New & Selected Poems by Norman Finkelstein
Norman Finkelstein and the Source of Poetic Utterance
What is the source of poetic utterance? This is a question which has haunted the poetics of Norman Finkelstein. It is a question that goes to the heart of the American poetic endeavor. Finkelstein, quoting Stephen Fredman writes, “The decision to write an American poetry is always crucial, always existential, never merely a case of deciding on a subject matter and a verse form. When the primary issue in writing poetry shifts from the choice of matter and meter to the decision as to whether poetry, under the present conditions is possible, then that poetry can truly be spoken of as in crisis.” (Lyrical Interference 110) While his major poem, Track represents a major milestone in Finkelstein’s journey, the arrival of his latest poems in From the Files of the Immanent Foundation presents a remarkable homecoming.
Tradition is certainly one fount of poetic expression. From his earliest critical writing on Jewish poetry in American letters, Finkelstein examines the futility of the “canon wars” of the Twentieth Century, especially Marjorie Perloff’s approach to the opposing aesthetics of Pound and Stevens, (Not One of Them in Place 5) in search of a foundational tradition underlying the vicissitudes of theory and style. Concluding with the artificial nature of creating canon, Finkelstein notes the dynamic nature of living tradition. He quotes Terry Eagleston in writing, “tradition is the practice of ceaselessly excavating, safeguarding, violating, discarding and reinscribing the past.” (The Utopian Moment 115) For Finkelstein, if tradition is a construct requiring a living response, “then the writer must be Janus-faced, and the act of writing both reevaluates past tradition and projects it forward, toward a utopian horizon at which it will never arrive.” He points to the response a writer may have upon encountering the work of a precursor. One must wrestle the ghost of the precursor and find a solution which subsumes, revivifies and grows the work.
Yet, writing as a response to tradition is insufficient to answer the existential crisis of why.
In “A Poem for Storytellers” Finkelstein writes
A handful of stories is all one has to offer
even in seeking to remake the world.
If the seventh beggar, the legless one,
could tell his tale and dance at the wedding
all would be restored.
But the message is lost in the act of transmission
and the wisdom has long since decayed.
The beautiful maiden leaves the king’s court
and goes off on her own.
So the tale begins
but it never finds its ending,
as the impulse is finally dissipated
and lost in windy silence.
This poem comes from Finkelstein’s collection Restless Messengers. It is a book haunted by Franz Kafka. As such, it maintains a steady rapport with tradition and storytelling, but like so many of Kafka’s modernist tales, “this one is careless of its end.” (“A Poem for Scholars” 61). Instead, there is the loss of drive to convey the story and catastrophe encloses around both the story and the teller
His next collection of essays, Lyrical Interferences delved further into the existential crisis of writing poetry with an examination of the “lyrical I.” The shedding or splintering of the singular consciousness in poetry has been a standard topic of discussion since the time of Rimbaud. But, the title of the collection derives from Charles Olson’s notion of the “lyrical interference of the individual ego.” (86) Finkelstein is more concerned with the inflated status given the ego by the Romantics and the subsequent devaluation by Objectivist and Projectivist writers. In identifying Jack Spicer’s distrust of the personal lyric, Finkelstein evaluates the link between the experience of personal transcendence and the Romantic intensity of expression. He states, “in Spicer’s view, Romantic lyricists in their pursuit of transcendence, the moment when the subject, through the expressive force of its utterance, achieves total, albeit unsustainable union with the Absolute, simply take too great a risk.” (86) It is too great a risk because the opposite is also true. The bankruptcy of the Romantic weltanschauung leaves the emptiness of the self in the vacancy of space. Finkelstein has taken up this theme in a prior work of poetry. Writing in the style of Wallace Stevens, whom Harold Bloom sees as in the lineage of Keats, Finkelstein observes the deflation of the American sublime in “A Poem for the Abyss.” The figure in the poem could be Stevens himself, and I do not think it is accidental that “he” is capitalized in the first stanza and subsequently becomes lower-case:
The Romantic stood among the things of nature:
the wind was the wind, the clouds were clouds;
the trees shook their branches and the Romantic was tempted
to rush back home to his books.
He endure so little, tolerate so little,
for whom the things of nature were pages turning,
themes among themes.
The Romantic believed he had come to worship,
but all he could discover was dread.
When the moon was hidden and the roaring wind
refused to be a metaphor for the human voice,
he was aware of a trembling which included his body,
but extended beyond into nothing he could perceive
and nothing that wanted a name.
How still it was behind the wind:
a handful of stars shone forth in darkness,
and at the base of the tree nothing stirred.
This is what he had hoped for;
a great clearing of the sky,
and a clearing of being, a sounding of the soul
(Restless Messengers 64)
The evacuation of the sublime, while freeing, also proved to be a stumbling block. In dealing with the strategies poets have deployed in this situation, Finkelstein finds a source of American Sublime in “immanence and the withdrawal of immanence.” (Lyrical Interference 111) These he illustrates by the dilations of Whitman and the “sumptuous destitution” of Emily Dickinson. Developing the idea further among their post-modern progeny, Finkelstein contrasts the strategies of Robert Duncan and William Bronk. He concludes, “the discourses of magic and rational skepticism eventually turn back on themselves, address the conditions of their own making, the infinite possibility (in Duncan’s case) or the impossibility (in Bronk’s) of their being. In both instances, linguistic self-consciousness becomes the engine driving the poem.” (Lyric Interference 118-119).
