|Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, trans. John Tipton. Flood Editions, 96 pp., $15.95.|
|Coherer, by Alice Cohen. Verge Books, 107 pp., $15.|
|Phosphorescence of Thought, by Peter O'Leary. The Cultural Society, 88 pp., $17.|
|Dark Church, by Joseph Donahue. Verge Books, 288 pp., $20.|
|From The New World, by Jorie Graham, Ecco, 384 pp., $19.99.|
So spartoi sprang up.
Not from out of nowhere, but from the earth. Not from out of nothing, but from dragon’s-teeth.
Teeth used as seeds for a species of city-builders.
Teeth from a dragon Cadmus killed himself. Killed for killing men he sent to gather water from the spring of Ismene, which the dragon guarded over.
Sent needing water to make a sacrifice for Athena, his intended offering a cow with a crescent on its flank. A cow whose wanderings Cadmus had followed following an oracle’s word.
Seeking guidance in the search for his kidnapped sister, Cadmus received word from the Delphic oracle he was to abandon his quest and instead build up the city of Thebes.
Follow this cow, he was told. Wherever it lays down to rest, found there the city.
Nothing ex nihilio about the spartoi to whom Cadmus assigned that subsequent work, having sprung in full gear out of the earth and a cycle of strife.
It’s from strife and love the philosopher Empedocles would later claim that all matter and world emerges. He believed the effects and affects of the visible world could be traced back to four material essences, or elemental “roots”—fire, air, water and earth. The eternal essences of the cosmos, forces of love and strife work to mix these elements, centrifuging them into all showing-forth: every ephemeral appearance and counterchange of the visible, perceivable universe.
Commentators tell us that Empedocles’ philosophy was designed to qualify Parmenides’, who challenged basic definitions of the real. Having deduced that nothing can come from nothing, Parmenides concluded “that reality [is], and must be, a unity in the strictest sense, and … any change in it [is] impossible.” As such, “the world as perceived by the senses is unreal” (Palmer). Against this—loving what he saw, perhaps, what he could touch with his fingertips, the waxiness of succulence—Empedocles’ was an attempt to “rescue the reality of the phenomenal world.” That is, to retrieve sense from reason.
To do so, Empedocles intuited a sprawling metaphysics of biosynthesis and fruition, of dappling and decomposition, driven by a continuous tide of love and strife. From four roots transpirating a vast crown of branches, and from that a canopy of leaves. The leaves of the deciduous visible.
Anaxagoras, a contemporary of Empedocles, remained unsatisfied with this model. He asks his audience to consider hair and teeth and bone. If Empodocles’ theory were true, it should be possible to split a hair into smaller and smaller pieces until it was reduced to some composite of the four root elements, no longer hair. Anaxagoras insisted that a hair so split still remains—essentially—hair. The surfaces of the world were as real to him as any combination of elements, which existed—tooth and fire, both—side by side in a palimpsest of the real. In order to account for this, Anaxagoras claimed everything must contain in it the seeds for everything else. To this end, he wrote: “in everything there is a portion of everything. For how else could hair come from what is not hair? Or flesh from what is not flesh? Unless hair and flesh as well as teeth, eyes and bones … are contained in food”? The universe, then, is not only a process, but a processing. In essence digestive.
In this model, four roots arranged in stately recombinations of love and strife wouldn’t cut it. How, then, could mattering, and matter’s differences and pluralities, be accounted for? In answer, Anaxagoras suggested that the force separating thing from thing was that which hovered just outside the totality of world: Mind, or nous. Centrifuge of allness, the Anaxagorian Mind sets the kosmos spinning, its rotary forces causing a kind of infinite flinging, a separating-out to the edges. This is the gyre by which combination and recombination take place, constituting limit and periphery, where world is. Mind as love and strife.
