birth & Rebirth diet on Dexedrine, slimming
their auras into afterglow. Their skins luminesce
with a milky sweat. Bloated with dopamine, their limbic clusters
buzz. [… ]
Your central nervous system
is a bath, abundant & sudsy. But these Lords splash there.
An overflow of shining spilth.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is not a serious poem. As the source of the earlier quoted ‘mother expecting [who] might worry her prolactin into hiding,’ this poem is connected to ‘Fear of the Innermost Body’ not only as its predecessor in the collection, but also in its subtle link to the successor poem’s unborn thunderbird, the ‘yolk and protein’ corresponding to the fetal presence within the ‘expecting mother.’ Yet there is something pyrrhic about this poem’s attempted ‘farewell,’ if it is earnest in its desire for some kind of countermovement to its ‘inwardly radiating places’:
adieu to these Kings. Farewell to their
energetic dynasties. Upwards, outward,
fires concelebrate with a long lost lullaby.
Indeed, any sense of escape here comes about only through this strange immolation at the poem’s conclusion.
Perhaps more than any other of its oppositions, Depth Theology is driven by ‘[a] weird anxiety & certainty’ presiding over the core of what remains hidden in its architectonic dreamscapes. And this is what makes a poem like ‘The Collected Poems of Sigmund Freud’ stand out as a possible statement of poetics, tongue-in-cheek title and all:
Depth once meant the hiddenness of God is intrinsic. Unabashed & remote.
Nowadays it means dredge it to the surface; integrate it into the circuitry
humming with its commonplacement & anxiety. Roger Tory Peterson’s
Field Guides to the Birds of North America are as mythic as
any books of the past century; their direction
is downward, even as the surface seethes with wing beats, the least
corrosive animal motion.
Though I would trade them for The Interpretation of Dreams in a heartbeat, this
would not constitute a judgment. Only an admission
of the importance of good maps on the journey
to the center of the earth.
Only an admission that the birdlife of my nighttime evades my binocular eyes.
All of O’Leary’s raw materials come together beautifully here: the descent into central hiddenness, the rediscovery of mythos within scientia, the heartbeat exchange of mere classification in favor of some kind of sacred excavation of the innermost. If it is the sacredness of mythos that Depth Theology would restore to its intrinsic propriety over ‘existentialism & truistic bumper stickers,’ then O’Leary’s attachment to mythos might be understood in light of its power to exorcize the neurotic superficia of the banal, even if it leads to another sort of anxiety, one more deeply rooted in a cosmic pathos. Yet this poem’s concession to ‘truistic,’ worldly presences which can ‘in spite of themselves’ be ‘wise’ appears to invoke an essential tension they lend to O’Leary’s poetry.
The second poem in Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids concludes: ‘It’s enough but not of anything.’ This statement might function as a nice subtitle to the book as a whole, not only by responding to the absurdly complicated proposition of ‘the totality for kids,’ but also by reverberating a pronounced sense of thwarted plenitude and longing one encounters throughout this work. By this I do not mean to imply a deficiency in the work; on the contrary, this much-anticipated follow-up to Madonna anno domini (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), offers clear evidence that Clover may be emerging as the strongest synthesizer of Frank O’Hara’s paradigm into a poetics of the twenty-first century. Poem-for-poem, The Totality for Kids is more even, more urgent, and more dynamic than its predecessor. If O’Leary’s book is caught between its own afferent / efferent impulses, then Clover’s new book is torn between loving abandonments in the spirit of high modernism and the foregrounding of its deep consciousness of history.
As with O’Leary’s work, there is a forceful continuity between Clover’s first and second books. Architecture, urbanism and the experience of place, the materiality and instability of language, and relentless forays into a possible praxis for the thinking bequeathed to us by Benjamin, Adorno, Debord, Baudrillard, and others, are the foci of The Totality’s researches. Another, odder, consistency is evident in the way Clover continues to remain as if simultaneously rooted in two places. The writing is at once distinctly ‘American,’ revealing close affinities with New York school poetics and a keen awareness of Language and post-Language poetry, while abounding—as with the New York school—in French influences.
However, these influences are more prominent in Clover’s work than in that of any of the New York school figures. They surface in French titles, in abundant references to French place names, and in poems such as his calligramme à la Guillaume Apollinaire, i.e. a poem shaped on the page with its lines arranged like the radials of a blazing sun. Its deft allusion is of course to the ‘Sun throat cut’ (or if you prefer Samuel Beckett to Ron Padgett, the ‘Sun corseless head’) of Apollinaire’s ‘Zone.’ The fact that Clover titles this piece ‘Ça Ira,’ after a French revolutionary battle hymn—instantly summoning eo ipso images of the guillotine—not only sharpens the poem’s wry edge, but emphasizes an important facet of his work.