Although Lyrical Interference raises many questions about the ability to create authentic works of poetry in contemporary America, Finkelstein was simultaneously at work on his answer. Using the strategies of the Berkeley Renaissance, of Duncan, Spicer and Robin Blaser, in the service of the serial poem, the “grand collage” and the “book,” Finkelstein found a balance between the personal lyric and the Modernist “objective” agenda . His poetic masterpiece, Track allowed him the production of multiple lines of thought to arise spontaneously, diverge, recur, converge, and proceed independent of each other while remaining a unified intellectual and emotional nexus. Over the course of its 300 pages, Track is a technical tour-de-force in the creation of authentic language in the sense of Objectivist sincerity, and it enacts itself in an arc of self-propelled expansion via constant play and deferral of meaning, before arriving at a rested totality. It achieves this independent play of language by “recombinatory” strategies. Henry Weinfield writes, “Finkelstein’s material is generated partly by puns, rhymes, and other figures that keep combining in various ways. The figures are continually refigured, the combinations recombined, and thus the process may be said to be ‘recombinatory.’” (201)
It is important to emphasize the technical achievement, because it plays a major role in the initiation and development of Track:
A gift to himself
a box of letters
that make words
a box of word
that make numbers
to go on and on
as if among
This passage is close to the source of Track. The poem is highly structured in the ordering of the number of syllables and the number of lines and the number of sections used to construct the whole. The “permission” the poet gives himself is the permission Robert Duncan once granted to himself. While the word stands out from Duncan’s “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” the reference is to his Passages (a word not unlike track in meaning) and the production of the “collage.” For Duncan, the grand collage was a totalizing vision whose existence is manifest in the correspondences between all of the poet’s individual works. It is indivisible from the notion of inspiration in which an outside entity – a word or voice or spirit – would arrive and take form in the production of the poet. This would be known as the “poetry of dictation.” In the case of Track, collage manifests as the correspondence connecting the individual passages and sections. To be fair, Finkelstein seems to make a difference in Track between collage and serial poetry. Within the series that is Track, there are nodes of correlating poems under the title “Collage.” The Grand Collage, however, would be the total sum of the work. Finkelstein has another alternation in his notion of collage, which he receives from Duncan’s friend and colleague, Jack Spicer.
Letting in all the ghosts
the ghost of the long line
and the ghost of the cascading images
. . .
and the ghost of the king of ghosts
or queen of ghosts
with whom the numbers are dancing
Writing about the differences in Spicer’s notion of collage from that of Duncan, Finkelstein states, “Spicer’s theories of inspiration and poetic structure are designed to allow for and even invite frequent disruptions, the entrance of mediumistic voices that completely undermine any stated purpose or theme in the text.” Spicer writes in “Magic:”
I burned the bones of it
And the letters of it
And the numbers of it
That go 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
And so far
Stranger, I had bones for dinner
( Collected 132)
To the destruction of this unified set of bones or ordinals, Track seems to reply:
there were only the numbers
determined or transgressed
Determined and transgressed
here or elsewhere
Here and elsewhere
there were only numbers.
Frequently self-referential in one of its many tracks, the poem describes itself early on:
it unfolds a set of rules
unfolds as a set of rules
in love with its own fate
which it follows
This upbeat assessment is later followed by a breakdown in the governing rules and crisis of inspiration:
I wracked my brain
Those were the instructions
I kept rolling sevens
Those were the instructions
I ate up all the cattle
The fat ones and the lean ones
I dreamed I ate all the instructions
This is a moment of Spicer’s design in which the grand collage collapses on itself. But it is also a moment of authenticity. The passage continues:
And at the moment of crisis
all the combinations
all the coincidences
take on a spooky radiance
called the bright light of shipwreck
The final line derives from George Oppen’s “On Being Numerous.” (Collected 152) It is the recognition that the artist’s singular strength of vision is predicated on isolation from the crowd. From the outside, such isolation would appear to be a sickness or breakdown. In the case of Finkelstein’s poem, it is the vehicle on the track which has stalled. But it is only in such moments of nearly unbearable brokenness and vulnerability that the intrapsychic workings can be recognized as they turn. The defense against the crushing crowd of reality summons the “ghost of the collage” [(Track 15) to appear.