In 467 BCE, while Empedocles and Anaxagoras were both alive, both in Greece, the dramatist Aeschylus wrote and staged Seven Against Thebes. In John Tipton’s new “adaptation,” Aeschylus tells the story of Thebes’ threatened city-limits. Led by Polyneices (brother of Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes), six other foreign aggressors confront the seven gates of the polis. Each aggressor carries a shield chased with an intricate sign, relayed by messenger to Eteocles, whose interpretation of each shield serves as his strategy for evaluating the holder’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to his own posse of seven Theban generals. Many of these Thebans are descended from “the Dragon’s line”—that is, from teeth sown by Cadmus in the ground beneath a tired cow.
Aeschylus’s is a dramatization of a polity’s struggle to maintain borders in the face of immanent incursion from without. True to a play a full one-third of which is dominated by a description of shields, signs, and the “logic of signs,” Tipton’s adaptation casts the battle between interior and exterior as a semiotic drama. For instance, after Eteocles has assigned Lasthenes to face Amphiraurus, the chorus sings in antistrophe:
Listening gods, answer these prayers,
grant that the city survive.
Turn [Amphiraurus’] spear to earth,
falling in the outside blankness.
Zeus kill him.
For the choric citizens of Thebes, what is outside, that which lies beyond the pale, is blank. Unreadable. Of course, to claim that the outside is blank is explicitly misleading; Thebes’s border fairly glitters with its sea of significant, sign-bearing shields. What lies outside the city is not blankness, but rather a dense, gibbering rhetorical froth. In his afterword, Tipton uses a review of critical literature on Seven Against Thebes to suggest that Eteocles’s hubris is located in his interpretive overconfidence when faced with this froth. Eteocles’s response to threat from without—matching warrior to warrior based on an exegesis of each shield—is a kind of cledonomancy: “the manipulative interpretation of omens to one’s own advantage.” As “an act of divination that works to alter the future to one’s own ends,” cledonomancy reads rationality into the world, whether it exists there or not. Creatio ex nihilio of meaning. False rescue of the reality of the phenomenal world. Just before battle, Tipton writes that “the signs, in all their artifice and ambiguity” collapse. It strikes Eteocles the cledonomancer that he must succumb all the same to his fate—what he defines as “desire’s excess flow[ing] over from Oedipus,” as “the harm that abides.”
Eteocles acknowledges the futility of reading or rationalizing the external, that which is out-there:
This fulfills my father’s curse—
I see now with clear eyes
what I gain in the end
Why deceive myself in the end?
Desire’s excess flows over from Oedipus.
It’s the truth of my dreams.
It’s the division of his estate.
To which the chorus responds: “submit yourself to what you dread.”
Eteocles dreads his fate, which, in Seven Against Thebes, whorls into the present and future in the form of the distant past—the form of history. In Greek myth, history often takes shape as a long, limitless, serpentine series of imbricated violences. In Tipton’s translation, history knows itself as “desire’s excess.” Desire—so rooted in the pretense of human agency—plays out as givenness: the material realities and futurities hanging in the balance for ourselves and for others.
Action uncoils as transverse interaction. Dragon guardian of a spring.
Polyneices, meaning “much strife,” is characterized in Tipton’s adaptation as “violence itself.” On his shield he bears the sign of Justice. Eteocles is as baffled as he is frustrated by his brother’s coded gesture. “How could she be called Justice,” he rails, “joining a man with no limits?” Eteocles the cledonomancer misunderstands Justice. Justice is not had. Justice is given. Justice is givenness. Justice is desire’s excess.
The truth of our dreams. The division of our estate.
Seven Against Thebes lays out a different way of minding the time, of tending to it, or toward it. The text feels prescient of an overdetermined postmodernity where all action elides as transverse interaction—where nothing comes from nothing, where everything contains the seeds of all else, violence leafing into violence, where we struggle to match microcosm to microcosm in an attempted governance of systems that exceed even the unlimiting limits of dizzying mind. From Aeschylus’ play, which Tipton gives us fresh, we are given to learn we are implicated by reality, bound up in palimpsests of love and strife. A raveling meshwork of traces, of seething, desiring signs.
The chorus confirms Eteocles’ last words (“I’m given this one way out”). Embedded as a grim joke, they remind their viewer, their reader:
It’s useless but it’s theirs,
given by god:
the rich abyss
of the earth.
