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In the face of shifting contemporary concerns, political, social, ontological, the concept of creative writing as a sacramental act is a challenging one; challenging in the sense that the definition of individuality is refigured to encompass both the singular and the plural; the conception of self gains and loses in equal measure. Through this lens the creative act represents a purposeful gesture of devotion, an act of love that flowers outward from an infinite, yet singular point. Knowledge collapses; “Thus the snow unseals itself to the sun; / thus to the wind on the light leaves / the sentence of Sibyl lost itself” (Paradiso 130). A divine light directs all foci, and partaking in its presence entails a letting go, a beautiful and awful vulnerability. It is here that the poem encounters blank space, the bare brilliance of the page, where it must faithfully exist.
“The poem begins in silence” (Guest, 20). The work of Frank Samperi, a poet whose singular focus exemplifies the struggle of the modern spiritual writer, creates a bridge between Modernist concerns of the poetic image and mystical Christian notions of abject revelation. St. Thomas Aquinas writes:
other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err, whereas this [Sacred Doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of the divine knowledge, which cannot err... ...[human intellect] dazzled by the clearest objects of nature; as the owl is dazzled by the light of the sun” (Basic Writings 9).
For Samperi, as for his major philosophical influences, Dante and Aquinas, to see clearly is always to be aware of what is not being seen, the mystery of a creation illuminated throughout with a light unable to be perceived by imperfect eyes. “In its depth I saw that itinternsitself, / bound with love in one volume, / that which scatters itself thru the universe” (Paradiso 131); Dante’s eyes, here strengthened by his paramour Beatrice, finally behold the Eternal Light, the “Golden Rose” of the triform God. This moment of absolute clarity becomes a point of striving for the spiritual pilgrim, a goal whose attainment is constantly engaged through moments of revelatory vision within Samperi’s poetic oeuvre. Taken as a whole, this work reiterates the poetical gestures of striving, and by doing so creates a vulnerability that colors and individualizes his voice as a spiritual writer.
A Pilgrim’s Progress
“Now all rational creatures, angels and men alike, have in them, each one individually, one chief working power, which is called a knowing power, and another chief working power called a loving power” (Cloud of Unknowing 123).
Frank Samperi was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 19, 1933, a first generation Italian-American. Critic Jack Foley notes: “For Italian-Americans steeped in Roman Catholicism — as for Africans taken to the United States in slavery — the experience of exile is often cloaked in religious terms; and, as an orphan and a first-generation Italian American, Samperi is in a way twice an exile.” In a collection of writings published posthumously, Samperi gives a vivid impression of his specific cultural and personal perspective:
Looking at the in
the music within
in communion white
in America (Spiritual Necessity 169)
An illegitimate child, and, following his mother’s death when he was 11, an orphan, Samperi experienced a sense of homelessness very early in life, a feeling which proved to be catalytic for his future poetic work. In his book The Kingdom Samperi provides a visceral experience of exile as both a physical and spiritual affliction;
The sleep of illness evokes the whole life,
the angel before the eye,
ready to gather up the spirit,
warding off temptation
to fall back
a prey to darkness
outside and in... (The Kingdom 19)
In a later section of this poem Samperi describes the loss of his mother, and the development of his own internal struggle:
The dying of the mother,
the single bed
in a corner
off the back porch,
her body skin and bones,
less than 80 lbs.,
or so it seemed,
but what is even worse,
not without its own long history,
of her generation:
disease the canker of sin —
her illegitimate son
made to bear
and work out
the crisis... (19)
After spending two years in an orphanage Samperi was taken in and raised by his aunts. Speaking about his experience meeting a young Samperi, the poet Cid Corman recounts;
He was not a man who communicated deeply in person, but you cd see/feel where he was coming from. A tough childhood [...]–a naturally shy and sensitive soul. No sense of his aunts being concerned about him in the Brooklyn apt.–where I first met him. Was he 28 when I first met him? I thought he was 18. He was like a high school student. VERY nervous. He nearly dropped the kettle when pouring water for tea at the place. His hand was so shaking. (Lamentations 177)
At the age of 20 Samperi enlisted for army service and was sent to Korea, where he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown due to battlefield trauma and was honorably discharged. Upon returning to the states he moved into an apartment in Brooklyn and began writing his first collection of poems Song Book.
