Icon is a book of love poems—not to a person, but to poetry—or to that toward which poetry reaches: the divine, a distillation of every possible, the “hearth-seed of cosmos cupped.” Reaching it requires not transcendence, but descent deep into life, to touch what is wild: “The poem has teeth in it / and lives in the mountains.” These poems, written “in a time of war / (all time),” marry the political and mystical with the mundane, to reveal the infinite, common as dust: “the void-motes that / fill everything / free everything.” It is here that hope resides. —Allison Cobb
Summer was the heavy thunderhead
arrogated into rain
beating over heat-
Love beats and resists
the golden tone we gave it
A great sweep of shadow
washes green to black
What is this in me
not yet mecast ahead of itself
Who carries the slain voice
through the night-tongued flame
Flaring shadow burns the icon
leaving resonant orange
At eclipse the color drains—skin
the blinding substance of the light
Smoke no more
than shadow of smoke
Flesh less dense
than the blue
pulse of inbetweenness
What shapeis this
eludes my hands
It is not the poem
but myself smoothed
into an afterthought
The poemhas teeth in it
and lives in the mountains
I have a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in English (1982), and a master's degree in Western Classics from Saint John's College (2001). An English degree such as mine is, probably always, an initiatory portal, a doorway into further creative thinking. If one is an English major, it is out of pure love for some area of literature. For me this area was later Romantic poetry, especially Percy Shelly, and following him, the poetry of W.B. Yeats. At heart, I am a born symbolist. I believe that the immediate object in the world, the real thing if you will, becomes a cipher for transcendent reality, a higher humanity, discovered through the object, but within ourselves. This belief shows me to be a follower of Karl Jaspers, whose philosophy always insists that the symbol must be free, must be non-dogmatized, if it is to keep its power and act as a catalyst for transcendence. This belief also reveals me to be a lover of Robert Duncan's poetry. Duncan thought of himself as the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. I feel I am still walking across that bridge! I still hear strains of Romantic music. Radical Sartrean freedom is not so far from the freedom Shelly ached to reach in Prometheus Unbound. The avowal of poetic faith is that feeling is replete with intelligence. I see now that for decades I have been interested in theopoetics. Poetry shines as a light into philosophical theology and finds that its problems are not problems at all, but are rather—even at their tautological limits—celebrations.
My poetic life might fall under three headings—three Ds—a trinity of presiding intelligence: Dante, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Duncan. Dante is the triumphal arch through which the classical world passes and is transformed into the modern world. Under the heading of Dante I place my passion for philosophy ranging from Aquinas to Karl Jaspers. Dante, then, is for me a community of voices. For Dante, the poet is the poet-in-relation. Dantean relationship breathes the bright air of a numinous catholic architectonic. I still seek a pliant meta-structure, replete with present complexities, that might breathe for us now, past un-serving strictures. Dante was right in that we are always “persons personal”—to borrow from Robert Creeley—and yet we also come to symbolize things for one another. We bear meanings that surpass our personal acts, and yet we could not see these meanings of mythological power without the personal gesture, the idosyncratic act, wherefrom the universal rises. We belong to the earth and to the stars.
Through the genius of Robert Duncan I am shaped by a melopoeia that gives birth to logopoeia. Duncan's intellectual largess cannot be separated from his expansive sounding out of life. For Duncan, free verse reaches into new magisterial forms of experiment. Duncan is closer to Dante than Dickinson. He is, in some post-modern way, the child of Dante's “sweet new style,” that marriage of love and intelligence that passionately pours forth, breaking the boundaries of subject and object. Duncan does not simply write about Dante, or the seventeenth century metaphysical poets, or Ezra Pound, rather he becomes the objects of his passion; he loves as he becomes what he loves. For Robert Duncan, as for Dante, the poet is always poet-in-relation, and yet Duncan teaches me this as my more immediate father. Under the heading of Robert Duncan, I would place, in a kind of crazy kaleidoscopic way, Percy Shelly, Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, H.D., George Oppen, Robin Blaser, and Michael Palmer, all of whom I have read and love. Duncan's motion is from experiment to tradition, and then forward again into the open field of experiment. He gives me “everlasting permission” to make the same motion, in my own poor man's way.
With Dickinson I find a poet of profound metaphysical introspection. Dickinson seems, in her most acute perceptions, nearly transhistorical. Where does she speak from? Who is she? I feel a particular gratitude to the Muse regarding Emily Dickinson—she might have been born anywhere, at any time, and been the master poet that she is, and yet she was given to us: we read her piercing precision in English! A divine Hermes is continually slipping in and out of Dickinson's line.
Love can do all but raise the Dead
I doubt if even that
From such a giant were withheld
Were flesh equivalent
Love equivalent to the flesh. This implies an if / then equation: if love were equivalent to the flesh then we might see death differently. Those accomplished in this unity of flesh and love, go on, past present fathoming, as persons – where resurrections be. This metaphysical equation is born out of a potent visceral dream. The dream works hard at its mirror-equation, even though it is helplessly past figuring. We are distracted, as Dickinson says later in her poem. The daylight gives us disparate details that seem to scatter, even as we look at them. The scattering seems equal to the distraction. Our attention is taken, and then, as Dickinson relates, it is too late to realize whatever it was we had a chance to realize. And yet it seems so simple—love equivalent to the flesh—so basic to our humanity. Through this equivalency we ought, it seems, to be here in a new way, or at least be moving in a new direction. It is odd that the mind, in its avowal—its plea—for unity, keeps going out and spreading itself and doesn't often seem to come back. Something more than the mind brings us back—it is personhood that returns us to our bodies.
There are perhaps only narrow windows in life where we meet our humanity, where we become, briefly, truly human. Even these windows may be less about realizing our humanity, and more about being made aware—as by a kind of shock—what full humanity might really mean. What is this meaning? It is difficult to say. It is what Dante tried to figure forth in his heaven-born neologism trasumanar. In a kind of holy paradox, paradise is that place where we are trans-humanized into our full humanity. For a brief time of reading together—of being together—we are in a state of complete relationality, a state exemplified by Karl Jaspers' concept of Existenz. When a person realizes herself as Existenz, she knows her entire being as a cipher for Transcendence. Everything is lifted, is offered up, through her person. She is the living symbol of all potential symbols. But Jaspers is always careful to pair Existenz with the word possible. We are possible Existenz, we are not yet fully human. Indeed, what is it to be fully anything? When the window closes we sense that interior density again, that opacity: a place or anti-place beyond all communication.
William Carlos Williams wrote, somewhere in his late poetry: “Good Christ, what is a poet, if there is any.” Full humanity and poetry are both understood provisionally. The poem, tight with its own self-conscious aesthetic, is no more poetry than is the man tightly involved with his own close-kept definitions. I take Williams' question very seriously: maybe there hasn't been a poet yet. Maybe we have gone through a few millenniums of trial and error. Maybe we have thought a lot without quite knowing what thinking is. Maybe full humanity is as fully a mystery as divinity. The poem begins where our humanity begins. Maybe we have, thus far, in all our great works, been given a mere inkling.