Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nomad Poetics and Linguistic Primitivism: Gerald Bruns on Göran Printz-Påhlson

Rejoice!  The latest issue of the Notre Dame Review is out, with work by all manner of worthies, including the great Gerald Bruns’ “The Plain Sense of Things: Göran Printz-Påhlson’s Vernacular Modernism,” an essay in the form of a review of Letters of Blood and Other Works in English, a volume of Printz-Påhlson’s poetry and prose I edited.  It begins like this:

In The Elsewhere Community, a series of radio talks delivered in 1998 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the critic Hugh Kenner described 20th-century literary modernism as follows: “Two sorts of writers dominated it: Irishmen, often self-exiled, and Americans who lived abroad”…. Meanwhile, someone looking at things from a European perspective would cite the Dadaists in Zürich, Thomas Mann in Los Angeles, Paul Celan and Edmund Jabès in Paris, not to mention the creation of this country’s first Comparative Literature Program at the University of Iowa in the 1940s by the Viennese exile René Wellek. And then there are poets and translators like Pierre Joris (b. Strasbourg, 1946), who want to extend this itinerant modernism into a Nomad Poetics that “will cross languages, not just translate, but write in all or any of them. 
If Pound, Joyce and others have shown the way, it is essential now to push this matter further, again, not as ‘collage’ but as a material flux of language matter, moving in and out of semantic and non-semantic spaces, moving around and through the features accreting as a poem, a lingo-cubism that is no longer an explosante fixe’ as Breton defined the poem, but an ‘explosante mouvante.’ It seems to me that people (like me) know very little about Scandinavian modernism, but this volume of writings by the Swedish poet, translator, and critic Göran Printz-Påhlson (1931-2006) may help to improve matters. Printz-Påhlson was certainly at home in the “elsewhere community.” He studied for a doctorate at Lund University in Sweden, then taught at Berkeley and Harvard before settling in England at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in 1964, where he taught in a department devoted to the study of Scandinavian, Russian, and Finno-Ugrian languages. And Letters of Blood offers a nice example of “nomad poetry”...

Bruns goes on to contrast Printz-Påhlson’s poetry with that of J.H. Prynne, and compare it to that of John Ashbery (whose work Printz-Påhlson translated into Swedish), before making a case for Printz-Påhlson as a “comic modernist.”

Later, Bruns discusses Printz-Påhlson’s critical and theoretical essays, in which he notes the influence of “linguistics, semiotics, Prague Structuralism, and French readings of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.”  Bruns notes that the work “of principal interest, given what has been said so far about his own poetry in English, is Printz- Påhlson’s inquiry into… linguistic primitivism, a term that cov-ers a number of efforts to rescue poetry from the conventions of ‘poeticalness.’”

Letters of Blood is available here in hardcover, paperback, or as a Kindle edition.  A full preview of the entire text is available online here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Visiting Assistant Professor, Fiction Writing and Publishing

Ads will soon be placed in all of the usual places, but you saw it here first, people: we're hiring.  Please spread the word to any interested parties!

Visiting Assistant Professor, Fiction Writing and Publishing (3 year appointment). 

Lake Forest College seeks a writer of fiction to fill a three-year visiting (non-tenure track) position in the English Department teaching courses in creative writing and developing courses in the design, production, and publication of books and journals. Teaching load will be three courses per semester, beginning in fall of 2013. The successful candidate will have a substantial teaching record, a promising publication history, an MFA or PhD, and experience in small or large press publication. He or she will have the opportunity to work with the growing Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books, as well as with student publications. Submit letter of application, c.v., 10-20 page writing sample, and contact information for three references to:, or to Robert Archambeau, Department of English, Lake Forest College, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest IL, 60045. A highly selective liberal arts college located on Chicago’s North Shore, Lake Forest College enrolls approximately 1,500 students from over 47 states and 79 countries. At Lake Forest College, the quality of a faculty member’s teaching is the most important criterion for evaluation. The College also expects peer-reviewed publications and active participation in the College community. Lake Forest College embraces diversity and encourages applications from women and other members of historically underrepresented groups. Review of applications will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Where's It Coming From?": Barrett Watten, Robert Duncan, and the New Gnosticism in Poetry

Barrett Watten and Joan Retallack, in murky light at the Mayan Cafe

One of the advantages of living in a city whose airport is a major transportation hub is that there’s a good chance, when on the way to a conference, one will run into others going to the same place.  Last time I set out for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, I ran across Rae Armantrout in the departure lounge.  This year I was nearly knocked over by Patrick Pritchett, the chair of my panel, whose route to Louisville from Harvard took him through O’Hare Airport.  When we arrived in Kentucky, we were promptly met by Mark Scroggins—another participant in our double-barreled pair of sessions on the New Gnosticism in American Poetry.  We piled into a small yellow Ford Scroggins had rented, and were off to what was, for me, one of the stronger iterations of the Louisville conference.

