“It is always shocking, always transgressive, to call the words of passion holy,” writes Edward Hirsch. “But poets will never be deterred from this intransigence.” Sappho and John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Mirabai, Richard Crashaw and the Shulamite of the Song of Songs, Rumi and Emily Dickinson, all have charged devotional verses with erotic yearning, and vice versa, ecstatically conflating the secular and the sacred, the beloved and the Beloved, in an attempt to take language beyond its capabilities, to make it express the human intoxication with the romance between oblivion and the ineffable Divine.
Kimberly Johnson, Alex Lemon, and Brenda Shaughnessy take up the poetics of God-lust with renewed, edgy, often darkly humorous imagination in distinctive second books of poetry. Each not only experiments with the linguistic density, intellectual risk, and intricate troping of the traditional metaphysical lyric but also confronts with ardor issues of piety, faith, and grace—subjects often avoided in contemporary religious and erotic poetry, which is more likely to appropriate a gratuitous spiritual or carnal lexicon in service of other aims. Not so with these three poets, who seem passionately engaged in the complexities of what John Keats called the “vale of Soul-making.”
Kimberly Johnson’s A Metaphorical God is a Donne-haunted breviary that takes as its temporal arc the Lenten season (one of Johnson’s epigraphs to the book is from Donne’s Expostulation 19: “thou art a figurative, a metaphoricall God too; A God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings …”). Lent itself, of course, might be seen as a figure—a meta-drama not only for larger liturgical patterns of birth, penance, death, and redemption but also for the great atemporal Mystery itself. Johnson’s poems adopt a number of their forms from mystical or sacred texts—psalms, divinations, odes, hymns, spells—but her settings are as earthbound as her own scorched backyard garden or the driver’s seat of a white pickup careering down a highway during a thunderstorm. Johnson mixes her vexation at the obdurate “coquetry” of a silent, unrequiting Supreme Being (“What a maddening, a metaphorical / God you are, all frills and periwigs,” from “On Divination”) with her desire to be inscribed directly with the Divine, the “world’s plain voice / … its burden, stripped / as early spring, sure as the hoar lying / / over the violet bed, and so forthright / we take it for honesty” (from “Opening the Word”). In “The Story of My Calamities,” a title borrowed from Abelard, that most transgressive and paradoxical of lovers, she writes: “My Lord my flesh / your tablet make. Inscribe desire in me.”
The body is implicated in Johnson’s book not just as a “mere adjective of soul” (“On Divination by Filaments”), but in a series of striking odes to parts of the speaker’s anatomy (appendix, lanugo, perineum) that involve what Saint Augustine called the “lattice of our flesh” and that suggest the body itself may be the ultimate metaphor (from the Greek metapherein, “to carry over, to bear; burden”). Johnson’s odes enact a cycle of loss, heartbreak, and salvation which parallels the calendrical motions of Lent in this collection. In achingly postlapsarian lines from “Ode on My Belly Button,” for example, she writes:
My original wound was my deepest:
half-inch divot where the cord shriveled off
and a plunging ache that never scabbed
where my umbilical name sloughed away,—
forgotten now, but it meant Belong.
The book’s second and longest section begins with “Ash Garden” (“Let [fireweed] learn in sackcloth colors to thrive / on desire alone. It’s a discipline / I’m ripe to teach. I excel at fasting”) and ends with a revisionist nod to Donne in “Easter, Looking Westward”:
Faithless my zeal, for the puritan’s faith
imputes us all with a roughhouse grace, most
lovely in our brokenness, bruised and bent
to glory. Scratch that— to sufficiency.
Start again: The stars are black with storms
blown shoreward; the dinoflagellates
smacked on the shoals leak light from shattered cells;microscopic, who make the vastness gleam
they phosphoresce the breakers in their roister.
Let me sing, then, the beauty of creatures
But Johnson intentionally preempts and challenges any one-dimensional Lenten reading of her psalter by beginning her book with the rollicking “Epilogue” (“It’s the piss- / / and-vinegar flesh gives music form, / the limber tongue, the wet throat. Keep your small-change / fame, minstrel accolades.— Give us / / the measure of the irrecoverable / hour, that miraculous tragedy: / a little tomb, but flashy while it lasts”), and ending it with a stunning, solitary coda, “Voluptuary,” in which two sisters, in the wake of implied private pain and longing, are fly-fishing in a western creek:
A ridiculous scene, tableau past
cliché, with verdure and soughing
and blah blah blah. She hooks a splake,
flips him to shore, yanks her knife open,
swipes anus to jaw. With a finger inside
she slides guts, gore, and shit in a shining
red pile. She dunks him, lets the stream
clean the gash, chucks him to me
for the icebucket, and here the suckerpunch
of beauty: white vault of ribs in their arch
to the spine, one red vein bulbing faithfully
skull to tail, red gills fragile, useless
beneath the operculum, ordered
like layers of vellum. Scales flake off
and stick to my palms like glitter. Like silver.
