Prose Feature: “Metaphysical Courage: A Review of Bruce Beasley’s Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012)” by Luke Hankins

May 23, 2014

The title of Beasley’s latest book, Theophobia, reminds us that Western religious conceptions of God are inextricably bound to the idea and the experience of fear. The God of Judaism and Christianity is a figure worthy of not only respect but also dread. One of Beasley’s epigraphs for this book is Proverbs 1:7, “The dread of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This “theophobia” and the range of its possible manifestations are at the heart of Beasley’s poems and, one must suppose, at the heart of the poet’s personal agon with skepticism and belief.

Beasley’s poems, not only in this collection but throughout his work, repeatedly raise the moral considerations inherent in the idea of a Creator who is dreadful as well as glorious. One of the most effective ways Beasley engages these considerations is by examining natural phenomena through the lens of scientific learning, notably in the fields of genetics, neuroscience, animal biology, and disease. In earlier books, astrophysics and cosmology also figure largely. Consider, for instance, the following excerpts from “Extremophilic Magnificat,” which references the biblical hymn of praise that Mary offers upon being told that she will give birth to the Messiah, and which bears the epigraph “Awe . . . was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none” (Emily Dickinson). In this poem, Beasley considers two creatures that live in extreme conditions deep in the ocean, the Pompeii worm and the bone-eating snotflower:

from (I) Pompeii Worm

This near-boiling geyser-gush                through the Earth’s crust
blasted water
acidic as vinegar
on Galapagos’              seabed, this

papery tube the extremophile

Pompeii worm drills
to make              its habitation in a black-
smoker hydrotherm              rift-zone chimney

[…]

             waving             the feathers of a gray

shawl             made wholly
out of symbiotic bacteria
into and out of the magma—

Theo-
phobe,

what can you
do
with these creatures, these
living filaments that fur the worm’s back and feed
off sugared mucus             it oozes

and repay their host by denitrifying,
sulfur-eating, detoxifying
the sulfide             jets so pressured by             the mile-
deep sea they can’t break into boil?

from (II) Bone-eating Snotflower

Lord Theos, down here they call those monstrous bodies hopeful
whose genetic spasms of deformation
amount to a saltation,
a leap             into a wholly new species

Evolution’s             random hypervariation
I call it theurgy             God-work

from (III) Annunciation to Mary, and Her Hymn of Praise the Magnificat

Hail, bulged              ovisac and dwarf male
mucofloris,

[…]

the Lord is with thee              too, in involuntary
sanctifying
at the vent-site, and toxin-purifying
eurytheotic
me

[…]

Our bodies—bacterial-
fuzzed and toxin-eating, scald-

loving, tentacles over a hundred
thousand eggs surrounded
by a swarm of third-
of-a-millimeter
males—do             magnify the Lord whether or not we want them to . . .

[…]

Should we
keep
all these things in the depths              as if we’d never
spoken of them, or call             ourselves hopeful
monsters like these, un-
fathom
all they say             as they wave
pink gill-plumes over
their gray and brain-shaped ovaries?

(from “Extremophilic Magnificat”)

Beasley believes that if the natural world is created, it is itself—including our own bodies—the revelation of its Creator. But that’s precisely the problem. Is there any coherence in the revelation? Is interpretation possible? And who are we, as part of the system being examined (we “hopeful monsters”), to say what we might mean—or indeed who we might be? When we are our own subjects of investigation, surely objectivity is impossible:

As if the exegesis—of DNA’s
scripture & scat—could ever cease.

As though some ineradicable trait
translated out of the incoherent

lingua prima of gene could tear

my self apart, mitotic, strand by strand—

[…]

Can’t we say
anymore, with Descartes, the soul
can work independently of the brain,
can we say anymore, with Descartes,
ignoramus et ingorabimus, we are ignorant
and shall so remain?

Tell me, snipped thread, warped ladder,
what it is you say I am.
Nucleus-cosmographer, hymn me
the six-billion-lettered song of self.

