Arriving in Istanbul in 2011 we were met at our hotel by Murat Nemet-Nejat. It was to be a ten-day tour of Turkey. Though we were a stone’s throw from San Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, Murat understood what was more pressing for us, my wife, my sons, and myself, to grasp as the axis mundi of this unfamiliar land, and so he took us to a whorehouse. It was a long and wondrous walk, there and back. It was as well a walk into Murat’s childhood, into the origins of his poetry, and into the scene of revelation for the doctrine of eda, that deeply reworked vernacular vision of Turkish Sufism that is inextricable from Murat’s poetics. The whorehouse was, had once been, beside a synagogue. (Both were gone now.) We needed to understand, it seemed, not so much what once went on in either place, not so much, that is, the conventional opposition of the sacred and the profane, but the exact point of their intersection. In our grand walking tour of one of the great cities of the earth, for which he was a most generous guide, Murat wanted us to see the space that was between them. On Yom Kippur when Murat was a boy, the whores would set out small cups of water on a wooden table so that observant Jews could emerging from service could break their fast. However, for all the humanity attested to by that gesture, the goal of our pilgrimage was less to contemplate where body and spirit might be one, than to witness the ruination to which both cites had succumbed, that to intuit a particularly Turkish melancholy.
Perhaps fancifully, I think of this place as the site of the revelation of eda, the first glimmers of that metaphysically minded doctrine of poetic inspiration by the light of which Murat has assembled his visionary rereading of Turkish literary history, and so secured a tradition for his own poetry with implications for what is generally called experimental poetry. An epistemology arises from the ruins of a synagogue and a whorehouse and a ghostly table between, a theory of knowing built upon the Sufi notion of annihilation, a vision of ultimate and simultaneous beginnings and ends bequeathed by fate to an Iranian Marrano Greco-Jewish Sufi Turk with tantric tendencies. (Already I despair of doing justice to the moment.) Murat, our Khidr for the day, pointed to where the wooden tables once were, where the cups of water once rested. He remembered the inexplicable generosity and rapport of the moment, he affirmed the mingling of eroticism, spirituality, ritual, and his own childhood witness. Yet this initiatory visit was more significantly about the loss within which this spiritual psycho-geography was commemorated. The plain fact that it was all gone, that world. Murat himself was energized and eloquent, but the emptiness of the place was inescapable. Murat was showing us something crucial both to Turkish culture and to his poetry, the place of grief and ecstasy and bewilderment, the state of spiritual annihilation, close to the actuality of death we grasped, when Murat mentioned a bombing had once occurred, just down the block.
In the opening pages of Io’s Song, the whorehouse arises from the ruins. All that Murat had mentioned to us time-lagged initiates, and much, much more, returns, now takes the form of a densely woven poetic tableau. The synagogue/whorehouse/ becomes (and given the book’s attention to classical myth how could it not) the omphalos of his ongoing complexly epic imaginative quest, an adventure that comprises four books of poetry, as well as the anthology Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman, 2004) which is equally a part of Murat’s prophetic books, which, taken together, comprise an ongoing long song which might be called The Structure of An Escape. The place where the tables were, in that schism between body and soul, can also be seen as the space between the religious and the secular, terms that in Murat’s work are especially generative contraries. Within the oblivion of memory the sacralized agnostic zone of poetics, of eda, is established.
“Next to our synagogue in Istanbul there was a prick house, On wooden tables at the end of Yom Kippur In the dark, in the intersection of our street and theirs, The ladies of the night and their pimps left Glasses of water for us to drink”. Io’s Song, (15).
Returning to the spot years later, the poet tells us: the synagogue was in ruins
“the rusting gate ajar, and a red rooster was strolling at home among the lunar mounds and weeds.”
Following an extraordinary, exuberant, and obscene invocation where the theme of concealment is brazenly displayed and linked to the very nature of language, this prick house hymn sings of a spiritual topography. Throughout the poems in Io’s Song Murat’s relentless dialectical ferocity embodies in its very lineation and montage of sources the tantric energies in memory of which what was once a neighborhood whorehouse might stand as a cenotaph. That red rooster seems to have strolled into the poem out of a Sufi blues lyric. More perversely and importantly, the tantric energy arises not so much from the evocation of childhood or from a surfeit of prana in the present; the opening lines of Io’s Song are explicit: tantric language hides one language inside another. The language of loss might be concealed within that of fulfillment. Such concealment is at the heart of this entire book length poem. Though set before us in a flash of lines, the entirety of what I think of as Nemet-Nejat’s Marrano poetics is consecrated to the idea that poetic language conceals from the eyes of a hostile world its secret subject. Note how the circuit of divine force, down through the chakras and back up, touched upon throughout the numerous erotically charged passages in the volume, simply makes sharper and more devastating the single death that is the poems concealed subject, the death of the poet Ben Hollander, named in the dedication which is as well an invocation, and a spell for protection, if not an out and out summoning:
“Dedicated to the Spirit of my Dear and Loving Friend Benjamin Hollander”
A touching and frank announcement, but already the theme of concealment is telling us what to look for, confident that for the most part we won’t find it. Murat dedicates the poem to the Spirit and not the memory of Hollander. The dedication prepares us for the absence of apparent personal memories, and the largely absent evocation of the embodied Hollander. The dedication is forthrightly in the spirit of Nemet-Nejat’s Marrano poetics, letting readers know the true subject of the poem is largely hidden from the view of a hostile world. Particularly significant is the seemingly personal epithet “Dear and Loving Friend.” It is almost disarmingly effusive, not to mention a touch anachronistic, as if the epithet had wandered into the poem from an earlier moment in English language literary culture. The epithet is in fact a hermeneutical imperative. Attuned readers will hear a Sufi tone to such words. Nemet-Nejat, as does his Iranian soulmate, the filmmaker Kiarostami, signals mystical subtexts sparingly and with immense precision. Both rely on concealment and misdirection in pursuit of a metaphysical vision of the world. In both, a few incisive but discrete cues transform the most quotidian and secular of details. (Thinking of the resonance of the term “Friend” in the film The House of the Friend, I cannot help but hear it here) As an internalized spirit guide, Hollander is almost nowhere in Io’s Song, but we feel his presence everywhere. (Could Hollander in death also be a manifestation of Khidr?) Murat’s book-length elegy is an extraordinary exploration of unspoken grief, but it is even more a transmutation by means of poetry of death back into life.
