Chained to redemption by the individuality of each human consciousness
SLAVES OF GLORY
The very astonishing hour has come. The very astonishing hour indeed! Green Heinekins, jade brain and rose-coral vodkas --Exhausted! In one final, fantastic evening. Hosannahs invade the empty windows, spurs of blacks, mysterious As the tender invitation of the body. Bright, alcoholic after-haloes sift Timid ash upon stale, upraised lips. Sobriety has entered us As mourners enter a white church. Enough of this pathetic quietness! This simpering, dog-like wish for 'temperament' The madness of faces full of 'sound judgement.' I forgive all disasters, all accomplishments, Every disguise that announces 'I am finished!' Choking its inhabitant as a mirror chokes beauty. Songs of sporadic intensity, wicked verses, The poem of flayed skin, blind eyesight Mutes imagining laughter, I forgive you! Pathetic quiet! Bring tympans, wild sibilants, Drunken elephants of sound, mists, the harsh clangour of brass. New eyes, new hearts, new senses! Bring a speech of bloods, the invention of Angels! Why was one ever afraid of waking? Eh! a little daydream I had in the haypile. But now the new era has arrived--this moment! Let us revenge the sky for an hour! Let us run out, muds of new births upon us, And seize in hands of ice the very flowing waters-- --Dreams of incorporeal perfection! Dawn leaves splinter in my eye Enacting the death of Satan. Vertiginousness in the closet! Very astonishing!
It is the witching hour in this poem of rebirth. This is the “very astonishing hour” when anything can happen, and does. There’s an echo here of Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht (“one final, fantastic evening”). There’s a Satanic suggestiveness in the darkness of the scene, and in the exhaustion of ribald modes of stimulation. The Bacchanalian means of inspiration and change of one’s mental state through alcohol have ended…
and yet the desire for change, for growth, for experience continues, if anything, more intensely. The soul searches for new forms of re-invention, new means of exultation; for connection with the “infinite” as Baudelaire would say.
A stanza break occurs at the moment of “giving up,” when the exhaustion of the previous celebrations and vineyard methods of ecstatic outreach are at their peak. A moment of silent nothingness… the death of all mystic oneness with that which “makes the world go round.” And then….
“Hosannahs invade the empty windows”–the windows are empty, the mystic connection is dead, the speaker is in a world where what surrounds him is the void; there is no ultimate referent to anchor his searching. “Hosannahs” is used in both the Jewish and Christian sense. In the Jewish sense as a plea to God and to the more modern, pagan Beyond to “save me now” from this state of exhausted disconnection. And in the Christian sense of praise and excitement that “the One,” the Messiah, has come–as is evidenced in the rest of the poem. “Hosannahs” sit at the fulcrum of the poem. But this second sense of “Hosannahs” hasn’t fully dawned on the speaker yet. We are to accompany the speaker on this journey to ecstasy. Right now there is a wary sense that something new has entered his consciousness, something not necessarily easily distinguished from the “blackness” of the windows looking out on nothing. There is only a dawning sense that some alchemical change is starting to occur–and this new beginning, after the death of the old forms of ecstatic insight, is “as tender as the invitation of the body.” This is a parallel to God’s being made flesh in Jesus. This is as curious and crazy a newness as when we ourselves first arrived to experience life as babies. Everything is unknown and seems unknowable.
The death of the old way to ecstasy, the “timid ash” of Bacchanalia, is taken in faith of its being about to be renewed, with a teasing reference to the “new life” of the Catholic communion; but here, instead of crackers transubstantiated into the flesh of Christ and symbolic of a “new life in Christ,” we have phoenix-like ashes, the sour mash taste that sticks to the mouth after a weekend bender. Is the speaker being ironic? The speaker at this point registers the “death” of the old way, and joins that mourning in sobriety. It is a painful experience of grief, to give up the known to embrace what may be–for all the speaker knows–nothingness itself.
