Lowly by Alan Felsenthal (Released by Ugly Duckling in 2017)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Causal peripheries: Juliana Huxtable
If I can remember the moment before I forgot, I will know I am a mystic now.
[. . .]
The true light is the loneliest light there is.
(from “Like Someone Once Was”)
With time and story as two major motifs that delicately structure Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly, this book is a humble one. Containing 32 poems often (through diverse thematic premise) expand and contract, the result of the overall book is equal parts excitement and accessibility. Within his first published full length collection, Felsenthal examines, with remarkable fullness, new approaches to mysticism, the arrangement of image, and the pinnacle of experience (via storytelling) through flits of emerging lyric, tousles of prose, and the occasional acrobatics of an otherwise boundless form. A rather tight-knit collection, Felsenthal's rather young voice is startling: it appears timeless and gives us premises by which an examination of the human life lived in 2017 becomes more possible and more enjoyable.
From cover to cover, Lowly is a book of beauty. The pieces range in shape and size, but maintain a degree of tone, a tone of tone, so to speak, successfully capturing and holding in place the essence of Felsenthal’s poetic interests. This is a poetry where the speaker is personable and present, reliant and reliable, and utterly fascinating. Voice wavers. Content bends. The historical and contemporary circumstances dance. And yet the mood of these poems, the texture of these poems, is consistent. A beauty abounds and, just as Ariana Reines claims to have reread the poems over and over, the beauty begs to be cherished over and over.
the river wears a waste apron,
grades the rocks to steeper slopes,
grows mossy of a saintly hue.
(from “The Last Traces of Bluffs Fading Out”)
A fascinating effect comes through the natural array of image and statement. The poems blush with the psychedelia of certainty in what is easy to define as their author’s core; and yet they are vacuous, liminal, and distanced from one another. This collection, then, is as much about its abundance of the beautiful as it is about its range of style. There is an implicit value of wandering that explains the logistics of the waver in Felsenthal’s work. The waver of the narrative of the poems, that they may engage on one premise and then surprise through their own twisted pathways. Never do these works explore to the point of the grotesque; limitations hang over them like veils, modes of intention placed to the point of exasperation by the artist positioned above.
The notion of the “above” is one of height, and it would be wrong to disregard the presence of both God and “the godly” in Lowly, which ironically or not still, in its naming, counterpoints a distinct actual or potential otherness. With obvious nods to a Jewish heritage through parable and language and symbolic characters, and also an appreciation for the archetypal and ancient in storytelling, investigation, and preservation, Felsenthal demonstrates a passion for expressing collected knowledge. In this collection, such expression includes is actuated through demonstrations of reached wisdom, clarity of interest and inspiration, and the effort necessary to knowing.
I poked a worm with a twig
the wind made shudder, the wind
I invented to stop me from poking the worm.
(from “The Mind’s Eloquent Hotel”)
That otherness mentioned above, the being or state of being that is not quite knowable, not quite attainable, is one that is undeniable in Felsenthal’s work. Like Duncan, or even Rauan Klassnik, this lingering source of life and death in the poems of Lowly is one that cannot be shrugged off. It is inspiration. It is reasoning. It is the beck and call and sobering capacity of the poet here. A Brother Antonius blended with a New York hedonist’s agnosticism. A Gary Snyder afforded the epistemological luxuries of the era of the Millennials. In reading Felsenthal, I was also healthily reminded of the themes and worldviews of Rexroth, Blaser, di Prima, and a more controlled and contented Olson.
As an introductory offering to Felsenthal’s poetics, Lowly fluidly reflects the nature and youthful energy of dabbling. Because of the book’s relatively unconstrained structure, the poems within are fractured glass with a multiplicity of story. Some poems are small fragments of image. Other poems offer significantly explored and intensely pristine moments carrying weight, context, depth, prelude, and a prolonging conclusion and totality. Dabbling and experimentation also presents itself in form. Many poems are tightly wrapped, often heavily aware of enjambment and breath. Others are narrative poems that wind serpentine down the page, often escaping the poet’s control for a more extensive and encompassing presence of language, natural and wild, as open as the mind of these poems’ speaker.
upon a time before our eyes were rocks, before the columns broke
off and fell into the center of the earth
(from “Alternate Zoo”)
Even still, Felsenthal has included poems written in straight prose, which is arguably one of the stronger forms in the book. The lack of projective writing and full exploration of the page indicates a degree of stillness and formalism that aids the themes while also carrying a degree of maturity, artistic conservativism, and (as mentioned earlier) humbleness. And yet, curiously, how this book might look if greater risks of form were made, with particular regards to a poetics packed with shards of image and bendings of tone through themes of witness (even omniscience, arguably) is an image to ponder as Felsenthal continues his work.
On a final note, I found it very enlightening to consider Felsenthal in our present age of newness, an age where creativity is constantly fleeting, where trends are instantaneous, and where permanence is unapproachable. With Lowly, it seems, we have potential emergent ways of looking at this world context capable of counteracting flight and thinness of the contemporary life within. Though not defiantly antique, Lowly is a book that gathers its power from tangible and abstract tokens of the sacred, tokens capable of drawing out the value of memory and perseverance, continued presence that is nearly arcane. Susan Howe, the other major writer whose quotes are featured in the book, uses the word “metaphysical” to describe the Lowly poet, and I would have to agree. But, beyond Howe’s description, I believe Felsenthal represents a metaphysical consideration that is even more valuable in our newest contexts, and thus should be approached from them first. Felsenthal is capable of starting forward and reaching back, rather than starting from history and attempting to integrate forward. Such situating and spread is a fascinating examination of a poet who can linger in multiple time frames at once and, with a hint of irony, show the value of the full spectrum while also giving value to its parts. Metaphysical, or just straight meta, in this book we have a profound voice that may be quite close to the metaphorical heavens after (and before) all.
Invite instead the arcane. Hello.