Namely, that French history, perhaps even more so than French poetics, informs The Totality for Kids. But why is this? The most likely answer is that Clover traces the beginnings of our modernity—for better or worse—to the utopian longings, to the betrayals and terrors, and to the newspeak attempts at revolutionizing consciousness in the France of 1789. This is obviously fertile ground for poetry that—as the book jacket suggests—wants ‘to return revolutionary possibility to the regime of information’; hence, allusions to the French Revolution and its myriad after-effects, lingering in concert with subsequent historical events, advance and recede like lit fuses throughout the poems. And, of course, one of the book’s key tensions arises from the poet’s awareness that even his most anarchic impulses will have to learn to operate skillfully from inside ‘le system.’
How do these influences coöperate in The Totality for Kids? Consider these lines from ‘Poem’ (one of five compositions so-titled), whose conclusion I have already quoted:
We always send it to the wrong address
And now that buoys even our most impersonal days. Everyone is beautiful!
And then almost everyone. C’est cool-ça, the shift that enchants the world
Or at least the afternoon of the world before it’s off
To meet Chris and all at glimmering Colleen’s
Arriving southside early and so twenty min for Lyn’s The Fatalist
Amidst the superlit video store on the corner. It’s funnier
In French: superlit but not much else. One is haunted
By the suspicion that one is in a society
Composed of people one will never meet for example
The Society That Thinks About Someone Named Anne-Lise
Occasionally. So I walk back around and up
The stairs and Chris puts on either/or. Elliott Smith 20th cen. American
Is nonetheless a star in the constellation
Our Romanticism and we have been hanging out
A lot there recently. A keener melancholy
About the music for a week or two afterward may be obvious
But something has to be done with the excess flowering inside death
Or is it just apotropaic? We’ll see. The most awful thing
About the phrase “Every Germinal must have its Thermidor”
Is that one never gets to say so anymore
And really mean it. We lie down in categories
And wake up in concepts…
This piece is clearly haunted by O’Hara—whose presence is almost instantly recognizable in the poem’s generic title, and then certainly in its ‘I-do-this, I-do-that’ maneuvers and casual name-dropping. ‘Southside’ and ‘video store’ key us into one of those urban spaces in which Clover, like O’Hara, continually places himself. Yet here we may also trace Clover’s departure from O’Hara, in that Clover is more apt to follow these spaces into more overtly theoretical terrain than was the central figure of the New York school.
The departure is announced by the deliberate ambiguity surrounding the antecedent of the first line’s pronouns—not so much in the familiar lyrical gesture of the ‘we’, but very much so in the ‘it.’ By itself, the opening line owes more to Ashbery than to O’Hara, but whereas Ashbery often deploys an ambiguous pronoun in order to allude to an indefinable and elusive concept or emotion, Clover appears to mean ‘it’ specifically as our singular, non-gendered pronoun. That is its main function, though we are teased with the invitation to attach it to the specifically non-specific ‘Poem’ of the title. It’s worth noting here how O’Hara’s gesture of titling certain works ‘Poem’—which, while suggesting an insouciant or avant-garde non-title, also harkened back to the anonymous Song of medieval lyrics—seems to have been brought full circle in that Clover’s ‘Poem’ restores to title the capacity of label, i.e. an identifying category. The first line and its wide-open pun on ‘address’ bring the point home with ebullience, so that another ambiguous pronoun, ‘that (emphasis mine) buoys even our most impersonal days.’
And the poet is clearly unfazed by this mistakenness, by the error that speeds ‘it’ along to ‘the wrong address,’ even though the opening statement invites us to call into question the linguistic system whose totality is about to emerge very palpably in the Franco-Anglicism of ‘C’est cool-ça’. That Clover locates in such a ‘shift’ the power to ‘enchant the world’ distinguishes his work from a great deal of late-twentieth century poetry similarly engaged with the materiality of language—in that, unlike much other work, his poems take pains to express real delight in these phenomena, despite their wariness about them.
Clover’s urban perambulations typically occasion a probing of the ontological, as well as the physical, ground beneath his feet, and in so doing they place him at constant risk of its imminent destabilization: ‘We lie down in categories / And wake up in concepts.’ Yet the spaciousness of this new work accommodates both an ironic detachment from the world and a certain fatalist attraction to it—call it a skeptical optimism which not only aligns this work with O’Hara’s, but lends it an ‘apotropaic’ resistance to its own ‘keener melancholy.’