This moment is hard won. Track is a poem in which the form produces the language and the language produces meaning. It is not far from Roman Jakobson’s notion that poetic language necessarily privileges sequence over message. As such, poetry can even create a compelling excess of form without meaning. This is a Kafkaesque moment in which the force of implied meaning haunts us but has no content. When form breaks down or is suspended, the enigmatic excess of its claim on us remains and may even be augmented. In this way, poetry produces such undead “ghosts” par excellence. There is no “Real Presence” to use George Steiner’s term, but there is a spectral presence in the poem. Eric Santner calls this “surplus of validity over significance.” [The Psychopathology of Everyday Life 40] In Finkelstein’s case, meaning haunts the body of Track’s language, but it is the product of shifting word-play and deferment of fixed meaning. As such, meaning is restless, authoritative but indeterminate or overdetermined. It creates a situation in which the machinery of poetic language suggests significance whether it does or does not produce it:
to inhabit corners
An abandoned machinery
come to life
Which is not life
which creates confusion
Which is not life
no not life at all
The spontaneous turning on the psyche’s machinery to produce the ghost-light is not always comprehensible, but it is enough to revive the collapsed poem. Surviving the crisis of rules and inspiration, the poem re-enters its founding sensibility and re-builds itself. Picking up in a section where the passages have seven lines each, a comment is made sympathetic to Spicer’s notion of the serial poem:
Sometimes there are numbers
and sometimes there are ruptures
Sometimes the rules
break the continuities
And sometimes the continuities
break the rules
Sometimes a seventh is added much later
Although the guiding spirit may be said to be Spicer’s, the forms in Track appear more architectural or engineered in its construction. Indeed, it is closer to the work of Ronald Johnson whose Ark used poetic form to create a series of “beams,” “arches,” “spires,” and other architectural features to create a work inspired by the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia. (ARK) Peter O’Leary writes “Finkelstein brings together an architectural vision for the spiritual world (a version of what Scholem in Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism calls “throne mysticism,” specifically mystical writings modeled after Ezekiel’s prophecy that try to envision the palace of Heaven) with a maddening proclivity for commentary, adjustment, and disputation. The work [Track] is at once visionary and literarily recombinatory. (“Review”) Finkelstein uses carefully chosen forms to create basic units of combination and recombination. These units conduct the reader forward and backward along the tracks of thought, not unlike a subway in which there are alternating periods of subterranean darkness, lighted stations, and elevated tracks moving through suburbs of repeating brick and mortar buildings, green spaces, and chain franchises. As markers, Finkelstein uses the hash icon for “number” (#) to establish section boundaries, but does not give individual numbers. The eviscerated sign stands out like scaffolding on which the project is built. Such an infrastructure allows for the smooth progress of the poem.
There is also no question in these operations that form in both its crafting
2000) (O'Leary P. ,
meaningful fracture creates this light.
In Track, the lapses in
following the rules, as noted previously, are deliberately chosen, but there is
another variety of disturbance. Irregular breaks in form arise from the use of interpolated
epistles. Acting as a kind of “dead
letter” office, Track includes fake correspondences
between participants in the poem. The shift
to a seemingly more intimate form of communication derails the autonomous flow
of the poem and raise questions of voice and authorship. But as is usually the case, there is no
absolute difference. Midway through the
work, “Norman” writes “Track”
Dear T, I think I understand what Spice means in his first letter to Lorca when he writes that the letters . . . ‘are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent’ . . . When I realized I had miscounted in this movement, that I had written 3x20 lines
instead of 4x20, I experienced a moment of sheer panic. . . . Hence, this letter, which
is absolutely necessary in the same way it was deemed necessary for the Jews to
wander in the desert for forty years after almost entering the Promised Land. . . .
I have been here long enough to understand that the temporary can become permanent in all sorts of surprising ways.
The durability and utility of the form is self-evident in reading the poem. It owes this strength to the Objectivist insistence that the poem should operate as a “machine made of words.” Commenting on the need to craft a physical language that powerfully conveys rigorous intellectual and emotional content, William Carlos Williams most famously declared, “not ideas but in things.” The concrete manifestation rather than the abstraction is less vulnerable to deformation. Finkelstein is intimate with this notion of “sincerity” in language in the person of his mentor, Michael Heller. In his essay “Poetry without Credentials,” Heller describes the poet as a gifted “witness” to his own experience. (197). In doing so, however, he does not imply purely subjective anecdotal or speculative observations, so much as testimony in a court of law. The attempt is to scrutinize the details in re-creating the context and events. Powers, the third book of Track explicitly states, “let’s have it out:/I believe in technique/as the best test of a man’s sincerity.”(238) Finkelstein builds individual units of Objectivist integrity and places them into a poetic series invented by Spicer, but more meticulous, to avoid, “the big lie of the personal.” (Lyrical Interference 86) He is able to do this by diffusing the voice of the author among the comings and goings of multiple “other” voices.
There is no “lyric I” or use of the first person pronoun or possessive in constructing Track. Instead, Finkelstein has built poetic form capable of acting as a medium, such as a radio, for receiving external voices. Mark Scroggins notes, “The Talmud is an echo-chamber of voices, arguing over the millennia. Track is as well haunted by voices, fragments of other’s words that enter the poem and unsettle the surface.” (“Review”) Not the “poetry of dictation,” as in the case of Spicer, but a medium capable of receiving voices from beyond the willfulness of the ego or, more accurately, as a “haunted house” which contains a heteroglossia of internal voices. There is a heavy use of quotation and external reference, which whisper ghostly single words or phrases. In his essay, “Susan Howe: History as Séance” from On Mount Vision, Finkelstein could be writing of his own work when he writes of Howe’s, “the arrangement and construction of the poems, their defamiliarizing, disjunctive techniques, and their visual and spatial conception on the page, produce a theatrical, even ritualized style.” (115) These are the conditions under which he believes Howe can allow for the articulation of voices long since silenced. It is no less true for Finkelstein. A channel is a form of track, and Track channels many voices, the author’s own not absent but only one of many:
Speaking to the dead
for the dead
Speaking of speaking
to and for the dead
Speaking what was
whispered in secret
Speaking the whispers
of or in the clouds.
