What Gerrit gives us
When I first reckoned the project of writing about Gerrit Lansing’s work, poems that for a long time have been very important to me and influential upon my own work, and possess erudition far beyond anything one is likely to encounter in contemporary poetry — I felt a sense of intimidation. How could I, a product of the late-twentieth-century public education system, still a young poet by comparison, write anything of any profundity about a body of work so vast in subject and so catholic in its influence, drawing upon sources Eastern and Western, arcane and academic? Upon further consideration, however, I realized that this reaction was wholly inappropriate; for Gerrit’s poems, like all things sublime, invite.
I realized that my trepidation comes from having come of age at a time when the shibboleth of transparency was held in high regard, due to a reaction against High Modernism, and the influence of the Confessionals and the newly-burgeoning MFA culture on US poetry. Despite my disdain for many of these institutions, those of my generation cannot help but be dumbstruck when we face an oeuvre rooted in traditions predating or transcending those grounds of our initial instruction. Whether we flee in fear from perceived “difficulty,” or gravitate toward it, we cannot help but be seized by a sensation of being “out of our depth,” because the depths in which we learned to swim were indeed shallow. Like those reared in the desert, we come upon the sublime sea and are rendered mute by it. Woe to us if today’s poets had been explorers, who upon seeing said sea said, “this is beautiful and dangerous, it cannot be crossed.” But the crossing is not the only gauntlet, as evinced by the brutal consequences of so many explorations, so many discoveries. “Of the godly uncanny it is wise to beware.”
The ego longs to be obliterated. Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” looks out upon the morass and hears the call of the sirens therein, the crash of the waves on rocks become the pulse of the life force; he is master of himself, only and that self would fain dissolve. The ego looks upon Mount Vesuvius, and would swim in lava, with the salamanders, and be “as molten gold and molten gold.” The real reaction to the sublime is not so much fear as longing. This longing is ever-present in Gerrit’s work, longing for you, longing for me, and longing for the loss of self that occurs when one is left by the god to “dream with eyes open all night long.”
The Industrial Revolution and the resulting age erected great barriers between the individual ego and the sublime, replaced longing-fear with fear-fear and compelled us to sheathe our bodies and mind in armor, forming what Wilhelm Reich called “mechanistic civilization”: “It is just this freedom intrinsic in nature which makes our mechanists anxious when they encounter it.” Reich was outspoken in his criticism of the paradigm of Western thought in the twentieth century, though it is no surprise that we armor ourselves in the midst of those shrieking warplanes and rattling machine gun emplacements that eat young men quick. Modern man has wandered far from the animism that Reich advocates as the fundamental force in the universe; Gerrit speaks to a similar animate cosmos, but instead of admonishing us, Gerrit seeks to teach — by invitation, by example, by song, by “salvific toot.”
If Reich is unforgiving, Gerrit forgives, for we are those unforgiven for whom he appeals to the universal mother, his own mother wearing the mask of Marpessa who jilted abstract divinity for functional reality:
Our Lady of the unforgiven of this world
forgive us out of darkness and the warmth of summer nights
and let our benedictions echo in the body’s cave.
It is a mistake to call Gerrit a metaphysical poet, for his vision is an intensely physical one, eschewing what Reich calls the physics of the mechanist, whereby “all physical problems are essentially solved,” but nevertheless engaged with the animistic physical properties of the real reality. What Gerrit espouses is a kind of intercourse with the world, for he knows that when one is ridden by a daemon, it is not a possession but a union. Likewise, when one is but observing, knowledge is also sexual union, as was Adam’s task in the garden — to find his mate by way of experimentation.
In Eden, where our dreams of happiness are carefully conserved,
stored as juicy essences the virgin of the world put up,
we eat each other endlessly,
apples sadly rarely shared in what is unjust history.
“To name is to count. You will hear a golden bell.”
