The Book of the Angel
There’s no way to prepare you, Reader. And so the short sharp shock, via these three introductory stanzas.
We will have to understand some such
word as ‘today’, a luminous Word
for the ‘until’ verse of the god-
making, brief Messianic stir
air-kissing the harmony of the data.
from “Studies for a Running Angel”
Only in the short time
when the light was annunciation-strong
would space be flattened out
to such a ravishing ivory.
from “A Blessing Christ”
What if I never crush your ladyskin
to open flight in a division of flesh,
or place the eddies of a train
hurled at the sea on your eyes?
from “A Lost Epistle to Sister Beatrice”
What on God’s green earth goes on here? I summon God to make an accounting for these poems, which hurt me more than they hurt you, Reader, because I have (had?) an abiding affection for McGuckian and her signature excess, and I was looking forward to whatever of hers Wake Forest might publish next. I haven’t loved her every word, or even half of those she’s committed to print, but there is (was?) something in the prior poems that compelled me. But on the basis of The Book of the Angel, those properties that once secured the poet an approximation of the ecstatic have metastasized into a language functionally indiscriminate: a poetry knot, a poetry clot.
(Reader, since you know by now that I am predisposed to judge a book by its cover, consider my forbearance. A book ought not be named “The Book of the Angel,” I think: we’ve suffered a glut of the celestial, these many years past, and to insert angels into your title is not to set the bar too high, but rather too low. Which makes the subsequent failure all the more damning. If McGuckian were to have said anything novel about angels, anything at all, or with any language newly minted for the occasion, she would have won the game, given the poverty of the competition in the angel-races. But alas no.)
I think the problems here—problems of a surpassing uniformity, aye, because metastasized as they are, these poems achieve a truly remarkable consistency, such that it becomes difficult to discern where one begins and another ends—derive equally from errors of poetic grammar and poetic conception. At the level of grammar, McGuckian seems to have lost track of the function of descriptive language, the adjective or adverb’s attachment to the noun, or the clause by which the BLANK of BLANKITY BLANK prepares the verb for some transfiguring violence. For instance, I don’t know what brief Messianic stir / air-kissing the harmony of the data means. And when I search for meaning here, I don’t look for something the lucidity of which allows paraphrase. I’d be perfectly happy with sensory suggestion, tactile impression, even a phrase that offered some kind of philosophical shorthand. But nothing in this clause connects to anything else, not because the connective tissue is unsound (though it’s hardly dynamic) but because the association implied by those connections requires words that push and pull each other on the basis of how their individual properties do or do not invite the words that precede and follow them. This does not require fidelity to the standard physics of “clarity”: I’m not saying that a “stir” cannot be “brief” because brevity is not a standard property of a stir, but merely pointing out that “brief” and “Messianic” should somehow elaborate my previous conceptions of those words, if there’s a reason to modify “stir” at all. And on the basis of this line, there is no reason to modify it—”brief Messianic stir” does less for me than would “stir” alone. In fact, words chosen at random would likely prove more poetically suggestive than the words McGuckian has actually elected. Wait, Reader, let me go find a few.
Okay, plucked blindly from Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: subtle and private:
subtle private stir / air-kissing the harmony of the data
Makes a bit more sense, doesn’t it?
If this kind of thing happened infrequently, it would be easy enough to forgive, but it occurs in every poem of The Book of the Angel and in almost every sentence. Each preposition and simile promises yet another convolution of description:
Then early perfume that the muse like a docile bee / takes from the tenacious flower, / the everlasting fragrance / of the bud of a seasoning creature’s / inability to become old // suspends for an instant the laws / of love, whose high quiet / has proved too high.
And this is actually one of the more intelligible passages—
But now magnify this technique by a factor of, Jesus Christ, some really big mind-smashing number. So I could proceed with micrological precision, and address in detail the difficulties of “air-kissing the harmony of the data,” but I think the examples cited here document the syntax problem well enough—the more interesting question is what purpose McGuckian imagines these arrangements serve. And since The Book of the Angel declares itself to be verse concerned with religion, with the medieval and Renaissance artistic representations of “the irreconcilable mysteries of Christ’s Passion and Incarnation,” I think of John Clare and William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins and all those poets struck spiritually dumb by the perpetual miracle of—you guessed it!—God’s green earth. This form of religious ecstasy has a magnificent pedigree, of course, and depends upon a leveling imagination I think McGuckian is trying to reproduce. A levelingecstasy, I think, is merely one that allows grace equal entrance to objects large or small, and thus finds the divine here, there, and everywhere.
The problem with this, and what perhaps accounts for McGuckian’s indiscriminate syntax, is that whipping oneself into such an ecstatic frenzy that the divine appears here there and everywhere increases the risk that here there and everywhere will lose their distinction, their specificity. And the syntactical consequence of this is not a state of self-perpetuating intensity, but rather a spinning down of sense, a cumulative reduction of divine returns. A fever pitch only feels fevered in short and crisply defined intervals; at pace, it merely becomes fever, which drains those who suffer it, and does not exalt their senses or their spirit. So
Unengaged with other psyches,
the green-filleted angel
who digs his feet and knees
into a stair-shaped cloud
crushes against the billowing shroud
that seems the discarded companion
of a climbing, lavender-draped soul
hurried out of the chapel
doesn’t function as sympathetic ekphrasis, or even music. It’s beauty made somehow diffuse and yet bullying, blustery; a wind that comes from nowhere and blows nowhere, a description that encompasses The Book of the Angel unfortunately well.
Note to those Readers who still want to believe in devotional verse; for those who seek a cure for a spirit sunk under undifferentiated elegance: Take Dan Nester’s God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II and Reader, write me in the morning.