The sequence this unit begins is a beautiful contemplation of “the practice of outside” or the poetry of dictation. It fundamentally considers the origin of the voices entering the poem. In it, he concludes, “The dead remain dead . . . Dybbuks and cloud-Jews/ keeping their distance.”  For Finkelstein, then, the differing voices are not external. Turning to comments he makes in “Some Reflections on Poetic Inspiration” in Lyrical Interference Finkelstein makes a case for a psychological origin, rather than a spiritual theophany, to our uncanny experience of the “Other” or possession in poetry (What Freud would call the unheimlich). He admits, “Despite what I consider my rational inclination, I wish I could accept the daemonic notion of inspiration in its purest version: poetry is a gift (or an imposition) from the beyond; we take dictation from a voice which suddenly begins to speak; and any labor expended upon the poem is a matter of following the contours of that utterance as closely as humanly possible.” (129-130) A student of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute, Finkelstein is too deeply read in Freud and too familiar with his own experience of inspiration to accept a non-psychological explanation. But in reviewing “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” Finkelstein finds Freud’s explanation equally unacceptable in equating poetry with mere wish-fulfilment. Instead, he looks to Freud’s, “Formulations on the two Principles on Mental Functioning.” Finkelstein writes, “Poetry comes into being through a subtle dialectic of the pleasure principle and the reality principle: the poet’s work involves a simultaneous indulgence in fantasy and renunciation of fantasy; a dissatisfaction with reality that constitutes reality.” (Lyrical Interference 132) Although he allows there is more psychological complexity to it, he concludes, “When I think of what I want for my own poetry, I can think of no more apt description than that of a work suspended between illusion and reality which helps me and my readers love our fate.” ( 134) But instead of a salvific gnosis or beatific vision in the sense of Dante’s Trinity, the end of Track casts doubt on the entire project, to the extent the last “track” is crossed out and the voices are lost:
But suppose then that the house is empty
Not haunted but empty so that all is elegy
Zero or negative numbers
The author beg forgiveness of all from whom he stole
Initials, identities, imaginary figurations
Like so many love letters
I give them back
The collage form will be adopted again in a series from Finkelstein’s next book of poems, Scribe. Based loosely on architect Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, the poems reflect basic units of community planning which can be assembled and reassembled. The visual arrangement on the page reflects Charles Olson’s procedures for open field placement of words across the page in Projectivist poetry. However, the question of voice and poetic inspiration will get a more rigorous exploration next in his volume, Inside the Ghost Factory.” An aficionado of “outsider art,” Finkelstein wrote the poems in this volume with inspiration from the industrial scrap metal sculptures of Dr. Evermor. A Wisconsin roadside attraction, the works are situated together in a park, and include the largest scrap sculpture in the world, the “Foreverton.” Together, they comprise beautifully complex machines of questionable purposes and dubious results. There is a faux history as well, which claims the machines were the design of a Victorian inventor intent on launching himself into the heavens. As noted earlier, Finkelstein’s conception of the poem is that of a machine capable of producing “life/not life,” and if “not life,” the uncanny illusion of it: a ghost. In this context of outsider art attended by a fake narrative, Finkelstein allowed the outside voices to dominate the construction and results of the poems. Using a technique he appropriated from Spicer, Finkelstein allows for the appearance of a poem on the top part of the page, and on the bottom, separated by a horizontal line, another infernal voice to comment upon it. In the title poem, we are told:
Inside the ghost factory there are many
small machines. They are very important
but they do not make ghosts. The ghosts
are in cabinets, though sometimes you may
meet them in open fields. No need to greet
them – they are shy and speak only with
the greatest reluctance . . .
It is the fundamental concept of Structuralism to have the box (structure) produce the ghost (meaning). But I believe Finkelstein is creating a more psychologically engaged experience. The notion of a wooden cabinet containing a ghost may refer to the unsettling sensation of seeing a marionette or ventriloquist’s dummy in action. This is the Freudian notion of the unheimlich, described at the sensation one feels when uncertain if a living creature is dead, or conversely, if an inanimate object is alive. The effect is one of existential unease. It would appear to be that the rhetorical machinery produces only the box or container which is the poem and that the poem captures a voice. Once released, the voice can now take possession. In the poem “Interpretation,” we are told,
The spirit is in the box, and then
It is in him. They are on
risers, rising. This is called
daemonization. Then the first one says
no, it’s sounds, not words. The first
one sings, and its words, sounds
and words together. Then, it falls apart.
