contra mundum press has just published a voice full of cities, a heaping anthology of Robert Kelly’s essays, selected by Pierre Joris and Peter Cockelbergh. the book is a winding labyrinth of wonder; trails of intelligence, attention, desire, and pleasure that curl inward and nest among each other. The overdue assembling of them into a book affords an opportunity to feel how richly and intricately these thoughts coexist, how the roof of one serves as floor of another, shared walls enlacing to produce a tremendous contemplative cortex, dotted with sancta in which old gods – the oldest gods – still darkly sleep.
I’ve been particularly rereading one piece from 1971 called IDENTITY PREFERENCE TEMPLE-COMPLEX. it’s a short essay that begins by inquiring into ‘certain vectors of desire’ – where does that feeling originate in us, and what are the suns it grows toward? what does it mean to be both made of the past and endlessly multiple in a world of ‘felicities, miseries & confusions?’ remembering Robert Duncan’s notion of The Poet as a single voice spoken thru many mouths in a given age, he wonders whether there might not likewise be a voice – a prounikos he calls it, a ‘carrier’ – some polyvocalic, integral whole of Desire that speaks as the illusorily discrete desires inside each of us.
& as soon as this question is posed, the essay shifts radically and introduces a second section with the observation that scholars of ancient mesoamerica do not refer to mayan population centers like uxmal and palenque as ‘cities’ – rather, they call them ‘temple-complexes’, emphasizing the way in which it was not distinctly economic, military, or agricultural concerns that animated these places, but cultic ones, rituals of tithe, sacrifice, purification, time-keeping, formalized contemplation. So, altho the word will prove very problematic – which we’ll get to – we might casually name as religion the primary force that gave these places coherence.
& then there’s an amazing passage where he turns his attentions to new york city, and describes it, too, as a temple-complex, one where ‘a bewildering hierarchy of temple-functionaries arrives each day… ready to devote (in the technical sense, sphagia) one-third of their biological time to the national cult.’ As to the object of this cult, the question of ‘what god is worshiped on this most complex of all human altars,’ the answer is Preference, the continual act of choosing to think some things better than others and to design a self as the sum total of all these choices. this will be familiar to anyone who’s lived under late capitalism. (Reminiscent of it, I think, is the thesis of Bourdieu’s landmark la distinction, which was published eight years later.) & then, affirmingly, the essay considers some fertile heresies that thrive amid but against the grain of this religion, among ‘those deeply committed to some one or few actual substances,’ like drugs, sex, and poetry, any immersion into ‘the worship of the thing, as meaningful existent.’
I love how picturing new york this way, as a temple organized around a sanctified inanity (the ‘divinized freedom to Prefer,’ RK calls it), helps ease my sense of predicament, connects the holy crisis of navigating urban life in america today with the holy crisis of living in any human settlement at any point in history. You wake up with eyes in front of you & just go from there. You move thru a tube underground or past a giant limestone plinth that the limestone king’s sitting on. Whatever world you landed in. To have come about at all is, famously, an intrinsically weird situation.
The wonderful, wittgensteinisch egyptogist John Romer also declines to call places like abydos and thebes ‘cities’, preferring ‘settlements.’ (‘Modern cities,’ he writes, ‘are products of money-based economies; beyond “a lot of houses,” hardly anyone agrees on what the word might mean within an ancient context.’) Romer writes about how the egyptians, for all their chisel-&-stone bureaucratic uptightness, didn’t keep careful records about things like their system of nomes & estates – the political subdivisions of pharaonic rule – and the completion of pyramids, which, he writes, ‘were hardly the products of a massive mono-enterprise controlled in a modern way, but rather the products of a system which had allowed the practical free-flow of intelligence, and retained that accumulated knowledge down through generations.’ Somebody, somebodies innumerable, woke up every morning in a reality where when enough people came to live in the same place, they organized themselves around a mass mobilization of stone. The unifying goal was no small thing: to seed the horizon with intimations of abstraction.
To characterize these activities as ‘religious’ would be just as problematic as calling the places where they happened cities. It’s super-common for texts about the ancient world to note that ancient languages generally lack a word for ‘religion’ – that is, the notion of a ‘religious’ sphere as divorced from the aesthetic, political, narratological, architectural, astronomic, whatever, didn’t exist. There was, I think, knowledge; there were, I think, questions.
