Reviewed October 1, 2013 by Peter O’Leary.
One of the opening sections of Norman Finkelstein’s long poem Track runs:
So much repetition
in the beckoning depths
it cannot be encompassed
by parts of speech
so that everything connects
or nothing does.
So that everything connects or nothing does. Use this as a maxim for plying questions of the oracle of Finkelstein’s poem. In essence, both amount to the same thing: either language is the great connective tissue for thought, imagination, divine intent, and human desire. Or it’s not. Nevertheless, the poem – making connections or perpetuating mysteries – carries on. The section immediately following runs:
As if poetry were epistemology
for their own good
As if poetry were psychology
for my own good.
These two sections are a good example of the working method Finkelstein employs over the course of the three-hundred pages of Track, a poem originally published in three separate editions beginning in 1999 with Track, and followed by Columns in 2002 and Powers in 2005 (all three published by Spuyten Duyvil). Namely, Finkelstein makes regular use of repetitive phrases and structures, constructing the stanzas of the brief sections that make up the poem like hinges, with one part opening one way, another part opening another way. Here’s another characteristic stanza from early on in Columns:
Speaking to the dead
for the dead
Speaking of speaking
to or for the dead
Speaking what was
whispered in secret
Speaking the whispers
of or in the clouds.
Each of the four stanzas begins with “Speaking.” The word or functions in the second and fourth stanzas as the hinge. Speaking as a form of vocalization is paired with whispering as another form. Whispering invokes clouds, as do the dead. The section immediately following plays with these associations:
whispered the word
The pattern of the earlier section, four sets of couplets, is repeated here, as is the repetition of an opening word, “Whispered,” at least for the first two stanzas. But this yields word play – from whispered to writhing to writing. Consider, for a moment, the tone of these samples from Track: it’s unusual. The sections have a formulaic quality, to be sure, but the tone is one I would describe as wry earnestness. The quality of play Finkelstein explores with the repetitions, the double-takes, and the fairly straightforward language nevertheless grows with an appetite for mystical truth: there’s a game he appears to be playing but there’s also a Gnosis he quests after.
Came upon the combination
unlocked the words
the words that waited
the words that were numbers
The words that were numbered
The publication of this complete edition of Track by Shearsman provides an opportunity to assess the achievement of this poem. Finkelstein has been prolific since Track was first published in 1999: besides the three volumes of Track, he has published four additional collections of poetry: An Assembly in 2004, Passing Over in 2007, Scribe in 2009, and Inside the Ghost Factory in 2010. In addition, he has published two superb works of scholarship: Not One of Them in Place: Modern Poetry and Jewish American Identity (2001) and On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (2010), along with a fine collection of essays, Lyrical Interference (2004). Each of these books could yield insight into what’s happening in Track, but it’s useful first to make a basic claim about Track. Namely, for Finkelstein, Track is the book. It assembles and connects all the ideas and moves that have consumed Finkelstein’s poetic imagination for the past fifteen years at least. Or, to put it in terms the book provides: Track lays the tracks for whatever locomotion (logomotion?) operates in Finkelstein’s work more largely.
So, how to think about Finkelstein’s achievement in Track? I suggest two models: the first is to connect the poem to On Mount Vision, his critical study of the poetics of the sacred as seen in the works of Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Jack Spicer, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Armand Schwerner. Track, in a sense, permitted Finkelstein to compose this study – the poem very much participates in the lineage he describes in the book. The other model I suggest is drawn from Jewish mysticism. I’m imagining a composite, chimerical model made up, in part, of elements of what the thirteenth-century Andalusian mystic Abraham Abulafia, in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, describes as the effort “to unseal the soul, to untie the knots which bind it.” Scholem refers to this practice as “ecstatic Kabbalah.” The other part of this second composite model for Track is the Zohar, called The Book of Radiance, also a work of Andalusian mysticism, authored by prophetic inspiration channeled into Moses de Leon, a thirteenth-century rabbi, mystic, and Aramaic combobulator living in southern Spain. The Zohar is in essence a homiletical commentary in Aramaic on the Five Books of Moses, which are the first five books of the Bible. So, to recap, I take the two models for Track to be, on the one hand forms of the sacred in modern poetry; and on the other hand, the Jewish mystical interpretive techniques of ecstatic repetitions and gnostic commentary.
