ascension by giovanni singleton

This book was recommended to me by Elizabeth at the phenomenal Grolier Poetry Bookshop. That’s one of the things I love most about going in when I get myself into Cambridge – Elizabeth always has half a dozen reading recommendations for me. It’s a great way to discover new work!

Anyway, I finally got this from the library, and was pretty excited about it until I opened it. The first page after all the dedications and acknowledgements (which I always read, does anyone else?) was a circle of words, beginning/ending with “pray pray pray”. Oh. I’m extremely resistant to religious poetry, perhaps because I’m an atheist, but mostly because I think it engages in the worst sorts of generic abstractions in an attempt at deep meaningfulness that usually falls far short of even cliché.

And I’m extremely resistant to anyone or anything insisting that my life is somehow less full, meaningful, complete, moral, etc. without spirituality of some kind. Many people don’t even know what atheism is, and say that atheism is a kind of religion (ha!). To them, I quote the wonderful Bill Maher: “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position. You don’t get to put your unreason up on the same shelf as my reason.” (Watch the whole thing here.) This makes me want to run a contest for atheist poetry…hmm…

Anyway, what really bothered me about this “sacred circle” at the opening was exactly along those lines. The text, if you can’t read it from the picture, is a single line repeated in decreasing size font: “read the leaves roll the dice shuffle the cards lay the runes write some poems and pray pray pray”. Suddenly the act of writing poetry, an act I’m engaged in as my primary activity these days, is made equivalent to the mumbo-jumbo of reading leaves, cards, runes, dice, or praying.

The mixture of those things, especially the “roll the dice” gave me pause. Maybe she’s being a bit sarcastic. After all, rolling dice is more often associated with board games and gambling than with spiritual practice. Perhaps she’s drawing on that allusion to infuse these things with a little skepticism? The presentation in a circle could also be seen as playing to cliché – underscoring the simplistic and uninteresting mode of spiritual poetry. Still, if that is her intent, why open the book with it, where it could so easily be misinterpreted? Well, my sense is she is being utterly sincere in analogizing poetry to prayer. The next page describes the first section of the book, “Ear of the Behearer,” as: “A daybook composed during musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane’s (Swamini Turiyasangitananda) 49-day transition through the bardo (the intermediate states between death and rebirth).”

So yeah. I was pretty much over it. It’s a testament to Elizabeth’s recommendation that I even turned that page. Let me say at this moment, I double checked to see that yes, Counterpath had in fact published the book. Usually I’m a huge fan of Counterpath, and this kind of stuff is so often published by vanity or fake presses that I was surprised they’d add something like this to their list. I was also surprised at the list in the acknowledgements, though I suppose anyone can list anyone else…

Anyways, I did read through, a little, and read about the poet a little more, and it is intended to invoke the kind of new-age spirituality that preys on people’s (legitimate) desire for community and meaning in their lives. It’s too bad. Because there are some really wonderful moments of poetry. “names forgive their meaning” is one of the best lines. Or:

a black pomfret washed
ashore. its scaled flesh
flapping against the rocks.

Has the kind of naturalist precision and intensity that Niedecker worked with (she invokes Niedecker as a poetic influence in an interview at the Poetry Foundation). And Day 39:

black girl. u a blk gurl. black girl. play on blacktop. play. girl. black. u a blk gurl. jump down. turn around. […]

This is reminiscent of Harryette Mullen in an interesting way.

Overall, this collection is the work of a poet with wide influences, who seems to be struggling among them. I imagine her swimming in rough seas, looking for something (voice after voice) to hold on to. In that way it’s highly intimate and revealing, giving rise to a kind of intense vulnerability that is almost entrancing. The experiments sometimes work, and sometimes really don’t. The presentation of the poem “exodus” reproduced as a page scan with the Arabic alphabet running down the left side does not do enough to mitigate phrases like “astral streams of / inky wings / fluttering skyward / / echoes of ancient chants / rise from the wooden cage / in my throat”. Words like “astral” and images of “ancient chants” rising are so exhausted by overuse that I’m not sure any presentation or context could save them from their insipidness.

Ultimately, I’m not the right reader for this book. I can see a lot of poetic beautiful, some really stunning lines and phrases and ideas, drowning in the new-age sea of mysticism. Others may appreciate much more this kind of work.

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