Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Daniel Tiffany, Cry Baby Mystic
Parlor Press, 2020, $14.99

The Book of Margery Kempe, which probably dates from the late 1430s, is regarded as one of the first works of literary autobiography. Kempe, who was illiterate, dictated the book to scribes; a complete text of the work, dating from the fifteenth century, was discovered in the early 1930s, and has been the subject of extensive scholarship since. Kempe was a mystic, experiencing visions which involved close relationships to Jesus and other divine figures, as well as the personal witness of biblical events. A married woman with children, she lived a complicated worldly life, so her book also provides us with crucial knowledge of medieval society and culture. Her visions, and the theology which she develops from them, placed her at odds with religious authorities and to some extent, the social order undergirded by such authorities. Indeed, Lynn Staley, who has edited the online edition of the Book, argues that “Margery” may be read as a fictional construction of the author “Kempe,” and that through “Margery,” “Kempe examines key issues of late medieval England. She sets the story of Margery's spiritual growth and her growing personal autonomy unambiguously within the context of the late medieval town. In so doing, she implicitly scrutinizes the foundations of medieval urban life. By directing our attention to the ways in which Margery's behavior frequently violates communal values, she dramatizes the disparity between social myths and social realities.”

Margery Kempe serves as the launching pad for Daniel Tiffany’s book-length poem Cry Baby Mystic. In some respects a “writing through” of Kempe’s book, it examines the way in which mystical experience, or more broadly, the psychic experience of possession, or of being “beside” the self, impacts language, the voice, and lyric utterance. Thus, it implicitly stages a confrontation between the subjective belief in spiritual transcendence, and the objective knowledge of linguistic and social materiality. The tension, the volatility, of language pulled between an inside and an outside, between an ecstatic (or disordered) mentality and the (presumed) stability of the reign of truth, is on full display throughout Cry Baby Mystic, as a wide range of discursive registers are expertly negotiated and synthesized, paradoxically resulting in “a song so simple and / pure it // just won’t / quit” (90).

Two unique features of The Book of Margery Kempe are important to the thematics of Cry Baby Mystic. The first, which accounts for Tiffany’s weird title, is Margery’s frequent, at times almost incessant weeping, taken as a sign of her condition of grace, but misunderstood by those around her who did not know she was subject to divine visions. In other words, she was seen as an annoying crybaby, and taken to be ill, drunk, or possessed. Again, inner spiritual life conflicts with external social perceptions, a fundamental condition of Kempe’s book and Tiffany’s poem. The second feature is the way in which Kempe refers to herself, in the third person, as “the creature.” This may be taken to signify Margery’s humility in response to being vouchsafed her transcendental experiences: she is nothing but a “creature” come from the hands of her Creator, and longing to be in union with Him again. But given the synthetic voice of Tiffany’s poem, as well the poem’s decidedly postmodern view of the self as a fold in language, the idea of a text inhabited by a “creature,” a made thing, an artifice of poesis, takes on a rather different meaning. “I / became my own thief, words / knew just how far I’d gone” (67): we steal our sense of self from language, but the words know what we’re up to. In Cry Baby Mystic, the words always have the upper hand—and yet, as the “creature” discovers, “The lies / themselves began / to take me at my word” (19).

An awareness of the relationship of language to artifice permeates this poem: both language as artifice and language as the maker of artifice. Tiffany is not only a poet but one of our most original and provocative poetic theorists (here is his website); among his critical books is Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (2009), a work that examines lyric poetry’s ancient involvement with the secret languages of the criminal underworld (cant), of riddles and nursery rhymes, of musical subcultures like those of punk, hip hop, and reggae. The “substance” of these discourses, like that of Cry Baby Mystic, is difficult, secretive, obscure. For Tiffany, as he observes in Infidel Poetics, “obscurity, rather than being the principal impediment to poetry’s social relevance, would provide the key to models of community derived specifically from the nature of lyric expression.” Or as he puts it in Cry Baby Mystic, “If something / goes wrong, // words come / out of nowhere, / there’s no turning back…” (37-38).