The second one sits and talks, or
stands and talks, but never dances
The first one always dances. This is
some time ago, some would say long
ago, but its still in the box
Here, as in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, the reader is possessed by the precursor in the same manner that interpretive commentary is possessed by the original text. The hint provided by the title poem as to the process of possession comes in the line, “or meet them in open fields.” The reference is to Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field and the analysis belongs to Peter O’Leary in his Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. According to O’Leary, Duncan had a recurring dream since childhood of an open, grassy field which he would enter, vexed by a sense of menace. The scene is immediately followed by one of subterranean catastrophe for which he somehow felt responsible. Duncan’s adoptive parents, involved in theosophy, related the dream to a memory of the destruction of Atlantis in a former life, but a more standard Freudian analysis might relate it to a repressed memory of his biological mother’s death in childbirth. Either way, the image recurs in Duncan’s poetry. O’Leary comments, “This whole ‘menace’ constitutes Duncan’s ongoing creative illness as a child, the illness from which he confabulated a poetic cure.” (Gnostic Contagion 87-88) Finkelstein, in his commentary on Duncan, relates the “illness” Duncan suffered to the shamanistic “illness” (Mount Vision 29) which tribal holy men and women traditionally suffer in childhood. It would appear, then, that the production of ghosts from the psyche occurs as part of a defense against an early existential threat. They involve the disguised re-emergence of repressed traumatic memories. “Ballad” suggests the variety of trauma:
I was a cabin boy and went to sea.
Once I heard something – overheard something
--but I don’t want to talk about it. I blame
. . .
. . .Escape and pleasure, the
pleasure of escape. The stateroom. I looked
through the keyhole, looked out the porthole
--but I don’t want to remember. I don’t
( Ghost Factory 56)
There is an obvious childhood trauma involving sex that is now being expressed and simultaneously avoided by the “lyric I” in the writing of a traditional poetic form preferred by the Romantics, the ballad. The result of this process produces the “ghost.” It is an instance of the unheimlich, an instance of life/not life occupying territory between truly being alive and being animated or undead, as noted in “Furniture:”
The past was a souvenir, he said, and
meant it. I understand. It’s not about
geneology or even archeology. You
put it in a trunk in the attic and hope that
it stays there. If not, séances, exorcism,
the usual clap-trap. That’s what the poem
gets made of but that’s not the poem. . . .
. . .
Your Honor, I take full responsibility, even
though it is obvious I am unable to stand
trial. Your Honor, I am a changeling, I
started out as a log in a cradle. You
must admit, I’ve come a long way.
It is the ghost of the poem itself that speaks at the end of becoming Pinocchio, animated with the infantile traumas locked away in the attic. But this one takes responsibility and is in transition to acceptance of greater reality and greater personhood. To become a “real boy” would require more than accepting responsibility, it would require holding oneself responsible. (Santner 105) The ghosts themselves are locked away and not allowed free reign. As in Track, it is interruption, beak down, and dysfunction that snaps the lock. What is important to the creation of the poem is the appropriate channeling of the ghostly voices. For this to occur, it would seem the best solution lies in some middle ground between séance and psychoanalysis. In “Ratio,” Finkelstein writes:
. . . This rhyme
Measures the ratio of reason to magic
every break indicates that something has
slipped through. Eventually they all sound
alike, the ones who escaped and the ones
who dazzle the audience because they have
come back from the dead.
The references in “Ratio” to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell emphasize the project of these two characters to usher in the return of English magic. Mr. Strange is willing to risk madness for the sake of magic and Mr. Norrell wants to limit magic to the rational precepts circumscribed by the Enlightenment. Both men weigh the risks and draw different conclusions. In terms of poetry, the issue is the degree to which the poet controls the voices entering the poem. Too few and the poem has intellectual comprehension without any degree of “life,” but too many and the work devolves into chaos. Striking the balance requires crafting a language to support and contain the return of the repressed traumas in the mode of the unheimlich. With luck, the machinery of the poem will allow Finkelstein’s stated goal of balancing the pleasure and reality principles in a manner that not only provides insight but helps us “love our fate.” His poem, “Forevertron” ends:
When you ask me what has changed my life,
I tell you motors, generators, compressors, transformers;
I tell you boilers, pumps, transmitters and flywheels.
When you ask me if I found them I say no,
I rescued them
The machinery of the unconscious is not so much scrap as strange parts of the living psyche.