(from “Genomic Vanitas”)

The self is far too complex, multifaceted, and labile to allow for us to get a coherent sense of who we are, much less of what the metaphysical significance of our nature and existence might be. The continued discoveries of science have made it clearer than ever that the Rationalist hopes of Cartesian philosophy are doomed to failure. What reason has shown us, in fact, is that our reason cannot sound the complexities of such fundamental concepts as “self,” disallowing a “first philosophy” of any certainty. And yet, we are faced with a dilemma because we are creatures always inclined to seek answers to the riddle of being—as Beasley says, “As if the exegesis […] could ever cease.” Thankfully, however, Beasley does not attempt to provide answers, but rather offers to the reader his experience of the dilemma itself in compelling and surprising ways. What do we seek more fundamentally in art than powerful expression of the human condition? Art does not provide answers. Art convinces us that we are not alone in asking the questions.

If the natural world for Beasley is a language that speaks of God’s nature and attributes, it is an often strange and frightening language, and, like art, one which does not provide answers so much as provoke questions. In an extended metaphor of Metaphysical proportions, worthy of John Donne, Beasley writes:

Being-Without-a-Body, get
to me
and shiver along the nerves

like the Toxoplasma gondii parasite
that works its way deep up a rat’s brain
and lays its cysts all through the amygdala,

unsnips the dendrites from networks
of instinctive fear that repel
the rat from cat pheromones, and reconnects

the wiring so the rat’s testes swell
with attraction at the smell
of cat-piss and so urge the rat straight toward

the predator’s mouth, since a cat-gut’s
the only place where toxoplasma can breed, and the parasite leaves
the cat’s body in the feces another rat will eat

and that rat’s brain will also be restrung
from dread to lust for what consumes it: Spirit
of Holy Fear, who’s afraid?

(from “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia”)

God as invading organism. God as death sentence. And yet this is a prayer to be invaded, to be sentenced to death. Is this masochism? Suicidal desire? Or is it an accusation against God’s goodness?

I think none of these. What we see in Beasley’s work is an unflagging observation of things-as-they-are, including terrible aspects of our world and our experiences in it. In such a world, to entertain the idea of a Creator is necessarily to call the Creator’s motives and character into question. But in face of barbarism in the natural world and personal psychological suffering, Beasley’s poems communicate not simple horror or outrage or confusion, but ultimately wonder, awe at the complexity of the systems—both material and psychological—in which suffering occurs.

In the excerpt above from “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia,” I suggest that it is Beasley’s awe that wins out over his horror. It is a prayer—a fearful one, yes (“Spirit / of Holy Fear, who’s afraid?”)—of surrender of the self to a system that supersedes the self, in which annihilation of the self may contribute to the terrible beauty of the whole.

Does this trouble you, dear reader?

Exactly.

Beasley possesses what I would call metaphysical courage—something great philosophers, theologians, and artists must possess. It is the ability to consider negative possibilities without faltering and without recourse to facile idealized assumptions. It is akin to, but not identical with, Keats’ idea of “negative capability.” Whereas negative capability avoids any “irritable reaching after fact and reason,” metaphysical courage continually reaches after “fact and reason”—but it refuses to settle for comforting illusions. Beasley’s spirituality is not one of false comfort, but rather one that arises out of, and ultimately accepts as crucial, fear itself. He is willing to be troubled if that is what our experience of the world calls for—if that is part of our existential ecosystem.

If, as Beasley asserts, the world and its processes are “God-work” (“Extremophilic Magnificat”), what do they tell us about God? One of the two epigraphs to this book is the following quote from Leszek Kołakowski’s Metaphysical Horror:

One might ask why, if the universe is indeed a secret book of the gods with a coded message for us, this message is not written in ordinary language rather than in hieroglyphics whose decoding is discouragingly arduous and, above all, never results in certainty. But this question is futile, for two independent reasons. First, it assumes that we do know, or can imagine, what the universe would be like if its message and meaning were clearly readable and unambiguously displayed before our eyes. But we do not know this, and we lack the kind of imagination necessary to imagine it. Second, it is possible that if we knew why the message is hidden, or partly hidden, it would no longer be hidden—in other words, that concealment of the reasons for which it is hidden is a necessary part of its being hidden.

