Divine Blue Light
- By Michael Thurston
A Review of Divine Blue Light (for John Coltrane) by Will Alexander (City Lights (Pocket Poets Series, 63), 2022)
Some poets, the best among them, make you learn to read their work. Sure, some structures and narratives inform their poems, but these are not familiar ones (the pentameter line, the regular stanza, the myths of Greece or Rome). The rules must be intuited then tested, confirmed in confrontation with the texts. A certain stubborn humility is required, but this attitude is also invited by the shimmering verbal surface, by the promise of some understanding to be wrought in the poem’s collaborative communicative act. You come, let’s say, across something like this (the first half, roughly, of a lyric titled “Neo-Rulership”):
Within my plaintive spectral condition
neo-rulership corresponds to asymmetrical creeping
to strange tautological curses
to strange oblivious strata modelled by quality
being none other than scholarship configured out of mayhem
as if one listened to an eclipsed saurian curiously laying gelatinous
believing itself to be anterior quality magically sculpted out of nothingness
The sonic surface is fun, repeated sibilants near the beginning or middle of lines balanced by repeated hard consonants at the ends, synthesizing in “eclipsed,” which seems a lynchpin between narrated listening and laying. As we hover over the sound pattern, we come to see the syntax is straightforward enough: the opening preposition orients the reader and offers a speaker’s apparent interiority, a relationship is posited, the vehicle of correspondence is varied and then the variations are reduced back to a single object (“scholarship”), which is itself then figured through a complex, but at the same time concrete, simile. So: “neo-rulership” (whatever that is) is roughly equivalent to, or at least associated with 1) “asymmetrical creeping,” 2) “tautological curses,” and 3) “oblivious strata” (both of the latter “strange”), though it is at the same time simply “scholarship configured out of mayhem,” which we might imagine as the sound of some lizard laying eggs not quite its own and having an odd sense of itself. Surface leads to structure, an almost syllogistic logic. Even in this brief passage, we can recognize what Harryette Mullen has identified as central to Will Alexander’s practice, the “hyper-hypotactic,” an energetic and insistent grammatical linking of one thing to the next and to next one after that. Here, as it often does in Alexander’s work, that mode reveals connections among different discourses. Language itself is animated, the poem discovering and disclosing a kind of sentience inherent in its own materials.
Alexander has been working his peculiar magic since the early 1990s and through more than forty books, including novels, plays, and essays as well as poems long and short. His 1992 essay, “Los Angeles: The Explosive Cimmerian Fish,” published in the wake of the acquittal of L.A. cops who beat Rodney King, caught the eye of Eliot Weinberger, who selected and introduced five of Alexander’s poems in the avant-garde magazine, Sulfur. The label Weinberger affixed has stuck; throughout his career, Alexander has been understood as an “ecstatic surrealist on imaginal hyperdrive.” The phrase nicely captures Alexander’s dedication simultaneously to Surrealist practice and an Afrofuturist vision, the latter opening the former to a dispersed animist unconscious (or unconscious animism) rather than the unplumbed depths of the individual mind.
As Andrew Joron puts it in his introduction to Alexander’s Toward the Primeval Lightning Field, the poet’s technique delivers “Universal History as an instantaneous burst of information.” In bringing all of this—surrealism, Afrofuturism, universal history—to bear, it’s not surprising that Alexander is often at his best when engaging an interlocutor or focusing on an exemplar. In 2021, his Refractive Africa was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, its long poems on the Yoruba writer, Amos Tutuola, and on the Malagasy poet, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, making good on the conviction Alexander expressed at the “Expanding the Repertoire” conference on Black experimental writing in 2001: “I am not bound by 1619 and the convocation of our collective conscription on American soil.”
In Divine Blue Light, the supervising spirits are Fernando Pessoa and John Coltrane, the latter called out in the subtitle. The volume includes poems on other figures, especially artists (Chaïm Soutine and Joan Miró, Dean Smith, Taroon Kampoor), but Pessoa and Coltrane most powerfully enact Alexander’s vision and shape the book as a whole. Neither is surprising.
Known for his heteronyms, the guises under which he published in various genres, the Portuguese modernist Pessoa models a dispersal of the lyric subject that resonates with Alexander’s broadly animist project:
because the ideological self stunts its own upheaval
via dendritic shading & blurred neurological identity
you understood the intelligence that flowed through itinerant
mosses that evinced themselves as reasonless exhibits
Recalling Pessoa’s connections to Africa (when his mother remarried after his father’s death, the young Pessoa traveled twice to Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather served as Portuguese consul to the British colony of Natal), Alexander grounds the poet’s multilingual upbringing in colonial history even as he reconstructs Pessoa’s multiplicity of selves as neuro-discursive phenomena, the specifics of the nervous system overlaid with grammar. Pessoa thus stands as another in a long series of figures who, for Alexander, engage in practices quite like his own, practices that Gary Sloboda nicely describes:
the vigorous alchemy evident in the poetry’s transmission of elemental energies and processes that atomize within the poem so that their distinctions or disunions break down and are erased, but yet are ultimately transformed into radically new and unified architectures of expression.
Pessoa establishes the baseline (or bass line?) for Divine Blue Light, but the key to this volume is Coltrane. Or maybe, given the musician’s exploration of modes as alternatives to the key structure of Western musical tonality, Coltrane is the book’s primary mode. The metaphor is apposite, for just as musical modes offer different ways to group tones and enable complex harmonies, Alexander finds in the specialist vocabularies of different discourses notes that he can combine for consonant and dissonant relationships at the levels both of syntax and signification. In the title poem, the languages of grammar and linguistics, chemistry and mathematics, quantum physics and cosmology, politics and cellular biology all provide specific timbres and thematic developments. At one moment, Alexander characterizes the improvisations of Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, performed against the complex rhythms set out by drummer Elvin Jones, in terms of dark matter (“sans tactical mists & pre-cognitive carbon”), and at another he brings their “exploded constellations” into the sub-atomic “neutron array” that itself translates into processes at once biological and political (“dialectical osmosis”). In a vertiginous rapture on Coltrane’s transformative and (with Henry Louis Gates’s reading of his covers as motivated signifying in mind) transgressive version of “Chim Chim Cheree,” Alexander performs a solo of his own that, if called upon to do so, I would offer as a rich and wonderful example of this book’s beauties:
& your mind John
being simultaneous & unsettling
never as link to mystical typical personal secrecy your post-body
osmotically grappling with a chronic phantom wall
not vertical retreat into supreme cosmic expanse
. . .
but route as quantum lettering that flourishes by bizarre dictation
by highest disregard for perusal by fragmentation
thus the impersonal ignites as divine blue light
as bizarre philosophical gesture
analogous on Earth to unclaimed trenches
imaginary owl fish invade their own borders
suddenly disappearing into transmuted lightning
Learning to read these poems, like learning to listen to A Love Supreme, is sometimes challenging at first, but when the reader’s synapses have oriented to the strange syntax and similes, Alexander’s at-first “bizarre philosophical gesture” resounds, like Coltrane’s adventurous improvisations, with the felt truth of ineluctable inference.
MICHAEL THURSTON is a professor at Smith College.