“The Oberon Project,” is more than a poem, it is a leit motiv running explicitly in several poems from Inside the Ghost Factory and appearing in the later series, From the files of the Immanent Foundation. The title itself is a complex concept and its ramifications have much to say about Finkelstein’s views on the origin of poetic utterance. Oberon, of course, refers to the character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is king of the “faeries” also called sprites or spirits. His figure encompasses several overlapping concepts. Firstly, as a pagan god, Oberon brings the specter of the “sacred” in the sense of “magical” to the poem. The significance of this fact is pointed out by Finkelstein in the introduction to his essays in On Mount Vison: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary Poetry. In it, he writes, “ Yet the notion that the poem can still become a holy site, or a space wherein the sacred or the secular may be contested, haunts contemporary poetry, making poets and readers alike susceptible to a return of the repressed in regard to poetic subject matter.” (Mount Vision 3) Since the return of the repressed is the creation of ghosts, or spirits, Oberon’s ghostly “sacred” emergence represents their “king” most literally. Secondly, as a creation of the poet Shakespeare, Oberon brings a primary text to which Finkelstein’s work creates a commentary or alternative version. The appropriation (or “stealing”) of texts was certainly not limited to the modernist practice of poets like Pound or Eliot. More profoundly, Harold Bloom’s argument that the poet undergoes a subconscious process as powerful as Freud’s Oedipal Complex in relation to predecessors, suggests the inability to escape the rejection and ultimate identification with their influence. As a scholar, Finkelstein sees his work in terms as part of expanding commentary, and, more specifically as a Jewish scholar, he sees this work as a secular form of Midrash and Kabbala. He, thus, identifies himself with Duncan as a “derivative” poet. As previously noted, many of the voices in his work derive from the remnants of such primary texts. The third significant role the “Oberon Project” has in Finkelstein’s oeuvre is to suggest an important transition. The sacred figure, Oberon, is removed from physical being, and his authority is given over to “the project,” suggesting an institutional initiative rather than divine will. Finally, the reference recalls Theseus’ speech in Act V in which we are told “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet/are of imagination all compact” and, specifically, that the poet “gives to airy nothing/a local habitation and a name.” (A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, 5.1.7-16)
The poems which refer to “the Oberon Project” do so in past tense as a failed effort. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s original, Oberon’s scheming with the lives of lovers results in a comedy of errors. We are reminded at the end that the characters are all just the dream of the sleeping audience. Nothing of consequence has transpired except a brief relief from the daily features of reality. In Finkelstein’s poem, a voice (presumably Oberon’s) says:
The mists rise off the river and roll
up the hill, and maybe that’s why
there are voices. And if there are
voices there are figures and if there are
figures there are lovers and if there are
lovers you can read it in a book,
whenever you want. But not now,
Now you must listen to me, even though
You can’t see me. The tables are
Turning, for I am now the spirit who
Puts himself forward, I am now
The many animals and I am calling,
Calling, calling as they all
Go under the knife
There is little but a series of contingencies predicating the existence of anything “real” happening in the poem, and the narrator himself cannot be seen. Yet, there is a startling blood sacrifice at the end. It is as if the pleasures offered by Oberon are phantasmagorical and are bought at a price: a benevolence won at the cost of violence. A later poem ends in a similar burnt offering. In “Deer Walk Upon Our Mountain,” we are not invited to a natural granite feature but to the record storage facility “Iron Mountain.” The “herds” of data are driven in and out compulsively, and we are invited to drive the trucks for the company. The nature of the data/documents will become apparent in a later series of poems, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. But the nature of the trucks echoes the Objectivist notion of the poem as a vehicle:
. . . Big rigs. Drive for us, they say,
drive for the best. You get to haul
deer out of the forest, up the
mountain. You get to drive the
vehicle. Salaried are competitive. Come
on. We know you’re out of work.
We know you’re hungry. And Ron
would say to us grad students, y’all
come over, I got Bambi in the smoker.
Sharing more than the ending tropes, the poems are connected by references to Stevens. The commenting counter-voice below the first poem quotes Steven’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which the central figure creates the world in which he finds himself “and there he found himself more truly and more strange.” (Ghost Factory 34) The title of the second is taken from the end of “Sunday Morning” in which the notion of the sacred – specifically the myth of the death and resurrection of the god – is rejected. But Finkelstein seems to be turning it on its head. True, he seems to say, we have deer walking on our mountains and the other comforts of our natural world, but it is the movement of reality into and out of the tomb of resurrection (built into the heart of the cavernous mountain) which is the source of commentary and poetry. Instead of venison at the end of the poem, we are fed Walt Disney’s most artistically ambitious feature-length animation, Bambi. Together, these two poems suggest “Oberon,” as the embodiment of the pleasure principle’s defensive stance against reality results in a flight of fantasy that has little legitimacy. Animated, but not truly living, there is an “undead” quality that makes Oberon the king of ghosts. The repetitious driving back and forth feeds such fictions of human imagination as Oberon. We eat of the sacrificial meat. Starting as a primary text or experience, the raw material of life is digested, only to return to the psyche disguised as a nutritive substrate for expression. This process may entail simple study and written commentary, or, more elaborately, it may occur as Freudian defensive mechanism such as the repression of the original and re-emergence in the form of something uncannily familiar as one’s own but strangely foreign as another’s. In “Some Vorpals” the argument continues:
We were among the images. We were
the images, and yet they clung to us
like ghosts. We were ghosts then, and
then again, maybe not. Inside out,
sent back. Recalled. Defective, for some
reason known only to the manufacturer.
Kept secret. Locked away. Despite millions
of hits, we still know nothing, only the visible
is visible, only the outside. Prelude to
a prelude, prolegomena to the study
of air. Do you remember the Oberon Project?
The loves has to be rescued, they kept
passing through each other. Like that, just
like that. To restore the body, it must be
hidden, if only a little while.