Samperi was largely self-taught, a scholar of Dante, fluent in Italian and also in Latin, which he learned through his own detailed studies of Thomas Aquinas. After attending a writing workshop he met the poet Louis Zukofsky, who became an early mentor and provided him with a poetic link to the Objectivist movement. Zukofsky also introduced Samperi to Cid Corman, who, in the 1960s, published much of Samperi’s initial work in his seminal poetry journal Origin, and became a vocal champion of his poetry. Corman proved to be a central influence in Samperi’s creative life as well; the two shared a long correspondence that served as an impetus for much of Samperi’s work as a writer. In a telephone conversation with Samperi’s daughter Claudia Warren, she expressed to me the importance of Corman’s correspondence with her father; “he would get Corman’s letters and just read them and read them and then write...” (Conversation with Claudia Warren, 2/3/08)
Samperi met his wife Dolores, an aspiring actress, at the age of 28. He had begun receiving monthly payments from the Veterans Association after being discharged, but needing a further method of supporting himself and his new family, he and Dolores moved to Osaka, Japan in 1964, where he accepted a modest teaching position. Upon returning to New York with their infant daughter Claudia, the family settled in Brooklyn and Samperi resumed writing what would eventually become his most well known work, the trilogy of books The Prefiguration, Quadrifariam, and Lumen Gloriae. Other books, such as The Kingdom published in 1979 by the British small press Arc Publications, and 1986’s Alfa ed O published by Origin, though important in dissecting Samperi’s perspectives on the writings of Dante and Aquinas, as well as providing insightful glances into his own methods of creating, were released in small run, single printings, and remain uncollected.
After his completion of the trilogy in the mid-seventies, and continuing to release chapbooks throughout the early part of the 1980’s, Samperi, tiring of city-life, moved to Sun-City, Arizona. Following this relocation, Samperi’s creative output considerably lessened, and only a handful of incomplete works, written after the publication of his last book Alfa ed O, were published in the 2004 collection Spiritual Necessity. Samperi’s final work, A Marte was completed shortly before he passed away, and remains unpublished. At 54 Samperi underwent double by-pass surgery following a heart attack. Throughout the next several years Samperi’s health continued to decline. After suffering a serious case of pneumonia in 1991 Samperi was again hospitalized. Due to complications in his treatment, Frank Samperi died in a Veteran’s Association hospital in June 28, 1991 at the age of 58.
Samperi and Dante
Though Samperi is most often associated with various modern writers, such as Zukovsky, Corman, and Robert Kelly, it is the poetry of Dante Alighieri, particularly the three volumes of his Comedia, that stands as the most pronounced and vital influence on Samperi’s creative work. In addition to producing an as of yet unpublished translation of the Comedia’s third book, Paradiso, Samperi’s own poetry presents a striking similarity to the conceptual foci of the Comedia, in the sense that he regarded Dante, as he regarded himself, an artist engaged in a “solitary quest.” Futhermore regarding Dante’s Comedia Samperi makes the assertion that it is “Eternal Form” removed from any critical evaluation, and in that sense from time. Samperi is able to enter the world of the Comedia being that, for him, it exists not as a static artistic statement, but rather as a field of experience; “here me withdrawing / falling thru worlds / tho each world / the only one / imaginable” (A Remotis 18).
For Dante, as for many Medieval Christian writers, the experience of personal revelation occurred primarily amidst the internal turmoil of spiritual crisis. These moments served to radically alter ontological perspectives, shift foci, and initiate fresh paths for self-exploration. In Dante’s Comedia the first book opens as night is falling in a shadowed forest where the protagonist has lost his way. This is the initial crisis, the turmoil experienced by a wandering, directionless spiritual pilgrim. As the character Dante moves downward through the circles of Hell, then upward into Purgatory, and finally into the light of Paradise, there develops a change of both interior and exterior perspective. The dark forest is replaced by a garden of light, the once barred hill of Purgatory is scaled: “whence I raised the eyes to the mountains / which before bent them with too much weight” (Paradiso 97). Pursuing a similar vein Samperi envisions “light reaching eye from farthest star / bares the plain both ways the hill / the spirit in the field...” (A Remotis 17).
For Samperi, the act of writing as a life-long journey finds its source in the language and imagery of the Comedia. In a letter to the Australian poet Clive Faust dated June 20th 1991, a near-to-death Samperi reflected on his life’s poetic work “It’s true I still write poetry — but my illness(es) has taken greatly from me — my slowness is of a pathetic nature — sometimes I stay at a page, and wonder why I can’t go forward — so I remember days of years ago, but even there in the remembrance nothing holds: still: the profusion of color of the garden takes me up...” (Sulfur 252). In Samperi’s book Infinitesmals another version of this image appears;
a whole garden of angels
each leaning upon each
light flowering heavenward
tho each flower heaven
animals under flame
key releasing ground
fire air earth water
outside the walls (Spiritual Necessity 137)
This image is the garden of Dante’s Paradiso, a key text in understanding Samperi’s poetry; “the beautiful garden which flowers under the rays of Christ” (Paradiso 90). Here Dante experiences perfect creation: “As in a ray of sun, that passes pure through a broken cloud, my eyes, covered with shadow, once saw a meadow of flowers, thus I saw more multitudes of splendors, lightened from above by burning rays...” (90). This moment of clarity finds its locus within the protagonist’s metaphysical shift of perception, a shift that commingles all of Dante’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual influences into one moment of pure visionary experience. Samperi’s “profusion of color,” expresses and parallels the link between sight and ascension discussed throughout the Comedia. The poet is led to higher levels of metaphysical awareness by a visual recognition of the Divine within the created world. St. Bonaventure, in “The Journey of the Mind to God,” establishes this concept as of central concern to the spiritual pilgrim: “for we are so created that the material universe itself is a ladder by which we may ascend to God” (Bonaventure, 5). Further, he establishes the importance of the visionary experience: “through sight enter sublime and luminous bodies...” (12).