This most recent book presumes to follow his two earlier book length suites, Animals of Dawn, and The Spiritual Life of Replicants. Io’s Song gives a myth of origin for the totality of Murat’s poetic works (which he has referred to as The Structure of an Escape). Though published after the others, Io’s Song was written, at least some of the more visually oriented pages, before the publication of the two poetry volumes that preceded it. Here’s the myth. Note the experiential emphasis out of which the understanding about poetic form arises. Those earliest pages were read, the poet tells us, or rather not read, at a public reading at the Poetry Project in 1995. Presenting the visually composed pages within the strictures of a conventional poetry reading provoked what the poet calls a “crisis of reading.” In this crisis, we can see not just a crystallization of key concerns of the later books, but an opening into the relation between textuality and the beyond which places Nemet-Nejat in the ranks of what the historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal has called authors of the impossible, writers who are committed to the spiritual worth of anomalous experiences, and who find ways to make the reading of their writing a reprise of it. What the poet now calls in Io’s Song a “crisis of reading” may have been, at the time, merely a younger Murat working out the logic of his avant la lettre vispo composition, somehow having decided to do so in front of an audience in real time. But the incident has been transfigured. Told at the end of Io’s Song it becomes the principal definition of a ritual space within which all future readers of Murat’s poetry find themselves. The crisis is depicted as a public, and in a literary historical setting, St Marks, that one-time temple of the poetics of breath. Murat, albeit wryly, depicts his failure to “read” certain pages of what will become Io’s Song, as a matter of dismay for his audience, to the point of raising questions among them of his sanity:
I gave a reading of parts of the first section of the poem at the Poetry Project in 1995. I was still into the spirit of the experience of the poem and could enter into the gaps some of the visual created, moving, pulling, in all sorts of directions. The result was an odd series of verbal and animal sounds, totally improvised at the moment, totally open ended, totally at the mercy of the moment, by the end of which one of my poet friends told another, “Someone has to tell Murat that he has gone insane.”
There is much to be noted about Murat’s account of this experience, principally its unrepeatable, anomalous quality, and much to say about his rereading of the incident, a rereading that constitutes a ta’wil upon the moment of the reading, which now makes of his reading a foundational account for all his poetry written after the crisis, the two volumes Animals of Dawn and The Spiritual Life of Replicants, as well as the vast visionary recasting of Turkish poetry in the Eda anthology. A fuller analysis would chase after the particulars of the vision of illegibility and silence that arose for the poet in this moment and examine how this unrepeatable experience becomes deeply entwined in his poetics, becomes nothing less than a rendering of gnosis. In the moment of the text dividing into syllable and unreadable visual mark, in the bifurcation of the poet into one who can and cannot read what he has “written,” in the transformation of the audience from friends to bewildered spectators, the incident is essentially an allegory of eda. What the poet seemed compelled to stage at that reading is his encounter with the anomalous. It was as if, at that moment, Murat intuited that the work he would be involved with for the next number of years would be centered around the onset of the inexplicable, and the improvisational responses to it. The “crisis of reading” is also a crisis however humorously touched upon, of sanity. That the crisis occurred in public points not to merely the failure of one ritual, the failure to perform a poetic text. It shows that that this failure conceals another ritual, the ritual summoning of, and submission to, incomprehensibility. It is as if the unreadable page were, in fact, a simultaneous influx of divine power into the poet and his abandonment by it. In the account of the incident the poet explicitly aligns himself with Io, the victim of divine rape, transformed into a cow and tormented by the jealous wife of Jove. Given the Sufi materials Murat was no doubt already deeply involved with as a translator of 20th century Turkish poetry and as the author of the extraordinary document in the history of post-Vietnam poetics, “A Godless Sufism: Ideas on the Twentieth-Century Turkish Poetry” (Eda, p. 323), it is difficult not to see this staging of the crisis, the poet at the moment of discovering that he has written an unreadable text, as one spiritual state concealed within another. The poet was doing nothing less than dying to the profane world, revealing and concealing the circulation of the numinous through his page his eye and his heart. Just as the moment of eda can be seen as concealed within a story of a poetry reading, so is the death of Ben Hollander both revealed and concealed by the text of Io’s Song. The “crisis of reading” is inaugural moment of the body of work to come, particularly as it gives expression to two concerns of Io’s Song: myth, and death.
