Short poems are usually better off on their own, without preliminary paraphernalia. But before asking a reader to plunge into the trackless Siberia of a work in verse that runs for hundreds of pages, if not miles, it might help to offer a brief survey of the territory.
Lanthanum is a work-in-progress, and I can’t predict where it will tend – but the poem is designed numerically around the number 57 (the atomic number of the element lanthanum), and at least in terms of simple length, this volume represents about 2/3rds of the whole – two books out of a projected three. And so I believe there are a few general things which can now be said about it. First, the poem has a narrator (the poet) who discourses in his own voice, but also assumes brief masks or personae, or speaks through (or by way of) distinctly different persons : Hobo, Maximus the Confessor, Roger Williams, William Blackstone, Berryman’s “Henry”, etc. Second, these splintered personae are aspects of a general ambience, at the poem’s opening, of loss, loneliness – as of a situation in which the speaker is missing a close friend, a companion, a beloved person. This predicament is never really clarified or explained : but in a literary sense it parallels the dilemma outlined by Dante in the Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia, or, going further back, the plot of the myth of Orpheus : in which the poet has lost a beloved person, the personal embodiment of love – and he must come to terms with that, and he goes on a journey to do so.
To some extent the poem itself is that journey. There is a mutual enfoldment of “orphic” song (lyric) with plot (narrative), of medium with message. In this way poetry offers a promise of healing through its own constructive elaborations : the “muse” becomes the imaginary friend who replaces the lost real friend. Obviously there is a real danger here of withdrawal into empty solipsism (literary, psychological) : yet there is also the possibility that poetry might become a proving ground for intellectual and spiritual resources beyond mere psychic substitution. This, after all, was the “comic” theme of Dante : that the loss of the beloved’s physical presence entailed the poet’s self-examination, a moral-philosophical struggle with the real nature of love itself. Something of value might emerge from suffering; what seems lost might be restored.
Obviously to speak of one’s work in the same breath with Dante’s is the extremity of foolish impudence. There is no point of comparison between Lanthanum and the epochal Divina Commedia. The latter is a didactic poem, in which the whole elaborate and fabulous architecture of medieval thought is brought to bear, toward the end of re-orienting the individual and culture as a whole toward everlasting goodness. Ezra Pound once famously complained that modern poets (and modern humanity generally) no longer have access to Dante’s Scholastic blueprints. And we don’t – at least not directly. Much of what was dogma now reads like myth; much that was taken for history has since become fable; what was understood as science looks now like dream. One cannot read Lanthanum and find anything approaching Dante’s encyclopedic morality play. The effort here is more primitive, basic : to investigate how poetry can re-intepret experience, the substance of things, in its own terms. The title (Lanthanum) is evocative of this aim : the reference is to something elemental, that is, number 57 in the periodic table of elements. Lanthanum : a rare earth which is actually not rare at all; named by its discoverer after the Greek word for “secret, hidden, overlooked;” of which one practical application is as part of a compound used in innovative road surfaces, in order to draw particulates out of the atmosphere (“clearing the air”).
I began writing this poem in December 2008. A few months later, in spring 2009, I had an extraordinary dream, which seemed to help focus and crystallize my intentions. The dream came out of absolute nowhere : I was looking at the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis, Missouri. Now I have never seen the Gateway Arch, and prior to this dream I had never given it a moment’s thought. So the dream impressed me : it appeared to offer an implicit confirmation of some pathways I had been following in poetry for years. I have long been fascinated with structural frameworks for poetry, the technical and thematic analogues offered by mathematics and architecture. The origin of this interest lies in my affection for the poetry and life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam, along with fellow Petersburg “Acmeists” Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, constructed an approach to poetry which offered a kind of architectonics of gratitude-for-existence. Gumilev called it “chasteness” : a moral conscience, a fundamental respect for unique and living phenomena on earth – as they are, humble or grand. Poetry, music, architecture share in this fundamental harmonics, transversing time and eras in somewhat Proustian/Bergsonian fashion. And in my explorations of these poets, I found affinities, both stylistic and conceptual, with the work of Hart Crane – whose long poem The Bridge offers a similar “architectonic” worldview : a paean to reality, grounded in material/historical particulars, on the one hand, and in a kind of cosmic-orphic optimism, on the other.
So my dream of the Arch served to confirm these compositional motives and directions. But Lanthanum is not only a reiteration of Acmeist or “New American” themes. The poem emerged before the dream, and its motives are deeper and more obscure than any enthusiasms I might have for fellow poets. The “plot” as previously sketched still shapes the song : an attempt to discover and come to terms with the deepest strata of love, reality, experience : an attempt at recovery (in all senses of the term). So the Arch begins to resonate for me : to serve as a sort of magnet, a multifaceted cluster-image of something at the spiritual root of time, history, life on earth. Something substantial and enduring, under the violence and suffering on the surface of things.
These are some of the dimensions of the versified wilderness up ahead. I won’t try to characterize my personal style, which is full of games and puns and secret allusions; such things intrepid readers will have to dig out of obscurity on their own. I am grateful to all of you, my readers, intrepid or not – and I hope you find something rewarding in these woods.