This moment of epiphany becomes the central focus for the Christian pilgrim, the ultimate goal in his/her quest. This quest is the main element of Dante’s poetic focus, a moving from the outward perception to the interior realization. Samperi models his own poetic journey on the progression of the Comedia, or what is earlier illuminated by St. Augustine as “the law of the inward man” (Confessions 141). Dante describes this compulsion in Canto XVII of Purgatorio; “even as fire moves upwards by reason of its form, being born to ascend thither where it lasts longest in its matter, so the captive mind enters into desire, which is a spiritual movement” (Singleton 191).
Fittingly, Dante uses the metaphor of fire to suggest a striving upwards; it is a symbol of cyclicality, simultaneously representing life and death, creation and destruction. Speaking to the nature of a spiritual poetics, poet and critic Peter O’Leary employs a similar image of water boiling as a representation of God’s complete Wholeness. Referencing Meister Eckhart, O’Leary notes that “the Image of God is an ebullitio, an overboiling, an ebullience; the creation of something out of itself” (LOGOS 83). Dante’s evocation of fire directs the reader toward an aspect of Divine revelation in a similar fashion; fire as a chemical reaction which, once initiated, operates as a self-sustaining system, a tower that draws its energy from both a foundation in its fuel, and from its pinnacle in the oxygen-rich air. So the flame moves from the physical to the ethereal and back again, in an endless loop. O’Leary connects this to a sense of direct interaction between Creator and Created: “God’s abiding in himself while flowing out into aspects and attributes creates the possibility of reidentification in humans, who revert that overflowed differentiation of God into its begotten wholeness” (LOGOS 80).
Responsive to both of these images, Samperi’s work engages with images/concepts of circular movement. In a poem first published in the collection Anamnesis Samperi represents the perpetual motion of God:
the other circle
does away with the word other
draws up the circle
involved in impediment
returns it to itself
no longer in contradiction
(Spiritual Necessity 78)
The God of the Comedia is a Divinity of circles, and an embodiment of pure light. Samperi’s use of the phrase “Eternal Form” for the Comedia, aside from Dante’s conceptual foci, can be directly linked to its poetic structure, particularly the use of terza rima verse. This stanza form is composed of a rhythmic push forward, while simultaneously arching backward in rhyme-scheme, (aba bcb cdc). Each line forms a link to its preceding line, creating a checked forward momentum, an auditory spiraling. Concerning this form, and the difficulty of transposing the movement of Dante’s verse into English, Samperi writes:
to translate terza rima
by equating same to same is
superbia, because filling out
is always the case, which
therefore leads to distortion
(deflection of ray, if you
will): the prose translation no
better, because, tho metaphrastic —
ally conditioned, the plane
is everywhere and completely
(Alfa ed O 9)
Dante’s prosodic elements, combined reoccurring images and scenes (the pastoral, the angelic, Divine light, circles of passage), are elements Samperi continues to return to, as a point of engagement within his own work. Considering Samperi’s reverence toward the Comedia, it is important to note that all of these elements together suggest self-contained, purposeful, complete forms, ever-present and eternal.
Samperi’s verse, deeply influenced by Dante’s spiritual conception, may seem by some, slight in comparison. His various collections of poetry, works of a singular focus, and serial nature, do not compose a perfect, visionary circle, or complete themselves in a vision of Paradise. In the Preface to Spiritual Necessity Samperi’s editor John Martone writes “In contrast to Dante’s world, where we always know where we are, we feel constantly dis/located in Samperi’s. We have not 100 cantos, arranged symmetrically, but more than a thousand poems arranged in sequences and tangential movements that intimate the great circle” (Spiritual Necessity viii).
