Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Patrick Pritchett, Refrain Series
Dos Madres Press, 2020, $19.00

My review of Patrick Pritchett’s previous volume of poems, Orphic Noise, is called “The Poet Goes for Broke.” In light of his new book, however, it seems to me that I should have waited and used the title for this review. Orphic Noise, as the title indicates, is one of the more recent engagements with the figure of Orpheus, placing Pritchett in the company of such poets as Rilke, Jack Spicer, and Ronald Johnson. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, poets who contemplate the Orphic task “push their poems to the limit under the strain of Orphic anxiety. The poems break and reconstitute themselves in their lyric utterance; they unmake themselves as they are torn apart, like Orpheus himself, and yet, like the Orphic head, they keep singing on their journey to the sea.” Going for broke in this manner constitutes a crisis of poetic identity, and perhaps more importantly, a crisis of poetic function, which Pritchett navigates magnificently. What then do poets do, after the Orphic crisis has passed? With what are they left? Pritchett gives us a hint in Refrain Series: “To endure is only a matter of going for broke” (13). The desire to endure, to hang in there, to survive psychically and poetically, is very strong in his new series, dialectically juxtaposed to the equally strong desire to push poetic utterance to the edge. The resulting poems are frequently breathtaking.

A great deal has been written about serial form in recent years, both theoretically and in relation to individual poets, and the number of poets working with seriality continues to proliferate. Pritchett’s understanding of seriality is closely intertwined with the notion of the refrain. As he writes about his new book on the Dos Madres website, “Drawing on repetition and return, these poems repeat and amplify the ebb and flow of daily consciousness with its inner networks of memory, textuality, and longing. A refrain is melody recurring, always coming back into itself, repeated, yet changed, a cantus perpetuum delivering the impossible: the rescue of presence from its ongoing ruin...” Late in the book, which consists of sixty-four numbered and untitled lyrics, he gives us a poem in which he reflects on his method, but which also points to the psychic or spiritual dimension of the project:

The promises of refrain
are not so much that they repeat or
carry forward a simple mode of melody
a self-resembling that is different yet constant
and in its circular motions negates
whatever has come before.
No, not that.
The promises of refrain are not
mere recurrence, not exactly-
but neither a minute series of repetitions
signaling the micro-sway
of some deeper difference.
They are not affirmations
that hoariest of poetic moves
though without them
nothing can be affirmed.
A refrain is only ever a feint & shimmy
within the abyss of a mirror. (87)

The play of presence and absence, self and other, affirmation and negation, is thus fundamental not only to Pritchett’s method but his worldview as well. Poetic desire defines itself through the loss of its object. The poem peers into the mirror which its utterance has brought forth, and in seeing itself, it knows itself to be “only ever a feint & shimmy.” And if the refrain is “the rescue of presence from its ongoing ruin,” then both the poet and the reader are compelled to acknowledge that the book in its entirety is a ruin. As Pritchett writes in another poem, riffing, I would guess, on Walter Benjamin’s famous vision of the Angel of History, “The continuum of debris is greater / than the continuum of progress” (26). But of course, since the eighteenth century at least, poets have been inordinately fond of ruins.

The particular refrain which haunts Pritchett’s series is a familiar one, the anonymous fourteenth-century lyric “Westron Wynde.” Pritchett plays with the lines of this poem throughout his book; his manipulations provide him a verbal anchor, securing his poems and offering a sense of reassurance, while at the same time granting him permission to confess and to examine his fears, anxieties, and defeats. He is especially fond of “The small raine down can raine,” signaling sexual release and at least a momentary freedom from psychic turbulence. Tension and release are palpable in these poems, and “Westron Wynde,” which is both prayer and erotic lament, symbolizes that dynamic.

