The truth is a form of radical resistance

Facts validating facts are a form of heady
resistance. These ward off insinuation and
the strange deflections that occur by sewing
disinformation with a thick contagion of
doubt, accusations, provocation and the whole
assault on reality. Let’s face it, honesty has been
the saintly gold-standard: Joan of Arc was burned
at the stake for allegiance to her God, and Galileo
imprisoned for obedience to Reason and
the primacy of the Sun. The actions of hearsay,
gossip, and slander, are the odious supporters
of lies. Supposed conspiracies, revisionist zealotry
from Stalin to Mao; all to propel the despotic
dictates, the rat-a-tat-tat of extermination,
genocidal purging, and human contempt. But
the wellspring of Truth runs deep, its aquifers
sate each dried and thirsting mind, transforming
the most recalcitrant into a fruitful knowing. 

WALTER HOLLAND

Walter Holland, Ph.D. is the author of three books of poetry, a novel, a musical, essays, and numerous book reviews. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies both in the U.S. and abroad. He has taught American Poetry at Eugene Lang College as well as at The New School in N.Y.C. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Pursuing his training in modern dance and theater at a young age, he gradually changed course and became a Physical Therapist and Poet/Writer/Academic. He grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia and now is retired in New York City on the Upper West Side with his husband, Howard Frey.

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Alan Felsenthal in Lowly shows a strong affinity toward previous generations of Language poets, especially the work of Susan Howe. As the critic Stephen Paul Martin states in regards to Howe: “We are asked to see and hear the shapes and sounds of the words instead of reading through them to what they supposedly refer to.” Felsenthal’s internal rhymes, consonance and general sense of the musicality of the verse line are strongly foregrounded in this collection.

His language draws from philosophy, the Bible, and classical literature to provide ghostings of historical forms such as psalms, Socratic discourses, aphoristic and fabulistic writings and hymns, odes, orations and parables. The poetry is very clean and it is a delight to read the poems aloud for their sheer aural precision and craft.

Case in point is a poem such as “Psalm For Upright Visions.” Here, Felsenthal writes:

—sing
of the blood that, as it sings, is turning
back to water. I am hardly ever thirsty and
my soul abhors meat, the plant said, here
is all the fruit I can assemble; take, take
the fruit and praise it as though weak
from fasting; lift your head and hearten
for you praise the soul keeping your feet
from falling.

Such elevated language and diction may register oddly with contemporary ears, but Felsenthal masterfully sustains the tone of the poem, which culminates with the lines:

The heart’s ambassador
is never too perverse. It goes into the warmth
of the tabernacle to praise a footstool. Make
my soul at ease with my heart’s contempt—
make my soul my heart’s footstool.

Here the poem takes a turn toward the contemporary and shows a certain wit to lead us toward a very ornate metaphorical end. Indeed, Susan Howe, who is quoted at the beginning of the Lowly, says: “we might call Felsenthal a new Metaphysical Poet.” A pronouncement I rather agree with.

The intricacies of Felsenthal’s word patterns are exemplified in a poem such as “Ensue,” which retains a certain gravitas as it plays with eye-rhymes, internal rhymes, and sibilance:

If reliefs can, relieve.
I can’t relive
that week of funerals. Horizontal
tree, leaf urn, release my friend.

If I ever lie like that, a lid missing,
all dim signs, I give you permission
to retain no impression.

Like the 17th Century Metaphysical Poets as characterized in the Poetry Foundation’s Glossary of Poetic Terms, Felsenthal’s work is marked by: “philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony, and metrically flexible lines. Topics of interest often included love, religion, and morality, which the metaphysical poets considered through unusual comparisons, frequently employing unexpected similes and metaphors in displays of wit.”

In “Like Someone Once Was” Felsenthal employs a series of aphoristic statements with ingenious and surprising conceits which pack a deep sense of irony. He writes:

A man can be equal to a lyre. His beloved used to play songs.
I know myself as his garment. But I never knew him.

And later:

I could not look at things. Out of fear that seeing was a sense
and senses make the world a vortex. The earth seems to
balance without the crutch of air.

This extraordinary juggling of metaphors and philosophic reasoning, while sometimes mysterious, can greatly intrigue the reader. Though some may find Felsenthal too esoteric, there is much humor and surprise in his verse. In perhaps his most accessible poem, “My Domestic Poem,” Felsenthal opens with:

The remedy for your ruminations is bedbugs.
When you acquire bedbugs
you are blessed
for you only have one problem
like when you’re addicted to drugs.