Much of what I love about conferences takes place outside the official venues, and, indeed, on my first day I didn’t attend a single panel, but shuffled from bar to restaurant to bar, hanging with the usual suspects (Pritchett & Scroggins, conference organizer Alan Golding, Joe Donahue, David Need, Norman Finkelstein, Barrett Watten, Aldon Nielson, Vincent Sherry), and many more, including Ed Foster and Joan Retallack, neither of whom I’ve seen in Louisville before.

All of the above were present at one or both of the New Gnosticism panels, where I also saw Ben Friedlander, Linda Kinnahan, and other Worthies of Poetry.  In fact, there was a full house when Peter O’Leary, fresh out of his car after a blizzard-hampered drive from Chicago, stepped to the lectern to deliver his manifesto, “Seven Tenets of the New Gnosticism.”  These tenets (according to the hasty notes I took during Peter’s fiery delivery) were:
1.  The New Gnosticism is incarnational, where the body is hidden knowledge.
2.  The world into which we are thrown is a broken world.
3. The New Gnosticism is incendiary.
4.  You are initiated into the New Gnosticism whenever you contribute to its incantations.
5.  The New Gnosticism is epistemologically nonplussed.
6.  The coherence of the New Gnosticism is the apocryphon of the fallen… [at this point my notes are unreadable — perhaps  I was unconsciously imitating the fragmentary nature of many surviving Gnostic texts]
7.  The missing tenant [here O’Leary gave a parable of a missing book, underlining the fallen or broken nature of the world in gnostic thought].
After O’Leary’s manifesto (which will, along with the other papers from the two Gnostic panels, be published soon), Ed Foster took the stage to discuss how Harold Bloom’s version of Gnosticism in The American Religion is a terrible misunderstanding, in which Emersonian self-reliance is mistakenly put in the place of gnosis, which relies on reliance not on oneself, but on attentiveness to the world beyond the self.  This was followed by Joe Donahue’s analysis of Gnosticism in the culture—popular and literary— of the 1980s and 1990s.  This was a follow-up on his work for a panel called “Mystics, Gnostics, and Heretics of the Reagan Years” that I organized for the National Poetry Foundation conference last year at the University of Maine, and provided the best reading I’ve yet heard of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” as a gnostic text.   Not that Donahue saw David Byrne and company as members of a self-consciously gnostic sect: in Donahue’s view, “Gnosticism is not an event in religious history, but a way of thinking that springs up everywhere,” particularly in times of political despair.  Mark Scroggins closed out the first panel with a revisiting of Charles Olson’s old essay “Against Wisdom as Such,” which was an attack on Robert Duncan as mystic, and occultist.  Duncan denied belonging to these categories, but Scroggins was quite convincing in showing that Duncan’s protest rings false.  He also made a case for formal innovation as linked to the uncovering of occulted knowledge, and introduced the term “The Da Vinci Code Theory of Modernism.”  The latter applies to an over-emphasis on Ezra Pound’s statement that he felt a light from Eleusis (that is, the gnosis of the Eleusinian mysteries) was preserved in the work of the troubadours and others, and through them passed into modern poetry.

In the second panel, I spoke on neologism and linguistic revivals in O’Leary’s poetry, David Need spoke of anomalous experiences and gnosis in the work of H.D., Alan Ginsberg, Philip K. Dick (the most relentlessly gnostic writer in American literature) and Alice Notley; Patrick Pritchett discussed Fanny Howe’s poetry as something that, in its gnostic complexities, “teaches us how to build a home in homelessness”; and Norman Finkelstein introduced the whole room to the virtually unknown poetry of Paul Brey, whose Terrible Woods is that rarest of things: a collection of poetry both gnostic and comic.

The papers gave rise to all manner of questions, both at the panels and elsewhere—a good sign, I think.  Here are just a few of my favorites:

From Alan Golding, who noted that all eight of the speakers on the panels were men: “what are the gender stakes of the New Gnosticism?”  The answers were various.  Many people referred to H.D., Fanny Howe, and Alice Notley as gnostic poets (and their works were discussed in the panels), and I thought of Pam Rehm.  It was also pointed out that gnostic theology does away with one of the primary pillars of Judeo-Christian misogyny: the idea of Eve as the corruptor of humanity.  In gnostic thought, Eve is a figure of salvation, and her plucking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is the first step on our journey to release ourselves from the illusion that the material world and the world of God-the-father are the horizons of all possibility.