Insofar as all who are quick are involved in this congress with the universe, Gerrit’s homoeroticism, while personal, political, and anecdotal, is also universal, for we are all engaged in that process of congress with the universe, our own image, and the holistic gem of our fractured selves. Gerrit portrays the universal force as both masculine and feminine and gradations thereof balanced in alchemical harmony. The milk of the universal mother is manifest in the seed of male lovers:
The sweetness of men is also her bounty
the milk of the stars from her paps runs sweet in their first jaculations
in automobile cowboy privacy of nights in Dogtown
where the sweet smell of clethra
along the woodlots road
fills the moonlit air where her nectar falls on the fires of spring
and the gusher of spirit exults.
The impetus towards orgasm (Reich’s “orgone energy,” though the man himself was quizzically hostile towards those he perceived as “sexual deviants”) is not procreative, but rather reflexive, the mechanism whereby we come to know — and by knowing lose and transcend — the universe and ourselves.
Our mechanistic world sees only through a lens, be it glass or corneal. Those seers of other kinds of sight having been stripped of their laurels and labeled first heretics and later fools or insane — the Halloween party witch, the party magician, the schizophrenic oracle. First by the sociopolitical designs of Christianity and then by the dynamo-fearing acolytes of mechanistic science, the character of the Magus has been marginalized and maligned for centuries — mere centuries — for some have drank from the well of noumenon for countless centuries prior and countless hence. It is that aspect of Gerrit’s work that some may be tempted to label “mystic” (although animistic is the better appellation) that perhaps will give the rank-and-file contemporary reader pause, compelled so by those two competing modern dogmas of “Religion” or “Science,” despite the fact that the worldview embodied in this work unites elements of both in holy matrimony.
This may be because the Magus is indeed all he is cracked up to be: charlatan, trickster, rogue, liar, demagogue, hedonist, and more, for the Magus is the wielder of paradox just as the prophet is the wielder of supposed “truth,” although “prophet” has its root in “prophecy,” which is the demesne of the oracle. The Magus makes a mockery of the notion of knowledge as finite and transparent (“this naming / is gaming.”), and is likely to make a fool of those seeking finalities and transparencies. Which is not to say his truths are lies, but rather, his lies truth, since truth and lie lie together in the bower of the universe.
Above all else, the Magus is artist, creating or dispelling illusion or shades of both. We have become unaccustomed to seeing him as such, particularly in the light of the Modern eschewal of trompe l’oeil and art that misleads or fools for art which distilled abstract truths, although the speech of the oracle does the same. Who once commanded fear and respect has been relegated by the mechanistic paradigm and its intimate relationship to the former to the object of skepticism and scorn. However, such things are of no consequence to him.
While some modern writers have understood his character (Ursula LeGuin’s Ged comes immediately to mind), few have depicted the Magus as artist and scribe better than Shakespeare in his Prospero. It is said of the character that he is the avatar of the author himself, but he is also the model for the pre-mechanistic Magus, wielder of Baconian science and illusionism alike, master of ceremonies, and pivot of disparate narratives. The revelations of the play are also his undoing. “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair,” for Prospero is also the trinity of he and his agents, Caliban and Ariel: civilized man, humus and ether. The Magus is equal parts cthonic wisdom, whimsy and human rhetoric and is most powerful as the conjunction of these, the functional human — “Let your indulgence set me free.” As in the unsundered Prospero, these elements form the pith of and are given free reign in Gerrit’s work, the next great characterization, and fuller realization, of the mage-artisan in English literature:
Mournful angels spire down his black syntax
To health. Mad and warm as children, they splash
and couple in the joyous summer sea.