Instead of being a failed attempt at creating a comparable existential perspective as Dante, Samperi’s work often reads as a product of and engagement with the modern world; as Martone suggests, “American life is disjointed, and Samperi must illuminate that disjointedness, if he is to make progress on his pilgrimage, if he is to get anywhere else” (viii). Dante’s world, a specifically Medieval creation in which created beings “all gaze upward, / and downward conquer so, that toward God / all are drawn, and all draw” (Paradiso, 112), has been viewed by some critics as one representing Divine completion, God’s presence permeating entirely throughout. In his essay “Revision and Turning Thither,” Peter O’Leary makes the contention that Samperi’s work never attains the completion, the perfect circle that constitutes the Comedia.
However, writing about the final lines of Paradiso Samperi makes the observation “The Comedia (Paradiso specifically) / is not one single image, in truth, it / is no image, because there is no final / image...” (Alfa ed O 45) Samperi, writing as one who conceptually looks backward in his own personal pilgrimage, experiences communion with the Divine in a way also suggesting the semi-fragmented prosody of Modernists engaged with a sense of the spiritual, such as Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, and Robert Duncan, among others; that is, in moments of sudden insight, intermittent, and most often elusive.
body in grass
in turn inscribed
(Spiritual Necessity 151)
What Samperi accomplishes in these lines is a deeply personal interaction with several of Dante’s key forms and themes; the turn, the flame, the intimate connection between the spiritual being and the physical being. The flower (Christ’s “lilies of the field...”) is always suggesting a divine lineage through its symmetry, shape, and placement. There is also the overarching figure of Dante’s “Golden Rose,” the Being of God hovering over the garden of Paradise. Concerning the inherent symbolic import Manly Hall writes: “The rose and its Eastern equivalent, the lotus, like all beautiful flowers, represent spiritual unfoldment and attainment” (Secret Teachings of All Ages 294). These images offer a redirection in focus for the contemporary spiritual writer; a redirection that doesn’t necessarily reach for the highest levels of Dante’s Divine illumination, but rather contends with flashes of light, often distant, obscured, yet unexplainably compelling.
Formally, Samperi engages with these flashes of insight through a variety of choices in line-breaks, vocabulary, and visual presentation on the page. Much of his poetry is constructed using minimal language, visually depicted in vertical lines of single words, or small phrases joined together in stanzas of varying length:
star to star
world to world
Here Samperi creates a poem of two quatrains with a total vocabulary of only twelve words. Six of these twelve words are repeated within the poem and the longest lines used only consist of three words. This piece is a model of concision, in both form and imagery, typical of Samperi’s shorter poems. Pastoral images, another common element of Samperi’s work, constitute the majority of this poem’s visual evocation, the only exception being the word “window,” a word that intrinsically suggests vision, particularly that of the poet/artist in relation to the external environment (Emily Dickinson’s “And then the Windows failed–and then / I could not see to see”). “Windows,” both bright and dark, allow the poet to perceive connections between common elements within a series; “star to star,” “world to world.” This construction leaves the reader with a sense of both visual continuity and serial form. No ending is posited; rather the reader is provided a suggestion of completion, obscured through a language of fragmentation. It is in this sense that Samperi’s poetry presents its most clear divergence from the poetic unity of Dante’s Comedia.
Image and Reality
There is a level of hermetic intimacy within Samperi’s work that creates a fascinating contrast to the vast metaphysical field with which he philosophically engages. The instances of connection are expansive; a sudden sight finds its origin within an overarching spiritual nature. All things have their root in this divine light, yet the pilgrim glimpses, “as in a mirror dimly,” the Eternal Forms which permeate the path he/she traverses. The lineage of an engagement with the “idea” and the “image,” as displayed within the Platonic, Mystical Christian, and Modernist poetic, can be viewed as a cross-section of precursors in Samperi’s writing. Plato’s cave, St. Mark’s account of Christ healing the blind beggar at Bethsaida, the anonymous 14th Century English monk’s writings on “the cloud of unknowing,” Dante’s vision of Paradise; these revelatory moments in Western literature point to, in Samperi’s work, the possibility of a sense of sight more clear, more pure than what can normally be experienced. In the mode of this “seeing” initially there is a basic, limited visualization that, when broken through, gives way to a deeper “knowing,” an understanding which transcends physical perception. Samperi’s poetry of walking, the mini-travelogue poems of his daily wanderings, are filled with lucid, metaphysical encounters:
lying close to lilacs
the sun going down
behind the hills
an angel walking in the valley
a man wakes
and from the tree by the river
to the left
birds flying down
to a grove
(from “Euphrasy,” Quadrifariam)
The simple presentation of the image itself, working as an element of suggestion, both draws closer the work of Samperi to poets from the Imagist and Objectivist schools, while at the same time pushing him apart from them. For Ezra Pound, the image in poetry “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (“A Retrospect” Literary Essays 4), and while Pound praised Dante’s Comedia, “‘Paradiso’ is the most wonderful image” (Pratt, 29), the concept of an “Eternal Form” proved disharmonious with his aim, at this time, in producing a more fleeting, “Imagist” poetics. In his essay on Imagism, William Pratt writes, “he [Pound] recognized that to believe in ‘absolute rhythm’ and ‘permanent metaphor’ was tantamount to believing in ‘a permanent world’–an ideal world, in other words, beyond or within the world of appearances which is the basis for all true symbolism” (Pratt 34).
