Lahave, Nova Scotia. A book of poetry as audacious and irreverent as Aaron Poochigian’s new collection American Divine, winner of the Richard Wilbur Prize in 2020, deserves at a certain level, an irreverent response. So let me begin by saying there are times, while reading these poems, that you just want to give the wise-cracking persona that struts across its stanzas a playful kick. What character (in life or in literature) speaks about an old girlfriend using terms like ‘snuggle cheeks’ and ‘cinnamon bun’ and not expect some playful retribution? But then again, the urge to cause minor injury is paired with the overwhelming desire to laugh and buy the guy a drink. Such is the charm of what other reviewers have called the ‘flaneur’ in Poochigian’s poetry. And no, I am not conflating the ‘I’ in the poems with the poet himself.
But beneath the edgy wit, emotional dodge, and theatrical masking, what about that style, formal excellence, and rich sense of literary tradition that shapes and inspires these poems? What about its serious themes? — the pursuit of the divine (or at least divine experience), the search for meaning and immortality, the hard ironic look at the spiritual, political, and ecological wasteland which is America. Well, it just makes you want to shake your head and marvel. This is a collection (Poochigian’s fourth book of poetry among his many book-length translations of plays and poetry), that for all its smart-aleck-ness and exuberant mis-direction, you must take seriously.
American Divine is divided into three sections, titled, respectively, The One True Religion (spoiler alert: you learn pretty quickly there isn’t one), The Uglies (which just as aptly might be named ‘The Morning After’), and The Living Will (in which the poet experiences a kind of back-handed redemption while gathering strength to carry on). Combined they constitute an American spiritual quest of sorts, bringing to mind W. H. Auden’s poem “Atlantis” in which the search for that lost Shangri-La of place and mind is at once glorious, unachievable, and fraught with detours, dangers, and ecstatic encounters of dubious authenticity.
A key to understanding One True Religion is the middle poem “The Remarkable Experience of Stephen H. Bradley of the Power of the Holy Spirit on the Second Evening of November, 1892.” Anyone familiar with William James will recognize the event described in the poem as one of the accounts in his Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, and you can’t help but think of James and his polytheistic intimations as you make your way through this section of Poochigian’s collection. Like James’s study, One True Religion reads as a guidebook to divine experience as it manifests itself in various forms across the American landscape—be it on a farm where a Hindu family bathe their Ganesha in a holding pond, in a gated community where a garden troll stands guard against coyotes and meth addicts, or in a Twin Peaks-esque diner at the edge of the American wilderness. This is a world populated by a “beehived female with insane eyeliner,” crazy street people (one named Mort), a possessed bride, a pregnant teenage madonna, and a many-breasted junkyard dog—goddess protector of young women, but not, so it seems, of disenchanted middle-aged male poets. This mutt is no “hound of heaven.” There is nothing romantic about Poochigian’s America—in the poet’s words “it’s hard, hard hard.” In his shifting god- and goddess-imbued country anything and everything might be experienced as “divine,” although there is no indication that he embraces one revelation over any other. It would seem, for Poochigian, that ultimately it is the individual who sees or does not see “god” in a lawn gnome, in a girl in a wedding dress, in the bear constellations that stalk the night skies above Wyoming. His speakers are taken at their word, and pluralist that he is, he’s definitely not choosing sides.
The section is book-ended by arguably two of the best (and certainly the most dramatic) poems in the collection: the title poem “American Divine” and “American Osiris.” The you of “American Divine,” as if transported by way of dream (or Twilight Zone episode) finds him/herself trapped in that super-energized, vertiginous whirligig known as New York’s Union Square at rush hour. Think end-of-days and ecological disaster as the Metronome building’s time clock counts down the hours left before we destroy our planet. Think milling, bodiless crowds and madman prophets. Think pentameter and its variations on hyper-drive:
You there, behind your breath, a rhythmic wraith
of breath, are voyeuristic in the slush,
absorbing everything — the twilight rush
and blur of digits, a Sephora sign,
those antics laughing at a madman’s faith —
till vertigo crescendos in a sense
of outside-in and inside-out, intense
clashes of light and shadow, warmth like wine,
and an ungovernable urge to dub
the grove holy, the old bandshell a shrine,
the whole place a civic sanctuary
where the ineffable has residence.
Phew. As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.” You can’t help but hear it in the background. These are not your father’s iambs nor is this your forefather’s “Shining City On a Hill.” But what also stands out is the poem’s conclusion:
It starts this evening, in the winter flaw —
seeking new prophets, modern sites to cherish,
finding divinities in earthly powers.
You are a church of one, a private parish;
be passionate in the pursuit of awe.
In “American Divine,” it would seem that the pursuit is not so much a pursuit of divinity but rather the experience of it—the awe, which in this instance is private and individualistic, potentially addictive, and more an expression of personal epiphanies than a community-shared theology. It’s a subtle but important distinction as the poet takes us along on his quest. I can’t help but think that we’ve been warned.
