Thursday, April 13, 2006

Prima Materia

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

The Feast: Prose Poem Sequences by Walter Bargen.
Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2004.
115 pages. $13.95 paper. ISBN 1-886157-39-1.

Walter Bargen often takes on the persona of the biblical Jonah in his volume of prose poems, The Feast:

No one notices even on days when he stands in the cashier's line at Wal-Mart, holding a water-filled plastic bag with bright swimming things[,] that he is a man who lives inside a fish. Actually, he lives in a house he carved out of the inside of a living fish.

Not only are the Jonah poems consistently the better in the volume but they give it a narrative coherence that is not common.

It is not clear whether Bargen is aware of the Jungian psychological literature pertaining to the old prophet inside of his fish. In the words of Jung himself:

The golden haze of childhood memories arises not so much from the objective facts as from the admixture of magical images which are more intuited than actually conscious. The parable of Jonah who was swallowed by the whale reproduces the situation exactly.... The 'mystery' he beholds represents the stock of primordial images which everybody brings with him as his human birthright, the sum total of inborn forms particular to the instincts. I have called this 'potential' psyche the collective unconscious.

This is a volume to prove the point. It contains all the adaptable honesty of crisis, the effluvial dissonance of neurosis. There is a general sense of oppressiveness, living inside of a fish:

If it was years ago, then the tide has continued to rise and he's now awash in a cataclysmic flood, on his last gasp, treading water.

It is an oppressiveness shot through with ironic flashes of enlightenment:

He knows that it is only those of us who can't swim who will save ourselves.

Again, in the words of Jung:

Regression carried to its logical conclusion means a linking back with the world of natural instincts, which in its formal or ideal aspect is a kind of prima materia. If this prima materia can be assimilated by the conscious mind it will bring about a reactivation and reorganization of its contents. But if the conscious mind proves incapable of assimilating the new contents pouring in from the unconscious, then a dangerous situation arises in which they keep their original, chaotic, and archaic form and consequently disrupt the unity of consciousness.

Bargen describes this experience from the inside. While he is clearly in command of his material, it is not so clear that the command comes simply from reading psychological literature. Between a psychological text and a contemporary quotidian description of regression to extreme neurosis there yawns an immense chasm. The innumerable small details that span that chasm are well portrayed throughout the Jonah poems.

What Jonah does not give us is a denouement. There is no coming out the other side. He remains in his fish and there is no indication that he will ever emerge from it. He has himself and what he imagines to be his wife, Jessie. At least in his mind, they go on much like a perverse variation on William and Catherine Blake. They, too, live deep within a crumbling world of symbols and apparitions, however much their apparitions are more tortured, those symbols no longer coherent.

It might be expected that the poems which don't address Jonah's experience would be pale in comparison and they are. Several shorter sequences are interspersed throughout The Feast. The poems that compose them never approach the level of the Jonah poems for more than a few lines. They are more obviously literary. Occasionally, they are highly suspect.

In the poem "Delphic Chicken," for one particularly egregious example, Socrates has asked Crito to satisfy his debt of a rooster to Asclepius. This refers to the well-known scene from The Phaedo, in which Socrates, who has drunk the hemlock, and is slowly growing cold, turns to his young disciple and says: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Crito answers that the debt will be duly paid.

In Bargen's poem, Crito finds Asclepius getting drunk at a local pub, and, disgusted, releases the chicken. The poem imagines the fate of the chicken after its release. In the end, it becomes an oracle:

In Delphi the capitals at the tops of marble columns are scrolled chicken feathers.

All of this is blissfully uninformed of the fact that Asclepius was the Greek god of healing. The worshipper went to the temple of Asclepius to pray to be cured of some affliction. If he recovered from the illness, he sacrificed a chicken at the temple. (One prerequisite for being a priest of Asclepius must surely have been a taste for chicken.) Socrates, elegant to the last, was saying that life was an affliction and death the cure. He asked that a chicken be sacrificed to the god in thanks for his recovery.

While it may be said that there is room for more than one Socrates-chicken story, the original is so much more evolved, so much better, that "Delphic Chicken" suffers in comparison. The post-modern, anti-aesthetic aesthetic of the poem not only does not save it but is itself revealed as severely limited. The poem "Either/And," with its caricatures of Kierkegaard and Hegel, only barely avoids the same fate.

Walter Bargen's Jonah poems represent remarkable work on a theme that is rarely handled well. Alone they would perhaps have amounted to an exceptional volume of poetry. As it is, The Feast remains a volume well worth reading. Jonah is enigmatic, at risk, strangely familiar. Not only is he troubled, but his recognizable humanness argues convincingly that being troubled may be a viable response to such a world as ours.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy's work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review; Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.

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