Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., Salient
New Directions, 2020, $16.95

Let me begin this review by stating unequivocally that Elizabeth Gray’s Salient is a masterpiece, by which I simply mean that it is a work of the utmost poetic accomplishment. Deeply rooted in modernism, especially in terms of technique, it is also one of the most original books of poetry I have encountered in quite some time. Perhaps above all, it is a work of the uncanny, a concept we associate more frequently with prose fiction or film rather than poetry. To say that Salient is haunted would be an understatement. It is that, but it also terribly strange, a work of possession, of channeling, of signs, of amulets, and given over, to use Gray’s term, to “The Missing.” Yet it is also a poem of remarkable historical perspicacity. Thus, its unique power lies in the way it brings together the brutal facts of modern combat (specifically the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, July to November 1917) with Eastern ritual (specifically the chöd rites of Tibetan Buddhism, as developed by Machik Labdrön, the 12th-century female saint), to produce a book of “War Magic.” What Gray does in Salient is what the ancient Tibetans did when faced with Mongol invaders: “the practitioners in effect re-created the battlefield within the confines of a ritual space” (7).

In her lucid Preface, Gray explains both the history of the poem and its rationale. Obsessed since high school with the Battle of Passchendaele and with protective magic (she “grew up with terrible nightmares, and across from our town’s seventeenth-century burial ground” [xiv]), Gray, over the course of some fifty year, gradually brought her two obsessions together. Not only did she research these topics, she spent time in the Himalayas and met with Tibetan scholars and translators; she also walked across the terrain of Ypres, scouring the countryside with military maps and accounts of the battle. In this respect, Salient is a work of documentary poetry. But unlike most of the work associated with that term (starting with Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony and moving forward to the present), the reportage, the documentary material from the English military experience of Passchendaele, weirdly collaged, or perhaps more accurately, superimposed with the Tibetan ritual instruction, results not in testimony but in phantasmagoria. From line to line, image to image, Gray moves from the hyperreal to the surreal; the result at once is radical defamiliarization and the terrifying shock of recognition.

Gray tells us that the chöd rites involve visualization: it “required you to seek out a haunted place—a charnel ground, cemetery, or desolate place—and, once there, to visualize dismembering your own body and offering the pieces thereof, as food, to all the demons and other beings that seek to harm you. Once sated, they would vanish, and you would be safe. Forever. Here were my wrathful deities who, somehow, could be transformed into teachers and guardians” (xiv). Based on her walking the ground of the battlefield, her poems enact those rituals.

For instance, “Actual Things With Characteristics” begins, like a number of the poems, with map coordinates: “Northwest of Quebec Farm / 20 September 1917 / Trench map sheet 20 SE Poelcappelle V.25.d.2.1.” The poem itself follows:

If individuals have not psychic or magical abilities
then actual things with characteristics,
such as the four elements, hail, poison, boils, precipices,
and so on, become obstacles.

Whenever such forms arise,
remain in a state
of detachment and integrate them
into your path as illusions.

Yesterday, when actual things with characteristics arose,
a detachment tried to integrate them into its path
as illusions, but the actual things with characteristics
were stubborn and well-led. (35)

One of Gray’s most important sources throughout Salient is Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd, from which she quotes directly or paraphrases. Machik’s instructions are intended to help the individual overcome fear and hatred by embracing and offering oneself to the demonic forces that assault the psyche. These instructions assume a particularly dark irony on this particular spot of “charnel ground” on the battlefield. Gray puns on “detachment”: the state of disconnecting oneself from one’s ego which Machik encourages, but also a group of soldiers sent on a particular mission, which in this case has ended disastrously. The deceptively bland phrase “actual things with characteristics,” perceived as “obstacles” to the individual engaged in the ritual, must be understood, in Buddhist fashion, as “illusions.” But the detachment here, in the midst of the Battle of Poelcappelle (immediately preceding the First Battle of Passechaendale), encountering a German counterattack, cannot “integrate” these “things with characteristics” “into its path / as illusions,” because they were “stubborn and well-led.” In other words, the English were overcome by the enemy. Their horror of their deaths in 1917 is felt by the poet a hundred years later: it is she who must perform the chöd ritual so that these frightening ghosts can be laid to rest, becoming her teachers and guardians.

Again and again, the disparity between the hundreds of thousands of British casualties, the “waves of exhausted men advancing slowly uphill for weeks in relentless rain through waist-deep mud into artillery and machine-gun fire in order to capture a few yards of strategically insignificant ground” (xiii), and Machik’s spiritual instruction (“Cut your fetters. Give up attachments. / Find what here says inside you... // You are here to kneel / Where fear has been valid” [“What She Told Me,” 27]), produces excruciating irony. Detailed descriptions of standard-issue military items, such as gas masks, are overlaid with Buddhist images, to become amulets intended to protect the bearer against various malevolent deities or forms of harm. Wounds from projectiles and shrapnel found in a contemporary volume of military surgery are treated in a shamanic ceremony with a charmed arrow, “fletched with crow, with a slender point of polished copper, / and its shaft painted red. To its feathered end / attach five narrow lengths of silk—yellow, white, red, blue, and green— / and three sheep-bone dice” (“In the Soft Parts of the Body,” 61). Deities appear in “A Summary of Intelligence”:

Patrols reported the goddess
Paldan Lhamo in the vicinity of D.28.d.2.1
at 0245. She is sometimes called
queen of the sickles or great life mistress.
The body was dark blue, and lean, with one face,
four hands, two feet, wearing
ox-skin and a diadem
of bone ornament and ash. Spattered
with specks of fat she carried a sack
of diseases, a trident, and a pair of dice. (23)

In each instance, what we believe we know about combat in World War I, which is dreadful enough, is made even more frightening when this previously hidden spiritual dimension of the battle comes to light. What happens in these poems is uncanny (unheimlich) in Freud’s classic definition of something hidden, something that was intended to remain hidden, being revealed. Of course, this is an experience not of the combatants but of the poet, who admits that for her, the Tibetan rites have a power of fascination because they are “about severing one’s attachment to one’s individual self, and in an act of absolute compassion making, in dismemberment, what the military often refers to as ‘the ultimate sacrifice’” (xiv-xv). How can this be experienced in a seemingly familiar or heimlich place where there are “no signs / of it or what happened, / just a small car park, pub, this circle / of maples, a bakery, the line / of tidy houses down a road” (“Looking for the War,” [11])? The ritual of the poem allows Gray to give herself over to what happened to “The Missing,” and gain some sense of understanding of their invisible deaths. The questioning or loss of the self is another crucial aspect of the uncanny; as Nicholas Royle tells us in The Uncanny, his magisterial study of the phenomenon (based on Freud’s founding essay), “it is also impossible to conceive of the uncanny without a sense of ghostliness, a sense of strangeness given to dissolving all assurances about the identity of a self.” For Royle, as for Freud, the preeminent place where this dissolution takes place is the literary text.

This leads me back to the matter of poetic form in Salient. I have related the book to documentary poetry and to collage, and from some of the passages I have quoted, it will appear to readers that these are not lyric poems. But another aspect of the uncanny as it applies to literature is indeterminacy in regard to genre. What am I reading? the reader asks. Gray undermines our expectations from poem to poem. “Eliminate those portions of this evidence which are obviously song,” we are told in “Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs”; “Consider the likely places / for the objects referred to in credible reports, / and verify them. // Do not allow yourself to read in the photograph what you want to see” (29). Yet against this resistance to lyric subjectivity and the insistence on objective, documentary evidence, there are poems which self-consciously assume a lyric stance. “The Missing,” the first poem in which the 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who disappeared in the Third Battle of Ypres are invoked and felt as a palpable absence, is composed in couplets, using repetitive phrases which both enhance its haunted lyricism and calls it into question:

It was a test. She asked, Are they here or not?
Because the land is flat it is hard to see.

The men may be hidden in that empty space.
The canal was a serious obstacle.

The banks of the dykes are bordered by willows.
The lyric moment at its best.

At the edge of each moment I thought I saw movement.
It was a test. She asked, Are they here or not?

The lines kept changing but not by much.
Because the land was flat it was hard to see... (15)

The poem proceeds in this manner, repeating the phrases and bending their meaning, warping our sense of time. Note the pun on “lines”: the lines of soldiers, the lines of the poem. The land is flat; the poet looking for signs of the battle has little to see. The land was flat; at the time of the battle, visibility was a serious problem as the troops advanced. In the present, the willows give us a sense of “The lyric moment at its best,” but in the midst of the carnage, any lyricism is remote indeed.

Or is it? “Our Bodies” is also written in couplets and uses repetitive phrases, drawing on Jung’s Red Book and Sarah H. Jacoby’s Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro. But once again, the verses refer as much to the soldiers dying at Passchendaele as to any visionary experience; in the overlay of Gray’s themes, their deaths become a visionary experience for the reader, just as they are portrayed experiencing these visions as they die:

Our bodies grew younger, pliant, light,
like the ten winds or cotton wool,

changeless and radiantly luminous.
“We will be separated for just a moment.”

When I looked over my shoulder
a dense mist where there had been coral and turquoise.

Your words were lies to me but not to you,
a promise incompletely informed... (88)

These phrases, repeated and transformed over the rest of the poem, signify, perhaps, the dying soldiers’ feeling of betrayal by their commanders, but also how they relinquish their lives as illusion and enter into oblivion. Hence the ending:

Your words begin to sound younger, pliant, light,
like the ten winds moving into the present.

When I look over your shoulder I see
the ground as an alloy of fire and blindness,

that we are separated for just a moment, and a dense mist
in which we are again coral and turquoise. (88-89)

In “What She Told Me,” a short poem near the end of Salient located at the “Canadian Memorial at Crest Farm / Trench map sheet 28 NE 1 Zonnebeke D.12.a.2.9,” the speaker, perhaps Machik Labdrön, the goddess-saint, says “You have come back here because there has been no other place / than this: where now does not exist, nor then” (90). To whom does she speak? The lost soldiers? The poet? As Nathaniel Tarn (whose book Avia is an important precursor to Salient) writes in his Afterword, “The ‘she’ or ‘female’ figure in the poem, when not the poet herself, appears to be a recurring Tantric Buddhist deity. For Elizabeth can become the deity and the deity can become Elizabeth: this is the formidable value of the occulted vestment in which the work is clothed” (96). Tarn, the great anthropologist-poet, recognizes from his studies that like the shaman, the poet must clothe herself in “the occulted vestment” of poetic language in order to heal the living and redeem the dead. In poetry, “now” and “then” cease to exist, and the demons may be transformed into our protectors. This is the task of the visionary poet, the task that Elizabeth Gray has accomplished with brilliant intelligence and grace.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 9/26/2020 at 12:00 PM