The subject of On Mount Vision is the American religious long poem in its more recent iterations, specifically a lineage of experimentation that emerges out of the Pound-Williams-H.D. nexus. Finkelstein begins by claiming that “the sacred remains a basic concern of poets today” and furthermore that the poets on whom he focuses his attention operate with a “highly-refined and self-conscious” sense of the tradition out of which they write, which includes an awareness of the long poems that precede their own as well as “the much older and endlessly vexed tradition of sacred poetry itself.” Into these twining traditions, Finkelstein would clearly place Track. It’s fair to say each of the poets he writes about has exerted an influence on his work, but some clearly more than others. Both Duncan and Johnson receive explicit homage in Track. Finkelstein’s poem proceeds with a form of deadpan skepticism that feels indebted to Schwerner’s great poem The Tablets. (One stanza in the poem reads, “Green beard / green Jew / the book the tablets”.) But I would place Michael Palmer’s work above all the rest, if only because the tone of Track seems so indebted to that of Palmer’s work from the early 1990s. In On Mount Vision, as Finkelstein shrewdly observes about two lines of Palmer’s poetry, “‘Or maybe this / is the sacred’ begins ‘Untitled (September ’92),’ a poem in the series called Untitled… For me, it is one of the most important moments in Palmer’s entire career. What has been simmering below the surface, partially repressed, sometimes approached but more often avoided, is finally articulated. It is uttered quietly, coolly, in the typical Palmer style…” I think it’s fair to say Finkelstein took this moment to heart. His own poem is quiet and cool, looking effortless. “Dear J,” a passage in the first volume echoing Palmer’s own use of the epistolary, begins:
The inhabitants of this country
The inhabitants of this letter
Now that you have moved to the country
You cannot be read as a journal.
Besides the poets listed above, I would add the work of Joseph Donahue to this lineage. Donahue’s long poem Terra Lucida is a gnostic complement to Track. Both poets drink from the same well.
What well? Finkelstein astutely points to Emerson’s ideas, especially those in his prophetic essay “The Poet,” to those who would slake their thirst for understanding why sacred poetry is so important. “All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is the principle event in chronology; poets are thus liberating gods.” So says Emerson. Finkelstein elaborates, “Part of the poet’s liberating power lies in his heightened awareness that ‘things admit of being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole and every part.’” This is the level at which for the poet everything connects or nothing does. The poet is a great assembler, tangler, and dissociator of symbolic correspondences. This notion plays directly into the limpid style Finkelstein devised to generate the parts of Track.
To this conviction, Finkelstein adds his devotion to Jewish mystical literature and its various models. Above, I mentioned ecstatic Kabbalah and the Zohar as two models from which we can draw insight into Finkelstein’s poem. Ecstatic Kabbalah relies on a set of creative techniques of repetition. Two worth noting are gematria and notarikon. Gematria relies on Hebrew numerology. Each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet is ascribed a numerical value. So, for instance, the opening word of Genesis, the word bereshit (beginning, in the beginning, at the beginning), has a numerical value of 299. Through the practice of gematria, bereshit is thus equivalent to any other word or combination of words with the same numerical value; for instance, the Hebrew words for gnostic, poison, the alphabet, and even gematria itself (at least according to an online gematria calculator – a resource of dubious provenance but appropriate esoteric aura). Notarikon is similar, but involves the letters of words themselves, spun around by way of ecstatic recitation to generate novel combinations and utterances. Most famously, Abraham Abulafia generated great lists of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, in a great variety of combinations and orders.
Finkelstein’s poem is too literary to succumb entirely to these ecstatic pronouncements. He’s always ready to recast ecstasy with a cryptic eye:
Instead of a letter
Instead of a poem
Instead of seven
(But sometimes, ecstatic repetition will do fine, thank you very much:
One is a book of music
One is a spire
One is an alphabet read backwards
One is a bridge into the void
One is a bridge
One is the void
One is a glyph that stands for void… )
Finkelstein mainly builds the parts of Track so that each has a hinge on which the verselets open and close; more largely, he constructs bigger hinges on which larger sections of the poem open and close. Words and themes, or anagrammatic variations of words and themes, carry from one section to the next to disappear and then reappear several pages hence. One of the great pleasures of the poem is to track these appearances, to watch them come and to watch them fade.