Johnson’s book is an illuminated text of the deepest allusive, erotic, and liturgical pleasures. The poem that falls between “Goodfriday” and “Easter, Looking Westward,” for example (marking Saturday of Holy Week, that godless interlude between Crucifixion and Resurrection, death and wings, of the empty tomb, of the unsayable/unknowable), is titled, powerfully, “[ ].”; it concludes:
O fugitive God, my glorious jilt,
my heart has learned a tempest’s grammar
in your pursuit. Listen: it thunders up
its truest, its most hopeless, prayers
In this way, perhaps, the poet acknowledges the silence toward and around which all words move.
If Johnson’s poems borrow their figurative grammar from pursuit of an elusive God, Alex Lemon’s narrator—plural, vexed—contains Whitmanesque multitudes.
So if it’s you
Rummaging within this theater, would that
Make you a me, breathing inside a we?
That symphony. That freak show.
This cathedral of zodiacs and sad songs,
I love it.
His “I” joins the Divine on its wild, fugue-state joyride. Imagine Hart Crane in the mosh pit or William Blake singing in the psych ward, and the reader will get a sense of the visionary, pantheistic, blackly humorous, and guardedly hopeful speakers in Hallelujah Blackout. Negative epiphanies abound (“this is welcome / To the great state / Of nowhere—We Make / Meek Adjustments / / That blank before bang— / The pills kicking in,” from “Sing”); they bleed, flower, and implode with violent beauty at every trapdoor, house of cards, box-squatted city corner, and cornered shadow of the mind. In “Flourishing,” the speaker confesses, “I’ve broken my hands thousands of times / / because I’m afraid of what they can do,” and the sensibility (and sense of “terrible beauties”) in Lemon’s imagination inhabits both sickness and health, bloom and rot, “a stream of blood” and a “plant’s winged roots.” These lyrics—rife, anguished, fierce, hallucinatory, manic, weary, oneiric—are very much concerned with the ways in which incarceration (in all forms) bottoms out, ecstatically, into whatever notion of incarnate bliss is possible in this world. In “Modern Man’s Hustle,” the narrator, a convicted criminal, disappears inside his own body’s penance to locate an almost impossible benediction:
But in this life, we must
Be sure never to ask for too much info
About who we really are. You know
What I mean, brother? For too many years
We will be driven to this country-road ditch
To pick up cigarette butts & Bud Light cans
With the rest of the orange-clad dummies.
It’s in our eyes now—that whatever
Is meant to be is shit to me—hand scoured
Over & over until there can’t be fingerprints
Or warmth. The drips. Of blessings,
Unwrapped & tossed. Faces sunsetting,
Blurred windows. The streaks. The blessings.
In “Boxboard,” the narrator (a homeless person?) becomes whatever beyond, whatever consolation, his body is moving toward:
I bathe this melody
& bedlam spilling on & on
the clamor of sirens
outside & comfort in
what you can’t see of yourself
when some sort of healingagain & again & as best it can
is longed for echoing
the slouching body
In the tradition of John Clare, Tom Andrews, Allen Ginsberg, and Marina Tsvetaeva, illness (mental or bodily, induced or unbidden) is the precinct of Lemon’s cri de coeur, and taken together the poems create an almost unbearably painful, unbearably raucous, unbearably tender howl, an “ash-hearted & stammering America / Happy asshole alleluia” of praise. Some of the poems, especially those whose dense lines are unrelieved by white space or strophes, are hard to read, with their over-the-top catalogues and accruals, however brilliantly seen and articulated:
Needless to say, the day was furious
With flashbacks. The concrete grew condensation,
I stepped in never-ending piles of gum.
My favorites were purple and tasted like grape
Or the van Gogh I licked repeatedly as a child.
Nightfall and I was at the shore with a number
Of half-scratched lotto tickets and a very old
Burrito. This is my sort of magic, I reflected,
Squawking melodies from my kazoo.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I blew a tornado
Of kisses to friends—sand crabs,
The gutter worms. I wished the others—
All the floating diapers and Depends,
The sweetest of dreams.
(“Souvenirs from the Unraveling”)
And the book feels, in a way that often typifies a first rather than a second book, about thirty pages too long. Still, it’s impossible not to lean in to listen to Lemon’s listening (“the wood- / Wormed altarpiece in my hands / Is my head”), and to be stunned along with him by the world’s “dark hymns,” a music that allows us, as in “Operculum”—
our fingertips on the wild-
bottomed clouds as our heart convulses
one last time, the next blink might make us
midnight with the smile & machete—
we, tangoing into the endless
—a vision of rare transport, “seamless / From heaven to failed heaven” and back again.