Like a de Chirico piazza, Clover’s cityscapes seem primed for hallucinatory transformations. These are effected most impressively by the poet’s revelry in the instability of the linguistic system—’The most awful thing / About the phrase “Every Germinal must have its Thermidor” / Is that one never gets to say so anymore / And really mean it.’ (After all, if we determine that the poet really does get to mean it here, aren’t we dealing with something like paralipsis?)—and in the delectations he is able to discover in the fluidity of form and content, and especially in the way the grammatical structure of a statement may complicate or undo the sense of what it is saying. Hence, ‘it’ is enough, but not, in and of itself, of any one particular thing.
These poems are also rife with mise-en-abyme phenomena pertaining to written language as a material object, or to the book as a material framing device, made of ink and paper. Since the rise of Language poetry, many poets have been, and still are, engaged somehow with linguistic materiality. But what I deem most auspicious in Clover’s new book results from its unique marriage of New York and post-Language schools, of the trivial and the theoretical—and from its adept weaving together of these disparate threads in the service of a new and restored lyrical authenticity. This is apparent even in the remarkable meteorology of its world, ‘where rain is falling across / A grammar of skyline, rain is filling / The April air with silver quotation marks.’
The two poems ‘En Abyme’ and ‘Valiant en Abyme’ bring these operations, literally, down to sentence level. The former begins
Here in the duskgarden it’s getting so you can’t tell
an abyss from a pageant. We think of stars as brief words
which blink on at evening saying something we would like
to say also. Words are flowing toward mysterious black coasts.
In this poem, the lateness of the hour—whether that of modernity, of monopolistic capitalism, or both—being conducive to permutations, to transpositions, presides over the brief word ‘stars,’ which is itself thought of as a ‘brief word,’ though in that thought the difference emerges between its own referential and material dimensions. As language, being fluid, advances toward ‘mysterious black coasts,’ a kind of ‘exile’ ensues, before the poem concludes, ‘Now we are older and empty / into the winedark sentence the inkdark sea.’ The wonderfully strange inversion involved in thus yoking ‘winedark’ to ‘sentence’ and emptying into it the ‘inkdark sea’ not only re-animates a sense of the Homeric epithet’s power to intoxicate, but it also turns the statement’s referential values inside out: its figurativeness shares the same space with its materiality, performing literacy’s equivalent of an optical illusion.
The Totality for Kids is haunted by inert sensations and looming voids, in the words of one poem, ‘this / Being being being-left-empty.’ In conjunction with these are references to more potent (and more literal) forms of intoxication, such as ‘OxyContin’ and ‘Seconal.’ A pun in ‘Valiant en Abyme’ locates its pharmacopoeia in an empty expanse of winter sky and—by extension—in its own ink:
all heroes are deranged
By something quite common yet unexpected, a constellation
Redrawn and named again though the stars
Above the porch don’t shift but seem to sink
Through winter’s pitcher of noircotic ink,
Leaving a single streetlight that burned happily
Thinking it was the sun, after all it was the day
Of the night and turned the world around it,
We were good sentences and forgot where we started.
Reading this work, one is reminded of the etymological link between ‘sentence’ and ‘sentience.’ In ‘Valiant en Abyme’ the very ink that marks the page narcotizes the reading eye to the point that, upon looking up, a streetlight burns with the force of an Apollonairean sun. Never mind that this results in such a strange invagination of antonyms (day and night). Time and again one comes up against not merely a Situationist, but a Baudelairean drift: the shrugging suggestion that to be valiant in the abyss is to be, at least partially, oblivious.
Despite the wariness of ‘Poem’ vis-à-vis ‘the constellation / Our Romanticism,’ many of the poems in The Totality for Kids do evince a certain romanticism precisely because their fixations form a crucial axis in the marriage of New York and post-Language schools, and of the trivial and the theoretical, and thereby give birth to what I deem most auspicious in this work. Clover is impressively adept at weaving together the disparate threads suggested by these marriages, applying what he prizes in each to an often stunning lyricality. I think it’s correct to say that Clover’s work seeks a music that might once more evoke something we could rightly call ‘sublime.’ The culminating poem, ‘At the Atelier Teleology’ is too long to reproduce here, but I’d like to single it out as the book’s tour de force.
It begins as a pastiche of O’Hara’s ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ (reminding us of the fact that O’Hara’s poem apes Mayakowsky’s ‘The Extraordinary Adventure which Befell Vladimir Mayakowsky in a Summer Cottage’) while also reprising the central themes of The Totality for Kids: ‘By the way Joshua why are you so obsessed with the modern / And its endnotes, what about going to bed in the sensuous / Now and Here, you know, the sublime sublime?’