Also from Alan Golding (who always asks at least one of my favorite conference questions, and who, indeed, seems to make an art of them): “where is the comedy in the New Gnosticism?”  People answered variously, often with reference to Jack Spicer, who was surely both comic and gnostic.  I kept silent, but rankled a little at what I thought might be an assumption behind the question—that wit and play are the highest or most worthwhile forms of poetry.  Golding is a great fan, for instance, of Charles Bernstein, and I wondered if the question weren’t loaded a little, and didn’t seek to accuse the New Gnostics of failing to produce work that would succeed by the criteria that value Bernstein.  Was the Cathedral of Notre Dame funny, I wondered?  Was the Pietà a barrel of laughs?  And, if not, were they somehow of inferior value?  But, much as I disliked the spectacle of the panelists saying “no, our stuff is funny, too, sometimes” rather than defending the gnostic work on terms more its own, I didn’t want to start wrangling with Alan on an assumption about his question that may well have been false.

From Ben Friedlander, who cornered me in the corridors, came a question to which I really do have to give more thought: “what’s a materialist like you doing with these mystics?”  He’s got a point about my materialism.  It’s not the materialism of a guy who likes expensive watches and sailboats, but it’s real enough: my book Laureates and Heretics offered a kind of culturalist, and maybe softly materialist, explanation for the contours of American poetic history, and my new book The Poet Resigns begins with an essay that’s all about publishing conditions, economic relations, and the like as an explanation for why American poetry is the way it is.  My next book, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry, Autonomy, Society, is pretty close to dialectical materialism, at least by the standards of a bourgeois like myself.  So why am I hanging with the mystic poets?  Part of me thinks the question indicates that I’m on to something.  I mean, when I heard the question “why are you doing this” from both pro-Prynne and anti-Prynne parties when I was writing about J.H. Prynne and Cambridge poetry, I felt pretty sure I had found a way to discuss things that broke through existing paradigms.  I hope I’m at the beginning of an inquiry into gnostic poetry that will give us something new, too.  Or at the very least, something that will make the dichotomy between historical materialism and mysticism seem less firm.

It was Barrett Watten, though, who asked what was, in my opinion, the most revealing question of the conference.  A bunch of us were sitting at a big round table in the old Seelbach Bar, working our way through the Bourbon list, when Barrett cast a steely glance over at Norman Finkelstein and asked “This New Gnosticism — where’s it coming from?”  It wasn’t a question, I thought, so much as a challenge, and Norman seemed to feel that way too, choosing a beatific smile and amused, raised eyebrows rather than a more direct answer.  It took me a while to work out why Watten would put the question as he did, with more than idle curiosity to it, in fact, with a bit of steel behind it.

Here's what I think was at stake: the return of the repressed, or the revisiting of trauma.  

The best way to get at this may be to come back to a moment, now legendary in certain poetry circles, when a young Watten had a very public run-in with Robert Duncan, a kind of godfather of the New Gnosticism (and the primary subject of Peter O'Leary's study Gnostic Contagion).  The late David Bromige told the story well, maintaining, in an interview, that  Watten was “the arch villain” of poetry in Duncan's eyes, because Watten and the Language poets were, for him, “the New Criticism come again. It was everything he, Robert and his gang, had defeated… and now it was going to come back again.”  For Duncan, Watten represented “poetry written by critics, and a very buttoned down kind of poetry too...”  Matters came to a head, says Bromige, at a conference in 1979, when Watten and Duncan were going to speak about Louis Zukofsky.

It was a full house in there, and Robert appeared in his full, Romantic poet regalia, the Spanish cape, the Spanish hat…. He had his manna when he was in that garb. He could fight off evil magic…. Anyway, he spoke about Zukofsky, and of course it was Robert Duncan's Zukofsky. It was a lyrical and mystical Zukofsky, not impossible to find.… And now it was Barrett Watten's turn. And Barrett got up, and Barrett was wearing, maybe a sports coat, and maybe khaki pants, maybe sensible shoes…. He could have been a junior professor somewhere…. Barrett did almost immediately make use of the blackboard. And he diagrammed a stanza of Zukofsky's. And although I have seen Robert do equally painstaking work at other times, on this occasion, he took exception to it. It was making him impatient. He jumped up and he said, ‘Oh for Pete's sake, we might at least have a little fun.’ And Barrett, quite unphased, said, ‘but Robert, this is the way I get my fun.’ It seemed to me unanswerable. And quite unforgivable of Robert to try to swan it like that, and lord it over. And he did form a deep—maybe a shallow anti-thesis is a better phrase—to the Language Poets. He tended to reject them out of hand. 

