Review of Barzakh

by Don Wellman  on Immanent Occasions; opening paras follow — read the full review here.

Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012, Pierre Joris, Black Widow: Boston 2014

Barzakh is largely constructed from the poet’s work over the first decade of the new millennium, much of it biographical in nature. Like Louis Zukofsky, Pierre Joris interrogates “the overtly complex semantic unit we call ‘life.’’ I am following Mark Scroggins in this phrasing. Several structural conceptual elements shape the collection, among them the notion of ‘barzakh’ (from the Arabic, an isthmus, also associated with limbo).  As used in the teachings of Ibn Arabi, ‘barzakh’ is an in-between space that both separates corporeal from incorporeal realms of existence and allows communication through the barrier or limbo like margin that separates the two. ‘Barzakh’ both articulates the two realms and instantiates the possibility of their parallel if partially overlapping existence. When I read “margin” in this context I think of Derrida’s use of the term. Joris’s use of the term also reminds me of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality. Ritual, language and ecology are recurring, complementary themes throughout his text. The everyday touches the spiritual in many of the most “lyrical” moments in the collection: “love is / what tenses / across the/ space between. // Love this / morning is / me writing / at Friendly’s” (210). Concern with for aesthetic structure manifests itself from insanely perceptive rhyming couplets like that of “is” and “tenses” to the macro level of the architecture of the whole.

Barzakh culminates with a multivocal, polyphonic libretto to human agency with respect to environmental degradation, “The Gulf.” The trigger to this recitation is, of course the Deep Water Horizon Disaster of April 20, 2010. “The Gulf”, with its hymn-like elements, is not only capstone of the collection, but an unfurling of concerns that form the moral fiber of poetry and its social responsibilities. “The Gulf” in its first and second sections is a loose trans-creation of the first truly modernist poem, Mallarme’s, “A Throw of the Dice.” The second element of “The Gulf” is also made from found materials that serve as solo and choral testimony to the destruction wrought by the oil spill. The final section includes a mantra-like recitation of the various etymological meanings of “gulf,” bringing it through chasms and swallowings to a near synonymy that is also an antimony with “barzakh.” The complex of interwoven allusions and references pulses with a beautiful energy. The poet’s mindfulness addresses language and poetry, the root material of our shared reality. These concerns are embedded throughout and announced from the first pages of the poem, where we find a bilingual ode, largely in French, addressed to Jack Kerouac, a necessary gesture in the direction of America’s multi-lingual and immigrant heritage. The poem acknowledges the forces the propel travel across landscapes, a central concept of Joris’s ‘nomad’ poetics. In Joris’s case both his adopted home and American citizenry, combined with his European heritage as a native Luxembourg, have impelled global, multinational travels, most notably his engagement the literature of the Maghreb.


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