Return to the earth, your rich abyss. The phenomenal world, useless but yours. It will rescue you.
The curse of the House of Laius arrows through time. Tipton’s translation highlights how Oedipus’s curse transfixes history like an abstract spear-shaft:
It thrusts through the house
into their bodies
with unspeakable violence.
One father’s outrage—
an undivided end.
Tipton also describes the family curse in terms of shadowy avatars—in terms of “daemons” and “furies.” After Eteocles dies at the seventh gate, the chorus, also faced with these hovering unobservables, takes a stab at sluicing meaning from chaos:
Obvious the message, its meaning
plain: two fears tightly twisted.
Suffering doubles in the end.
If Tipton’s translation is appropriate for a contemporary audience, this doubling or multiplication of effect as bodied forth by agents of an invisible supernature is not so far as may seem at first blush from configurations of threat in modern contexts. In Risk Society (1992), German sociologist Ulrich Beck addresses the dense, hyperglobalized complexities of action and event in the contemporary world, writing that
… threats from civilization are bringing about a new kind of “shadow kingdom” comparable to the realm of the gods and demons in antiquity, which is hidden behind the visible world and threatens human life on this earth ... Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and can only be correctly understood and judged through this doubling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized, and evaluated with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and concealed in the world.
Beck’s thoughts merit some unpacking. The doubled second reality, or “shadow kingdom,” of modern threat really underpins the real. But it is only realized on the basis of speculation, or “thought.” Seeing suffering double is, according to Beck and to Aeschylus, a profoundly conceptual activity. Proponents of speculative realism, a relatively new branch of metaphysics, might agree (though with some serious caveats). In essence, speculative realists such as Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux challenge “the human-centredness of much continental philosophy,” rejecting “the centrality of the human” as a position from which to reckon with the ontological content of the world—that is, the thingness of things (Fisher). In order for the human thinker to grapple with the real they must find ways to unshackle themselves from “correlationist” thought, where “any attempt to represent reality represents instead the perspective of the human observer” (Pinto). Resolutely apolitical, then, one task the speculative realist shoulders is to perform “an ideological mystification”—a speculative turn. A gesture to think past human thought as a way of zeroing down to the bone of the real.
Object-oriented ontologist Timothy Morton offers a good example of this kind of speculative thought. In the context of the Anthropocene and our corresponding climate crisis, Morton theorizes the existence of the “hyperobject”—a neologism he uses to “describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space [that they] transcend spatiotemporal specificity.” Like the untimely spear-shaft transfixed through the plot of Seven Against Thebes, examples of Morton’s hyperobjects are as various as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium.
The hyperobject. So much of our own making, bearing our own mark and image. But so much, too, an outside blankness.
Indeed, how are we to conceptualize a thing that “transcends spatiotemporal specificity”? The object-oriented ontologist, kinsmen of the speculative realist, might endorse the speculative turn. A turn toward a second hyperreality that threatens humanity from far beyond all human vantage, but which is, all the same, “only existent in thought and concealed in the world.”
Like a styrofoam cup, which takes many millions of years to decompose, the shadow kingdom of Furies Beck describes is profoundly nonhuman, even superhuman. Yet, this same nonhumanness has not come about ex nihilio, but rather from “threats from civilization” itself.
In other words, humanity spawns the very nonhuman forces that descend to obliterate it.