But beyond the reliance on this one refrain, Refrain Series is endlessly intertextual and allusive. Even a single reading yields numerous echoes. Pritchett drops them into his jagged, condensed lines with great cunning, and part of the fun of reading the work-because in their own dark, bitter way, these are funny poems-lies in way he springs these references on us when we least expect them. Ovid, Keats, Yeats, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Tsvetaeva, Duncan, Creeley, Hill...Quotes, misquotes, references, parodies, fleeting bits of biography-Pritchett dances nimbly at the edge of the literary abyss. Playing with Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” he tells a friend in one of the poems (written while he was teaching in Changsha, China), “text me and I will / come out to meet you / as far as Tong Cheng Plaza” (68). And as he insists at the end of another, poking fun at E. M. Forster, “ Only disconnect” (52).

But where are these poems going? Suffice it to say that Pritchett is one of a company of spiritual questors for whom the serial poem is a means to achieve metaphysical insight, toward which a heightened but also a deeply ironic poetic language can only gesture. “And suddenly it seemed to me / we were more truly of the sky” (1): the opening lines of the first poem point the way, and we are given one hint after another. “Proceed in song, they say / to the next benign and wild surmise” (9): like Keats looking into Chapman’s Homer, or rather like stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, Pritchett can only guess at what comes next. Nor is it necessarily benign: “All the poem has to give / to this world is / its own brokenness” (7). And yet he must persevere, for “Syntax is diaspora / messianic, always / on the way somewhere” (18). And as he declares in the thirty-first poem, about midway through,

Every void forms an arch
a supernal longing for a hand, a caress
an ache for the hollow of a body, the hold
that carries the tune that prays for home
To dwell is to go inside a house
and inside a book made of nothing but prayer
because prayer is foam, is a cup full
of nothing, and nothing alone
will save us in the end. (38)

Pritchett builds the house of the poem from the “supernal longing” for love, both erotic and divine, and from the emptiness and futility of prayer, acknowledging that “nothing alone / will save us in the end.” But note the verbal play here: “nothing” will save us-we cannot be saved-or “nothing” will save us-accepting our nothingness (and perhaps the Nothing that is God in some traditions) will lead to our salvation.

Readers familiar with Pritchett’s earlier work know him to be a gnostic (see his earlier collection, Gnostic Frequencies), and if gnosticism has a special significance for any number of poets these days, it is because the gnostic knows the world is broken, but also knows there are always signs that it may be mended. These signs may be discovered in poetry, “for all song is a promise and deferral / of Transfiguration, duende turning the frequencies / of a ghostly gnosis: the noise of the broke world / humming fragments of itself to itself” (37). Duende is the dark spirit of inspiration made famous by García Lorca; for any artist, he tells us, “The true fight is with the duende....The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms...and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” This is a fitting description of Pritchett’s work in Refrain Series: his vision emerges from the struggle with his duende, and in that struggle, his form changes radically. Furthermore,

Every reader must become her own gnostic
praying to alien gods long since gone.
To enter the darkness of heaven
and propagate the task of endlessness
is what the Great Work calls for. (53)

“The Great Work” is the alchemical term for the magus’s primary task, the search for the philosopher’s stone, which is to say spiritual transformation. In effect, Pritchett tells us that his readers must transform themselves.

Yet Pritchett functions as our guide, perhaps in spite of himself. Refrain Series ends with three magnificent poems, one an assertion of sheer lyric strength (apparently inspired by Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets) , the other two poignant love poems dedicated to a distant lover he is determined not to lose. Here is the opening of the first of these poems:

And I am coming into song
its shining tablets
made real by the sun.
I am coming into song again, into
its ancient of signs
the baptismal rhymes pulsing
with stellar musics. (89)

And here are the last lines of the last poem:

And I will see you shine, the unfolding
of your smile or how you tousle your hair
or the way the light catches you, just so.
Eros is a ghost who paints us in a mortal light.
But our hearts paint their own abode
claiming a different fate. One guided by
the ache and tenderness of the longing to catch hold.
Let your long white hair cascade over my upturned face. (91)

Pritchett's book is not to be missed.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 7/25/2020 at 1:30 PM