Contributor’s Marginalia: Michael Lavers on “Iconography“ by Leslie Bohn
“A peculiar vocation,” Leslie Bohn says of her poem’s prophet, a figure who is both seer and maker: “he felt compelled to memorize / dreams and nightmares, catalogue signs and signifiers, / find truth in his own dissembling.” Naturally he is “uncomfortable with his position as prophet”: who, in their right mind, would choose that line of work? The best prophets have always been the most reluctant, and Bohn’s speaks as if under duress, “feeling he was bound to tell lies,” and “hoping to neither rename old gods / nor give pyrite to those who expected gold.” The solution he comes up with is as universal a characteristic of good poetry as I know: keen observation of the natural world and a belief that such observation is itself sacred. And so he “described the smell of the sheep’s wool when wet, / the sound wheat made in the wind.” He sang, as Rilke did to his own angel, of things.
The poem’s controlling conceit is that of the icon. From the Greek for “image,” an icon is a door to the divine, but a door we never fully want (or need) to pass through, like a stained-glass window. The image of the icon, like the surface of the poem, its texture, is indistinguishable from the experience of the divine which shines through it. It may make some readers nervous to insist that poets continue to speak with angels, or, with a straight face, ask for revelation. One way a poem can fail is by taking itself too seriously. But another is by not taking itself seriously enough. “Iconography” reminds us that in our search for something holy, we need look no further than to Earth. And to language, Earth’s temple.
Let’s look at those lines again: “he described the smell of the sheep’s wool when wet, / the sound wheat made in the wind.” We are asked to view these things as miracles. Which, of course, they are. But more than that, the s and w sounds, as well as those short i’s and e’s, blowing through these lines transcend “mere” ornamentation. They conjure up, in the mouth and ear, the image they describe. Whenever language is put under this kind of pressure, words become not only the names of objects, but, as Auden writes, one of an object’s “most important properties, and, therefore, numinous.” Bohn’s prophet “drew from his words a bridge / where meaning could enter their world again.” The image and the word; the sound the wheat makes in the wind and the sound those words make in your mouth; these are the new gods, the miracles Bohn summons out of the darkness into the light. A peculiar vocation indeed.
Michael Lavers is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah. His poems and essays have appeared in many journals, including College Literature, Smartish Pace, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.