Despite this intimation of an escape from the labyrinths of the book’s various en abymes, the presence of ‘Beckett’s version / Of “Zone”‘ in which ‘the new century rips the head off the old’ foreshadows the fatalistic turn the poem is about to take, falling as it does back into the labyrinth of the post-modern’s many surfaces: ‘It turns out everything is the world in miniature… /… we live in the world / Of the antilyric… .’ The next movement is composed in ‘Zone’-like rhyming couplets: ‘Ah America you have got worn thin / Plus unable to hold Americans // [… ] All the Futurists are in the past giving the sense history / Really has ended sometime around El Lissitzky.’ These eventually yield to a prose passage that concludes the book on a note of haunting dispossession:
Out past Arrival Street we go to the black suburb, we are buried in Grant’s Tomb, Et in arcadia ego, we walk in the garden of his turbulence, Et in arcadia ego, we are in a station of the metro, we are lost in the editing of July, we too lived in arcades in arcades you will find us.
Reflecting upon this conclusion I think it’s important to note that—despite the sense of dispossession, of dislocation, and of being literally buried under the riddles of our cultural and political heritage—the final shift from past into future tense would seem to address the possibility of some form of redemption, perhaps lurking incredibly in some ephemeral crevice that has escaped the totality’s great leveling.
Whereas Clover’s Totality is constructed on an academic and pop-cultural framework, the foundations of O’Leary’s Depth Theology are mostly onto-theological. O’Leary’s book, like Clover’s, progresses toward an extended showpiece, especially if we regard the final three tri-partite poems as a sequence, whose prelude, ‘Ceaselessly Insufflating Within,’ fights through the ‘tedious lexicons’ of mechanical ‘prayer’ toward a ‘secret… transcendence’ in ‘the margin of silence in… words.’
Its final three poems, ‘Three Migrations,’ ‘Three Words out of Dante,’ and ‘Theophanies,’ enact an ever deepening movement inward, lingering at one point within a long list of words prefixed by this dominant sense of interiority, ‘embathe, embellish, embox, embrace, embody / embark, emprise / emplace… / empurple / … encage, enforce / enhance… ’ before arriving at ‘A Catastrophe’: ‘Subdermal lightning, vascular air strikes, suture-loosening trepanation of thunder—: / photophobia.’ Is this a description of a kind of rapturous fainting spell encountered in certain hagiographical literature, or something more devastating? Despite the uncertainty, the poet seems to embrace precisely that which will overwhelm him: ‘Heavenly meteorite that pocks the private surface,’ the ‘[s]pirit weather’ that ‘drives us in’ toward the World’s ‘receding, unreachable innerness.’
If The Totality for Kids seems the more accessible of the two books, this perception may owe something to Clover’s more overt use of irony, humor, and wit; the book even includes an ‘Index’ (reputedly compiled by Andrew Joron) in which entries like ‘Pound, Ezra’ or ‘Ravachol, François’ share space with ‘Jello-O,’ ‘Tears for Fears,’ or ‘Sun: abandonment of; clattering gears of; dream of; friendly conversation with.’
O’Leary, in more subtle ways, offers up teasing moments as well; he is, however, primarily a mystic, a seer. To the extent that the poems in Depth Theology are meditative odysseys in pursuit of the ‘Withdrawing God,’ certain of them will always run the risk of turning so far inward that their crucial counterforces will break down and implode. I locate the most exciting work in those poems that treat the impingements of the visible world (even if these merely surface in dreams) as vital counterparts to the hiddenness that preoccupies the poet. The tensions in those poems issue in the sinewy, resonant, ‘strobed-by-air’ lyricism of beautiful myths.
Clover is fondly ‘Adrift beyond heroic realism / In the postmodern sublime,’ loping through urban labyrinths ‘[b]eneath the clattering gears of the moon and the sun.’ The Totality for Kids is suffused with a sense of the ineluctable and the inescapable. Whether this can be connected to some sort of teleological destiny is of course unsayable, and so every celebratory impulse, every joyous outburst is freighted by dialectical snares lurking within the historical. Still, it is a pleasure to watch as Clover moves among them with such languorous, lyrical fascination.
The problems and paradoxes presented by these works will bring their readers face-to-face with two intriguing new branches that have leafed out on the tree of contemporary poetics, seemingly dreamed up while no one was observing. But as a result, things do look different now.
Chris Glomski’s collection of poems, Transparencies Lifted from Noon, was published in the fall of 2005 by MEB / Spuyten Duyvil Press. He is also the author of a chapbook, IL LA, published by Noemi Press. His poems, critical writings, and translations have appeared in Notre Dame Review, Chicago Review, The Octopus, Literary Review, ACM, and A Public Space. He lives in Chicago.