“Martin Buber tells this tale: ‘Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbi Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see those things anymore.’” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
I first read these words a little over a decade ago, toward the end of a road trip I took just before my final year of college. Ostensibly on a mission to visit the archive of Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist monk, two friends and I had taken the trip mostly because we could. Guessing, correctly, that the time when our freedoms would so distantly outpace our responsibilities was not long for the lasting, and helped by my college’s liberal attitude to undergraduate grantmaking, we dragged an egg-shaped fiberglass trailer out of our northern California hometown and didn’t return until two months were through.
Can I say we took advantage? We certainly tried. Besides Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library on 114th Street in Manhattan, we had no definite destinations, there was nowhere we had to be. Our route traced a long and lopsided figure 8 on the map that carried us to Chicago to New York to Philadelphia to DC to New Orleans to Texas to Seattle to Humboldt County. Along the way we drank in the houses of friends and slept in the driveways of strangers. We crashed weddings in borrowed clothes. We wrung the last drops of our combined liquidity from an ATM in New Orleans and decided that Merton himself would probably spit down on us from heaven if we missed the midnight show at the Maple Leaf Bar. (A sprint in the small hours of the morning got us to San Antonio, where an acquaintance offered us pot and cash to mow his lawns and the mother of a friend graciously overpaid us to organize her files.)
It hit me because at the time I counted myself the kind of person who could spot the sort of things that young Rabbi Mendel bragged about to his teacher. Not angels, exactly, but not nothing, either. It sounds strange, sure, and so it was, but at the time I was riding the crest of a religious feeling that had surged after the enervations of a Catholic boyhood. Call it my Jesus-freak phase if you want, except that Jesus as Lord and personal savior didn’t have much to do with it. Cosmic Christianity was my thing, the blend of intellectual and natural mysticism that I looked for, and found, in Merton, Dillard, Robinson, Weil, Greene, Hopkins, Eliot.
And so the pure products of northern California go crazy, maybe you’re saying to yourself by now. And maybe you’re right, though I will say that I knew even then that there was something tenuous about my spiritual situation. Dillard’s was my most direct portent, but it was hardly the only one.
Anyway, the warnings weren’t misplaced. Fourteen years later, at thirty-three, I’m hardly an old man, but already it’s been a long time since I pitched my tent with Noam Elimelekh and the crowd of unseeing. Or perhaps, to spare the rebbe the taint of my present decadence, I should say that my thirties have washed me up in the company of the bouffant Texas housewife I met on our road trip whose recollections of her “metaphysical period” (which evidently had slipped without friction into her real-estate and interior-decorating periods) set me inwardly scoffing.
I think of this thread of my history (which is painful to remember and painful to relate, and not only because it embarrasses me) every time I read Luminous Epinoia, a superb—and for me unsettling—collection of poems by my friend Peter O’Leary. Peter’s poems are explicitly religious, but that in itself is hardly enough to make them extraordinary. Indeed, the number of serious poets mining religious veins—the sisters Howe, Pam Rehm, Joseph Donahue, Anne Carson, Carl Phillips, Ange Mlinko, Christian Wiman, and Emily Warn, not to mention my host for this week—is one of the underappreciated stories of contemporary American poetry.
No, what really makes Peter’s book exceptional, what makes it attract and upset me, is the quality, not the fact, of its religious character. Luminous Epinoia is at once a vaulting display of imaginative ecstasy and an incandescent cathedral for Peter’s blend of Orthodox Christianity, Jungian psychoanalysis, and esoteric mysticism. A little basilica of the mind, if I can bend a line from Mlinko.
In an endnote Peter tells us that the title of Luminous Epinoia comes from the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, where it is used to describe “the creative or inventive consciousness sent to Adam by God in the form of Eve.” Like Jung, his analytic master, Peter keeps a special devotion for sleep and dreams. Like Augustine, his ancestor in insight, Peter believes that to go down into the soul is to go equally outward toward God:
The light lies
Deep within your vision of it and
can’t satisfy your demands. The darkness is
a Gothic noontide glare each cathedral enshadows.
A summit essence inverted, clear
as flame, expansively pitched from above.
Aglow. God is gone up.
To speak of the divine, Peter takes up the oldest analogy there is. Unlike the ancient editions, however, his light metaphysics is scientized, electromagnetic:
apex remains grasses and flowers
chlorophyll confers to life from light. Conduction of this force is a message
broadcast from the body of God, a biochemical sun
transpiercing miraculously, glided on modulating
radiowaves. Less a metaphor than a stopgap, this notion/permits us crypto-angelic conceptions of how God’s love
(“To Suffer to Pass Through”)
I've suggested my unease with Luminous Epinoia, but it's worth saying here that there's no reason a securely secular reader couldn't approach the book with same hermeneutical open-mindedness that she brings to Homer, Donne, or Yeats. She could—she should—admire Peter’s poetry for its wordplay and wit (“I’d arcanize telephone conversations if I could”) for its architectonic beauty, for its intense compression of feeling, and for the energy and ambition. At the very least she could appreciate in Luminous Epinoia the realization of a magnificent curio, the relict of an idioverse as extravagant as The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly.
Of course she might also suspect that Peter’s as crazy as James Hampton, the old janitor who saw the Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appear over Washington, D.C. on October 2, 1946. On that point, at least, I can offer assurances. Peter is many things—a poet, a father, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, perhaps a secret prophet—but insane is not one of them. He may write, in his author's note, that "vocations to poetry and religion have committed him to the pursuit of what St. Bonaventure named an itinerarium mentis in deum, or the journey of the mind of God, with particular attention devoted to the mystagogical-initiatic and the mytho-poetical." But you don't get a Ph.D. in religious studies, as Peter did, without knowing the exact quantities of flinch and squirm that kind of thing will encourage in your readership.
Besides, it's not like he hasn't anticipated our condescension. Here he is, loosely translating a passage from Paradiso 17:
with its own shame or someone else’s will forever find your poem
to be worthless, detached from current conceits.
Never mind. Manifest
your whole vision—:
let them wonder why they keep itching. If at first the taste
of your voice repels them, don’t worry. They’ll feed
on its savory notes when they’ve tasted
otherwise empty fare.
Or wind. It smites the world’s summits. That’s
what your poems are. An honor
the atmosphere circulates up into the oxygen-starved strata
God seeds with mossy light—: Fame
is for purgatorial fools. Song’s credo
minds God’s venomless
dwelling, whose scorpions kiss
rather than sting.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a few sentences after the story with which I started this post, Annie Dillard writes: “Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was?” A quarter-century later, in a short piece called “This is the Life,” she was still worrying the question: “Say you have seen something,” she wrote. “You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?”
Peter has his answer to Dillard’s question, or at least the start of one. And this, I suppose, is why his book awes and alienates me in equal measure. When he writes "Your rash is theological," or "Theopath admit it," I hear him speaking directly to me. Reading Luminous Epinoia is like hearing a song from another life. It makes me miss the world as I once knew it, makes me distrust the complacence of my disbelief.