Bruce Beasley. Theophobia. BOA Editions, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00.
Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Theophobia, Bruce Beasley’s seventh collection, is both the sort of book I immediately gravitate to and the sort of book I ordinarily avoid. Several of the poems puzzle over theological questions, often beginning with orthodoxy and then springing outward, exploring the ramifications of creedal statements for those of us defined by modernity and postmodernity. These questions intrigue me also, and I admire poetry that grapples with those big abstract questions while maintaining its firmly concrete identity as poetry. Beasley’s work does that, yet at first glance the poems in this collection also make me a little wary. Some of the vocabulary is highly technical—“hexadecimal code,” “somnotropic, thanatropic, oneirotrope,” “phenylalanine”—and some of the line and stanza breaks draw attention to syllables (rather than words) and to orthography—“twi- / dim this / demi- // night this…” As my eyes light on these pages, before I read the poems, I worry that I just won’t understand what Beasley is up to. And then if I do understand, will my work of comprehension earn a just wage? Beasley’s poems do demand an attentive reader; but they demand the sort of attention that is most pleasurable, a reader who is immersed in the questions, who is fully engaged with the language, who surrenders to the poems’ guidance.
Most of the poems in this collection are several pages long, often arranged into sections. They juxtapose language from one specialized discipline with that of another, exploiting the ideas of genetics, for example, to explore theological teachings that have been debated (and even generally agreed upon by most Christians) for millennia. The poems succeed because this juxtaposition does indeed startle us toward fresh insights. Readers are presented with a mind thinking, a particularly energetic mind, one that enjoys the task. And despite my own initial hesitations, I found the poems ultimately hospitable.
Because I would like to explore some of Beasley’s strategies closely, I’ll discuss only one poem in this review, “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia.” My choice is inadequate, I know, for several other poems in the collection are compelling, complex, and rewarding, and I don’t want to suggest that this poem somehow summarizes the collection (although in a sense it does). It is the poem that has come to obsess me; it is the one I can’t leave alone.
Obviously, a poem reliant on an online encyclopedia regularly updated with contributions from expert and amateur alike could not have been written much before the present moment. The title suggests, though, that it’s not simply a Wikipedia entry on the Holy Spirit that the speaker has read, but the Holy Spirit’s own frequently updated virtual collection of revelations that the speaker has observed. In both Greek and Hebrew, words translated as “spirit” can also mean “breath” or “wind,” a fact the poem incorporates. The poem is arranged into nine sections, each one logically distinct from the others. The poem opens with the description “Glossolalic and disincarnate.” Glossolalia is the practice of speaking in tongues, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and one, perhaps, particularly suited to poets. And the Holy Spirit is the aspect of the Trinity least likely to be portrayed in human form. This opening section becomes a prayer: “interfere / in me, interleave me / and leave me through my breathing: like some third // person conjugation I’ve rewhispered / in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue / made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.” The spirit of God is on the one hand the breath of God; the Holy Spirit also descends, according to the Pentecost story, upon the apostles as tongues of flame. And Yahweh, who will be introduced in section six, may very well be as much verb, “I am,” as noun. Yet if all verbs in a language are irregular, if a language has no discernible pattern, can that language be learned?
In the second section, the speaker attempts to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity: “I can’t keep / straight sometimes which one of You / is You: // there’s One who fractures off from light / as light, I know, and One / (is that One You?) eternally begotten, so never not at just that instant being born.” Anything eternal always was, of course, and always will be, yet here we have an additional fact—the Holy Spirit isn’t simply eternal but “eternally begotten” (a description usually applied to the second person of the Trinity), and so always also emerging, “being born.” The Holy Spirit, therefore, is always and is always new.
Section three seems to veer away from theology. It describes a truly bizarre creature, a parasite, “Toxoplasma gondii,” which attacks the brain of a rat, persuading the rat to lust after cats because the parasite reproduces itself in the intestines of cats. Is this how the Holy Spirit acts on us, the section asks, reconfiguring our response “from dread to lust for what consumes it”?
By the end of the poem, the speaker has explored the rationale for representing the Holy Spirit as a dove, and he has revealed his own son’s response to the infancy narratives of Jesus: “so Jesus’ dad was just like you…” The speaker returns to Wikipedia and to prayer, concluding with this petition: “Who // bloweth where You listeth, Whom / the world will never know, list to blow / down me.” We hear John Donne here, and we hear allusions to hymns earlier on (at least I do). Yet the poem is entirely Beasley’s own. To thoroughly explicate it would require more space than a brief review permits, and extended explication isn’t really the purpose of a review. For that we have other forms and, perhaps, the opportunity for additional conversation. This poem integrates science, technology, etymology, and autobiography into theology, suggesting that nothing exists apart from this one who is “Being-Without-a-Body,” yet the poem handles each idea with a light hand. It’s mystical rather than missionary; it aims not to convert but to astonish. Reading this poem, I keep imagining myself in the presence of someone who puts down the paper after every few sentences to exclaim, “Oh my God, you’ve got to read this.”
I’m envious of Beasley’s agility in this book. The poems consolidate the mind with the spirit, the ordinary with the extreme, possibility with impossibility.