The Aleatoric Post-Millennial Techno-Blizzard

'Ébut it was likewise needful to sink a well-shaft into the soul and refuse
 to explain its mystery by mere reference to the maladies of the senses.'
      - J-K Huysmans, La-Bas, 1891

The Underworld of Lesser Degrees
, Daniel Y Harris
(148pp, $15, NYQ Books)

The Underworld of Lesser Degrees is a substantial poetry showcase collection, comprising texts in various forms, including prose poems, by US author Daniel Y. Harris.

Born in Paris in 1962, Harris currently resides in Boston. He studied at the University of Chicago gaining an MA in Divinity with a special interest in Jewish mysticism, he is also past-president of the NYQ (New York Quarterly) Foundation, and sits on numerous editorial committees. Prolific artist, poet essayist and performer, Harris has published widely, contributing experimental writing, visual art and literary-philosophical essays to a variety of publications including Stride
, Poetry Salzburg Review and many others. Besides numerous collaborations, including Esophagus Writ with Rupert Loydell, Harris is the author of the poetry collections Hyperlinks of Anxiety (2013) and Unio Mystica (2009). He has also exhibited sculptures, paintings and mixed media assemblages. His non-fiction and academic interests focus on various aspects of the Jewish mystical and literary heritage. He has written about, lectured and taught on such themes and subjects as the Zohar, The Kabbalists (e.g. Moses de Leon), Messianism and Hispanic-Jewish poetry. He has studied and written about Freud, Kafka, Celan, Jabes, Buber, Levinas, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Arendt and Walter Benjamin and also explored the fantastical dark-side of Jewish culture, delving into tales of such 'Monsters of the Jewish Imagination' as Demons, Golems and Dybbuks. It soon becomes apparent that these themes all feed-in to the aesthetic strategies, language and imagery of this collection.

The volume is organised into two equal parts: Section I The Underworld
(23 poems) and Section II Lesser Degrees (23 poems). Section I is preceded by an epigraph from critic Harold Bloom on the theological notion of The Fall (and/or Falling) and the vocation of the poet, Section II is introduced by a quotation from Freud on the topic of 'negation'. The reader is left in no doubt as to the psychoanalytic-eschatological context of the book. Within Section I there are extracts from apparently extraneous self-contained sequences: Excerpts from Seven Dead Kafkas and a Fork (13 poems) and Excerpts from Un-Text comprising 9 poems or stanzaic units. There is also a subsection billed as fragments from The Sayings of Petrolus with the title 'The Original Gasoline Totem'. Section II incorporates 'The Melissa Oracle', a 14-part stanza sequence, the vividly erotic 'Vocabula Amatoria' in 4 stanza parts, and an extended prose piece called 'Tetragammaton'. A glance at the acknowledgements reveals that many of the poems herein have appeared in a number of magazines, including Stride.

The post-digital mannerist style bristles with erudite name-checks (a Vermeer here, a Swedenborg there), aleatoric found phrases, polyglot neologisms, archaic reverberations (Enuma Elish,
the fiery wheels of Ezekiel, and Asherah the ancient Canaanite Mother Goddess) and by contrast, in many cases a veritable blizzard of ludic, cyber-spatial techno-speak. 'The Temptation of Rachel Godbot' is kaleidoscope of right-on jargon, interlaced with occult archaisms evoking esoteric heritage (e.g. 'the arriere-garde eblasting news of a godbot in digits' or 'in listserves, she is initiated into the new 4G illuminati. Her robo-sensitive ganglionic eyes begin adamic naming: botnet, botherd, ibot, verbot, pricebot, botmasterÉ'). Terms such as 'adamic naming' and 'illuminati' reverberate amid the cybernautical navigation markers; telling signs such as GPS and Blue Tooth ('Chameleon'). Elsewhere the text speaks with lucid clarity ('enter a thin man with wire-rimmed/ glasses.') and sparse minimal crypto-lyrics ('Artifice') This stuff may be experimental but it is not abstract, rather scrambled narrative and cut-and-paste collage from the cyberspace interface. The obscurantism is a practical joke. Ha ha.

The volume comprises numerous formal mutations, variations on straightforward stanza patterns both shortform minimalist ('Strains') and extended longform ('Tetragrammaton') examples. In contrast there are various styles of prose poem or poetic prose in isolated instances or extended sequences (as in the long sequence 'Un-text' in 9-line binary segments). There are other pieces of heterogeneous format such as 'Sous Rature' and the sequence 'The Actor In My Ear' (a phrase imported from the epigraph by Barthes, a poem that focuses on the philosopher's untimely death). Here an orthodox stanza pattern is subject to the stresses and strains of incipient open field structures and diverse typographical, staccato punctuation (mainly dashes and slashes).

The second section Lesser Degrees
opens with a short sequence of 3 anti-poetic neo-Dada tabulations with titles such as '24/Discomfortures', '24/Mythomanias' and '24/Autoaffections'. Here every line appears a numbered, self-contained gnomic utterance or statement e.g. '1) Schism in the ailing body of empire' ('24/Mythomanias') which nonetheless in totality may comprise a legendary narrative, hinting at esoteric secrets intertwined with history: Byzantium, Renaissance Neoplatonism, 'the cult of Mary Magdalene', 'the mask of Cosimo Medici'. As in many of the pieces in this volume the reader is drawn into, or teased by, narratives of ancient wisdom, of weird cults, and Lovecraftian hints: 'the acolytes/ gather to declare allegiance to a primordial/ nothing named ENTROPOID' ('The Gimp of Redux') 'copper scrolls in the buried ruins of basalt and sand' ('24/Autoaffections').