By contrast, Samperi’s work aimed purely toward the spiritual; in a journal entry dated August 1, 1963 he writes, “Now I understand why our progress is spiritual: it depends on this — the will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by it” (Lamentations 179). This concept of the “will” is equated to “the spiritual heart” in The Cloud of Unknowing, a central text for Samperi’s ontological and creative development. The unknown author of this work stresses a personal engagement in the mystery of communion with the Eternal, only experiential within a passive reception of Divine love; “His will is that you should simply gaze at him, and leave him to act alone” (Cloud of Unknowing 119). Viewing the poem from this perspective is extremely important in understanding both Samerpi’s perception of the material world and his impetus for writing. For him the world of forms, of senses, of motion creates a necessity for the writer:
and sink —
Plato’s analogy of a cave, in which confined humans see shadows on the wall, an illustration of the perceptually limited confinement of the physical world, appears in Samperi’s poetic vision. However, it is tempered with a sense of constant pilgrimage toward the divine forms casting the shadows of sight, not a momentary recognition of them. Samperi’s philosophic thought derives largely from that of Thomas Aquinas; it centers itself within the mystery of the Divine experience. The poet Fanny Howe writes “Aquinas went on to discover that all labor is study of the divine since the divine is everything and anyone who lives is stuck inside the structure of God the Cosmos. He was concerned with being, not doing” (The Wedding Dress 113, 114). Aquinas himself notes, “Knowledge can be concerned only with being, for nothing can be known, save the true, which is convertible with being” (Pegis, 4). Out of this perspective Samperi writes a poetics of spiritual “being.”
His frequent walks through Brooklyn neighborhoods, city parks, the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts where he vacationed with his family during summers, inform the major portion of his life’s work in poetry. He would compose his pieces while he walked, often transcribing them, in whole, when he returned to his apartment. Though his work is infused with primarily pastoral images, the urban landscape of Brooklyn seemed to evoke the strongest creative response in Samperi:
— cities, whose life and
continuance and unity is a
spiritual language, pertain to
spiritual orders, whose spiritual
differences safeguard the spiritual
differences of cities”
(Alfa ed O 8)
In this space an elusive Truth presents itself, through the form of visionary encounters, angels that move among the fields, hills, and rivers that together compose the world of Samperi’s writings.
intuiting farthest light
standing in a grove
on a hillside
a man conveyed rays
to an angel below
(from “Intaglio,” Quadrifarium).
These scenes exude a holy presence. They echo Dante’s pastoral visions, and focus on an element of poetic receptivity, or alternatively, co-creation, from a foundational source that allows the author brief glimpses of eternity.
Aquinas also figures largely within Samperi’s use of poetic form to engage in metaphysical discourse:
love knowledge divided
mysticism science divided
union identity divided
glorified body spiritual man undivided
(from “Disigilla,” Spiritual Necessity 155)
These categories, taken from Aquinas’s writings on “Sacred Doctrine” in his masterwork the Summa Theologica, make use of spatial elements on the page to illustrate a progression of thought. Samperi separates Aquinas’s discontinuous parts, creating a prosodic chart that shifts and resolves itself within the final line; it represents an ultimate coming together of previously divided principles. Aquinas’s concept of this “Sacred Doctrine,” a progression beyond the limits of philosophical and natural sciences, appears throughout Samperi’s poems, breaking through divisions of corporeal and spiritual existence.
This concept also lies at the core of Dante’s pilgrimage throughout the Comedia; it represents an intrinsic connection between supposedly disharmonious principles: “but already was turning my desire and the velle, / like wheel that’s moved equally, / the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” (Paradiso 132). These final lines of Paradiso display an accord, the realization of Aquinas’s “Sacred Doctrine” and its harmonious effects throughout the totality of the divinely created, experiential world. Samperi’s work follows suit, tracing a continuous presence that directs and permeates entirely Dante’s heavenly garden:
in the garden
of light —
(The Bow Window 22)
The State of Spiritual Poetry
The new man is always the spiritual man” (from “Crystals” The Prefiguration).
to be saved I must
slip away from the moderns
(from “Song Book” The Prefiguration).