Speaks of a garden
enclosed in a garden
A garden enclosed
within a translation.
A garden translated
from heaven to earth
A garden translated
from Greek to Hebrew.
Note the subtle use of the period in this passage: it’s less a mark of punctuation than a stud in the hinge.
The Zohar works less explicitly as a model for Track than as a kind of implicit anticipation of the poetry Finkelstein writes. After a series of preambles and parables, the Zohar begins with the “Parashat Be-Reshit,” an intensive commentary on the first six books of Genesis, with heavy attention on that opening word, bereshit. This opening word of scripture is broken down, permutated, and scrutinized to such an extent that the mythical rabbinical author of the text discovers all of creation emanating mysteriously from it... Here is a characteristic moment from Daniel C. Matt’s recent Pritzger translation of the Zohar: “Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Isaiah 6:13).” Worth noticing in this passage are three things relevant to understanding Track: in the Zohar, words have life and force of their own; the mystical vision is structured, having an architecture; and birth is a crucial metaphor. As the Zohar develops, birth gives way to arousal more generally as the great metaphor for creativity and insight.
Finkelstein shares with poet Michael Heller an admirable propensity for commentary. Both are stalwart workers in the fields of Jewish mysticism and American experimental poetry. The title of a recent poem of Heller’s, “Commentary Is the Concept of Order for the Spiritual World,” could serve as an axiom for Finkelstein’s poetry, Track especially. (Heller took the title from a 1917 journal entry by Gershom Scholem.) In Track, Finkelstein brings together an architectural vision for the spiritual world (a version of what Scholem in Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism calls “throne mysticism,” specifically, mystical writings modeled after Ezekiel’s prophecy that try to envision the palace of Heaven) with a maddening proclivity for commentary, adjustment, and disputation. The work is at once visionary and literarily recombinatory. At its best, it’s something altogether new: a commemoration of a poem whose whispered syllables have ceded to the perpetual motion of centuries of commentary.
In a place where we
may no longer write
In a place about which
we may no longer write
Families of scribes
grown into tribes
by an absent spirit.
Sign for “folded tent”
translated as “journey”
Sign for “sea,” “tablet” and “wall”
translated as “archive”
Sign for “sky,” “tablet” and “wall”
translated as “temple”
Sign for “journey”
translated as “scribe.” (248)
(The pound sign – # – is used throughout the book to signal breaks in sections, sometimes doubled. It comes to represent the word “track,” but also something impossible to utter as well.)
Track is a major poem, written by one of the best scholar-poets in the land at the height of his powers. It’s an ambitious poem, to be sure, but it wears its ambition lightly. For a poem arising out of a lineage of long poems in which difficulty is a most valued watchword, Track stands out for its legibility and smoothness. Even at three-hundred pages, the book reads easily. For me, it resembles H.D.’s Trilogy in this regard – one of the greatest of the American long poems. Track belongs in this company.
Spuyten Duyvil published the three individual volumes – a small press capable of promoting the books without much fanfare. This new Shearsman edition of the whole poem is superior on at least two counts: it’s a handsomer edition of the work, smartly typeset and presented; and it collects the whole poem in one volume, affording the reader an opportunity to see the scales of the poem, both minute and vast, working their clockwork magic over the course of the volume. A tip of the hat to Shearsman for publishing Track: this small British press has been helping recently to keep American experimental poetry alive. We owe it a debt of gratitude.
Norman Finkelstein, On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry, University of Iowa Press, 2010.
Norman Finkelstein, Track, Shearsman, 2012.
The Zohar, Pritzger Edition, volume I, translated by Daniel C. Matt, Stanford University Press, 2004.
* * *
Peter O’Leary's most recent book of poetry is Phosphorescence of Thought, a long poem about the evolution of consciousness. In November 2013, Flood Edition will publish a new edition of Ronald Johnson's ARK, which he edited. He lives in Berwyn, Illinois. With John Tipton, he edits Verge Books.