In the above-quoted “Dark Grammarian,” Gerrit names himself by way of a pun, “His garret overhangs the green subtle slum / where nothing culminates,” and depicts himself, Prospero-like, as agent of the various forces that come to life in his work. This Grammarian is dark not in the sense of the Western binary of the goodness of light and the darkness of evil, but rather as one who has engaged in the hero’s katabasis — the plumbing and subsequent return from the underworld, as Orpheus has, and more particularly the speaker of Nérval’s “Les Chimeres” has “two times crossed & won the Acheron” and that of Tammuz, who appears in “The Cutting of the Lotus,” “Underneath the underground tree / Shamash and Tammuz in the Shade.” Katabasis is the process by which potent enigmas are internalized, intellectually and bodily by the perceiver. We proceed to the underworld by going the “Wrong Way,” by subsuming our knowledge in anti-knowledge, closing eyes to see the clearer. “His right hand takes the left hand path, the Sign / Is born and flowers in the sudden damp.” The act of flowering, and the flower itself in its omnisexual purity comprises another important element in Gerrit’s cosmology.
This descent is emblematic, also, of the seasons and of terrestrial order — katabasis is the process by which one intuits the knowledge of the earth and its phenomena, the scientific method insofar as it applies to the empirical, the Humanities, insofar as to be “human” is to bury the dead in the earth and to be buried in turn:
Who bury the dead
must from the grave
establish a habit …
Who bury the dead
to rise again.
This katabasic knowledge is a persistent theme in Gerrit’s work, from “3 Poems of the Underworld(s),” to “Dark Grammarian,” to “The Soluble Forest,” where again the descent/ascent is named Gerrit’s own name:
From the center of nothing something spreads out, that then
there now. From zero jumps two, two being how something is appre-
hended. Only a stone’s throw from writing to root. The rite of winter is
the root of spring.
The house stands on its cellar and grows up. Also grows down
from its garret invisibly, as the crown of a tree flourishes the idea of its
The ego seeks obliteration to know its own name, and to name and thereby make agents of its deeper, truer urges. To grow forth must first be swallowed by the dirt, from whence arises the “thousand-petalled sun.”
Knowledge is not austere. Static hubris is the enemy of sight. To be mercurial is to be as quick (“living”) silver and likewise resist containment always. To be as the spirits of the air and to “Do as Thou Wilt.” The whim is sacred, divine fancy. The oracular tradition bedecked the profound with riddles, and knew that that purest intuition is perceived sidelong — the eclipsing sun and moon through a pinhole, “the first darkness blinds the human eyes.”
In the “Soluble Forest,” the wisdom of katabasis is couched in riddling terms:
“Spelt from the mummy’s tomb:
a cereal poem:
it die and be
it comes as it goes
The poem is an onion of puns, double entendres and riddles. The opening line puns on George Manley Hopkins’ “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” as well as the definition of “spelt,” being an archaic spelling of “spelled,” but also the grain spelt, giving rise to the “cereal poem,” not to mention the “spell” itself, the text of the Eleusinian mysteries of the cult of Demeter, recalling Hopkins’s own prosody-cult of the meter, prefiguring Jack Spicer’s metaphysics and serial poems, which give rise to the next line. The line is both a refutation of and homage to the Berkeley Renaissance, a (too) obvious precedent for this poem, which is indeed serial and cereal insofar as it is seminal and germinal.
The second stanza puns on “be / ing” and the “be / coming,” and the “it,” which literally comes (orgasms) as it goes — into the underworld, bower of Demeter’s daughter. Going down, coming. The right hand taking the left-hand path.
The wisdom of Gerrit’s poems most often operates in this manner, by way of the left-hand path, and a network of associations — sonic, intellectual, and contextual. Trickster wisdom is an affront to the mechanistic model of “knowledge” and “accuracy.” That which is unheimlich is not of necessity profound or similar — as evinced in “3 Anecdotes of the Uncanny,” whereby accounts are given of an encounter with an extraterrestrial Old One, a traveler who gets a surprise stepping on some unexpected fauna during a “melancholy-romantic” ramble in the dark, and a tiger disguised as a man hoping to crash a mountain tryst. What lies at the limits of human understanding is not H. P. Lovecraft’s quivering chaos, but quelle surprise! “Over the hills and far away / Teletubbies come out to play.”