The process of recurring disintegration and re-integration – a process similar to what Harold Bloom calls “kenosis” in his Anxiety of Influence – is necessary to produce the many voices of contemporary sacred poetry. Two words at the end of “Some Vorpals” calls this cyclic pattern “Spell./Dispel.” (26)
The final allusion to the failed “Oberon Project” whispers like a ghost from “Disavowal,” a poem in his new series, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. While only mentioned in passing, the project was apparently part of the Immanent Foundation’s early operations. The transfer of the sacred from the god to the institution was suggested from the very beginning by the word “project.” Finkelstein is now playing with the concept of sacred authority in a secular society. If poetry is to mediate the sacred, it must find the psychological counterpart in a non-religious society. For this, he turns to Allen Grossman’s notion of the sanctification of public institution, particular “mythological nationalism.” (Mount Vision 3) One powerful example resides in Henry VIII’s abolition of the monasteries as a prelude to the consolidation of national identity and strong English Sovereignty under Elizabeth I, complete with the transference of the Cult of Mary to the person of the Queen herself. From the ashes of the Catholic world arose Spencer’s Faerie Queene and such Gothic creations as Byron’s ghostly black friar. Closer to home, it is difficult to tell the difference between sacred and secular, personal and public in a poem such as Whitman’s elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.” The “sacred” authority, then, is the one that most validates and empowers the individual. Identification with the Church, State, or Corporation (think of a sports franchise), provides a social identity in touch with the values, resources, and privileges sanctioned the sacred authority. However, it is a self-alienating process. In his “On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life,” Eric Santner writes, “a human being becomes a ‘subject’ by metabolizing its existential dependency on institutions that are in turn sustained by acts of foundation, preservation, and augmentation. And by ‘institutional,’ I mean all sites that endow us with social recognition and intelligibility, that produce and regulate symbolic identity.” (26) A defensive formation against reality, the authority both mediates and limits participation.
Because the history and form of poetry still holds a religious aura, it de facto must wrestle with the “sacred” even in a secular society. Finkelstein’s Immanent Foundation, then, represents a complex conglomerate of internal psychic machineries and internalized authoritative forms that are not necessarily governmental, nor corporate, not charitable, nor scholastic so much as Kafkaesque in their collective ambiguity and power. As “files” from this foundation, the poetry presents itself as a series of internal private and public memos. At once, we are at the most personal source of a singular poetic genius and simultaneously we are made to recognize the patch-work nature of that source as a corporation of multiple voices uncertain of its own origins or ends. These occur in the course of speech from different characters within the broken narrative of the work, but it also occurs as the presentation of different genres that the corporate world takes on. Many of the poems have titles such as “Lecture” or “Conference Notes” which shift the mode of presentation, the diction, and the stakes of the language game at play.
What is particularly innovative in From the Files of the Immanent Foundation is the nature of the spatial arrangement. The serial poem and the collage each suggest a different graphic pattern. Track in its serial progression suggested a linear lay out. The “grand collage” suggests a flat, expansive pattern, like an iconostasis, building continuously outward. However, the poems of this series nest within each other. As such, they create a kind of Mobius in its three dimensions and its inability to be escaped. It is like a series of dreams into which one falls and from which one thinks one wakes only to find oneself waking again with the uncertainty one has awaken or just fallen deeper into the dream.
By now, it should be evident that Finkelstein has a mastery of post-modernist techniques, which he combines and uses to produce idiosyncratic works. These techniques shift in relation to the series he is producing. From the Files of the Immanent Foundation is no different. One of the most notable differences from his previous work is the inclusion and manipulation of narrative. There is a definite, if cryptic, plot line broken throughout the poems. While the poems refer to scenes and incidents in a cumulative manner, there is no temporal progression of the action. “Part 3: ‘Code Name Emma’” provides an excellent example. There are certain facts we can deduce and others we are told but the facts are neither chronological nor complete. “Emma” is a test subject and a “sensitive” whom the Foundation appears to be studying. Her name itself means “universal” and she carries her soul “in a little vessel, a shiny little jar of glazed ceramic or polished wood.” (“Lecture”) She has a “handler.” His name is Armitage and we are introduced to him in “Pick Up,” a poem dedicated as a “Homage to Lovecraft.” The Lovecraft character of Armitage is a librarian at Miskatonic University and stands out for two particular reasons: he succeeds in overcoming the evil with which he is faced and is not destroyed by the knowledge (gnosis) he achieves. Importantly, he is also a character with whom Lovecraft identified. The suggestion in the name, then, is that his is the voice which traditionally would be attributed to the “lyric I” of the poet. It is he who mediates between the Foundation and Emma. We are not certain of his loyalties. Of the Foundation itself, we are told:
The Foundation is a network of spies and secrets,
An infinite Arcanum of hierophants and fools
Residing in a mansion of closets and trapdoors,
Stairways and hallways, nested studies surrounding
A library where the scholars sleepwalk forever
And the catalogers despair.
Certainly, we are in the trappings of Lovecraft. Time is ambiguous, and as to place, there are references to “Summerland,” a Theosophical euphemism for the astral plane or land from which the dead speak. Emma’s story could be the Gothic tale of her struggle against a secretive organization or the story of an institutionalized paranoid psychotic trying to make sense of her asylum. It can also be read as the soul in search of what satisfies.
The question of the source for poetic utterance is carefully balanced against what it is not. The final section of “Disavowal” contrasts the traditional Orphic lyricism as sing-song against the harsher noise of the ghost voices:
The head gardener directing his crew. Gaily striped
tents at the entrance to the maze, a pavilion with a
dance floor. Bouquets at every table. Plans for the
Midsummer Revels include stricter security measures
at all known portal, but that has been the case
for many years now, since the Oberon Project collapsed.
What about the mad lyricist? They uploaded
the songs to a terminal in the shape of a brazen head.