In her essay “Thinking of Follows” Rosemarie Waldrop examines the relationship between the poet and the expression of an abiding sense of meaningfulness within her/his work; “I can only hope that it gives a glimpse of that unreachable goal (which, paradoxically, is also its matrix), the concentration, the stillness of those moments when it seems we’re taken out of ourselves and out of time” (Dissonances). The “still moments,” the open spaces on the page; these elements of a poem exemplify a sense of meaning without express definition, a chance for something other to break through. They become points of crystallization and timelessness, analogous to Louis Zukofsky’s defocusing “‘the mirage of seeing’ as a way to focus on the ‘detail of seeing’” (Ming-Qian 81).
Contemporary poets whose works seems to engage primarily with revelatory details, poets such as Pam Rehm, Elizabeth Robinson, Patrick Pritchett, and John Taggart among others, illustrate the vitality of Samperi’s poetry and its overlooked importance. What is so striking about the work of these poets in comparison to Samperi’s own prosody are the similar concern for the abrupt occurrences of language, how words proceed out of singular moments of sensory experience, how they attempt to create a space of creative discourse around the ineffable. In her poem “Diarist” Elizabeth Robinson sets the stage for this type of engagement: “There are / antique trees here, // ancient water, // bodiless messages” (Pure Descent 27). A message, present but without definite, consistent form, evokes Samperi’s angelic encounters:
(The Bow Window 21)
In Samperi’s poetry, Dante’s harmonious, interconnected universe is not experienced in whole; pieces are found scattered, luminescent. Of these fractional illuminations Jack Foley writes, “it is an awakening — not to God, which is perhaps what the poet would hope, but to poetry.” The mystery of the poem is transient, not growing cumulative in understanding throughout various stages of ascension. Instead, it is present within the struggle of the writer to approach the mystery with the hope of some illumination; Fanny Howe suggests that within this process of striving “you are progressing at one level and becoming more lost at another” (The Wedding Dress 16). Though not ideologically compatible with Samperi in regards to poetic illumination from a “Divine” source, poet Rosmarie Waldrop suggests a discursive link between the worlds of religious/philosophical understanding and creative expression in contemporary poetry; “And Dante said angels have no need of memory for they have continuous understanding. But we. To enter into thought. Need a bridge” (Blindsight 36).
The clarity of the vividly perceived moment, removed from the blur of time, is suggestive of a cohesive element, approachable to the poet only through a sort of visual metonymy; Waldrop writes “When an image enters us day trembles on the brink and we are almost young” (Blindsight 96). This presents a threshold effect, things becoming gradually but never fully clear; “Here on / the ladder / cleft for me: / be of fog / the double cure” (Robinson, Harrow 79). Basil Bunting uses the phrase “forms cut out of mystery” (Complete Poems 93) to express the experiential world. In his essay on Objectivism Burton Hatlen conceptually links this passage to George Oppen’s poem “Psalm;”
In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down —
That they are there!
Its first stanza, which presents a pastoral scene with clarity and precision, is perceptually enlarged within the final stanza:
The small nouns
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
(Collected Poems 78)
Here Hatlen notes: “‘things’ present themselves to us haloed in mystery: the greatest miracle is simply that something exists... ...language allows us to greet this miracle, if only with a cry of faith” (Objectivist Nexus 41, 42). This “cry of faith” echoes Thomas Aquinas’s assertion, “what is revealed by God must be accepted through faith” (Pegis, 5). Aquinas, the central philosophic source of Samperi’s writing, is also invoked in Oppen’s “Psalm” with the epigraph, “‘Veritas sequitur esse rerum,’ or ‘Truth follows from the existence of things’”. For Samperi, ontological connections can be made through an element of mirroring; the existence of singular images in which Divinity reveals an aspect of itself:
(from”The Triune,” Quadrifariam)
The mirror acts simultaneously as a device of revelation and detachment. To this effect Barbara Guest notes, “Coleridge said that a poem must be both obscure and clear. This is what we search for in our poem, this beautiful balance between the hidden and the open” (Forces of Imagination 100).
In this context, a large portion of faith represents the ability of an individual to delight in that which remains mysterious. This is a strongly felt element for many contemporary poets, working from a wide variety of different religious and philosophical positions. What draws these perceptions together is a metaphysical permeation throughout modern and subsequently postmodern Western Literature. Early Moderns, such as William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and later Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, attempted to refigure the poem through the lens of philosophical and psychological writings.
In Alfred North Whitehead’s seminal philosophic treatise “Process and Reality” previous ontological conceptions of form as static and time as linear are refuted. Whitehead states, “how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is” (Process and Reality 34). Whitehead also introduces to this discussion the term “concrescence,” which his editor Donald Sherbourne summarizes as “the growing together of a many into the unity of a one” (Key to Whitehead 212).
