Tag Archives: poetry

New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ishmael Reed.

Reed New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

When I was in high school, a critical aside comparing Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus to Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo brought me haphazardly to a public library copy of Reed’s first poetry collection Conjure, which excited me to the point of photocopying nearly a third of it — after resisting the temptation to steal it outright. For about twenty years thereafter, Reed’s work motivated myriad unrewarded searches on my part among the poetry shelves in used bookshops across the country. In 2006, the volume of Reed’s New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 supplied me with the full contents of Conjure, as well as the interim volumes ChattanoogaA Secretary to the Spirits, and Points of View, and a further collection of poetry more extensive than any two of the earlier books combined. 

Conjure still includes several of my all-time-favorite short poems: “There’s a Whale in my Thigh,” “The Piping Down of God,” and “Dragon’s Blood.” According to the author’s micro-vita appended to this volume, “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” is also an all-time-favorite of literature instructors. Perhaps the best and most representative poem of this earliest set is the exquisite “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” a houngan’s brag rebuking Christian tyranny with a mixture of Wild West and ancient Egyptian imagery.

The later materials continue in the same vein, with a tiny bit less anger and a little more sorrow, but Reed’s sense of humor is undiminished. Although he no longer foregrounds the blazon of his school of Neo HooDooism, his methods and aims seem quite consistent with what came before. In the later work, his awareness of the (already much-realized) possibility that his poems would serve as musical lyrics more often leads Reed to use repetitive chorus forms and traditional structures, but even in the early pieces, there is a vivid aural sensibility that constantly tempts to reader to declaim them aloud for the benefit of their full force. 

Reed insists that his poetry is not theological in its aims, despite its use of various non-Christian and counter-Christian tropes and images: “The key lesson that I do take from Yoruba religion is from the parable in which a traveler finds himself in a strange country, away from his gods, and the only god that he can depend upon is his own mind” (xix). But he makes no such disclaimers regarding politics. A political piece among the more recent work that I found especially striking as an expression of its own time was the 2001 “America United” (362-372). And one that read with eerie irony in the light of current events (police violence in late October 2011) was “Let Oakland Be a City of Civility” from 1999 (341-345).

After the recent poems, the book concludes with an opera libretto Gethsemane Park, and a prose narrative “Snake War” based on a translation of an excerpt from Fungawa’s Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God). The former is a sort of Godspell-like displacement of gospel events into the modern American city, in which Jesus is not a human hero but a discorporate orisha.

In an untitled verse from 1992, Reed wrote: “Ever get the / Feeling that your past / Is a hunter who knows the / Woods better than you” (327). In fact I do, and this four-decades-plus collection goes a way toward demonstrating why Reed might as well.

The keystone of this arch of misery
Is set by the unfaltering hands
Of Fate. How desperate the anarchy
Wrought in one hour!
The fickle sands
Run through the glass, and all the light is gone.

Aleister Crowley, The Mother’s Tragedy

Hermetic quote Crowley The Mother's Tragedy keystone arch misery set by unfaltering hands fate desperate anarchy wrought one hour fickle sands glass light gone

The secret of the Lord is set with him
That wonders at His majesty: his praise
Wells from no trembler’s misery: his hymn
Swells the exultant day’s.
His psalm wings upward, and reflected down
Even in Hell makes music and renown.

Aleister Crowley, The Temple of The Holy Ghost, The Mountain Christ

Hermetic quote Crowley The Temple of the Holy Ghost Mountain Christ secret lord wonders majesty praise tremblers misery hymn swells psalm hell music renown

He riddled me — ah, God! I see it now!
The bloody winepress? The ascending sun?
Thy dawning beauty and thine evil bed!
The double meaning! I had evil thoughts
When I pronounced it — else had She Herself,
Hathoör or Mary, risen. Misery!
Incessant mystery of the search for Truth!

Aleister Crowley, Tannhäuser

Hermetic quote Crowley Tannhauser dawning beauty evil bed double meaning evil thoughts hathoor mary risen misery incessant mystery search truth

Horribly useless, this business called life. What does it all matter, when love is gone? And who can hold love? Oh, misery! misery! And still so many years to live. To live alone.

Helen Woljeska, Nocturne

Hermetic quote Woljeska Nocturne horribly useless business called life what matter love gone hold love misery many years to live alone

O nameless splendour of the Gods,
          Begotten hardly of Heaven!
Unspoken treasure of the abodes
          Beyond the lightning levin!
No misery, no despair may pay
The joy to hold thee for a day!

Aleister Crowley, The Argonauts

Hermetic quote Crowley The Argonauts nameless splendour gods heaven unspoken treasure abodes no misery despair pay joy hold thee a day

O! hear me not! I die;
I am borne away in misery of dumb life
That would in words flash forth the holiest heaven
That to the immortal God of Gods is given,
And, tongue-tied, stammers forth – my wife!

Aleister Crowley, Rosa Mundi

Hermetic quote Crowley Rosa Mundi die borne misery dumb life words holiest heaven immortal god gods tongue tied stammers wife

Rationalism swept through Germany, more especially the illusion that man’s faculty could establish and secure a single, true, and salvation-guaranteeing religion. This rationalism expressed itself in pamphlets, in systems, in conversations, in secret societies and in many other institutions. It was not satisfied—indeed it did not even bother—to deny the distinctive doctrines of the Catholic church; its basis was rather the simple assertion: nothing in positive Christianity is acceptable except its “reasonable morality,” the doctrine that God is the father of all things, and the proposition that man’s soul is immortal; what goes beyond these three assertions is either poetry or superstition or pure nonsense.

Terry Melanson, Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Melanson Perfectibilists rationalism pamphlets conversations secret societies institutions nothing acceptable except reasonable morality beyond is poetry superstition nonsense

But in this story, as in so many others, what we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous, and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry, and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved. An algebra too unstable properly to be computed, it is human-shaped and god-shaped, not pure and mathematical.

Stephen Fry, Mythos [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher]

Hermetic quote Fry Mythos human-shaped god-shaped not pure and mathematical

the poetry of transgression is also knowledge. He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not; and he knows something the others don’t know.

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye

Hermetic Quote Bataille Story of the Eye transgression