Monday, September 8, 2014

Song X, Patrick Pritchett

Patrick Pritchett, Song X (Talisman House 2014)
Proposing a new and selected poems invites the reader to search for polished gems. And yet I associate Patrick Pritchett’s poetry with a degree of seriality, not the self-standing lyric. His Song X: New and Selected Poems from Talisman House (2014) samples work from six earlier collections, including the remarkable Gnostic Frequencies and concludes with selections from the recent Song X.  My purpose here is to engage the aesthetic parameters of a range of poems excised from the body of the work. I found the selection from Burn-Doxology for Joan of Arc (2005) to be especially intriguing. Individual lines such as “encrypting the body of dust in the body of flame” from “Devotion” (17) speak to the “story” of Joan, a complex of associations with which I am familiar in relation to censorship theory. “Devotion” can be placed in the context of Joan’s agreeing to dress in female garb instead of her wonted military and masculine costume, a misguided compromise with authority. The result of her “display” led to her recanting her confession of heresy and ultimately to her being burned at the stake. The line, “encrypting the body of dust in the body of flame,” resonates with her martyrdom. Such reverberations are not evident everywhere in Burn or in “Devotion.” Still to read “Devotion” as a freestanding lyric would be to misread the poem. Pritchett’s “new” Gnosticism shadows the text in delicious ways. Burn aggregates to itself the same artful subtlety as is found in his Gnostic Frequencies. See my commentary on Gnostic Frequencies elsewhere in Immanent Occasions,

I propose then to share a careful reading of one poem from Burn, “Of Utterance” (40), the penultimate poem but one, my comments or glosses in square brackets.

“Because the pressure of rain on the skin
is like a natal wound.

[An embryo may be the subject, bathed in both tropical rain that is likened to a rain of amniotic fluid. An originary moment? but a wound? There is an ancient and cryptic homology between “wound”  and “womb,” evocative of gender reversals and wish fulfillments that promote a male abrogation of child bearing. Dionysius is  born from Zeus’s thigh. I pause too long perhaps at “natal wound”?]

“Because the drift of cloud through pass
sets the field to green fire, its branches

[Green fire can sometimes be seen on the sudden setting of the sun continuing the evocative birth imagery from the verse above.]

“Because I hurry to the wing of the limb
where the blue wheel and its flickering discharge certain energies.

[These lines ring as if a logical conclusion of some inscrutable order has been reached. The wing may be that of any bird, a bird associated with the soul, or the wing of an angel, a gnostic angel? The blue wheel is surely the heavens in anyone’s cosmology. If we add blue and yellow we get green. Who has introduced the sun?]

“Because the water. Because the stillness.
What is raised to the lips drowns.

[An incantation returning me to the first verse. Is the second line about drinking from a cup? Or is it about inarticulate speech? I sense the latter. The circumstances are sacred, ceremonial.]

“The life of action set to another music.
Because the sun is the respirator of the afterlife.

[My readings seem to have fallen into place. Thematic birth is rebirth into a blue sphere with its own sun. “Respirator” has entered the poem from the world of hospitals and modern medicine.]

“The shimmer of its light across the grove of trees
burns the master’s eyes.

[A mark of thematic unity returns the reader to the first verse. The “master” seems impersonal after what had seemed to be engaged individual contemplation of the relation between birth and language. I scurry backwards and find on an earlier page a reference to a “Master of Fire” who said ‘the wheel and what it moves grow old inside the flame” (24). This earlier concretion of spirit and flame is a “gnostic” moment of the sort that Pritchett often puts forth. The image of the master of fire may relate to the Christian Holy Spirit or paraclete, sexual ambiguities aside. The subject of the next poem in the series is parousia. The Holy Spirit, a green flame then, an “enunciating ‘flame’” in the next verse. I quote the last four lines.]

“Rectitude. Stone of the muse at the bottom of .
Enunciating ‘flame.’

“Because a cicatrix forms over every word
and we call it utterance.”

[ I cannot sum the meaning here any better than the poet has done. Utterance is painful. “Rectitude” may be a property of Joan and she may be a muse whose heart turns to stone in the flames that consume her, but meaning now wheels free of allusions. Note the broken period.]

As an example of the conceptual lyric, “Devotion” contains sufficient coherence to qualify as one of those gems whose integrity I generally mistrust, not however in this instance. Cite it in your catalog of metaphysical poetry, along with Donne and Eliot, if you will! The gnomic wisdom of the last verse stands on its own, like an ancient riddle. Still “Devotion” gains from an understanding of context, as all poems must.

I may prefer the overarching unity of the serial poem to the context of a selected but without a selected we would not have these thoughtful and thought-provoking texts and the emotional realities that underlie sometimes difficult words. So I turn to the back of the volume and to poems associated with the rubric, Song X, recent examples of Pritchett’s work, poems whose rhythms according to Norman Finkelstein’s note, derive from free jazz. Some poems seem entirely occasional and deeply personal. I especially appreciate the notion that “The beautiful is a kind of noise that we love,” a concept associated with the work of Tim Bahti who has theorized that the lyric rather than pursuing the effects of a satisfying end or resolution instead participates in a loop where the middle is the aesthetic soul, a central idea for Pritchett’s art. The poem from Song X that most seems to break new lyric ground to my ear is “The Idea of Evening as Abode” (128). The title suggests a mode that I associate with Wallace Stevens’ meditations in verse. It is a curious idea, difficult to grasp, “evening” as “abode.” There are houses in the night sky but the allusions here lie elsewhere. They stretch over complex sentences that culminate in telling formulations, for instance, “the long / force of diminishments.” “Diminishments” is rarely pluralized. From the middle of the final stanza, “for the pulse and ring / of the still listening bells / their thermal updraft, psalmic gate.” Do I hear Nate Mackey? What I do hear is a sinuous threading of concepts through supple lines, subtle use of enjambment. The conceptual lyric if these are examples of that genre as well as of a new Gnosticism, recharges old concepts with new meanings, allowing texts to speak to one another. I look forward to reading more poems like these.

Donald Wellman

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