The universe teems with life, and life’s motility is ecstatic expansion, “It begins and ends in bamboozle / fuming in delightful delusion.”
auto-erotize, tune in, not forget,
and emerges a new decisive property
and your multiverse
as former parts, PONG, cohere anew.
All things advance towards the naught of The Fool, who is no dummy.
The shaman lives at the edge of town, but he is of the town. The oracle did not merely tell but shaped the destiny she scryed. Prospero stewards his domain; it is a mistake to say that one who is above and below is one apart. The oracle’s is also the orator’s art, and likewise Gerrit speaks, like Maximus, to the Polis — cosmo, metro and meta. The citizen looks to the will of the order of the Law, which is Love, and the oracle is avatar of the will of the heavens, which is also Love. It is a mistake to say the object of metaphysics is a place apart, rather it looks to a place within, and each within begins in the without of the Polis. Likewise Gerrit speaks to and for same. He sings the song of Amphion, who raised up Thebes, “Open to darkness, open to light, a muse / in the shifting, a shape in the hands of the winds”:
Here are the tenements
Yet green in their cerements
These are the gay movements, benedict
Music of the city of earth
City of earth
“The Wizard of Oz in the Blizzard of Oz” maps a route for the erstwhile liege through said blizzard, which is the stupefaction of this United (“Disunited”) States by the stink tanks of filthy lucre (so named in the poem): “American Enterprise Foundation, Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Competitive Enterprise Foundation, Council for Social and Economic Studies, Center for Security Policy”). Here is the Whitmanian project of political reconciliation of self-knowledge, veneration of what is human in the city and the city in the human. “The Curve” recommends “making the place by placing the place, live / (or live, change vowel eye, heart” in order to brook the burden of the city for the land belongs to he who would make the best use of it:
it is to smell
to dig with the hand
and at least
to come in
on this curve
from the ravening wood
to a city
we once could be citizens of.
The restored Eden, wherein the names have liquefied and rejoined the soluble forest, congeries of unarmored bodies at the work of breathing and breathing together — “polis is / eyes.”
There is nothing solemn in this house, so do not come solemn-eyed. Gerrit’s poems travel a great distance and the way is sometimes uncertain, and indeed at times there is no way at all. But Gerrit is always at the crown of the hill, perhaps disappearing into the pines with a peal of fox laugher, the white fox of “Annisquam Nights.” Not the shaman, but the spirit-guide itself, of no fixed form or inclination. That cannot be understood, which is the knowledge of going under, ununderstanding in the big lap of the loss of ego. “Running in blue light / the hunter’s moon will eat his mind at night.”
A section of Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth is named “Portals,” and this is indeed what is offered therein. There is no destination. Each is an opening of language into a field beyond language. The Aum — a resplendent syllabary whereby the fetters of material consciousness are shooed and eschewed. Fundamentally, the Magus is teacher, guide and lover. That knowing is a verb, to do is to be. What Gerrit gives us is a steadfast being, the keys to a library that is also a greenhouse, each book being a flower that is a flowering of a human mind, the author’s or otherwise.
Who is rich in love will lay
An autumn table for his guest
And shape in autumn ornaments
The shapes and omens of his love
For a poem is more and less than an author’s mind, “The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,” where play the “cats of many colors.” Gerrit’s is the rain that deepens the hue of our own stones, which are hewn from that standing herm somewhere under verdant canopies, “Enceladus-immense,” a silent, knowing God. In this herm is a gate that Gerrit has made, an opening of words, blessed be the travelers who go to the gate that Gerrit has given us, and blessed be the gate, the aperture by which that which is within looks out, upon us and our silly universe.
1. I use the given name here, because it is the name that Gerrit himself offers us in poems such as “A Red Ghazel for C.B.L.,” “The Dark Grammarian,” and “A Ghazel of Absence.” All poems from Gerrit Lansing, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2009).
15. Gérard de Nerval, “The Chimeras,” trans. Mark Lamoureux, Fascicle no. 1 (Summer 2005).