Then, with the irritable brashness of a new convert, the whole parade of human life comes in for a sober reassessment. The speaker will no longer be silent about the variety and extent of falseness apparent in our communal human life– everything from status-symbols (“accomplishments”) to our private vanity (“as a mirror chokes beauty”) become obstacles to the new life, the rebirth, of the individual. Although he doesn’t know what this new life might yet entail (the empty windows), he knows that the old chemical passage to heaven is done, and that the status quo does not provide any enlightenment on its own. This is the psychological atmosphere of all destructive revolutions, and “the people” are ripe to be ripped-off by any huckster passing off a latest-edition paradigm shift. The “pathetic quiet” of the status quo is condemned not once, but twice, as if merely raising a hullabaloo will help forward the project of rebirth that is at hand. “Make a joyful noise!” goes the old psalm; but there, the reason for joy has already made itself evident through a process of revelation–either via Moses comin’ down the mountain, or by Jesus being crucified to the skies and then defeating death in his own body. Here there is no such revelation, only the ground-clearing destruction of the status quo.
As if “tympans [and] wild sibilants” aren’t enough, the speaker calls for metaphorically questionable “drunken elephants of sound.” What is being demonstrated in this poem is the very process, the very moment of revelation itself. Every truth, “every disguise that announces ‘I am finished!’,” has been abandoned or destroyed in a process as madly methodical as Hamlet’s ripping through excuses for inaction and his stabs at attempting to get to the truth of the past through various rhetorical stances and the linguistic investigations of his one-off soliloquies. Deliriously radical in approach and existential in stance, this is the antithesis of a poetry of string emotions “recollected in tranquility” as such as Wordsworth recommends. This poetry has more in common with the confessional poetry of the 1960s, perhaps the reportage of a drug trip, or the witnessing of a baptist tent revival than with traditional poetic forms and resources. Intent, intensity, and the willingness to report from the edges of self-knowledge, seemingly without any guess as to where this reporting will lead either the reader or the speaker all combine to give this piece an almost tragic tension.
The danger of such a far-out technique, of course, is the arousal of frustration in the reader. Religious conversions have a set script and goal that the entire community of believers is deeply aware of; Greek tragedy tells stories similarly well- known, although the catharsis is tragic rather than ecstatic in nature. “Slave of Glory” leaves us in doubt as to what the final outcome will be. Are we to become mystically empowered by “new eyes, new hearts, new senses”, or is this attempt to synthesize a fresh religion on the fly going to leave us as disastered as Icarus? I believe it is this very uncertainty, and this willingness to explore the edges of experience and insight anyway that this poem is hoping to make explicit through its uncertain technique. It has something in common with jazz, but the original melody itself is improvised; there is no variation on a theme here–all themes are consigned to the wood-chipper of history, failed ecstasies, old golden moments no longer valid. As ambitious as this project sounds–the founding of a new religion or new mode of consciousness–the speaker seems, once roused to the task, to take it in steady stride:
Why was one ever afraid of waking?
Eh! a little daydream I had in the hay pile.(1)
Then a series of fantastic, indeed hardly creditable actions and incitements are listed, ice hands holding water, revenging the sky, all contained under the oxymoronic rubric of embodying “dreams of incorporeal perfection.” Indeed the tension of ambition vs. realization reaches its epic height (at least, as codified in the Judeo-Christian tradition) when the speaker claims to see his new world “enacting the death of Satan.” This is the apotheosis! And to think, only a few moments ago, the speaker had just awakened with a cracking hangover! Has Time itself been put to the sword? Since, however, we are in the linguistic tangle of a poem, the reader may feel prompted to recall Wallace Stevens’ observation that “the death of Satan was a tragedy for the Imagination.” With this cautionary note sub-consciously struck, can irony be far behind? How are we to take the next, deeply ambivalent (ecstatic? spastic?), stanza:
Vertiginousness in the closet!
There’s no telling. The poet is keeping his cards guardedly close. Does your life satisfy without the blast and lambast of a new religion? Are you interested in defying the cage of bones and memories that define your personhood?
What do you think you want, and what do you really want? Is desire itself a fool’s mission? You’ll get as many definitive answers here as you will re-reading The Tempest a trillion times. What is left to say when our limitedness meets with the infinite?
1 Cf. the first recorded Old English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn,” reportedly given in a dream-vision to a stablehand asleep in the straw sometime in the early eighth century.