Then, he was torn limb from limb. It’s all
coming back to her. She turns into the room.
Gears. Spheres. Elements. Cries from the depths.
Slowly at first, the orrery begins to move.
As with the Oberon Project, music and imagination are not enough. There is a requirement for the return of the repressed:
But in a dusty corner she finds herself staring
at a neglected cabinet of curiosities. The horns
of narwhale and rhinoceri leaning against the desk
scattered with little skulls and parchment drawings.
Crystals grown into the form of a palace enclosed
within a great glass globe. All objects transportable
across the aether. Provenance guaranteed.
Among the taxidermied forms of migratory birds,
little rosewood gods, lacquered pendants
reed flutes and zithers waiting to be restrung,
she searches for the single undreamt-of object
that she knows will finally take her to herself.
This description is nothing if not Yeats’ “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” (356) In this place from which all poetic utterance rises on ladders, Emma will place the soul she carries so that it “grows/ upward and outward at an incalculable rate/ that seems impossible to sustain.” (“Lecture”) In “Lecture” the poem itself speaks to us like Puck at the end of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It tells us first that “The soul is built upon the ruins of love,” and continues in near-hexameter:
I, whom you sent to the land of the dead; I, whom
you built out of old stories, spare parts of spirit
a bit of a tune and a few dark locks of hair;
I, the vehicle of madmen and gods, the lover
of monsters and beggars, trained to follow
instructions by disobeying all your commands –
I tell you that only in dream can even the least
of your hopes be fulfilled. It is a dream of engineers
and handy men, of smiths and dowsers, secretaries
and ministers, analysts and assassins. You implanted
that dream in me, and now I return it to you. Like
the soul, the Foundation is built upon the ruins of love.
Love of mother, love of father, love for the work of a precursor, and the existential threat of annihilation they all represent are among the ruins of love on which the Foundation is built. But the walls of the Immanent Foundation withhold us from the flow of life. Rather than creating valid infrastructure in which to live, the protective enclave is, like Oberon before it, the stuff of fantasy. Describing a psychotic break in a Judge newly appointed to the high bench, Santner suggests the episode is “the effects of coming too close the a surplus of validity over meaning, necessity over truth, that is at some level operative in all institutions that regular symbolic identity.” (The Psychotheology of Everyday Life 53) In other words, there must be a divestment from the role(s) conferred on us by societal institutions, and a greater emphasis placed on becoming a singularity in the manner Oppen meant when he wrote of the “bright light of shipwreck.” (Oppen 152) Santner suggest the need “to be singled out” (65) from one’s identifying roles into a role not provided by the institution. He finds the demand to be loved to be the only credible calling out. In From the files of the Immanent Foundation, the poem itself serves the institutional purpose and produces illusory ghost voices that both mediate and guard against reality. The poem, the rules for creating the poem and the language that follows the rules for creating the poem have the ability, as noted earlier, to create an excess of meaning. The authority of the language may signify little actual substance. The endless nesting of Emma as creator of the phantasmagorical Foundation and the Foundation’s use of Emma as a test subject repeats without progress. Ultimately, an exit is needed, whatever its risk. In “License” we are told
The Abyss awakens and smiles.
Endless depth. Endless extension.
Emma is one of innumerable nodes. . .
. . .
. . .The construct is breaking down.
Armitage is one of innumerable nodes.
. . .
. . .Finally the lovers leaving
the cathedral. Emma smiles at the lab tech
with the locks. Hands him the little jar.
Marriage as a sacred ritual of love and the marriage license that serves as a function of the state institution provide for the voluntary surrender of the soul to another. Only now can the vessel in which singular personhood is kept, like ashes in an urn, be opened and the soul take its rightful place. The full recognition of the life of the Other and the full participation in that life allow an end to the animated state of Unheimlichkeit. The condition may be transient, but it is no less authentic for that.
Finkelstein has brought us into the intimate heart of the not just the birth of poetic utterance but into the sacred ground of self-legitimacy. Emma is able to shut down the machinery of the Foundation and exit Summmerland. To seek more would be simply to create an endless cycle of more poems without greater insight. There is something irreducible. In “Interpretation,” Armitage is at a bar reflecting on Emma’s exodus, “’This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches/ down into the unknown.’” Even in the interpretation of dreams there is an irreducible given which cannot be known or resurrected. Santer writes, “ in Lacanian terms, unconscious mental activity – symptomatic agency—is, at its core, organized around signifiers rather than full-fledged meanings, beliefs, purposes, or propositional attitudes” (On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life 28) But Armitage, live a noir detective, knows his job is not really over. There is always the next client. The Foundation takes root, protects and grows wherever an excess of reality leads to the psyche’s need for it:
. . . .Somewhere, he knows, is a little girl
exposed to forces she cannot possibly contain.
He pours, swallows, grimaces. Palm trees sway.
The goat’s blood spatters on the sand. She is six
years old , and by now all the loas have ridden her.
From the “shamanic illness” of childhood, its traumas and travails, arises the compulsive “poetry cure” the Foundation grants. Armitage understands “To survive is to defend, and to defend is to channel.” (“Interpretation”) Finkelstein gives us this same understanding in his poetry.
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