So, for Watten, gnostic poetry comes with a dubious pedigree, or at least with a trace of a very unpleasant moment, when an old gnostic guard had sought to discredit Language poetry at the outset (I've heard, more than once, that Watten has said that the dispute with Duncan "set us [the Language poets] back ten years").  And now, at a time when Language poetry has become an academic fixture, an established part of literary history, and one of the most powerful influences on American poetry, what did Watten encounter at the Louisville conference, arguably one of the most important venues through which Language poetry entered into academic respectability?  To hijack a phrase from Bromige, it was everything he, Barrett and his gang, had defeated… and now it was going to come back again.  That's just the sort of thing that will put a little steel into your gaze.  I'm glad Barrett handled the situation with more grace than Duncan did.  But the tension did make me think that this wasn't just another pair of panels at a conference: this may have been something of an event.


Some links:

"History, Totality, Silence" a paper on John Matthias' gnostic poetry I gave at the National Poetry Foundation conference in Orono last year.

A review of Peter O'Learly's Luminous Epinoia and Norman Finkelstein's Inside the Ghost Factory I wrote for Chicago Review.

Peter O'Leary's essay "Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry," also in Chicago Review.

"The Open Word," a paper on O'Leary's poetics I gave at the Louisville conference this year.

The present humble blogger receiving gnostic wisdom from Vincent Sherry.  Rembrandt-esque photo by Mark Scroggins

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Archambeau World Tour, Spring 2013

The roadies are packing up the tour bus motorcade, the groupies are testing their recording equipment in hopes of making top-notch bootleg recordings, and the police are preparing for the crush of adoring fans as the Archambeau World Tour begins for an epic, globe-spanning series of appearances.  To wit:

Friday, February 22nd at 1:30 p.m.: I'll be speaking on a panel on the New Gnostics at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900.  Details can be found in the conference program.  And, after my presentation, I can be found soaking in jazz and Bourbon at the Old Seelbach Bar.

Thursday, March 7, at 10 a.m.: I'll be signing copies of my new book The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World at the AWP Conference Book Fair in Boston, after which I am hoping to launch myself at a plate of soul food while someone plays a blazing horn solo here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Open Word: A Letter to Peter O’Leary

This coming Friday I'll be speaking, along with Harvard's Patrick Pritchett, Xavier's Norman Finkelstein, and Duke's David Need, at a panel at The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 called "The New Gnostics—Vectors in Postmodern Poetry II."  As the name implies, it's part of a Gnostic double bill, following the first "New Gnostics" panel given by Edward Foster, Joe Donahue, Mark Scroggins, and Peter O'Leary.  It's a project Donahue, Pritchett, and I dreamed up while having a drink at the National Poetry Foundation's conference in Orono last year, and Pritchett has had the temerity to actually make it happen.

Since O'Leary's at the conference, and my paper is about his work, and since Peter's a great lover of letters, I've written it in the form of a letter to him.  Here it is, still a hundred or so words too long for the official format.


Dear Peter,

What has your vocabulary done to you? To me?  To us?  Or, to narrow it down a bit, to John Latta, who wrote, a propos your book Depth Theology:

Dysthymia: thymos being Greek mind, and dys- ascending out of Sanskrit dus- meaning bad, difficult, &c. O’Leary’s an inveterate neologist: in notes to Depth Theology he points to various “coinages from taxonomic roots: an apiologist (a word Emerson once used) is one who studies bees; a parulidologist is one who studies warblers.”

