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Gnostic contagion:

Nathaniel Tarn reviews

Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness,
by Peter O’Leary

Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

The suspicion that the making of poetry, indeed of any art, might be an abnormal act, a kind of insanity in fact or, at the least, a form of illness, of dis-ease is very ancient — possibly as ancient as the human race. The rider, that the madness or illness might contain the seeds of its own cure, or healing, may — given the probable great age of shamanic initiation and practice — be just as venerable. The basic model of such an initiation (on which many other later and more sophisticated types might have been grafted) is: an individual susceptible of being initiated (the signs are recognizable as per tribal lore) becomes sick as a result of straying into and witnessing the domain of a mystery; is cured by becoming a fellow member of the group already practicing the mystery; is then capable of healing a break in a part or the whole of the cosmos by bringing upper and lower domains together through magical flight and turns into a social treasure through the practice of an art of healing — most often a matter of exercising a number of tricks and a gift for language and song.
      We are in our time way down the line from this model but a frequent assimilation of the contemporary shaman to the poet forms the basis of Peter O’Leary’s quest: is poetry, as seen by Duncan, an illness, or better, a dis-ease? Can it be a world-, and word-, comprehending art by working through the insight afforded by a Gnostic interpretation of history: that the very creation by a demiurge is a catastrophe separating the lower, profane, world from the higher, sacred, one — a separation that must be mended toward an individual, or even social salvation? In the last resort, can poetry be said or thought to heal? Also: if poetry is a dis-ease, can it be inherited naturally or culturally through the familiar process of lineage formation among poets: i.e. can it be gotten by hearing or reading from another poet and/or other poets and then passed on to another poet or other poets?
      The core of O’Leary’s complex, demanding  and fascinating book consists of a guidance through an extraordinarily involved scenario played out by three main figures in which Duncan is part of an initiatic triangle involving Freud — as great poet-mythographer as well as psychoanalytic healer — H.D., Duncan’s lineage mistress, and Duncan himself. As Freud is to H.D., so H.D. is to Duncan. The initiation involves both sickness and cure through the process of analysis. Involved in the complexity of the very esoteric vortex at work here is Duncan’s drama of conceiving himself as having killed his mother through his own birth (his father too by grief at the mother’s death) and rediscovering a comforting mother archetype in H.D. The occult component (out of Hermeticism and Esoterism) displays a serial initiation with marked sexual undertones: Freud initiating H.D. and H.D. initiating Duncan. In all of this (we will not balk at it but Freud might conceivably at times be spinning in his grave), there is, of course, a great deal more poetry than science. Be this as it may, the initiatic lineage eventually carries on down when Duncan, through the influence of his work, passes the ‘Gnostic contagion’ onto other poets, principally Nathaniel Mackey.
      Throughout — and let it be said that not a single aspect of any Duncan problematic is left unmentioned and unstudied — a poetics in which writing is at the same time a disease, a mode of analysis of the disease and a recuperative, mending cure, mimics the shamanic process (a kind of homeopathy in a sense it would seem) whereby the patient’s sickness becomes the means through which s/he is cured and empowered or ‘permitted’ way beyond what s/he was before the illness. And, as in Claude Levi-Strauss’s example of the Cuna Indians, ‘language mediates the illness, giving it expression so that the afflicted person can be healed.’ Throughout  this rich excursion, I was recalling Michel Butor’s formidable analysis of Baudelairian contagion (pen, ink, puncture, syphilis) in his ‘Histoire Extraordinaire.’
        Out of this, and using an impressive array of sources (Eliade on Shamanism; Freud on da Vinci; Kristeva on the transformation of object-loss into ego-loss), arises a series of studies of a small but potent number of major Duncan poems, especially ‘Often I am permitted to return to a Meadow,’Apprehensions’ and, above all, in a breathtaking extended flight of exegesis, ‘My Mother would be a Falconress.’ To give away the scholar’s  conclusions would be as nefarious as to divulge the plot of a thriller besides involving the reviewer in a Borgesian reconstruction virtually as long as O’Leary’s own book.
      A crux which certain readers may encounter here relates in some ways to the problem of scholarship in our field: the way in which exegesis can sometimes overload the perception of an object in criticism as it can weigh too heavily on a poem: the metamorphosis/ transformation is in danger of  not taking place: documentation, the angel of record, remaining king of the hill. And the danger is perhaps at its most crucial among the esotericists in that what most see as ‘the real’ is sempiternally displaced on to the symbolic thus running the risk of draining ‘the real’ of its power. The problem may be as endemic to a poet like Duncan as it virtually has to be to his critics. Duncan’s great contemporary, Charles Olson, was by no means blind to this matter.
      This is a brilliant achievement however which it would be good to come to after a fresh reading of Duncan and from which one needs to return immediately to yet another reading. One question, among many, left in my mind regards the status of Nathaniel Mackey in this book. A great deal of interest is said about Mackey’s vision of a sick underworld, of loss as an endemic process involving not recuperation — as in Duncan — but catastrophe; of Mackey’s positing of a set of ‘continually negative assertions of negative conditions’ wherein this extremely important poet suspends himself  ‘as an “eroding witness” on the verge’ of cosmic and individual collapse. The challenge of a thesis as categorical as O’Leary’s is that the reader is left wondering to what extent Duncan and Mackey might not have offered a resounding ‘yes, but’ pointing to other — to them equally important — aspects of their work. This, however, is an aspect of the dis-ease needfully suffered in turn by all canon-makers, a tribe into which O’Leary is initiating himself  — as can be seen from his ‘American Poetry and Gnosticism’ essay in the recent huge #23-26 issue of Talisman magazine.
      This is as stimulating a book of criticism as I have read in a long time, one which holds great promise for its author as an illuminator of an immensely taxing but also interminably beautiful ‘symposium of the whole.’ The book is a serious homage to a principal player in one of the most difficult and multi-faceted periods in our poetry’s history.

Jacket 22 — May 2003  Contents page
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