Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Peter O'Leary- Out of/Ahead of Time 

CA, you're right on to counter the Luddite tendencies of your old friend- which I have to say I'm always suspicious of, as a philosophy. I sense an "I'm more radical (therefore hipper) than you" undercurrent whenever I've encountered a self-proclaimed Primitivist. Annamay might be well served by reading Pierre Joris' Open letter to Adriane Clark in Response to Her's. (A Nomadic Poetics) Of course the internet has roots in the industrial-military-paranoia complex. So what? The world has changed. So changes tactics & counter-tactics. As Joris says, "We have catching up to do: the enemy (late global capitalism) has been thinking nomadically for a long time." Imperialism is dead, Empire is here. (see Hardt & Negri) So must our response shift to make new friends & alliances beyond the presence of our physical selves.

This being said, I'm feeling a little Annamay in my lament of what's been lost to the internet. Last night I was looking through letters from Peter O'Leary. We met only once, five years ago, though we shared an intense correspondence in the mid-nineties. I continue to benefit as a poet because of our exchange. He was always one of my sharpest eyes & best readers. A letter from Peter was an important epistolary investigation, asking questions & posing challenges to our own conceptions. The feel of the documents had an out-of-time quality- each page embossed w/ an iconic logo, & the text hammered out on O'Leary's old typewriter.

He's known by some as Ronald Johnson's literary executor, works with The Cultural Society & edits LVNG- the (amazingly) gratis Chicago annual lit journal. I think of O'Leary as a dedicator to the presentation of the poet as a religious figure.

His (then) partial manuscript, Kontakion was enclosed with one of the letters- a kind of Russian Doll subsection of The Fire Balsalm, included in a still larger Icon of the Mouth. The subject is Andrei Rublev, a 15th century Moscovian, & perhaps the greatest of the iconographers. Examination of the figure is an act beyond biography. In fact, very little is known about Rublev's life. He studied under Theophanes the Greek (an iconography icon). He's believed to have made a break with the old order of painters in terms of form & color, and was also a monk for some time. And according to O'Leary, he "invented light." The poet, through Rublev, reaches for a gnosis via poem, exploring relationships between flesh & heaven:

Axiomatic, Andrei Rublev invented light:
the wound & the eye are one. Like eyes after sleep, the wound
gently opens. Like eyesight resisting focus, the wound
is rich with salt. As the sea invokes a massive
innerness; as the deserts were once the depths of the sea;
the wound is traversed, moved through. Loathed & praised.

Vision, openness and suffering are one. Vision requires a resistance to focus, which divides, preventing the integration of the external/ internal- as well as into body/out of body. Light from above moves through the depths of earth & back. Likewise into the eyes & out through the wound as portal, a tear in the physical- making room for divine passage. The lack of compartmentalization on the part of Rublev implies gnostic sensibility- "The image of the soul & God conjoined."

O'Leary employs repetition as incantation, not unlike the subtle refrains laced into the work of John Taggart. His tweaks on the refrain bring to mind the work of Peter Cole, particularly Hymns & Qualms. Variations of "incomprehensible light", (what's imagined to be divine) is always reflected through "the mirror". Is divinity within? Is divinity without? Peter's Rublev suggests both.

It's important to note that O'Leary doesn't settle for an inspired painter as subject. He chooses an iconographer. The crucial line between iconography & idol worship (in a golden calf or gold-leaf frame) is that the painting itself must contain divinity. Without it, the faithful become idolators. It's therefore expected that the iconographer must possess a divinity to transfer to canvas- not as god, but as vessel of god. O'Leary's Rublev doesn't get knocked from a horse by the divine. He processes it through the measured breath, through the body.

The breath is vital to O'Leary's poetics in a monastic sense, but also in relation to the poet's interest in projectivism & its aftermath. Peter's spent years devoting his scholarship to the work of Robert Duncan- whose belief in ecstatic dictations places himself as a kind of poetic figure that O'Leary intends to present.

Stick close to your icon as if breathing

His eyesight
splintered, drifted honeycombs & hexagrams across the
primed church walls

Breath connected with poem, connected with the divine. In this unearthed, artful segment,O'Leary's eye glazes over to invent the light of his Kontakion- not just painter, but poet as iconographer- & as an internal processor of the divine- that kind of religious figure. It's a treat to hold the yellowed, beaten paper in my hands- a psalm from the book of Peter.

Frank Sherlock

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