In Coherer, Alicia Cohen affirms what we have always known. That deed (every deed a hero’s deed) disperses porously. Every action traverses, transverses—transforming—as interaction:
we name with a
word stirring like crow or sparrow
flying away with mine nothing but a beetle
always kidnapping each other for food or pleasure
in error is desire’s arrow
aster flowers in Chernobyl feed roe deer
wild boar bed in abandoned homes under bats’ exit
into night diving among eagle owls and lynx in the moonlight
gated places and prisons
wild full of our relations and lovers
Here, Cohen witnesses to an ecology wrought through error. Beetle, crow, sparrow, roe deer, wild boar, bat, eagle, owl, and lynx pierce each other—and us, and vice versa—with “desire’s arrow.” Wilderness is “full of our relations”—is interrelatedness, entanglement. Even nuclear cataclysm takes part. The city participates, for better or worse, as a porous boundary. There is nothing outer, nothing inner, nothing blank. Word, logos, and mind may serve as initial differentiators, but “we” are eventually spirited away from ourselves on the beetle-wing of the external world. As Cohen puts it in another part of the book,
Called to exterior’s
no stopping reading this calling
to call back I am here and hear and come
there is an outside
it’s our share and where
we find our silky wingedness
Demotic augur, cledonomancer, Cohen elaborates on an Eteoclean approach, embracing reading as a kind of fateful being-called, that being-called by all givenness described by the Theban chorus:
It’s useless but it’s theirs,
given by god:
the rich abyss
of the earth.
There is an outside. There is an earth. It’s a rich abyss. It’s our share. We, along with the rest of the external world, subsist on desire’s errors and excesses: on history’s materials, its gammas and gyres, its aster flowers.
It is important to Cohen that we see the face of the Other—human and nonhuman—in each deed. Deeply speculative, as every ethic is, Cohen asks her reader to shoulder the task of being “busy with being for another,” while acknowledging the shadow worlds and hyperobjects we daily participate in creating:
as the handsome cars pass
destroy the world
flip into a monstrous
failure of birds
in shadows cast by our star afar
ninety-three million miles emanating to
Enmeshment is an ambiguous mode of being in Cohen’s work. Ambiguous enough that, in this book, being often almost slips or mists-off into non-being—much like Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, the infamous non-actor, invoked in an epigraph to “Cosmology.” In “This lime-tree bower my prison,” Cohen acknowledges this slippage as a risk of the poet:
no one wants children to become poets to be
upswept in death for love of all we cannot know
But to think past thought, to love all we cannot know: this is not solely the province of a poet, nor, more recently, a speculative realist, or an object-oriented ontologist. It is our province, and the province of our children. By foregrounding the activity of the human, the geologism of the Anthropocene invokes for every one of us the blank, hyperobjective scale of the cosmos. Thinking its traces, its excesses, its furies and transversals, self-implicating modern thought must fathom its own infinities—and so, too, its own “having been”:
these many infinities
With John Tipton, Peter O’Leary edits Verge Books, Cohen’s press, and publisher, too, of Dark Church, by Joseph Donahue. Dark Church, Coherer, and O’Leary’s own Phosphorescence of Thought are books that seek, with deep ethical focus, to think past thought. To think a planetary thought. They are books that each in some way decenter the human from her promontory, tracing, against correlationism, the terms of a speculative turn in order to achieve real thought—that is, the thought that is real, is the real. I fear the descriptor “speculative” here may port pejorative connotations, hitched as it often is to genre or fiction or fantasy. Instead, at least where O’Leary, Donahue, and Cohen are concerned, please recall Ulrich Beck’s speculative model, with which Beck suggests that the real is at least double—hyperreal—in modern contexts. Hyperreality arrives as a factor of network complexity, emergence, accelerated globalization, intercontinental logistics, non-linear systems, essential principles of uncertainty and quantum probability. As Cohen suggests, we cannot run from being enmeshed in such infinities, both of, and wholly not, our own creation. This is not genre fiction escapism. Quite the opposite. To speculate after the real is rather to allow myself to be sucked along in the vacuum of all that is escaping me. The hem beyond my grasp. Among such milieus, such plateaus, to think the largest, realest thought must be to speculate it, where speculation acknowledges as an epistemological square-one its own empirical and rational shortcomings, the shortcomings of mind.
But maybe this is a wrongheaded way to think about mind. Even in the fragments of Anaxagoras, there is the sense that “mind,” that differentiating cosmic centrifuge, is not limited to the human hub. Rather, it exists both with and in and over and above the human: a noosphere. The cosmic mind is complexity’s mind. An ur- or meta-consciousness, arising as an epiphenomenon of the networks and love and strife that order and disaggregate all entities.