Brenda Shaughnessy divides Human Dark with Sugar—winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, for a second book of poems—into three sections (“Anodyne,” “Ambrosia,” and “Astrolabe”), creating a triptych of the elements of carnal and transcendent love. In poem after poem, Shaughnessy keeps altering, with intelligent, witty, and sexy verve, the pitch between the measurable objective world (“It’s true that snow takes on gold from sunset / and red from rearlights. But that’s occasional. / What is constant is white, / / or is that only sight, a reflection of eyewhites / and light? Because snow reflects only itself, / self upon self upon self,” from “Why Is the Color of Snow?”) and the unfathomable depths of cosmic and human darkness (“Your hands / find me where there is no science,” from “Spring in Space: A Lecture”). What we need, Shaughnessy asserts in “Don’t Be So Small, Poet,” is “a poet of the nanosecond / and of the subparticle,” and if there’s a poet prepared to slip, sans negligee, into the “unfucked, ever-fucked” fissure between this world and Paradise, it is Brenda Shaughnessy. In “Magic Turns to Math and Back,” for example, she could be speaking with equal feistiness of a lover or of the Divine:
If time were tellable, we wouldn’t keep asking.
Our faces would stop turning to face
the faceless face.
Enough with the hands meeting twice a day.
Enough of expecting change
at the same hour.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I can’t charm it open, so charm
Is dropped: if’t’weren’t love,
then love weren’t it. Two Ls arranged
as a square keep love outside the frame.
When I came, I was half-coming
You left, half-leaving. A formula.
It’s so even-steven, yet so fractal
and Möbius. Yet hagborn. Yet digital.
Shaughnessy is extraordinarily adept at a kind of ironic, stand-up, one-liner, pop-culturally savvy and alluring linguistic dazzle that has come to stand in for depth and discovery in much recently lauded poetry, as in “I’m Over the Moon”:
I don’t like what the moon is supposed to do.
Confuse me, ovulate me,
spoon-feed me longing. A kind of ancient
date-rape drug. So I’ll howl at you, moon,
I’m angry. I’ll take back the night. Using me to
swoon at your questionable light,
you had me chasing you,
the world’s worst lover, over and over
hoping for a mirror, a whisper, insight.
But you disappear for nights on end
with all my erotic mysteries
and my entire unconscious mind.
Luckily, she is capable of much more. Importantly, she knows how to turn her weltschmerz and distancing self-consciousness on herself with rich, good humor, as in “But when one strikes out whimsically, / / as if meta-is-betta, as if it isn’t you, / as if this story is happening to nobody / / it is only who you are fooling that’s nobody” (“One Love Story, Eight Takes”); or as in “A Poet’s Poem”:
If it takes me all day,
I will get the word freshened out of this poem.
I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second,
and now it won’t come out.
It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated,
so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow
and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked
Finally I reached up and broke a big, clear spike
off the roof with my bare hand.
And used it to write a word in the snow.
I wrote the word snow.
I can’t stand myself.
At their best, Shaughnessy’s poems are wickedly smart, electrified by erotic energy and spiritual susceptibility that is, for all its intellectual edge, also extraordinarily physical. In “Vagile,” for example, which evokes not only the philandering mind but also the primordial organism, the speaker explores (in a play on vagile as freedom and as vaginal) the mysteries of sex, of conception. The poem begins, as her love poems often do, with the language of proofs and theorems, with a characteristically offhand remark: “It’s not so bad, this imaginary math, / this halving and doubling. / Is half of nothing a double-not?” But by its conclusion, the poem has turned, opening into vulnerable questioning and an empathetic desire for connection with the lover and an unborn son:
Once, the melting made clear
our godbaby and I was never alone.
But you were. Young,
no closer to me than a little boy
looking up at an airplane.
It made me crazy. I was you!
And you are not so young.
Make noise. Be my animal
so I know my body is a home.
How can I be a woman?
How can I be only this half?
All of our primal myths remind us that the human need to know, to seek, to plunder or expose a higher meaning, is a hunger. Eros is inextricably bound with this lure of the ineffable. How can it not be? What’s refreshing in the work of these three younger poets is their eschewal of easy earnestness, of what some might call “sincerity,” as they make their forays into the big questions. Instead, each makes a unique figurative and bodily bound contribution to the inheritance of seeker poets engaged in what Louise Glück has called, in relation to Keats, an “inward listening, attentiveness of a rare order.” Glück goes on to clarify her understanding of Keats’s sojourn of soul-making: “His desire was to reveal the soul, but soul, to Keats, had no spiritual draperies. Spirituality manifests the mind’s intimidating claim to independent life. . . . To Keats, the soul was corporeal and vital and frail; it had no life outside the body.” The somatic metaphysics of thought, imagination, and language in these three books is demanding, even downright difficult; one thinks of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that most intricate and subliminally erotic of religious poets, writing in a letter: “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as it is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at a first reading.” God-bitten, ecstatic, physical, intelligent, questioning, and full of linguistic, formal, and subjective risks, these three new books warrant the attention of anyone interested in the heirs of negative capability and its voracious yearning for beauty, for truth.