These modes of perception create a bridge between the innovations of writers such as Stein and Olson, who were artistically influenced by Whitehead’s “Process Philosophy,” and much older strains of thought traceable to the Christian mystics, early Church Fathers, and philosophical writings of the saints, including Augustine and John of the Cross. Whitehead’s statement concerning the nature of being is easily comparable to Aquinas’s discussion of “knowledge” and its relationship to “being”. In this way the basic elements of Samperi’s work, and the work of many younger poets represent rich veins of creative potential within cyclical philosophic inquires; inquiries representative of specifically contemporary, yet infinitely reoccurring, ontological themes.
The Spiritual Man and the Modern Man
the inner man–
he moves as any other
yet with a difference–
others for instance
cultivate a literature —
exterior speech —
picked up randomly
from parks, streets,
social gatherings, etc.
unaware that the opposite —
opposite from their standpoint —
language stirred significantly...
(The Kingdom 7).
Samperi’s withdrawal, his reluctance to pursue any notoriety as a poet, has unfortunately relegated his texts to obscurity, a footnote in the development of 20th Century experimental poetry. However, a need for a spiritual poetics, for a continued movement in metaphysical thought and experience, remains a defining element for writers in a culture of increasing excess, egotism, and isolation. In his review of “Spiritual Necessity,” Jack Foley argues for the vitality of Samperi’s prosody for contemporary writing practice, through its challenges: “Although his poetic idiom remains thoroughly contemporary, Samperi was in many respects a medieval Catholic visionary trying to find his way in a deeply troubled America, the vacuous materialism and superficiality of which he could not abide. As a consequence, his work was not just counter-cultural but also counter-fashionable” (Foley, Alsop Review). However, this movement between the modern and the medieval presents an important conceptual element for contemporary spiritual writers, including Samperi who aspired to remove himself from the world of contemporary writing; its focus on the visual, the perceiver and the perceived, draws a direct line of influence and conceptual potential between Modernists and medieval writers, artists and philosophers:
Throughout the Middle Ages and for several centuries thereafter, the eye was
continually directed toward a scene of moving people, but
and in intricate detail
sometimes down to leaf by leaf
it’s spring and a farmer
who shall remain nameless, no more than half an inch tall
plows a world we will not enter
(Swensen, from “There” Try 39)
What constitutes this shift is a growing fascination with the field that surrounds the human subject of a painting, the potentiality of space in art and the increasingly fragmented understanding of existential reality. The poet John Taggart writes:
To be brought
to the ground fallen leaves on the ground
gold and gold an red moods
on the ground
snow not yet fallen angel not yet apparent
unapparent on the ground
(from “In the Moods,” Pastorelles)
The enacting of this spiritual poetics demands a certain type of engagement, one that lessens the authority of the self in the face of a larger, if metamorphosing, truth. This is important in considerations of contemporary poetry and its roots in modernists such as Gertrude Stein, whose voice is echoed in the Taggart passage quoted above. Stein’s language traces a labyrinthine pathway of loops and lingual switchbacks, often employing a purposefully constrained vocabulary. Though Samperi expressed his lack of interest in modernism placing his allegiance with the medievalism of Dante’s writing, the presence of Stein, and her momentary illuminations, whether intended or not, makes itself apparent in his work. Samperi even seems to philosophically engage Stein at one point:
...in truth the hidden is our true body: in
spirit amounts to transfiguration:
and you, son, who because of the
will return again below ...
is said for the sake of verse, that is
to begin or
(Alfa ed. O 37)
The figure of a God descending, an image simultaneously circular and broken, finds Samperi at a convergence of early Modernist aesthetics, Process philosophy, and his own personal conceptions of Dante’s work as multivalent — not merely constituting “one single image.” Writing in this new conception of space, the poet assumes a position of vulnerability, to the poem, the physical world, as well as the spiritual. This is a space of latency, a commonly-felt expectance of illumination. Fragmentation contains within itself the potential of a spiritual poetics that directly engages with the concerns of contemporary poets, as well as connecting them to a rich and diverse lineage of metaphysical inquiry. To this end the poet Pam Rehm writes:
All feelings feel one with themselves and separate
From the reason which has a bearing
Which concerns someone
The desire to express remains turned
Toward what it must retain
And thus it becomes feared
One thing turns over and is itself
That it should be more daring
That it should dare its revealment
(from “One With Itself and Separate From” To Give It Up, 47)
What remains is simply what must be experienced, which is the unknown. The life of the writer is intrinsically linked to the life of the pilgrim. As David Miller suggests in a quote from the back cover of Spiritual Necessity “poetry, for Samperi, was a spiritual pursuit, the embodying, in words, of his ongoing engagement with the transcendent.” The spaces to be explored, whether conceptual, metaphorical, linguistic, or spiritual, constitute both the process and the goal for the poet as well as the mystic (often one and the same), process that can sometimes necessitate a state of isolation. In a journal entry dated September 30, 1965, Samperi writes, “How desperate and lonely the way I take–no one to talk to now, no one to acknowledge the common vision” (Lamentations 184). Fittingly the last section of the unfinished series Circulazion, written in 1991 and posthumously published in Spiritual Necessity, serves as a compression of his life’s work in poetry;
If I stare from room to screen
to window to branch
a light comes to me a wanderer
not even able to get up,
(Spiritual Necessity 171).
