Peter O'Leary, Luminous Epinoia. New York: The Cultural Society, 2010. 98pp. $21
Norman Finkelstein, Inside the Ghost Factory. East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk Press, 2010. 66pp. $15
Around the time Peter O'Leary's Luminous Epinoia was published, an essay of his called "Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry" appeared in the pages of this journal. Part memoir, part polemic, part literary appreciation, the essay argued that apocalypse- a sacred expression that can "unbind love from material desire, freeing it to embrace the unknown and the unspeakable"- has been erased from American poetry. In O'Leary's view, neither the old school of the workshop lyric nor the tradition of Language writing supports vatic or visionary poetry. O'Leary's own recent work, along with that of Norman Finkelstein, constitutes a strong argument for the vitality of this project. O'Leary, Finkelstein, and a number of other poets- Pam Rehm, Michael Heller, Harriet Zinnes, and especially Joseph Donahue and Nathaniel Mackey- make formal and conceptual links to this deeply rooted poetic tradition, which extends back through Duncan to Yeats and Blake. In our formally diverse but overwhelmingly secular poetic moment their work represents a true counterculture whose achievement has yet to be fully appreciated.
Luminous Epinoia is a book of many things: surreal fables, reflections on sacred architecture, sermons on the meaning of love in a time of war, and the occasional jab at the policies of the Bush administration. But most of all, it is a book concerned with incarnation. Its title comes from the Apocryphon of John, a second century Gnostic gospel, where the "luminous Epinoia" is a heterodox version of Eve, a physical extension of Adam and a helper who will restore to him the full, creative vision of religious experience. O'Leary's book takes a strong influence from the great Catholic theologian and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who reconciled his scientific and religious beliefs by imagining that the physical universe imperfectly embodies aspects of the divine, and looked at biological evolution as a teleological process bringing us ever closer to a union with God.
O'Leary celebrates science by bringing its specialized language to bear on mystical ideas generally seen as inimical to empirical thought. The poem "As Twilight into Noonday Knowledge Gyres," for example, splices together the language of contemporary astronomy and cosmology with the catalog of types of angels in Dante's Paradiso, giving us strange, haunting passages:
furthest and closest the Seraphim
like dark matter, of incalculable unknown density,
not giving off any light, but not absorptive either. As far
as our equations allow us to see, we still have no image
for the highest order of angels, clothed in collapsing nanoseconds.
This passage is typical of O'Leary's relentlessly high-toned diction, festooned with theological terms and arcane scientific language. Whole stretches of Luminous Epinoia feel as if we' ve left the Anglo-Saxon parts of English behind to revel in the Latinate. The sometimes arduous effort required to read it suggests the grandest ambitions. This is an attempt to get at the meaning of the world as a manifestation of divine love- "in a somehow holier tongue," as he writes in one poem.
O'Leary reflects on these aspirations in another poem, "To Suffer to Pass Through," which takes biology as its starting point:
apex remains grasses and flowers
chlorophyll converts to life from light. Conduction of this force is a message
broadcast from the body of God, a biochemical sun
transpiercing miraculously, glided on modulating
radiowaves. Less a metaphor than a stopgap, this notion
permits us crypto-angelic conceptions of how God's love
There's a humility to that last sentence: an admission that the visionary poet offers not prophetic truths so much as expedients. …