Your vocabulary also staggered Broc Rossell, who said in the Colorado Review that the lexical “register of Luminous Epinoia might be the most elevated in American poetry since Hart Crane.”
            You make up a fair number of words, Peter, and revive many more from the realm of the hapax legomenon, or the deeply buried Greco-cum-Latin-cum-Sanskrit & Aramaic lexicon.
            Of course there are strange words and there are strange words.  I once wrote something about the difference, and it went more or less like this:

Consider “kuboaa,” a word invented by the great modern Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, and put into the mouth of the starving hero of his masterwork, the novel Hunger. For Hamsun's delirious hero, the word was a pure sound, something outside, even above, the realm of signifying language. Always aware of the absurd, and with a longing after purity that led him into some dark corners of the psyche, Hamsun meant for his “kuboaa” to be a word free from reference. To encounter it was to encounter something alien, something of untainted otherness. You could say “kuboaa” was to be the verbal equivalent of one of Kazimir Malevich's paintings of a red square on a white background: everything familiar was to be left behind in the encounter with the unassimilated and elemental. Kuboaa was the word of the modern primitive, the word of regrounding, of beginning again, outside existing language and away from the freight of civilization.
        John Peck's “argura,” is another made-up word, and the title of his fourth volume of poetry. But it is a creature altogether different from kuboaa. As Peck writes in the notes to his Collected Shorter Poems, argura “corresponds to no single Latin word, but rather to elements that derive from roots shared among several terms.” This is not the neologism as word-free-of-reference; this is the polysemous neologism, the word that bears the trace of several meanings, and the weight of several etymologies, but that remains, finally, elusive. Argentum (silver, or money), argumentum (argument or evidence), and arguro (to make clear, but also to censure or reprove) — are all words with relevance to Peck's poetry, and lurking in argura's syllables. The point of a word like “argura” is not to lift the reader up above the trails of signification, but to send the reader down those trails in pursuit of historical and linguistic references. If kuboaa is the word of the modern primitive, argura is the word of the modern classical, sending the reader to the word-horde of Latin antiquity.
        I take the difference between a word like kuboaa and a word like argura as a cue on how to read your books, Peter—and I need cues for your books.  They’re among the most challenging — and most rewarding – books of poetry by an American poet of your generation (you can use that in a blurb if you like). No primitive, you, Mr. O’Leary, no primitive, but a poet whose work twines together classical references, history, and the present.
            If this sounds a bit like Ezra Pound, it should: you come late onto the stage of modernism, but you belong there, I think — belong, in essence, to the same wing of modernist poetry as does Ole Ez.  His, after all, is the wing of “make it new”—of the reclaiming of those elements of the cultural past that lie fallow.  It’s certainly not Marinetti’s futurist wing of “the first dawn is now,” and the shaking loose from a supposedly burdensome past—still less is it the avant-garde of denotation-free word art like Zaum or Merz, or the Dada of Hugo Ball chanting the syllables of “Karawane” at the Caberet Voltaire.
            What exactly do I mean by placing you in “the same wing” of modernism as those guys?  To understand, I suppose we have to comment on the nature of the “it” in your version of “make it new.”  My favorite description of the modernist, and neo-modernist, project of making it new via ‘argura’ style vocabulary and the revival of disused words comes from a comment Vincent Sherry made about the poetry of John Matthias: “On the one hand, the pedagogue offers from his word-hoard and reference trove the splendid alterity of unfamiliar speech; on the other, this is our familial tongue, our own language in its deeper memory and reference.”
            What Sherry says is right, I think, but in your case I would qualify it a bit, marking out your particular space in the modernist wing of things.  In your work you send us not just to the past as an end in itself, as would a good liberal humanist professor of literature, a believer in the power of cultural literacy.  I mean, you’re a believer, alright, but you and I both know it’s not some watery liberal humanism in which you believe.  What your arcane vocabulary sends us to isn’t the past in general, but, most frequently and insistently, a particular set of spiritual traditions: the more heterodox branches of Catholicism, and the Gnostic tradition, in both its ancient and its perennial manifestations.  And in doing so, you’re not just out to remind us of history, but to redeem time.
            Here’s what I mean.  Your most consistent poetic project, running from Watchfulness, through Depth Theology and the more recent Luminous Epinoia, has been redemptive, and arcane vocabulary and neologistic invention have always had a role in this project.