Perhaps the meaning of the language of the material world is hidden, yet Beasley finds himself unable to cease exploring its possible meanings and analogues. This suggests that for Beasley there is not a dearth of meaning in the language of the material, but rather a superabundance, such that continued exploration will ever yield more meaning, though always remaining incomplete and paradoxical. (In an epigraph to one of the poems, Beasley quotes the scientist Niels Bohr: “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”) Or perhaps, like our human languages, the natural world is not inherently meaningful, but can be made meaningful. Our world provides an unending host of objects and situations of which we might make meaning by analogy—by metaphor. Beasley’s poems seem to acknowledge both of these possibilities, and much of their power derives from this tension.

The language of the material world for Beasley is simultaneously meaning-laden and unsoundable, and the same is true of human language and human spiritual speculation via the mechanism of language. Likewise, the material world provides analogues for the human spiritual or existential condition, as does our own language. These are the fundamental reasons that Beasley is so deeply engaged in wordplay—“play” that is for him a very serious matter indeed.

Beasley is clearly fascinated with the etymologies of words, and in his exploration of the revelatory possibilities of language he employs rarely used words, specialized vocabulary (primarily from science and religion), and neologisms. Consider the following words used in Theophobia: paedomorphic, bibliolater, retrotransposon, obliquitous, unparousial, scatomancer, hematopoiesis, theomorphic, oneirotrope. I have to keep a dictionary handy when reading Beasley’s work, but for me there is pleasure and reward in examining etymologies along with the poet, as they serve to enhance the experience of the already engaging poems.

In the earlier excerpt from “Extremophilic Magnificat,” for instance, we get a glimpse of some of Beasley’s brilliant and deep linguistic wit. Chances are the reader will not recognize the word “eurytheotic.” My interpretation is that it’s a neologism that plays on the word “eurythermal,” which means able to tolerate a wide range of temperatures—a characteristic of the Pompeii worm described in this poem. So “eurytheotic” means something like able to tolerate a wide range of divinity or able to tolerate a wide range of gods. This word-play furthers the analogy between the physical attributes of the creatures in the poem and the speaker’s spiritual state.

Here is another example of Beasley’s wordplay, which is musical as well as significant:

Glossolalic and disincarnate, interfere
in me, interleave me
and leave me through my breathing: like some third

person conjugation I’ve rewhispered
in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue
made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.

(from “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia”)

We see here the recurring metaphor of God as language. Sound familiar? The material world as language; the self as language; God as language. For Beasley, in keeping with the Christian tradition which describes God as Word (see John 1), language is the central and all-encompassing metaphor.

Me and You
are like heterographs:
the difference, say,
between the sound of the g in God
and the one in naught.

(from “Pilgrim’s Deviations”)

However, all language available to us ultimately fails to articulate or enlighten our human dilemmas. We see this futility expressed when Beasley writes, “For the zeroth time I have told you what I mean”, and in “Valedictions”: “Are the utterative possibilities already exhausted / Do even questions leave // not anymore their mark”.

So why continue to use and explore the possibilities and limits of human language, and of the language of the material world? For Beasley, it is the imperfection of language, and our attempt at articulation in spite of that fact, that speaks most deeply and truly of who we are. Indeed, it is in the failures of our language—in our inarticulateness, in our confusion—that we come closest to what is holy:

What is the Kingdom of God like? Like

(go in with your sickle)
a dim scriptorium

where many-written & half-hearted words
are mouthed beyond all attention,
swan quill stilled, dripping with gall & lampblack

ink. As if there were permissible
transcriptions of inattention,

missals riddled with elisions

to mark them aside (as if
in wax & urine & honey’s

gold emblazing)

as unscriptable & dumbfounded: twice-blessed.

(from “As in a Dim Scriptorium”)

In reading Bruce Beasley’s work, I find myself in the presence of an intimidatingly broad intelligence—one that not only has a great store of knowledge but also makes associative leaps and linguistic ventures that probably would never have occurred to me. It is for that very reason that intimidation is replaced by curiosity, and curiosity accompanied by wonder. Here are poems that carry me along when I can’t keep up, and which pull me close in moments of frightening intimacy. Here are uncomfortable poems that feel as familiar as my own doubting mind. Here is beauty marred with hectic pace that reminds me of the churnings of my own soul. Here is a poetry deeply rewarding to those of us who, like Beasley, wrestle with the metaphysical implications of our world and our lives in it.

—Luke Hankins

Luke HankinsLuke Hankins is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and is the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (both from Wipf & Stock). He serves as Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review and Poetry Editor at The Freeman.

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