Still, I love the word religion. I want to use it all the time. Not that I haven’t, like so many of us, been stung, but it just feels to me like the right word, one that refers to a concrete feeling that sometimes comes over us. & just as I want to set ancientness loose on the city, I want to free it into a certain kind of religion, too. I’m not exactly sure what I mean by that.
The word itself comes at any rate from the latin religio, which means not religion in the contemporary sense but something closer to superstition, a particular class of behaviors that exist in dialogue with arbitrary cultural fixations. & there’s an ancient dispute about the origin of the latin word.
One school has long held that it comes from the latin religare, meaning ‘to bind’. Lucretius hears it that way – around 58 bce, in de rerum natura, he uses the phrase religionum animum nodis exsolvere (‘to loose the knots of religios from the mind’). Augustine, about half a millennium later, mentions getting the joke. & implied is an idea of binding the daily to the eternal, the human to the divine, the underground tunnel or plinthway to the polis, which is abstract and, as Robert Duncan also said, a lion.
On the other side of the debate is Lucretius’s contemporary Cicero, who traces religio to relegere, which means to go back over something. in de natura deorum, he writes ‘qui… omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter pertractarent et tamquam relegerent sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo…,’ ‘those… who have devotedly pondered all the duties of honoring the gods, practicing every one, as though going back over (relegerent) them, are called religious (religiosi) for how they return to things (relegendo)…’ religion as a kind of meditative return to a thing, to a ‘meaningful existent’ in accord with some calendar.
I find the contemplative delta that opens up between these two explanations fascinating. A holy crisis of knots and a holy crisis of recurrences. & if poetry can be thought of as a heresy within the bigger cult we inevitably serve, a whisper coursing backward thru the temples, then I’d like to think about the differences between a poetics of binding and a poetics of repetition, about the way these two impulses jostle against each other in our poetry.
I guess I’d like to end for now with one more tweak on the word ‘religion’. It comes from the egyptologist Jan Assmann, who offers a useful distinction by using the word ‘counter-religion’ to refer to any system of belief that ‘rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as “paganism.”’ The majority of contemporary religions, then, as contrasted with ancient polytheism, which served as a technique of intercultural comprehension, undergirding ‘a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.’ & it seems to me that this distinction exists in poetry, too: some of us practice it in the spirit of what Robert Parker has called ‘universal polytheism,’ using poetry as an ecstatic site of infinite contact and intertranslatability, and others have developed it into a counter-religion, declaring the existence of a wrong way to do it, to ends that can be both wondrous and hurtful.
It’s in this context that I want to be one of the many people urging readers toward Cathy Park Hong’s delusions of whiteness in the avant-garde, recently published in lana turner, as well as where do we go from here?, the recent statement by a group of new york poets frustrated with sexism and violence in their community. If poetry is our chosen heresy – & what could be sweeter? – we need to be working to subvert its emergent hierarchies, to foster the practical free-flow of intelligence and retain that accumulated knowledge down through generations. It’s no one’s apostasy who doesn’t get to dance. poets need to cultivate a consciousness in which the work of maintaining a healthy poetry community is at the core of poetic labor. If we can’t model at least a flawed but attempted justice in our community politics, what valences will our work take on? What worlds will we inhabit? & what will we have been organizing our lives around?
In subsequent posts, I’d like to try & sound thru these distinctions – between a poetics of collocation and one of repetition, and between a poetry of infinite translatability and one that cleaves itself from idolatries and declares a single road to the sun. I’d like to take as axiom the heresy that the world is a book and is everybody’s. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Ian Dreiblatt is an amateur egyptologist, poet, and the translator of, most recently, Gogol’s The Nose and Comradely Greetings, the prison correspondence of Slavoj Žižek and Pussy Riot’s Nadyezhda Tolokonnikova, from Melville House and Verso Books respectively. His poetry has appeared, among other places, in Elderly, Lungfull!, Web Conjunctions, Bomblog, The Agriculture Reader, The Boog City Reader, Pallaksch. Pallaksch., and Sink Review, and a e-chap is forthcoming from Metambesen. He lives with Anna in Sunset Park and is currently developing a whole new approach to soups.
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