Peter O'Leary
an interview                           (page 4)

JMW: I want to ask about religious poetry here. What does that mean for you? and what compelled the Thick and Dazzling Darkness project?

PO'L: If we think of language as a star, religious poetry is the source of the light it emits – the radiant core. But religious poetry is also this energetic periphery to language: it’s in that dynamic intermediate region, between what is spoken and what’s unspoken, the place where liquid and solid meet, or vocalization and thought.

I’ve always thought of my life in poetry in terms of a religious vocation. Silly as that may sound, I contrast it to the sense of ambition and career that seems nowadays to prevail. Ambition comes from the Latin root for strolling around – we get the word amble from it; in its earliest uses, the word was associated with politicians canvassing votes. Over the centuries, the word has drifted into a more neutral usage. But the earlier meaning seems about right, especially in terms of “an ambitious young poet.”

Vocation comes from another Latin root, vocatus, for “call.” The call to poetry is also a caul, like a spider’s netting: you get caught in it and you can’t release yourself from it except to accept it as a negatively capable inevitability.

I’m a believer. The myth that informs my work is what Duncan called the “Christos mythos,” or what gets played out in Blake as the tri-fold cycle of creation, redemption, and apocalypse. So, what do you do if this is your milieu? How do you construct a poetic reality in an increasingly secularizing world, one in which expressions of faith tend to be taken as politically sensational rather than richly connective or purposefully bewildering (in Fanny Howe’s sense of the world; meant to take you into the wilderness)?

Thick and Dazzling Darkness: After completing Gnostic Contagion, I took on a new project to pose helpful settings and possible answers for the question of what happens when you read and write religious poetry. My title combines two interesting assertions about the nature of the caligo divina, or divine darkness, as occultist Thomas Vaughan put it (translating from the Mystical Theology of Dionysius). The first comes from the Authorized Version description of God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20:21: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” Having received the Decalogue, the people are afraid to talk to God and so ask Moses to speak on their behalf. Telling them not to be afraid, he passes into the dizzying “thick darkness.” While the tensions/necessities of the Sinaitic formulations—the language of fealty and vassalship—in some senses contradict the work of poetry, the motion of Moses—the Law-giver—as intervening agent into the dizzying cloud does not. Moses’ contact with God in this moment stands for the symbolic acts of the religious poet.

The second assertion appears in “The Night,” a poem by Thomas’ twin brother Henry Vaughan. The poem concludes with a justly famous stanza:

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
     See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.

I love the idea that as Moses backs into the thick darkness where God is, he comes into contact with its dazzling dynamism: the idea that your own light becomes shadow in the overwhelming light of the divine, so bright, the only metaphor for it is darkness.

Anyways, I use that orientation to write about modern and contemporary poets writing religious poetry, most of them American, some of them obscure, others well known: Frank Samperi, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Duncan, Geoffrey Hill, Lissa Wolsak, Fanny Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, Joseph Donahue, and Pam Rehm. The work of each of these poets is important to me – resonating with the call. Each momentarily illuminates a quality of that divine darkness that surrounds us always, in language and in actuality.

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