In Io’s Song the “crisis of reading” has evolved since that dark night of the soul at St. Marks. Though the poet laments that he has never been able to reinhabit the moment of the descent of illegibility and the consequent metamorphosis of the poet into the figure of Io from classical mythology, ravished by Jove then transformed into a heifer to keep her from an irate Hera, he has woven his memory of that unsettling experience into his poetics, and he has devised a way of writing that returns to that moment. As readers of Nemet-Nejat we reenact the now ritualized within the compositional aspect of the poetics of Nemet-Nejat our own “reading crisis.” Pages composed to upend conventions of legibility erupt within the poem. It is of some theological importance that they are not rendered utterly unreadable. (By way of comparison, consider some of Susan Howe’s pages, where lettering itself is obliterated, and the text morphs into purely visual components.) Nemet-Nejat’s “crisis” pages are exteriorized versions of Sufi states. Given the dedication of the book to Hollander, the “crisis of reading” is intertwined with the death of Murat’s friend. Though that loss is only lightly touched upon throughout this book length poem, and though the departed friend disappears for long stretches of the poetry, we should not read the book like outsiders in a Marrano world. The poem performs its grieving in secret. Named in the poem’s dedication, Hollander appears by name or by incontestable association only a few times. All else in the volume, however, whirls around him. He is occluded subject of the poem. The whorehouse, the synagogue, their mutual ruination, comprise the concealed grave of the dear and loving friend.
In a gesture of unnerving candor Hollander’s dying is quickly integrated into the mythic geography of the book. It comes as a shock. We meet him in a ghostly footnote, not yet dead, but in that textual space Spicer has taught us to read as an Orphic underworld. Further, we only meet him regarding his failing grasp of the world. His dying proceeds without any other overt mention. His dying and death are enmeshed in the poem’s worldmaking, even though, as will be soon discussed, Hollander brings to the poem, in his dying, the failure of his ability to perceive an essential property of the given world, its depth. In Io’s Song the poet had made a place for his failing friend to secretly abide. The poem must be a world for someone who can no longer fathom spatiality. And as the world is Marrano, the dying friend must be protected from the culture he dies within but to which he is alien. The material from classical myth, which provides allegorical cover for the experience of eda, works also as a flurry of misdirection to hide the dying friend. After all, what does Greek myth –or Hindu tantra – or Turkish poetic tradition, have to do with a dying Jew from New Jersey? Note how partial and precise is Murat’s summoning of the Greek world (a summoning not without ambivalence, one imagines, for a Turkish poet.) The figure of the Jew gone into death is concealed within a tale of an amorous escapade in an alien mythology, one that depicts a terrifying and painful intersection of the human and with the divine. That is, Murat has found perhaps the most Sufi-friendly moment in the annals of Olympian behavior, one that is almost a parody of the abjection of the beloved before the Divine in Sufi literature that it nonetheless hides and maintains, until the apocalyptic moment when all Jews return from their exiles.
The rape of Io by Jove for all its obvious sexual violence foregrounds as well the terror of the numinous. In depicting the abrupt and overwhelming encounter of two orders of being who each pass into and out of gendered human bodies Greek mythology provides the poet with an allegory of Sufi religious experience, which itself may also be seen as a parodic concealment of one version of terror and submission to the divine inside another, in that like much religious mysticism in the Abrahamic tradition, the tropes and images of erotic poetry are understood as figurations of the spiritual. We are, in Io’s Song, not so much in the world of Greco-Roman lore as in the world of eda, an idiosyncratic, secularized, atheistic reframing of religious ecstasy and abjection within the strictures of western secularity within which Ben Hollander is transformed into the figure of the friend, the ghostly guide to what happens at death. Murat further complicates his ever-unfolding theorizing of the spiritual by making myth itself the conduit of divine force. Whether or not we are an attractive Greek maiden who has caught the philandering eye of a cosmic lothario, myth inexplicably descends. Myth is the manifestation of the divine in the cosmos of eda. We are not able to “read” it. The unreadable has its way with us. Here, Murat revises and amplified the implications of his origin fable of the reading at Saint Marks, that moment back in 1995 where, within the confines of an Episcopal church, an Iranian Turkish Jew and self-proclaimed Sufi casts himself beyond the religions of the book by writing poems that cannot be read. Myth it need hardly be said is one of the great creations of twentieth century scholarship and hermeneutical thought. It is at times a form of narrative from the ancient world, and often the content of premodern literature. In Nemet-Nejat it appears valorized and imbued with aspects of religious experience, freighted with the task of concealing primordial wisdom. Needless to say the uses of myth are notably vast in the twentieth century. Here I merely want to draw attention to Nemet-Nejat’s own use of the term, and note the role it plays, the way it is made the agent of a spiritual drama. Myth is the God lurking in a Godless Sufism. We do not tell the story of a myth, to do so would violate the very nature of a myth. The poet underscores the etymology of discover, in order to bring some precision to the rendering of revelation. “Dis” while also may be a pun on the classical underworld, is more pertinently understood to emphasize the prying apart, the sought severing, the finding out of what has been covered over. Again, the matter of concealment. We don’t merely find something that is just there, we pry apart what appears, to find what is concealed. On some level, the terror implicit in the identity of Marrano is touched upon. One myth must conceal another for God’s chosen to persist. But in Nemet-Nejat’s version, his myth of myth, myth would seem to end the possibilities of a Marrano life in the diaspora. Though myth would seem to reside within us, just one of a number of narrative forms, it acts of its own accord with an apocalyptic emphasis that would make Artaud feel at home. Morover, Nemet-Nejat has deleted the widely various content associated with myth. Within the ever-evolving belief system of eda, all myths are one myth, and that myth aspires to the condition of a Sufi illuminative rapture:
“Myth is not a narrative applied, but dis-covered. The narrative that emanates against our will revealing ITSELF, A VIOLENT LIGHT that descends and leaves. Every myth is an arrival and escape, departure which in truth is death.” (126)
In thinking about Murat’s work, I keep returning to an anecdote he shares in Io’s Song which addresses a fundamental tension in how he thinks about and writes poetry. The following poem could be considered the primal scene of his Marrano poetics. Marranos, as Jews living in the diaspora and concealing their Jewish identity from a hostile and alien religious culture, outwardly adopt the religious culture of the world of their diaspora while secretly keeping faith with Judaism. While Marranos are typically associated with the Jews of Spain in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition, the phenomenon occurs elsewhere as well, as Nemet-Nejat recounts in a poem whose title raises all sorts of questions, “Reintegration:”
“When my dad moved and later brought his family from Iran to Istanbul, he adopted a new signature in Latin characters. From an unlit corridor entering his study in our Istanbul apartment as a kid, I saw on his desk pages on which he’d scribbled, practicing a florid version of his public name “Seifollah” (the sword of Allah) over and over again.