Finding its inspiration in a children’s game (Dead Man, Dead Man, Come Alive), “American Osiris” is a haunting incantatory poem calling on the Egyptian god of fertility and the underworld (presaged by the thundering subway trains in “American Divine”) to rise up to save the ravaged, godless, and garbage strewn dump site that America has become. Read it aloud, or better yet, listen to Poochigian read it here (the reading begins at 46:00).. This is the first among several poems in the collection in which he effectively taps the songs and stories of children to feed his dark material. It’s a mesmerizing ending to a whirlwind journey.
The Uglies feels a bit like a spiritual (and physical) hangover after all that ecstasy in the previous section, and indeed one of the poems, “Talking Trey Down,” is a literal object lesson in the consequences of over-indulgence:
Be lucid a little and listen: Yes,
you’re young but Yikes, man — you’ve been dropping
X for a week now. You won’t stop whopping.
The poem’s concluding “Hush now. Because the sun will rise tomorrow, hush” leads stylistically into the next poem—a lullaby-like verse that riffs on the popular American southern children’s song, “Hush Little Baby.” In Poochigian’s world, however, the wolves are at the door, Papa is MIA, and the mockingbird “don’t sing no more” (you get the sense it might have been shot)—bleak stuff, but rendered beautifully with echoes of Louis MacNeice’s lyrical play with nursery rhymes and meters. Poochigian writes in “Hush Now”:
Hush, little pretty, hush. There, there.
Day is done, and night has won,
and Ending Times are everywhere.
As MacNeice wrote (and Poochigian might concur) “all our games are funeral games.” If I have any reservations about “Hush Now” it is that the opening and closing stanzas, featuring a hallucinatory singing cowgirl, seem harnessed on. In the context of the rest of the collection, the middle lullaby holds up perfectly on its own. On this occasion and in several other poems, Poochigian’s cleverness risks undermining his poems’ strengths leaving you to wish that he would do a little less stage-managing and let them take the spotlight and sing. This is however, a minor quibble.
Other notable poems in this section include “Where The?” and “Welcome Home.” In “Where The?” the speaker (in his middle years) is lost in a Dante-esque forest complete with beetles marching underground, but without a Virgil to guide him. “Welcome Home” with its shifting tone (from the vernacular to the poetically lush), takes its place in the literary tradition among other poems expressing the exile’s ambivalence upon returning to their place of birth. The last paragraph of “Welcome Home” soars—both in language and insight:
Children of the thunderstorm dense, infinite and slender
wheat stalks are culminating as September’s crown of ears.
The sky pales in comparison with the hypnotic splendor
of wind-tossed heads, with panoramic flora that appears
dreamscape or afterlife, a supernatural scene: the golden
grass of the gods or holy harvest of a hayseed sun.
Years past ambition now, I can admit I am beholden
to what I am beholding here – sublime oblivion.
The final section of the collection, A Living Will, while taking a cold hard look at the facts of the matter, also offers a glimmer, if not of optimism, at least of hope that something good may be redeemed. The section speaks of endings (the unravelling of a paranoid friend, the death of a father, the end of romantic relationships, the end of time), but Poochigian also writes of beginnings and new-found freedoms. He sums up the situation in “MMXVII”—a poem which immediately brings to mind Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV.” Similar to Larkin’s portrait of a society on the brink of a devastating war, Poochigian’s poem positions itself on the eve of irreversible ecological and political disaster (“the world is breaking down, down, down for good”). A bit surprisingly, however, he doesn’t let himself or his fellow poets off the hook. For Poochigian, there is no Keatsian (or for that matter Yeatsian) retreat to an aesthetic Byzantium:
Sure, we might want to flit away and sing
in private heavens sealed against the news,
but such escape is cheap — as cheap as booze.
As if in conversation with and taking to heart Auden’s last stanzas of “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (“Follow poet, follow right”), he closes:
Despite the times now and worse to come,
despite disaster and a crass regime
of lies and thugs, despite the national scam,
I will be conscious. I will not play dumb.
Eyes tracking everything I can redeem,
I will be right here; I will give a damn.
Poochigian writes finally and beautifully of redemption and spiritual resurrection in these concluding stanzas of “For All of Death”:
For all of Death, for all his kidskin glove
is reaching toward me from the big Above,
I do resolve, like this is New Year’s Eve,
to start afresh. From now on I believe
in second chances, an uplifting grave.
To catch the difference of this, conceive:
among the trees where blackbirds live to grieve
like failures over disappointed love,
there is a flutter and, whoosh, a dove
excitement rising. Hope is of the brave.
In “Living Will,” the last poem in the collection, our protagonist sets sail in this spirit of hope, guided not by some self-imposed or socially-dictated rules, but as
a vessel beholden only to the waves and wind,
I may be free to drift out of the bay.
Hereafter I shall whiff the fragrant coasts
of Araby, Dundeya and Cathay
and, further out, beyond the round world’s spalling
margin, hear Odysseus’ ghosts
squeaking like hinges, hear the Sirens calling.
It’s a terrific end note for the collection, and you can’t help but wonder what those ghosts and Sirens are whispering in Aaron Poochigian’s ear and how he might translate their messages into his uniquely moving, supremely crafted, and audacious American verse. I am quite certain that, like Odysseus, he’ll return to tell the tale.