There is an epigrammatic edge to Felsenthal. He gives us a rather arcane logic and wisdom, with oddly disjointed and surprising non-sequiturs. His diction can turn on a dime from the sacred and the elevated to the contemporary every-day, from nymphs and the underworld to the use of the search engine, Google. One statement may jump in a completely different direction. He writes:

The underworld’s unpeopled palace
is colder than I thought, but nothing wretched
belongs there. If nothing is wretched,
thoughts misled me with my permission.
The bedbug is where it belongs, a body
was built to be vanquished. Trust the lovers
of beds and bodies. We hardly know
whom we’ve slept with. Somewhere else
a mosquito survives August by killing
a child who just learned cursive.
They don’t teach cursive anymore.

Though not overtly gay in content, Felsenthal is a queer writer. By his usurping of expectations and norms, logic and dictates he is a trickster at heart. He is a queer John Donne, playing with metaphor like any queer court jester to delight and fool his readers. He is also a poet like Donne and George Herbert of strong spiritual feeling and emotions, at times elegiac, at others moralistic.

 

Lowly
by Alan Felsenthal
Ugly Duckling Presse
Perfect-Bound, 9781937027872, 80 pp.
May 2017

Isaac Butler and Dan Kois have crafted an extensive oral history of the making of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that is ingenious by design. Much like a play script itself, the book is structured in a series of “Acts” with chapters more like titled scenes and a cast of characters listed at the end, and documents through diverse interviews–edited in such a way as to create an on-going dialogue–the genesis, history, themes and reception of this queer masterwork. The “cast” for this metanarrative includes Kushner, the actors, directors, producers, and production team, as well as the scholars, historians, critics, and fellow playwrights who helped not only shape the work but also provide context for its continued influence. This ongoing conversation captures all the twists and turns of fate that went into the two-part epic’s creation with a sense of suspense and drama–from the joy and exuberance to the heartache. And just like the play, Butler and Kois allow the rich complexity of the story to unfold through the conversations, discussions, and critiques of those involved. The book shows the sweeping scope of the production, as well as the range of deliberation and interpretation that went into it, with personal accounts that are fascinating to read.

Butler and Kois give the reader access to the entire creative process: from the moment Kushner stumbled upon his title to his voluminous notes, script pages and copious revisions, to the dedicated early directors and actors that supplied his inspiration and helped realize his vision.

It is the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Broadway premier, and the 2017 London production of the show is preparing to move to New York this spring, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect. As Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton and In the Heights, puts it:

The notion of a country in political, physical, and spiritual crisis is very relatable, very applicable to today. The notion that there are indigenous spirits and they’re pissed at us is very relatable. I think the metaphysical stuff couldn’t be more relevant. The spiritual crisis that’s suffusing the play feels very of the moment.

Oskar Eustis, dramaturge and director, goes on:

Now, twenty-five years later, it’s Tony’s vision of the Right that looks so prescient. When Tony wrote Roy Cohn, he was a larger-than-life, demonic figure. Now his pupil is the president of the United States. My God. Talk about the return of the repressed! Here he is, in all his glory. Trump’s America is Roy Cohn’s America: sharply divided between winners and losers, hatred of the powerless used as a cynical tool to enrich the privileged…

But it is in the emphasis the book places on the play’s transformative stature as a work of queer cultural history–both milestone and touchstone–where it ultimately succeeds. We are brought back to the play’s genesis: its origin in an age of relentless calamity and death with the AIDS crisis, an indifferent president Ronald Reagan, and a religious fanaticism that looked the other way while preaching intolerance and hatred.

The book follows the play from the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in 1991 to the Royal National Theatre, London in 1992, to the Mark Taper Forum in LA the same year, to Broadway from 1993–1994. It is a ringside seat to the Culture Wars of the nineties. We learn of an early overture to Robert Altman to direct a film version of the play and his quirky and odd “courtship” (the Altman film never materialized). We also get a behind-the-scenes account of the events which led to the HBO film of 2003 directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. And there is discussion of the 2004 Peter Eötvös opera, which was performed in 2017 by New York City Opera.

Butler and Kois place us on intimate terms with the play’s characters, ideas, and humanity–and their book, a prescient reminder of the need to follow one’s truth in the face of oppression and intolerance, will be an invaluable text for years to come.

 

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America
By Isaac Butler and Dan Kois
Bloomsbury USA
Hardcover, 9781635571769, 448 pp.
February 2018

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