My parents were Marrano Jews, in Iran, pretending to be Moslems, while practicing Judaism in secret. He’s a warrior Moslem name and a meek Jewish name, the stuttering Moses’s brother Aaron’s, able to speak clearly and glibly, the Torah’s first politician and bureaucrat, the starter of the line of Cohens, the Jew St. Peter. “ (104)
Moslems to the outer world, piously Jewish at home, or among fellow congregants at the synagogue, Nemet-Nejat grew up versed in concealment, ritual practice, and no doubt with a fiendishly keen appreciation of irony. (Is there any wonder that in years to come the poet would be attracted to gnostic thought?) Of immense interest here, given a poet obsessed with textuality, is the role that the act of writing plays. The scene revealed to the half-hidden boy is not about sex, but penmanship. The father has two names, a Moslem name and a Hebrew name. The child Murat watching his father practicing his signature intuits a first lesson in what would become his poetics, regarding the relation of identity and the social world. That the father is working on Latin script places him in the very position of Turkish poetry after the linguistic reforms of Ataturk in 1928. In a way, the entire anthology Eda derives from this moment. All Turkish poets must learn the new script for the great leap forward into modern nationhood. The father is inadvertently instructing his son in the literary life. A secret Jew writes out a name that is antithetical to the name he has as a Jew. So, writing both conceals and reveals, depending on who the audience is. Morover there are deep antitheses brought into the open by it. And there is an anxiety here as well, the father’s penmanship must “pass,” just as he himself must pass for Moslem, but then, one wonders, if all Turks had to suddenly adopt a Latin script, whose signature wouldn’t look a bit wobbly? In this small moment one sees immense social forces at work regarding the nation state of Turkey, but also the entire project of modernity.
The moment of signature speaks to all of Murat’s poetry, to the poet’s continuous scrutiny of the act of writing, of what writing reveals and what it conceals. His suspicion that marks on a page can turn against one is implicit in the “crisis of reading” and both the visual components of his poetry, as well as his handling of words, is touched by the power of words to both reveal and conceal, to perform a Marrano function. Consider how, in regard to signing one’s name, signature brings to bear in the signer the pressure of being seen, that sense, evident in the “crisis of reading,” that one is being observed with suspicion. (“Someone has to tell Murat that he has gone insane.”) To not be able to sign one’s name effortlessly in the language of the alien host culture could hint at duplicity. To not be able to write one’s name properly in Hebrew would be to succumb to the alien world, to begin to be irrecoverably lost. (Clearly Nemet-Nejat’s interest in the replicant’s of Blade Runner reflects these Marrano concerns.) What the poet sees in seeing his father practice his signature is both the exoteric and the esoteric identities of the Nemet-Nejat family in Turkey. The young Murat sees the act of writing as situated at the threshold of multiple worlds. Indeed, what kind of poetry are we to expect when penmanship is a matter of sheer survival in a hostile place? Certainly, in the old life Murat left behind when he went west, a “crisis of reading” has cultural if not political consequences, especially if one’s exoteric, Moslem name can’t be read. There appears to be in Murat’s St Marks aporia of legibility, his “crisis of reading,” a more deeply rooted generational anxiety. What he in that instant demonstrated to the audience that would seem to “know” him is the collapse of his Marrano dualism. Were the audience to be understood as outsiders, he could not perform the codes of poetry that assured them he was one of them. Were the audience to be understood as fellow insiders, as Jews gathered together secretly in diaspora, then he could not perform the written text in a way that he was one of them either. The text itself as it was performed allowed Murat to be neither mainstream nor avant guard, if we might be allowed to fancifully transfer religious identities to the secular realm of the literary. (One is also tempted to see the crisis another way: the unreadable visual text renders in and of itself the truer identity, the secret Jewishness, which the poet finds himself exiled from, unable to “read”, caught up in the idolatry of the visual plane.)
A further complication of Nemet-Nejat’s Marrano poetics arises when we consider the concept of eda, that mystical doctrine of the origin and nature and end of words which, though rooted in the particularities of the Turkish language, informs his English. The Marrano contribution to how a poem is to be made, the sense of one identity concealed in the other, the doubleness of names, the fear of being found out, the seeming eternity of diaspora, these are part of what leads the poet to a gnostic cosmos. Our real selves are hidden within us. We are enduring confinement in an alien world, kept from knowing our true origin, not unlike replicants. Into the Marrano division of the world into two tongues, erupts the experience of eda, an experience in which poetry puts one at the mercy of words. Neither Muslim nor traditional Sufi, or Jew, or tantric adept, or reviver of the pagan gods, with eda Nemet-Nejat has fashioned his own religiosity, arising as does Sufism around the state of ecstatic annihilation of the self, within the realm of the secular but pointing beyond it. This is the esoteric core around which all other iterations of selfhood are woven. The identities that attract the poet, towards which he is drawn, what Olson might call his “stance toward reality,” share the necessity of concealment, the mastery of various modes of signification, the skills to live in an alien land, but also an insatiable craving for transcendence, for an ecstasy that abolishes all but itself.
