Precipitations

More must be said, too, of Devin’s book, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice. ‘Tis a book of criticism prepared by Devin based on a dissertation he wrote under the supervision of Robert von Hallberg and Saree Makdisi at the University of Chicago. I am grateful Devin wrote it — for with its overview of prior acts of trance-scription by the likes of poets Robert Duncan, James Merrill, and H.D. comes the potential to retell the backstory of what I’ve done. It sits with me here as I write.

The Magic Circle

The Traveler claims to have departed the space-time of the dinner party by boarding a vehicle he built in his laboratory. The machine resembles a bicycle. By sitting upon it and manipulating a pair of levers, the Traveler observes his life-world transforming rapidly all around him, the whole flashing as in a sequence of motion studies projected onto a kind of spherical surround. It’s as if the Traveler has drawn around himself a magic circle, like the kind described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens and Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. He sees land transformed over hundreds of thousands of years, while he himself sits safely (albeit uncomfortably), within the circle drawn by his machine, occupying a sphere of local, personal, existential time, divorced from the duration of the years passing around him.

The Gay Wizard

I know what you’re thinking, says the Narrator: Can I trust an author who calls one of his characters “The Gay Wizard”? I use that name not to offend, but because that was how he was known about town.

People knew the Gay Wizard. He was a local personality, a figure in the community. I remember Sarah and I speaking to our neighbor Sue one afternoon. Sue lived up the street from us, in a cream-colored home. Ferns hung in baskets from her porch. By the time we met her, Sue was already decades into her time on Shady. She spoke fondly of the wizard: his parties, his Studebaker, his boat.

Atop skeletal details of that sort, gathered haphazardly in the course of my tenancy, I crafted a character: someone I fancied meeting one day via time machine. Like an egregore of sorts, he entered first into my imaginings via the spirit of books of an earlier era. The books started turning up in the bins at Goodwill, as if he’d sent them: rare, obscure screeds like Arthur Evans’s Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture and Mitch Walker’s Visionary Love: A Spirit Book of Gay Mythology and Trans-mutational Faerie. From them and others like them I culled a portrait of a loving psychedelic animist: a gardener like Derek Jarman. That’s how I see him now, in fact: poised there in the sunlit grove at the center of the home’s back yard, spade in hand amid the growth of his garden.

In picturing him thus, I resist the story’s pull toward horror. If this were a work of horror, notes the Narrator, he’d have been a shadier dude. Play the horror factor one way, and he’d have been a Crowleyan sex magician. A Thelemite; a Satanist: a practitioner of black magic. Play it another way, as might, say, Jordan Peele or P. Djèlí Clark, and he’d have been a wizard of an even deadlier sort: the kind who go around in white, terrorizing people of color.

If he’s ours to imagine, says the Narrator, let us imagine him otherwise. In our choosing of genre, let us act with hope.

Conversations with Frank

Conversations with Frank are always lovely, sprawling, rangy things. Early on in the course of one (perhaps even our first), he disclosed to us that several of the Shady home’s occupants prior to our renting it had been musicians in local bands. “Oh yeah? What bands?” I’d asked, hoping to learn more. That was my first hint, I suppose: Frank, rehearsing the names of those bands. “Golden Dawn,” he’d said. “Tetragrammaton.” The latter, I knew, referred to the sacred name of god in Hebrew. I knew, too, of the longstanding prohibition in some quarters on saying that name aloud. And with that, I suppose, I began to suspect, at least on an intuitive level, that there was something odd about the home’s history, some sympathy for occult or forbidden things retained between roof and ground.

But the oddness, I soon learned, was one that preceded Frank and his musician-friends. Well before any of them had arrived on the scene, the home’s occupant was someone known around town as the Gay Wizard. If the place has a whatever-you-wanna-call-it — an ectoplasmic charge; an occult presence of some sort — that dude is, at minimum, a key link in that charge’s chain of transmission, if not its source.