Ultimately, the way to a communion with this penetrating otherness is a way of singular vision, a lonely way made through the bare field of the page.
anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Ed. James Walsh. Paulist Press: Classics of Western Spirituality, 1981.
Alighieri, Dante. Purgatorio. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. 1st Ed. in 2 Vols edition. Princeton University Press, 1991.
———. Paradiso. Tr. Frank Samperi. Unpublished Manauscript.
Aquinas, Thomas. Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Ed. Anton C. Pegis. New York: The Modern Library, 1948.
Saint Augustine. Confessions. Tr. Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Saint, Cardinal Bonaventure. The Journey of the Mind to God. Ed. Stephen F. Brown. Tr. Philotheus Boehner. Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
Bunting, Basil. Complete Poems. New York: New Directions, 2003.
Faust, Clive. “Time and Eternity in Frank Samperi’s Letters.” Sulfur 31 (1992): 245—252.
Foley, Jack. Rev. of “Spiritual Necessity: Selected Poems of Frank Samperi” ed. John Martone. Alsop Review (2004)
Guest, Barbara. “A Reason for Poetics,” “Wounded Joy.” Forces of Imagination. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003.
Hall, Manly. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.
Hatlen, Burton. “A Poetics of Marginality and Resistance: The Objectivist Poets in Context.” The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Peter Quartermain. University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Howe, Fanny. “Bewilderment,” “Catholic.” The Wedding Dress: Mediations on Word and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Ming-Qian, Ma. “Be Aware of ‘The Medusa’s Glance’: The Objectivist Lens and Carl Rakosi’s Poetics of Strabismal Seeing.” The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Peter Quartermain. University of Alabama Press, 1999.
O’Leary, Peter. “Revision and Turning Thither: Writing Religious Poetry and the Case of Frank Samperi.” LOGOS 7.2 (Spring 2004): 54—85.
Oppen, George. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1975
Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays. New York: New Directions, 1954.
Pratt, William. “Introduction.” The Imagist Poem. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963.
Rehm, Pam. To Give It Up. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995.
Robinson, Elizabeth. Pure Descent. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 2003.
———. Harrow. Omnidawn Publishing, 2001.
Samperi, Frank. Lumen Gloriae. Mushinsha/Grossman Publishers, 1973.
———. The Prefiguration. Mushinsha/Grossman Publishers, 1971.
———. Quadrifariam. Mushinsha/Grossman Publishers, 1973.
———. Letargo. Station Hill/Barrytown Ltd, 1980.
———. A Remotis. Querencia Books, 1979.
———. The Kingdom. Arc Publications, 1979.
———. Spiritual Necessity. Ed. John Martone. Station Hill/Barrytown Ltd, 2004.
———. “Frank Samperi’s Lamentations.” Ed. John Martone. Italian Americana. 2 (2003): 177—184.
Sherburne, Donald W. A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Swensen, Cole. Try. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
Taggart, John. Pastorelles. Flood Editions, 2004.
Waldrop, Rosmarie. “Thinking of Follows.” Dissonance (if you are interested). University of Alabama Press, 2005.
———. Blindsight. New York: New Directions, 2003.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin, Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978.
A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Ed. Donald W Sherburne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
Thanks to Andrew Schelling, Elizabeth Robinson, Nick DeBoer, and Marissa Perel, for taking the time to read early drafts of this work, and for their immensely helpful suggestions, without which I could not have completed this project.
Special thanks to Claudia Warren, John Martone, and Peter O’Leary for providing me with otherwise unavailable materials, taking the time to speak with me, and for opening up the world of Frank Samperi’s writings.
J. Townsend is a graduate of Gordon College and of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University with an MFA in the Writing and Poetics. His poetry has been published in Bombay Gin, Ab Ovo, The Cultural Society, and Gam. His chapbook October is available through Digitalis Publications. In addition J. was a founding editor of the Massachusetts arts journal Ten Pound Island. He currently resides in Philadelphia.