How does such a poet, ever abiding at such linguistic, cultural, and spiritual thresholds, grieve aloud for a dead friend? Within the social world, structured as it is by Marrano practices, how, surrounded by infidels, does one Jew lament another? This is the essential challenge that Io’s Song answers, where all is concealed within an exoteric framework of Greek mythology. Such a poem must admit to the loss, yes, mourn the beloved friend, but also, in keeping with a more pressing imperative, conceal the one who has died, protect the one who can no longer conceal himself from the hostile surveillance of an anti-Semitic world. The social, Marrano world of Io’s Song is complicated by a religious cosmos neither Muslim nor Jewish. It is a world governed by inexplicable intrusions of the numinous. Moreover, beyond hiding and protecting the dying friend, such a poem must also familiarize his soul with “the structure of the escape” that has been revealed to the poet through the revelation of eda. And so, in a book length poem dedicated to him, Ben Hollander appears in a clearly recognizable way a scant few times after the dedication. We know from the account of the “crisis of reading” that some part of Io’s Song was written long before Hollander fell ill, but in the work as it stands, his death touches every page. Hollander’s dying is inextricable from much that the poem imagines, as it is presented effecting the very principals of proprioception that make the world intelligible: our sense of physical space, and our ability to move through it.
When Benjamin Hollander first appears in his own elegy, he’s not yet dead. (In eternity he is no doubt amused to find that his friend Murat has cloaked his dying in Greek mythology.) Like Elpenor in Pound’s Cantos, Hollander greets us with news of his mortal wound. When we first hear of him, Hollander seems both dead and not dead. (The following is the second section of a thirteen-part title suite.) The volume’s dedication affirms he has died, but, here, the poet presents him in his last weeks. Discretely audacious, Nemet-Nejat sends us to book nine of The Odyssey, where the concealment and revelation of identity are the crux of the narrative, not to mention the impaired ability to see. Here is the section:
Freedom from perspective falling through receding walls of flat planes.”
And then, beneath a line at the bottom of the page, this rather shocking juxtaposition:
“Noises proceeding from the heart of volcanoes were attributed to Cyclopses also. Due to his brain tumor, Benjamin Hollander lost all sense of depth during the last weeks of his life.”
Amid the dense weave of materials evoked in the extraordinary opening pages of Io’s Song, there is a sad and simple fact about Ben Hollander’s cancer. His fatal affliction had an oddly aesthetic symptom, the loss of all sense of depth. It’s a peculiar fact with which to introduce the dedicatee of the book, a seemingly offhand notation, almost in questionable taste in that it depicts the beloved friend so brutally in decline. But as we consider the Marrano poetics shaping Io’s Song, we understand that this is not the introduction of the subject, but a partial revelation of the already present subject. An aspect of Hollander’s dying is taken by the poet into the concerns of the poem. The detail of Hollander’s failing weeks should be understood in relation to the poet, a poet who is also, it happens, a photography critic, that is, an expert in the evaluation of the visual, in the technology of depth. We are clearly being directed by the text to pay attention to the full range of creation and loss of “depth” as it will be dramatized in a variety of ways throughout Io’s Song. With this sad attribute of the looming death, the frame of the Homeric narrative makes an eerie sense. Hollander is not yet in the underground proper, where Odysseus famously encounters Elpenor, and the modernist epic starts. He is in the cave of the Cyclops, the primal scene of wounded visual perception. The cover of Io’s Song, a picture of the moon of Jupiter, Io, has already set depth before us for our contemplation, the depths of outer space, as the title summons the figure of the archetypal sky god and the victim of his celestial hankerings. With the realm of the Cyclops, we move to a corner of the Greek world that is antithetical to the realm of the sky god Jupiter. The entire first section of Io’s Song is subtitled a “biographical Essay” and so directs us not to the poet’s own life, but to Hollander’s, of which we will learn, in keeping with the sacredness of secrecy, almost nothing. The Cyclops, as chthonic as Jupiter is aerial, is wounded and despairing. The Cyclops is the precise inversion of Jupiter’s unhindered plundering of bodies, and his triumphalism. The single line on this page of this section (“Freedom from perspective falling through receding walls of flat planes.”) calls up Cyclops, the blinding of his single eye, the cruel destruction of his own already compromised sense of depth. The singe line of the poem is either a speculation about the uni-ocular limits of the still seeing Cyclops, or about the advent of his traumatic blindness. Yet no moment in the myth quite accords with the seemingly celebrated “freedom from perspective.” The nature of this freedom is multiply suspect. In what universe is freedom from perspective possible save for whatever universe the afterlife might be? What mind save a divine mind could be free of “perspective”? And this freedom is itself condemned to the experience of the perspectival, if only in the moment of its collapse, that duration of “falling through receding walls of flat planes.”