Viewed this way, is not mind an unhuman unlimiter?
To this end, Peter O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought—a book exploring consciousness as an evolved “overplus of mental meaning, an excessive superfluity”—picks up where the French Jesuit mystic and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, leaves off. In an afterword to his book, O’Leary explains that he has taken his title from Teilhard’s writings, wherein the priest advances the concept of a “noosphere”—a bright sphere of mind that envelops the planet, visible from space in the form of a “phosphorescence of thought.” As conceptualized by Teilhard, then enacted by O’Leary, there is very little abstract or metaphoric about this noosphere. Teilhard stresses the bioevolutionary nature of his vision. Indeed, in his first opus, The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard rigorously traces the development of consciousness from its inorganic and macromolecular beginnings. Mind, and its extension into noospherics, is resolutely material, inextricable from anatomy and biochemistry. As O’Leary epitomizes:
Abundance, proliferation: nature: the world: the universe: the cosmos:
degrees of reality. From matter through accidents to truth.
The apex. The spiritual focus of the ellipse of the real. Biosphere.
Having moved from matter, through accidents, to truth, according to Teilhard, human evolution in a modern era now occurs socially, moves horizontally. Modern thought is collective, spreading, having evolved to the scale of the planetary system, a planetary thinking. Teilhard appears to be have been prescient of blatant technological manifestations of this, like the internet, but also its subtler forms, like the global supply chain.
O’Leary revisits Teilhard in an Anthropocenic context, the dark geological fulfillment of that mystic’s prophesies. With hyper-Wordsworthian fervor, O’Leary traces the development of consciousness as an extension of the material world, trekking across the phosphorescence of thought as he also tracks “the whole cycle of creation … through emblem[s] for the imagination inhabiting a shaky world, a kind of witness to its shakiness.” Explaining further, O’Leary writes that “as authors, in part, of the world we inhabit, we’re obliged, in addition to trying to rectify the problems we’ve created, to bear witness in the form of honest testimony to the declining powers of our days.”
It is an eschatological vision of witness. It recollects the slippery semi-apocalyptic ambiguity of Being in Cohen’s book. Tracing the development of planetary thought, O’Leary traces, too, its end and its ends.
Lutrid. Lutrescent. That’s the mind’s
excessive novelty, a tool preposterously ductile
language—pulling sound, image, light fluidly together—
to feel reality,
to imagine light
Here, refracted through a noospheric lens, O’Leary coins neologisms “lutrid” and “lutrescent” to articulate the insidious material effects of human consciousness on the world. As mash-ups of putrescence and luminescence, O’Leary implies that the networked entanglement of mind with world, transfixed by the spear-shaft of the Anthropocene, provokes a kind of pervasive rottenness—even the decay of light itself. The co-optation of the real by the mind as it pulls “sound, image, light fluidly together,” engenders a correlationist apocalyptik. The rest of O’Leary’s book works against such a Romantic neurological compulsion, attempting instead to unthink itself, to flatten ontology, to blend mixingly into the mind of all:
you mind imagining this
you sweet interiors
by magnifying the moment
by corroding the pathways that internal vision followed
by decaying the mind toward morbid presciences imagination fecundates;
make holy this song
you trillions of neurons keeping the creature
you stellar vistas of cells
you epiphenomenal loop
By speculating on the biochemical enmeshment of consciousness in the micro and macrocosms of the real, O’Leary attempts to use mind to unmind itself—fecundating imagination by “decaying the mind.” Neologisms like “lutrescent” may look, at first blush, like invective terms for a new jeremiad, but O’Leary’s is more a realist, cyclic orientation toward rot and potential fecundity. O’Leary attempts, by composting, rototilling, and emulsifying the apparatus of thought into a “rich abyss” of aerated earth.