            Of course  “redemption” is a loaded word, and when I talk about the redemptive project of your poetry, I’m talking about the Gnostic sense of the word.  As Sean Martin writes, “redemption” for the Gnostic, “is not redemption from original sin, which does not exist in Gnosticism, but is redemption from ignorance.”  Ignorance, specifically, of the divine nature, and its presence within us.  This can mean a deliverance from the utterly fallen material world, but only for the more ascetic of Gnostics, and I don’t think you’re one of them.  While some Gnostics emphasize the evil nature of material reality, others emphasize how our world, which is at a far edge of the Pleroma, many removes from the divine core of being, is nevertheless an emanation of the divine: an unglamorous exurb, to be sure, but still a part of the greater metropolitan area of divinity, if we could only see it as such.  You seem more like that sort of Gnostic to me, like the scribes of the Nag Hammadi texts, who lovingly copied that passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians in which he says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood… but against the world rulers of this darkness and the spirits of evil”—that is, against the forces that keep us from seeing the redemptive light, (in Gnostic terms, the divine spark within us and, in some iterations, in our world).
            We see this already in the first poetic sequences of Watchfulness, “Ikons” and its subordinate parts, “Ikons,” “The House of My Ikon,” and “Midas.”  Here, you give us first the gold of Eastern Mediterranean Christian icons, which through an alchemy of perception convert wooden blocks, egg yolk, and gold dust into the instruments of spiritual transcendence.  You then give us the King Midas of Greek legend, whose transformative powers are altogether less impressive, not converting matter into a pathway to spirit, but merely into other matter, ending with the materiality of gold that is only the beginning of the icon as instrument of spiritual transformation.  The final image of Midas passing a golden grail (“grail” — there’s a loaded word!) from hand to hand as he “changes it unavailed/from gold to gold” is a wonderful underlining of the futility of the merely material world, by the way, and a good exhibit in any case to be made for you as a Gnostic who would free us from subservience to the rulers who would keep us locked in the darkness of the merely historical and material.
            Anyway.  Neologism and linguistic transformation come into play later in the book, in the three “Jerusalem” sections.  Here, we’re amid a lexicon of technical Greek and Latin, and verbs unknown to the OED.  And we get some important hints about your concern with the transformation of vocabulary when you reference the word “shibboleth” and the phrase “brightness fall from the air”—the first reminds us of how the inability of the Ephraimites to pronounce the “sh” sound, and their consequent slaughter by the Gileades when they inadvertently said “sibboleth”; the second refers to one of the greatest typos in the history of English poetry, when Thomas Nashe’s description of the effects of the plague, “brightness falls from the hair,” was accidentally reset into a much more memorable line.  Both remind us of the power of linguistic transformation, whether political or literary—and in the “Ephphatha” section, we see the spiritual power of linguistic transformation.
             “Ephphatha,” as the contextualizing passage from the Gospel of Mark you were kind enough to quote as an epigraph makes plain, is the Aramaic word Christ used to mean “opening” or “be open,” or “be thou open”— though in your quote it appears as “Ephpheta,” a variant translated spelling.  And this is a hint of what is to follow, when we delve into the possible etymologies of the word: a Greek transliteration from Aramaic, a Greek transliteration of Hebrew, a Samaritan’s attempt to speak a Hebrew word, and so forth.  We read, too, about St. Jerome’s idiosyncratic apprehension of the word, morphing “eppheta” into “adapirire”—the inadvertent making of new words from old playing into the opening and closing of spiritual possibilities.
            And here we come close to an understanding of the role of linguistic revival, argura-style neologism, and raids on the Mediterranean word hoard in your Gnostic poetics. Let me get at that role by describing a temptation I feel, and resist, when reading your work.
            I’m tempted to say you believe in the imagination as a divine force.  When you titled your book Luminous Epinoia, you were making an obscure reference to The Apocryphon of John, in which the ‘Luminous Epinoia’ is a term for an old Gnostic trope, the “creative or inventive consciousness sent to Adam by God in the form of Eve,” (Eve, in many Gnostic texts, is the seeker of knowledge, and her plucking of the fruit from the tree a redemptive act, rather than a sin).  Me, I’m immersed so thoroughly in Romanticism that I can’t help seeing the idea of the luminous epinoia as similar to Coleridge’s notion in the Biographia Litteraria, when he defines the imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” and the conscious poetic act as “an echo of the former.”  But there’s something different.  Coleridge speaks of creativity as an echo of the divine.  You do, too, I think—but you do so in a vocabulary that specifically references the Gnostic spiritual tradition.  And this leads me to resist the temptation to say you simply see the imagination as divine.  Because, unlike Coleridge, you approach the issue through an arcane vocabulary that refers back to spiritual traditions, I think it’s better to say that you don’t see the individual imagination as divine, so much as you see a specific-yet-perennial tradition of imaginative acts as laying us open to the revelation of the divine.  It’s not as if your work is telling us “invent, and be like God!” — it’s more like your work is pointing us to a long, wayward tradition, and saying, a propos that tradition, “be thou open.”


Peter O'Leary, drawn by Tim Leeming, 2012