John Dee, as Imagined by Derek Jarman

Among the more fearsome of the precursors to what follows is John Dee, the great Renaissance spymaster, court magician and inventor of the British Empire. Filmmaker Derek Jarman is just one of several artists to have made much of Dee in recent decades. In fact, Dee appears repeatedly throughout Jarman’s oeuvre. We first meet Dee, for instance, in Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, where he operates as a kind of early-modern Doc Brown. At Her Majesty’s behest, the Dee of that film works up a spell that sends Queen Elizabeth I 400 years into the future–i.e., to London in the age of punk. And what begins in Jubilee continues in the films that follow, with Dee cropping up again the very next year by way of Shakespeare’s famous magician character Prospero. The latter wields a wand modeled upon Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest (1979). Nor is this the last of Dee’s appearances in Jarman’s catalog. He also turns up as muse, for example, in a film named after Dee and Kelley’s famous scrying experiments, The Angelic Conversation (1987). Nor was Jarman alone in thinking highly of Dee. The latter captured the imaginations of several of Jarman’s contemporaries. To mention just two examples: Dee appears as a character in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen; and comics artist Alan Moore wrote a libretto about him. For Jarman’s own reflections on his interest in Dee and in related topics like alchemy, see his memoir Dancing Ledge.

Sunday June 27, 2021

The day is a difficult yoga session writ large. I hold poses through tasks required of me: grocery shopping, lawn mowing, parenting. When time allows, I sit eyes closed and meditate. There is an alchemy in this working-through, this processing of desire. The day is the site where one practices care for an absent other. Come afternoon and suddenly it’s a pool day, world redeemed by popsicles and coconut bars. I rise up onto the surface of the pool and float there, big happy smile on my face as I imagine the act shared with another. My friend at The Alchemist’s Studio reminds me of a saying attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Yellow is capable of charming God.” The charm of that rhymes later in the day with “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’),” the 21:24 B-side to Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics.

Hassell passed away yesterday at the age of 84. After listening and giving thanks, I receive J.R.R. Tolkien’s St. Andrews lecture, “On Fairy-Stories.” For this is what we wish to write, is it not? A story about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” As Tolkien emphasizes early on, “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” Tolkien also calls Faerie “the Perilous Realm” — the source of peril, I presume, having something to do with the realm’s magic. Faerie’s virtue lies in its capacity to satisfy various desires: “to survey the depths of space and time,” for instance, and “to hold communion with other living things.”

Thursday June 24, 2021

What are we talking about when we talk about “political theology”? It’s a rejection of the secularization thesis. Religion never goes away; theological notions haunt the structures and discourses of capitalist modernity. I think of the lyrics to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” The song’s title is a line from a poem in Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. “I propped two pages of his book up on a music stand,” she recalled when asked about the song in an interview, “and I just sang it out, ad-libbing the melody and guitar music together as I went along.” Who is it that tells us “mind itself is magic coursing through the flesh / And flesh itself is magic dancing on a clock / And time itself, the magic length of God”? Is it Sainte-Marie, or is it Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th century Mohawk saint worshipped by the narrator of Cohen’s novel?

Wednesday June 2, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson has written far too many books of a similar nature to be of much interest to me here in 2021, I think to myself as I survey the many books of his that I’ve purchased and read these last twenty years. I read Red Mars in a graduate seminar in the first years of the new millennium. His Mars trilogy was the focus of the final chapter of my dissertation. Is there a way to salvage that older project? Could I write a preface introducing it as a document retrieved from a time capsule? The author-self writing in 2021 is “a person of the future” compared to the version of me who wrote the dissertation. I live amid the time about which he wrote, in a world other than the ones he and others imagined. And Robinson, meanwhile, has only grown in the time since more boosterish and grotesque in his optimism about science and technology. His commitment to “science fiction” leaves his imagination bereft of magic.

Wednesday May 26, 2021

“For my next act” I think as I stare at trees, their upper branches bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. I feel like a magician having built boxes, four wooden raised beds, conjured them in the midst of a field of clover here in the yard behind our home. In these beds, we’ll plant our garden. Yet the utopian in me (or the Faust in me? the Gnostic in me? the “slow sick sucking part of me”? same difference?) is already restless, ready to set sail (as per Wilde), ready to walk away (as per Le Guin), wishing for something other than what is here, wanting in its stead some other bower of bliss (this not that): a vertical garden, say, in the midst of a food forest.