The startling force of Hollander’s entrance into his own elegy is felt in the second sentence of what is essentially footnote, almost outrageous in that it arrives as an afterthought or aside to a curious bit of mythographic lore. With the first sentence the poem calls up a subterranean mythology, a realm antithetical to Olympus. The poem shifts our attention from sight to sound, from the cry of the blinded Cyclops to the telluric outbursts associated with his kind. It is an odd, tormented binding of two realities, that places Hollander adjacent to a classical underworld, one associated with the concealed turmoil of the planet. Hollander is wounded and deserted and deceived like the Cyclops. He is denied the sense of depth that the living enjoy, though still with weeks more of life, such as life had become for him. Hollander is in a liminal state, living with no sense of depth, of depth as the living understand it. The intrusion of divine realms, chthonic or otherwise, the fierce attention to the truth and illusion of perception, the collage of surfaces where vastly differing iterations of reality intersect and lie artfully beside each other, all partake in Benjamin Hollander’s passing. “Due to his brain tumor, Benjamin Hollander lost all sense of depth during the last weeks of his life.” A “sense of depth” is what the poem will preserve, or rather reinvent as a gift to the spirit of a departing and departed friend.
Benjamin Hollander is explicitly invoked five times in Io’s Song, the dedication, the footnote above, an email addressed to him, the ghostly and sad phrase “Goodbye Ben” that repeats in diminishing typeface, once where the departed is nothing but his disease, the phrase “brain cancer” lodged in the bereft upper white field of the page, this last-mentioned summoning linking the dead poet to elemental forces wind and sea, so much so that when wind and water appear anywhere in the poem they bring an association with the beloved friend with them. Lest we are tardy in recognizing the strategy of classical elegy to associate the departed with elemental forces, in a fifth naming Nemet-Nejat directs out attention to Milton’s “Lycidas,”
O Cyclops! O Benjamin, o Benjamin, where did you
Disappear? Did you go to Hollan’?
“Where were ye, Nymphs? . . . (J. Milton, Lycidas)
“Lycidas” is the English language template for one poet lamenting the passing of another. The living poet celebrates the life lost, placing it amid the concerns of its time, interrogating fate, how this could be allowed to happen, and ultimately lightening the grief of the living by transforming the dead into a protective spirit. The half-line cited above comes relatively early in Milton’s poem. The fuller passage that it begins, when read in the light of Hollander’s passing, emphasizes the incredulity of first learning of a death. It underscores the dismay of the speaker, and anger at the injustice that one so young and full of promise should be taken. (How could they, creatures of the water, permit the drowning of Edward King?) Murat points to but elides the passage, giving us only a half-line that follows quick upon a pun on Hollander’s name, a pun that would work well in a Shakespeare play. Dismay and accusation are not doubt in keeping with the loss felt by Nemet-Nejat. But reading “Lycidas” both in the light of Murat’s loss and from the perspective of his Marrano poetics, one observes how the quotation both places Hollander’s death within the conventions of the dominant culture, English poetic tradition, but conceals access to the grief that compelled the citation. One further observes that Nemet-Nejat has made visible Milton’s own Marrano poetics, in that the great poet of Christendom Milton, conceals his Christianity within the evocations of pagan myth. In fact, the peculiar force of Milton’s poem, as it turns from the lament for the dead to a critique of the institution that structures outward belief and behavior, the church, relies in part on this dynamic of dual identities, on the interplay of the exoteric and the esoteric, the pagan and the Christian. The plausibility of the pagan mythic frame is maintained, but readers attuned to Christian motifs cannot miss what was really being said. In this, Murat, ever alert to the uses of doubleness, to the way one mythology can lie concealed in another, to the way it can be drawn on at the appropriate moment, makes of John Milton a most unlikely fellow Marrano. Milton is not a Spanish Jew kicked out of his country but an elite member of the dominant cult who adopts the tropes and narratives of a pastoral paganism in order to criticize church hierarchy. Yet what remains crucial, for readers of Nemet-Nejat, is simply the Renaissance convention utilized by Milton where one mythological system abides within the terms of another. Further, what Nemet-Nejat draws out attention to is the abandonment of the dead by ambassadors of the dominant culture, those missing Nymphs. Both Milton and Murat are intensely aware of the isolation of the dying, the way that customary beliefs fail, and the way the living turn their faces away from the fatally stricken, no doubt to the dismay of the one who is passing into the beyond.
Farewell, Ben . . .