If words, however obscure—or because they can be obscure—are capable of rescuing us and bringing groups of us together, then the poet’s social relevance and the communal binding power of poetry is in a dialectical tension with the poet’s (and the mystic’s) sense of isolation, of being, as Henry Corbin would put it, alone with the Alone. Emerson: “There may be two or three or four steps, according to the genius of each, but for every seeing soul there are two absorbing facts, —I and the abyss.” Again, the driving force of Tiffany’s poem, which is certainly possessed of a compelling obscurity, comes into being, in part, from this fundamental tension. The desire to bond with others and enter into community is opposed to the feeling that one is always teetering at the edge of the abyss. Thus,

We shoo
away the songs,
they crawl back into us
staring off into space where no
one moves. (86)

Given the tensions of Cry Baby Mystic, it’s a good thing that the songs “crawl back into us.” Form is essential in this poem, because form mediates between the language of community and isolated utterance. It provides a scaffolding, but also functions to contain what would otherwise be a set of incongruous voices ricocheting across the page. Cry Baby Mystic is written almost entirely in the syllabic stanza form called the cinquain. Invented by Adelaide Crapsey in the early twentieth century, the cinquain has five lines with a syllable count of 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. Tiffany’s cinquains are highly enjambed, producing a syncopated, stop-and-start rhythm with grammatical units running freely over lines and stanzas. In a recent interview, Tiffany relates the “raggedness” of the cinquain to the way “the feelings of the poem…shift rapidly and unexpectedly.” He notes that “the syllabic stanza of the cinquain carries but also pressurizes the voice: it stretches, it eddies in place, it spills, it chokes.” This is certainly the case, but it also raises the larger issue of the status of syllabic verse tout court. As I see it, there is something fundamentally arbitrary about any kind of syllabic verse in English: it imposes a syllable-count structure without the metrical regularity of the traditional syllable-stress foot while still seeking some regularity compared to free verse. (Historically, syllabic verse comes into prominence just as free verse is establishing itself as a standard compositional mode.) The use of a syllabic stanza in Cry Baby Mystic can thus be seen as an important aspect of its self-consciously artificial, synthetic discourse, or as Tiffany himself puts it, “the fabricationof the voice in the poem.”

With these matters of form and voice in mind, let us return to Tiffany’s choice of Margery Kempe and mystical experience as the source material for this decidedly experimental poem. Early in the book, we are told that “Things we // don’t know / how to think we / see!” (8). Mysticism often arises as a response to religious crisis; when, in a given religious tradition, truth as articulated by authority is no longer commensurate with the mystic’s understanding of the world in relation to the faith, the immediacy of voice and vision come into play, offering an answer to the soul searching of the believer. The intimacy of Margery’s relation to divine figures and events, the immediacy of her perceptions, and her ecstatic (and in some respects, subversive) response to her visions are crucial to her message. Margery is haunted by Christ; Tiffany is haunted by Margery. Late in the poem, we read this:

there, she’s
hunched inside me
holding a knife—if that’s
the right word—no longer living
but not

quite dead
either. I wish
to make a last-minute
request to bracket said creature,
who moans

slumped in
the push-push chair,
eaten away by people’s
talk. (Think of the push-push, Margie
—no rules—

and give
me instruction. (88)

Inside of the poem’s “me” is the threatening, moaning “creature,” “no longer living / but not / quite dead / either.” What sort of “instruction” does this illiterate medieval mystic have to offer an intensely intellectual, highly speculative contemporary poet in the making of his radical artifice?

In the first chapter of his magisterial Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem argues that “There is no mysticism as such, only the mysticism of a particular religious system…the great mystics were faithful adherents of the great religions.” Furthermore, mysticism in a given religion arises as a relatively late stage in its history, after it is recognized that there is an “abyss” between God and humanity, an abyss across which we are summoned by the divine. Scholem tells us that “Mysticism does not deny or overlook the abyss; on the contrary, it begins by realizing its existence, but from there it proceeds to a quest for the secret that will close it in, the hidden path that will span it.” Unlike any of a number of mystically inclined contemporary poets, for whom the poem (or perhaps I should say, Poetry) functions as a scripture, a vehicle for transcendence, or a “hidden path” to gnosis, Tiffany adheres to a linguistic materialism; his is a resolutely secular poetry. Arguably, it is not the Christian mysticism of Margery Kempe per se that absorbs him; it is the psychosocial and linguistic experience of Kempe, especially as recorded in her book. But Cry Baby Mystic also reflects a keen awareness of the abyss which Scholem identifies as fundamental to mysticism. The poetry that Tiffany makes from what he calls Kempe’s “private language” (9)—which ironically proves to be a public language—is, like the language of the mystic, a kind of bridge. It is a bridge that takes us, not to the divine, but to the very human longing for the divine, which remains a significant dimension of our current history.

Cry Baby Mystic ends with these lines:

Someone runs off into the dark

asked for help. Who
knows how long she’s been gone.
A false mouth opens on the arm.
She too

looks not
to be hurt, her
ersatz-brother moaning
proof she would not be saved from what
she hears. (93)

Margery in her ecstasy is not saved from what she hears, but perhaps she is saved by what she hears. As for her “ersatz-brother moaning”—is that the poet and his poem, bringing her back after she is long gone? I would like to think it is.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 3/27/2021 at 12:00 PM