For O’Leary, the end of thinking begins by turning inward at the gate of the retina, thinking along the same pathway as image, as light, entering upon the cortex, the neurological apparatus, where it rediscovers the inorganic materiality—the worldliness—of its origins. Unthinking, O’Leary follows this light because it is lutrid, a sickened radium glow reflecting back to his eye all denizens of the Anthropocene, among them the Pyxgeau bird:
first purple, then yellow, then aluminum, then green, then orange
blue-gray feathers his Odyssean oars, native
Michigander, bearer of migratory symbols zoodelic pathways
reveal in air to be the patterns of consciousness
recognized in its deepest retinal self—. Little
latter-day survivor. Little memory remnant of the forest world.
Little once-abundant mystery streamer
migrator. Little signaler of the end of days.
The end of days is that mist that distills over Joseph Donahue’s Dark Church. Be it a mist, it’s still the quality of mist to refract a glow of light. The newest installment of a series titled Terra Lucida, Dark Church unfurls its sweeping personal epic on a lyric scale, but framed at start and finish in impersonal, planetary terms. Donahue maps his lyric consciousness onto the planet, ranging widely over world and spacetime in compressed continuous couplets. A geologic consciousness marks the first section of the book, which sees Donahue speculating on the geographies of Iceland, the San Juan Islands, Krakatoa, Greece, and parts of Africa as frameworks for thinking through personal crises, but also the crisis of the personal in a contemporary context. It is a book that struggles to reconcile the correlationist threats of a lyric perspective, with the ethic and exigency of witnessing to and speculating on trauma at larger, inhuman scales:
yet to occur,
or a killer comet un-
as if the atmosphere of
the earth were
the roof of
there is no inside
to the sacred
only steps, arches,
a final sunlight,
of our bluish-
grey life …
In the second section of his book, which departs its geologic frames and timescales to zoom in on ’60s era Dallas, Texas, the gesture to conflate planet, history, and self is rarefied. Donahue offers an extended historiography of mental illness that juxtaposes stadial time, the development of decentralization in the context of globalism, and the history of “madness” with the speaker’s own implied personal and familial struggles with depression:
In the latter half
of the twentieth century,
of what would come to be called
the American century,
slowly, throughout the years of
the world’s center
revealed itself to be,
to have been,
where none had
And the affliction
from the luxuries of oil
black as the sky
night sky of
years, if not of
was unveiled, there,
and given a
The lyric speaker in Donahue’s collection suffers the condition of history, which is the condition of family, politics, geography, geology, myth, religion, and economy. The book is a witness to the transfixions of time, unpacking the intimate lyric I to its proper Anthropocenic scale, as a node of confluences, as the site of an epic of implications, whose epic is its implication.
Later sections of Dark Church grow progressively surgical, excruciating in their investigations of suffering, always framed within worldly contexts. Against the backdrop of Istanbul and the Aegean, the body of the speaker, a tourist in this world, turns against him:
An agony, in fact,
searing neck, shoulder,
arm, hand, fingertips
then, to lift up one’s
head, even to
look over, over and down
to the never-seen
Immobilized in a milieu whose foreign exteriority bears down on him with the full and alien weight of time and space, the speaker sets out on an in-turned speculative reconnaissance into his surroundings as the full extent of what he is able to do. Where earlier Donahue’s language was wrought from the grammar of a pious conditional (“would this / enshrouding // were the / emancipation of // matter”), parts of the last section of Dark Church turn toward a syntax of speculated parallel realities. Shadow kingdoms, only existent in thought and concealed in the world.
your heart is off
to adore jeweled footstools
in the treasury of the Sultan.
your intellect is off
in the armory of the Janissaries
(and machine guns at the Black Sea.)
The limits of the physical body open up into possibilities, into that which is otherwise. Material reality, fact, the painful object of flesh—these in Donahue’s work dilate the mind. There is an abyss. It is the earth. It is the body. Soon, too, the body in the earth. But even as a mortal limit, these are rich prospects, and they are ours, our one way out.
In many ways it is absurd to invoke only now From The New World: Poems 1976-2014, by Jorie Graham. But if ever there were a life and a poetic so embodying the end, ends, and end-of-as-ends-of thinking, it must be Graham’s, whose most recent new and selected concludes with just four poems previously unpublished—a mere 14 pages. But, as the full span of From The New World proves well beyond the shadow of a doubt, any single poem by Graham is an intractable step forward in that farness where truth is, if it is.