Word of Hollander’s death arrives in the poem as an elegy in the shape of an email, an email addressed to the dead. It is a curious, poignant communication that speaks directly to the matter of what both poets share, the art of poetry, but also, more obliquely, to the matter of the hidden, the ritually concealed, the Marrano, and the experience of gnosis that according to the poet, Myth enacts. Here we might delight for a moment in the interweaving of ironies and raw psychic revelation that characterize Murat’s poetry: one Jew writing to another about a Sufi-inflected rewriting of canonical Christian poem. George Herbert was a priest as well as a poet. His magisterial work, The Temple, rests far more securely within the precincts of Christian devotion that does Milton, or even the poetry of one of Murat’s longtime favorites, John Donne, who writes with the fervor of a convert, and whose poems, like Murat’s, bristle with an energy and the material specificity of the fallen world. Herbert in “Easter Wings” offers a sanctioned and venerated rendition of the mingling of the verbal and the visual. Within a traditionally religious world, or at least within the world of Christian devotional verse, the “crisis in reading” does not really exist on the level of mere making sense of words. If we might for a moment take “Easter Wings” as standing for all poems in religious cultures which have traditions of textual emblems or which find magic or divine force within calligraphic script, a more expansive context for the “crisis in reading” could be said to mark the beginning of Murat’s mature works. The illegibility of the visual component of Murat’s poems announced the severance of the modern from older conventions of visibility, legibility, and the sacred. It is in Io’s Song an elaborately rendered moment, when we recognize that the most sustained address to the deceased poet concerns an orthodox Christian poem from the early 17th century. Already in the title disguise if not dissemblance is immediately invoked. In this elegy within an elegy, it’s almost perverse. A deliberate inversion of poetic propriety, to address the dead in an email. The most grand and noble of poetic forms is concealed in the most ephemeral of communiques. The “finally” suggests that the poet has long pondered the challenge of his transgressive ambition, to edit out God from a canonical Christian poem. Were Murat a contemporary theologian it would be obvious what this is, an attempt to imagine a religiosity hidden by means of writing that could survive the critical scruples of the secular world. A further wonder arises. Was Hollander’s death what made this longstanding challenge doable? Had the two conversed about this when Hollander was among the living? And now, technology, the internet, is spiritualized, and a medium to speak to the dead. It is of course initially a preposterous ambition, sounding more like a claim made in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, because without God and the hierarchical structure of angels, what beside whim or antiquarianism would be the point of such an undertaking? And perhaps an invocation of Blake is a help here, in that Murat utilizes a term deeply associated with Blake, “the senses.” So, there is no God, but there is still a soul. The soul retains its motions despite the godlessness, raising the question of where there is for souls to go, within the psyche, or within a cosmos that has souls but no presiding deity, or no deity within the reach of human knowing. The soul in Murat’s vision is enmeshed, trapped, in need of rescue, and apparently capable of surviving cut loose from belief, which I take to mean the orthodox belief system of its source culture. Murat is in essence translating the soul and its motions from a premodern belief system to his own agnostic, post-secular Sufism. An intriguing preposition presents itself. Does “by” modify the act of prying, the senses freeing the soul from an oppressive believe, or does “by” mean the senses understood as the means of belief? In the latter instance, sense-dependent belief would be what constricts the soul, and the elegy celebrates liberation from the world, as is appropriate for its transparent disguise as an email:
To B. Hollander: an Elegy in the Shape of an Email
Dear Ben, finally, I wrote a godless version of Herbert’s “Easter Wings” where the soul’s /motions are pried loose from belief/ by the senses
The elegy that presents itself to the outer world as an email refers to the poem which immediately precedes it, where Murat has pried the souls wings free of Easter. A quick glance at the Herbert poem reveals that it, too, hides within it, a prophetic elegy for Hollander, a Jew esoterically mourned within the outward edifice of Christian belief. Herbert, too, talks about the soul’s motion, and about illness. In turning to “Easter Wings” we read Hollander’s death within the terms of the dominant and hostile culture of Protestant Christianity. We already know Hollander by way of his mortal illness. How magnificently uncanny it is to find that in Io’s Song Murat has one of the chief Christian devotional poets in the English tradition foreseeing the horrific end of Murat’s Beloved Friend:
“Decaying more and more, Till he became Most poore: “
Io’s Song has drawn attention to Hollander’s loss of perceptual depth and of perspective. Herbert, read prophetically, would seem to add to the occluded narrative of Hollander’s death the failure of his body in the final weeks, which I take to be the “thinness” here foretold:
My tender age in sorrow did beginne And still with sicknesses and shame. Thou didst so punish sinne, That I became Most thinne.
And is it that much of an indulgence to see in the grafting of feathers to a wounded wing as described in the Herbert poem a suitably metaphysical conceit for modern cancer treatment? Thus, in the elegy disguised as an email, Murat points to the text his poem will essentially obliterate, as well as to the dying Hollander’s perilous and terrifying condition, concealed, said to be nothing more than the general condition of mankind as understood within the Christian myth of the fall. Decaying, poor, no doubt thin, Hollander will be freed from the oppressive Christian narrative by the atheist Sufi postmodern rewrite that his death may well have inspired. Murat’s godless rewrite is, needless to say, a very different poem. It does, however, participate in the emblem tradition. Like Herbert, Nemet-Nejat shapes his verses into wings. However, the later poet reimagines the relation between heaven and earth that the Herbert poem presumes. Gone, in the rewrite, is the supplicant’s stance. Gone is the pained acceptance of the stricken speaker’s sinful nature. Gone is the concession of helplessness, each of Herbert’s two stanzas narrowing to “most poore,” and “most thinne.” Herbert’s is a blueprint of the relation between the human and the divine for which the poet Murat has no patience, in part because it reduces the divine to a transactional relationship. Angels bear the terms of the ongoing negotiation back and forth. The overwhelming immediacy of the Divine, so critical to both traditional Sufism and to eda, is kept at a distance in orthodox Christianity. Murat’s godless Sufi translation of Herbert repeats the line “I hear wings in the foliage” three times, in lines arranged to look either like a bird with wings extended, or else a chevron flight of birds heading off the right-hand margin of the page, towards the elegy in the form of an email that directs the spirit of the dead friend back to the previous page, into the flurry of the beating wings. The birds are flying out of Christianity and into the Sufi epic, The Conference of the Birds, where they will endure a harrowing quest across the seven valleys of annihilation. In his agnostic Sufi rewrite Murat excises the divinity but keeps the notion of ritual form. His poem keeps the wings, but directs them along a horizontal axis, emphasizing migration rather than ascent. The wings are no longer the link between a divine and a human realm. Murat is, as ever, adamant in his paradox. We are to give up God but keep the sense of a divine force that orders human experience and violently intrudes upon it. His postmodern vispo wings are set loose within a largely Greek and tantric cosmos where there is a higher force that descends and brings an annihilating ecstasy to our realm.
