Peter O’Leary. Luminous Epinoia, Cultural Society, 2010
A garish cover that simulates hammered silver, inscrutable symbols, titles in a Gothic script as difficult to read as German Fraktur. I hold the book up to my eyes as if near-sighted. To my understanding, the passage, “What if we had begun by executing our consciousness / with feeling instead of reason? We would / be standing vertiginously now in the chambers where / our logic sounds out. The roar in that cavern inspiring our art” (39) maps the epistemological dynamics of Luminous Epinoia. The volume both mocks and is inspirited by gnostic doctrines of divinity. In the cited lines, I sense a whirling of dervish-like bodies in a cave, listening to the echoes of a hollow logic. A parody of the modernist yearning for spiritual illumination? Too much language of hollow logic haloes this collection. Still I appreciate the notion that comes to me here of vertiginous corporality (proprioceptive flailing) as primary to art; but now I appear to be reading my own yearnings into O’Leary’s work and that capacity is one of the strengths of Luminous Epinoia. I am also led to ask, and I am far from the first to do so, what distinguishes art from babbling? from speaking in tongues?
Licking the old brass key
of your boyhood, tenderly shove it in the memory socket.
The thrum is a pain from a dream
in a circumference–that’s where the saintly nimbus comes from; it amplifies
the God–signal. (51)
Some dreams have their information
replicated in a vital mind–cell until some trigger–usually a psychic trauma–
causes the lysogenic cycle
to begin … (53)
It’s God’s thin venomy quitter,
a virulence, a blooming, a radiolucency, a blessing. (53)
Cleverly and possibly truthfully, dreams during viral infection, especially among boys, produce god–speak. The reference may be to the key of a brass lock or a wind-up toy. Anthropologists have claimed as much about the relation between viral fevers and visionary powers. I too remember the taste of that metal. Victor Turner has argued that being subject to an infection and participating in its cure makes one a neophyte in the curative cult, but why boys? Why do females in some cults only ascend to the level of shaman–helper? Catholics do not admit women into the priestly orders although the Cathars did (the last clause is not an argument raised in the cited matter). The citations referenced in O’Leary’s text are meant to divert and amuse. These lines play on possibilities of “transmission” from a poem entitled “Transmit.” The motif of “venomy” runs back through Freudian nachträglichkeit (a slippage in relation to the psychological scars left by trauma) to a brass key. On these I sucked as a boy and the key is also a symbol of the wisdom locked away, undoubtedly phallic also. The concatenation of images underscores the condition of riddle as itself of greater interest than answers.
The O’Leary’s text is brilliantly but also prototypically flat, a mélange of gnostic lore, unmoored from history, “Coal dust smears the hands silence like cooked gold / ashes over” from “Chemical” (75). Is the citation alchemical or a new reading of Paul Celan’s experience of Nazi death camps. For O’Leary, moral integrity is a property of his source. Celans “Chymisch.” Celan’s poem draws on the same holocaustal landscape as “Todesfuge.” In “Death Fugue,” Celan fuses the figures of Gretchen with her golden tresses and Sulamith with her ashen hair. O’Leary continues, “All the names, all / the seared–together names aflame, a flared coherence shook from” (75). The poet is free to conjure alternate realities “soul rings rising skyward” like “smoke rings” without the burden of moral interrogation.
The book is a pastiche of esoteric and learned citations, unmoored from their contexts. The breadth of learning itself compels a degree of wonder. The collection contains an ample glossary. Like eccentrically hung architraves on a glass tower, the style participates in a postmodern species of assemblage. A throwback to the gothic dimensions of romanticism, fantasy is the language (68), and flatness with respect to meaning creates an effect of advance and withdrawal, going only so far as to assert that spiritual knowledge is a category best not dismissed too swiftly. Having it both ways without faith, only wisdom: in a section of a poem entitled “The Dancing Sorcerer” and subtitled “’The Devil’s Epileptic,’” the source of knowledge is identified again as affliction, “Not from God’s word miraculously inlibrate. // But from a seizure. From affliction … disorder commoner to imbeciles than / the inspired” (74). And this affliction is also put to work to code by analogy real world tensions, “Mohammed’s epilepsy was an injury Europe gave him” (74). The notes clarify that the attribution of epilepsy to Mohammed was a common nineteenth century coinage. It may seem that the art of the poem can be identified as knowledge withdrawn from the realm of meaning and then recirculated.
The final sections evoking a dream of the poet’s may however be understood as bearing the personal import of sickness in relation to the quest for understanding. Dream analysis of this personal material derived from a repeated and haunting quality concludes, “Sometimes, I wish I weren’t a shaman.” Learned and obscurantist, the wheeling assemblage of referents, mimes the images that affliction deposits in the mind: the result of the giddy process is both to validate and debunk shamanism or spiritualism. The most interesting question for me after these investigations is: where does the need arise for such language as O’Leary offers? This last observation is meant as an endorsement of the pleasures and quandaries that arise in reading Luminous Epinoia.