It is poignant to consider these poems as whole, to read From The New World as one might read a monograph. The collection’s final poem, “Prying,” is simultaneously a staggering advancement on and a devastating return to many of the themes that predate it across the twenty-eight years of Graham’s oeuvre. Much like the immobile, racked speaker in Dark Church, “Prying” takes as its imaginative starting point the speaker’s invalid body—that is, the poet’s body, stricken with cancer, long stricken by another, different cancer, one of the mind, of over-rhyming, stretched out immobile on a surgical table:
body—memories, contritions, facts—
oaths, broken oaths, my piece of path into the
labyrinth—how far I have reached in—and in my flesh these
rapid over-rhyming cells, which want us to go faster, faster, headlong with
mirth ruth glee—what would they be—searching for
what minotaur, yarn in hand spooling-out mad towards core, eager for
core—all’s underneath—readout’s small pings beginning on the screen.”
The surgical table has appeared before in Graham’s work. In “At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body,” originally published in Erosion (1983), we are given an ekphrasis of a painting by Luca Signorelli, along with the anecdotal detail that Signorelli studied the anatomy so primary to his painting by dissecting the body of his dead son:
So he cut
from the symbolic
to the beautiful. How far
It took him days
until his mind
could climb into
the open flesh
and mend itself.
Twenty-one years later, Graham’s speaker now takes the place of Signorelli’s son on the cutting table. On the precipice of death, the body—that source of attention, that source of the real—gets attended to, turned on, climbed into. “Prying” understands the body as a register: a polar “ice core” comprised of the stages of memory and fact and the weathering of that—plus corer, plus coherer, too.
In Graham’s poetry, the work of the mind has long been inextricable from the work of the body. They are each the lens with which to view the other. The action of one maps and refracts the actions of the other. Take for, example, “The Visible World,” another poem of “deep caress,” a digging after depth, literal digging into the rich abyss of that-which-is, is material, is external, the outside blankness:
I dig my hands into the absolute. The surface
into shingled, grassed cluster; lifts.
…If I look carefully, there in my hand, if I
break it apart without
crumbling: husks, mossy beginning and endings, ruffled
Tops of the oaks, do you see my tiny
pushed, up to the wrists,
into the present?
Like Empedocles, Graham is after the roots of the visible world, the deciduous visible. The speaker’s body is the path of that thought, that “piece of path into the / labyrinth.” But what happens to thought if the body is poisoned with cancer? What happens to thought when the earth is infiltrated with xenobiotic compounds, radioactive biohazards? Or the ocean with microplastics? How far have we intervened in things? How far is true? What is our recourse to realism, the untouched, the untouchable real—that is, if all comes to us in the age of the Anthropocene always-already touched, trammeled?
Graham writes in her new poem “Fast”:
Each epoch dreams the one to follow.
To dwell is to leave a trace.
I am not what I asked for.
But, increasingly, we are all we have. Or, perhaps it is Graham’s revelation in “Prying” that we are always all we had.
All the same, more than ever it feels there has been this collapse of borders. The city walls are more porous than those seven gates may lead you to think. There are aster flowers, and roe deer eating them, just outside Chernobyl.
Just think. Ontology is flat. The cosmos, stretching out, are, in fact, rebounding. Mind, yours, is that undifferentiator. Your body that coherer.
“Over-expressed, under- / suppressed,” there is nothing to shield you, dear cledonomancer.
Indeed, “to survive, you need to be / completely / readable.”
Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage Publications, 1992. Print.
Fisher, Mark. “Reality Check.” Frieze. Frieze, 1 Jan 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition). Web.
Pinot, Ana Teixeira. “The Real Deal.” Frieze. Frieze, 26 May 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
Kylan Rice is a graduate student at Colorado State University. He has poetry published in The Seattle Review and West Branch, and writes occasional book reviews for Colorado Review. He also produces the Colorado Review podcast.
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