This is a substantial collection of work, obviously the product of several years of personal experimentation, although the bulk of the poems (as opposed to the prose items) are, in fact, couched in 'traditional' blank verse stanzas, fashioned into elegant structures that sit well on the page. There is the outstanding dual texts 'Para(doxa)' and 'Mis(ere)' that between them function as a formal diptych, both comprising a word-rush devoid of punctuation. There is usually, if not always, a symmetry of clean, confident, regular lines and verses. 'Les Poetes Maudits' inspired by Rimbaud, for example, comprises six stanza verses of regular tercets, replete with fin-de-siecle
imagery (the Chat Noir, Delphine on a scented sofa, Rodolphe Salis, 'the green haze of absinthe'.)

There are numerous epigraph quotations throughout The Underworld of Lesser Degrees
which, taken as a whole, may give the reader some indication of Harris' authorial orientation and cultural context. There are at least twenty epigraphs from the spheres of literature, the visual arts, philosophy and the religious-cultural context or ancient and medieval Jewish heritage. Literary figures comprise the greatest number: here we find HD. Rimbaud (twice) Byron, Villon (adapted), Dante, Whitman, Brody and Homer. The visual arts are represented by the Swiss proto-Symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin - famous for his iconic 'Isle of the Dead' - and Jess Collins, loosely affiliated to West Coast Pop. Collin's dense, impacted collage style work (Narkissos, 1959) and his sardonic, homoerotic Tricky Cad case histories are clearly an influence here. While philosophy is knowingly confined to the modern and/or postmodern, post-Existentialist, continental tradition: Sartre, Levinas, Barthes and Baudrillard. Representatives of the 'analytic' Anglophone school are conspicuous by their absence. Our poet, it would seem, inhabits a world apprehended through Sartre or Freud, rather than, say, W V Quine or A J Ayer. Theological references range from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), Isaiah and the Talmud to Simone Weil, via Moses Maimonides the, Medieval Sephardic Torah scholar and astronomer of Cordoba.

It is a sad, even deplorable, fact that, in our sententious age, most literary works categorised as Great Literature or Good Writing are, more often than not, vitiated by the phenomenon of esprit de serieux
. This is a problem facing all authors and artists, against which they have often been warned (although it must be said to little avail) by such acute observers as Joseph Addison, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Butler, Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse. One of the many refreshing features of this book is that Harris on the whole, does not fall into the trap posed by the deadly spirit of seriousness. This collection is shot-through by a zany humour and a refreshing sense of the absurd. One might mention, in this regard, the prose series of 'Excerpts from Un-Text' a hilarious gallery of weird characters including Rochelle Shammas and Marv Fretstein, to name but two.

The former is a coquettish, poetry-loving cosmetologist based at Catskills Beauty & Nails. Ms Rochelle, a fan of James Merrill and Constantine P Cafavy, is invited by one of her clients 'a certain Professor Reginald Lipschiz' to a Yale poetry conference. The title of this gathering is Dust, Mold and Platitudes
at which distinguished venue she reads her poem 'Elegy for a Broken Nail', subsequently anthologised in the conference proceedings.

In contrast, the story of Marv Fretstein, 'an aspiring serial killer' aka the Lamed Vavnik Killer treats us to a nice touch of black humour as we discover how Fretstein (shades of Travis Bickle, we venture to suggest) aims to murder the thirty-six most righteous people of his generation. According to an enticing extract from Fretstein's evolving manuscript 'The Lamed Vavnik Killer' the eschaton of the 'end of time' is named 'Marv'. For readers with a penchant for gematria
Harris/Marv helpfully provides numerological interpretations of the Hebrew letters Lamed (30) and Vav (6) and explains the significance of the Lamed-Vav-Zadikim-Vampires. Reading these, and other items in this collection that adopt a faux-encyclopaedic tone, one may be reminded, (obliquely) of the 'imaginary beings' described by Borges or, in respect of the Un-Text sequence, of the Historia universal de la infamia (Buenos Aires, 1954) by the same author. Yet, Harris's imaginary beings are the creatures ('Manticore', 'Chameleon' and 'Griffin', 'wireless on a discount droid') encountered by the poet-cybernaut traversing the hyper-real fallen world of our post-modern digital web-net-superhighway-mediascape. In the poem 'The Half-Light of Credulity' there is even mention of A the Alef  'the first and last point/ at which zero is filled with a chimera/corpse/ hollow body, the last of the slurred clangor.' Here, one feels, is the very heart, nucleus and centre of this poetic expedition into the post-millennial, post-modern, post-human, post-everything hinterland of a fallen poet's cultural universe.

Jay Jones' full colour cover art photograph of Harris' sculpture is suitably sinister, showing a surreal figure (Rachel Godbot, I like to think) on an interior stairway. The volume is a highly professional perfect-bound paperback and a fitting addition to the NYQ Books catalogue of contemporary American poetry characterised as 'poetry at the edge'.

In his novel La-Bas
, J-K Huysmans outlined a project to extend the scope of fiction beyond the narrow confines of Zola's Naturalism. It will be needful, he argued, 'to sink a well-shaft into the soul'. The tutelary deity of this collection by Daniel Y. Harris is the ancient, atavistic, feminine-maternal-muse-consort, Asherah. In his poem of that name, Harris explains her inspirational role; 'Extinction was not to be, nor could revision suppress you,/as the poems of a new inscape write your name in triadsÉ'.

A 'new inscape' is exactly what Harris reveals in this comprehensive collection - but to achieve this, intrepid reader, you must a sink a well shaft into the soul.  

    © A.C. Evans 2015