As we have seen, Nemet-Nejat calls this incursion of the godless divine, myth. He has over the course of four major collections contrived a poetics entered upon the experience of a divine realm that erupts downward, into our secular, polyglot world of overlapping belief systems, avant-garde poetry and art, science fiction, film, sexual frankness, and friendship. Once the reader takes notice of the poet’s overwhelming obsession with the terror and wonder of myth in modernity, Nemet-Nejat cannot help but be seen as one of the boldest and imaginatively rich practitioners of the mythopoeic imagination in contemporary poetry. His dramatization of the experience of myth, his elevation of this form of narrative into the equivalent of the numinous, and above all his meticulous measuring of how language conceals as well as reveals, that it guards by way of disguise, reveals an immense sophistication concerning the place of myth in modern life. The claim of godlessness is a complete acceptance of the secular age within which all life now happens, but rather than undermine, the claim intensifies the theomorphic imagination. The “crisis in reading” that stands as the opening of Murat’s field is an experience of radical unknowing, of becoming other. This agnostic devotion to the tearing of the veil of cause and effect, this shattering of the consolations of received form, lends a cataclysmic joy to the exclamation “smithereens” that concludes the elegy within an email addressed to Hollander. “Smithereens” is a postmodern exclamation of Sufi ecstatic destruction. In his recasting of Herbert’s poem as his letter to the dead Nemet-Nejat imagines the wings as if opened along a horizontal axis. Gone is the angelic verticality of an older overtly Christian cosmological order. The contemporary poet’s commitment is to the perceptible realm, to the “senses” that have the capacity to pry the soul loose from belief. Murat favors wings he can hear. The evocation of foliage in the line “I hear/ wings in the foliage/behind the wall” (IS, p. 34) delightfully mingles orders of being, as if we were in a pre-Raphaelite painting where the foliage vies with birds and angels for the painter’s attention. The wings are all heard “behind the wall,” a wall which reinscribes a seemingly inviolable boundary between the finite and the infinite. An aphoristic phrase which, again, would not be out of place in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, rests below the horizontally inflight repetition of words depicted as wings, as if to underscore an inviolable distance between mortal and divine, though it remains unclear in the cosmos of eda what degree of assent we are to understand the poet as giving to the credal declaration:
“The eye sees the contradictions in words and sees through itself, in an act of freedom.” After an emphasis on hearing the wings, and seeing the presumably hidden source of the sound, the foliage inhibiting visual perception, one might expect the poet to celebrate the superiority of sound to sight. The credo seems to want to do that, as the poet underscores the triumph, but perhaps the entrapment, of the eye. How do we understand the eye as seeing through itself? Is the eye the medium of its own seeing? Are we on the verge of an Emersonian transparent eyeball fit of fearful euphoria? Is the eye, here, reprising the “crisis in reading” on a higher dialectical plane? Is the eye now the master of the bewilderment that descended upon the poet as he attempted to read aloud a visual text? Or could there be a Blakean accent, prioritizing seeing through above seeing with:
“This life's dim windows of the soul Distorts the heavens from pole to pole And leads you to believe a lie When you see with, not through, the eye.”
That Murat returns to and further characterizes the “motions of the soul” by celebrating an “act of freedom” seems a forthright avowal of a visionary poetics in line with the Emersonian ideals of Black Mountain poetry. But there is the unsettling qualification to the traditional avowal of freedom, a freedom which seems to be defined by consciousness of contradiction, and by a self-understanding that itself seems not much more than a heightened self-consciousness based on a pun, on what it means to “see through.” And in a poetics that by its nature keeps summoning the ghost of the Marrano condition, to be “seen through” could well be if not a death sentence, then an even deeper exile within the world of exile, to the realm of what Blake would call “non- entity,” the place from which are sounded his most abject arias.
XIII But then, what does freedom mean in a Marrano world? To see “through” words, does that involve seeing in what language one is writing one’s name? To see the other name whether sacred or prophane, written simultaneously in invisible ink? If words are double, if they both reveal and conceal, if they rely on deceiving one audience to remain truthful to a divine audience, then when Nemet-Nejat sees the contradiction in words is he seeing the structure of the Marrano world? The vision, then, is not of a contradictory sense within words, but of the role of words in a world composed around a fundamental contradiction. The contrariness of words is what assures our life in diaspora, what lets us, Jews that we are, be free to hide. When we recall that while reading this stirring anthemic proclamation we are within an elegy itself within an email, a considerable pathos takes hold. The dying and death of Ben Hollander, his failing visual acuity, seems a cruel contrast to the celebration of the eye’s attributes. But what I want to suggest is happening, here, is that Murat is offering his friend a vision of vision that is paradisal, or as much a paradisal vision of vision as can be proposed in a secular and hostile world. One Jew offers a beloved other a heightened critical intelligence on his journey into death. It is a quality of vision that is mortal, but clarified, a vision of freedom which one imagines Murat imagining as Hollander’s fate in the afterlife. Then rings out the concluding exclamation of the email elegy. which I read as joyous, as celebration of destruction, a turn upon the legacy of a poetry of allusion, collage, misdirection, perhaps, after all, in writing to Hollander, a roundabout way of reminding his friend of the breaking of the vessels, the Kabbalistic doctrine of catastrophic creation, the divine whole still glimmering in the scattered bits, in the “smithereens!”