Alana Siegel reviews
Dear Alain by Katy Bohinc
Ecstasy over Atheism
This book is produced by Tender Buttons Press in New York City, and is available here.
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‘False is the tale’ that when a lover is at hand favor ought rather to be accorded to one who does not love, on the ground that the former is mad, and the latter sound of mind. That would be right if it were an invariable truth that madness is an evil, but in reality, the greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent. It was when they were mad that the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona achieved so much for which both states and individuals in Greece are thankful; when sane they did little or nothing. — The Symposium
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After being asked to write a review of Dear Alain, two other reviews arrived as requests. I am in the habit of extending responses to the work of my peers in correspondence, but I have admittedly never written a review in a public context. To find myself suddenly in the presence of three felt curious. I chose to read this auspiciousness as an adjustment of my definition of ‘review’ — the three books as bodies of one other — orbits, which could serve to potentiate, attenuate, and refine each other’s movements, similar to planets.
Each book of poems, and the poets who wrote them, are distinct in their poetic cosmos’, as well as being close friends. It is through this closeness, not in spite of it — rather, from the flint of it, I am imagining reviews not only as critiques but portraits — the poems and the person as composite.
I look to my left, to an astrology site; a combined chart of myself and a former lover. He rails against the credibility of astrology as a confirmation of our closeness — retaliates against any notable uniqueness or specificity of two charts together, two people together, decrying that no two human subjects are fated, but are only measures of ‘what you haven’t explored with them enough to know all valences.’ It is in this tension I wish reviews would exist in, of symptoms, systems and their exceptions, or with the word ‘review’ I excise the ‘i’ and ‘w,’ perhaps standing for the pronouns ‘i’ and ‘we’ and all that is left is ‘rêve,’ French for dream, and it is with what is left, with this sense, I begin with Dear Alain.
I read Dear Alain when I was subbing for a middle school Math class. I have been outside of academic institutions for nearly nine years, and each time I enter one, I am intrigued by the presence of subjects: Math, Science, Social Studies… I see subjects as scratchings, echoes of ecstasies — latencies, expectant, of a past or future brightness; to return to or arrive at a moment in the mind most heightened, exceeding all precedent. In regards to Poetry as a subject, Philosophy as a subject, and what I believe to be a central focus of Dear Alain — a question: does the instruction of subjects, the recapitulation of historical modes of knowing, hinder us from experiencing ecstasy, or prepare us for it?
Dazzling the wall across from where I sit, is a bulletin board with big cut out gold and silver letters that say ‘Ms. S’ and a shooting star of rainbow glitter dwindling down the edge. Because the teacher I am subbing for happens to have a surname with the same initial as I do — if I take a picture of it, people might think this decoration is devotional, that this worship is of ‘me.’ This is as sleight-of-hand fantastical as this classroom will become. Otherwise, there are fluorescent lights, and the ceiling is, as we found out when a boy bounced his basketball too high — a series of foam squares you can pop off, one by one…
I began reading Dear Alain after I had passed out Math worksheets. I told the students they could come and ask me a question if they had one, though I may not know the answer (and probably wouldn’t). As I picked up Dear Alain, about to open it, I fantasized of Math as Magic. I saw astrolabes, gold and delicate, Galilean moons. Faintly, I remembered an afternoon years ago, when I was walking to the car of a poet friend, who was telling me of a book he had worked on, ‘Being =Space x Action,’ in which he collaborated with mathematicians, musicians, poets, and philosophers. I wanted to understand specifically how Math was related to Poetry.
He said to me, as he was about to turn his key, as I was standing on the other side — we talked across the car — he said, ‘In Intuitionist Mathematics, it is posited that what we call infinity is equivalent to a pure human feeling.’ And it was on the glint of his key that these words encoded skins, resonances of what I felt I so deeply knew, but was so far from being able to speak it.
I walked over to the trashcan to throw away a receipt, when I saw a worksheet from another class. The title of it was ‘True Love’ written in excitable bubble letters at the top, and underneath it, a series of coordinates that had to be graphed — on the back was the graph, and on the front, the whole page was covered with coordinates, ‘(8, 3)’ and so on, followed by the phrase ‘LINE ENDS’ — and printed in a lighter tone ‘TRUE LOVE’ was a cloud, behaving, situated over the numbers, and ‘LINE ENDS’ floating around the page, so the eye received this confusing montage of Love as a Line, then Love Ending, and then some truth produced as apotheosis between the two that true love does not live endlessly, but is finite, on a line, is lived in time — what makes love true is that it happens, and it could happen to you, or it could not, and the numbers were rain across the space of the sheet — then gentler, gendered, colder, snow — finally, quickly, shifting coasts and was where I was again — the numbers were frantic piñata candy of kids cackling — through the colorful pow of the imagined effigy of the animal bursting open, my eyes saw Katy’s.
Her eyes are wide, or open so when thought flashes. The etymology of ecstasy, or ekstasis, from the Ancient Greek, translates as ‘to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere’ from ek- ‘out’, and stasis ‘a stand’, or a ‘standoff of forces’. I take her direct address in the form of virtual letters to the philosopher Alain Badiou as a committed intent to embody the philosophy he espouses — that of ‘thinking as two.’ But she is not writing to him solely to display his thought in her own embodiment of it. Instead, I wager, she embodies his thought along with her own so as to displace both.
I consider her mixture of modalities — Mathematics, Astrology, Mandarin, her political involvement in labor movements in China, and finally, her work in Poetry. I could call each of these parts of her life, ‘subjects,’ but I see them instead as lenses switched and placed upon an equal source of light — of her view of language as including all forms of symbol: not only the letters of the Roman Alphabet — but glyphs, characters, numbers — each ruins of a more powerful plea — negentropic — a fiendish mobile of forms of knowing, so as to overcome any single way as central.
One autumn I was visiting New York City and Katy invited me to stay with her. Upon her bookshelf I saw Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin, a book I rarely see in friend’s collections, but when I do, feel invited, enlivened by the affinity of having traveled similar paths of thought. What struck me first about this book was the labyrinthine intensity of its table of contents — structures situated within structures, smaller, and smaller.
Shortly after my excitement of seeing this book, Katy showed me a photograph of the view she once looked out to, in her former apartment in Washington D.C. It was a stunning image of a symmetrical garden — the lushness of shrubs made geometrical by attention, and all in the country’s capital. I said, ‘You are a magi,’ and it wasn’t specious adoration, but an interest in the possibility that her practices in poetry, and all of her above mentioned engagements, were residual of an older, perhaps ancient, relationship to knowledge, no longer readily available in the foreground of our culture.
While reading Dear Alain, I read three books alongside it: The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s ‘The Cantos,’ The Seer in Ancient Greece, and compelled by the first book, returned to Ezra Pound’s The Spirit of Romance. It is through the first book that the title of this review, ‘Ecstasy Over Atheism’ came to be. On the second page of the book, the author writes
Pound’s rhetorical questions allude to a number of his lifelong concerns (all of which find poetic expression in The Cantos), including the connection between the mystery rites and fecundity; the ‘emptying out’ of the real meaning in the present-day Church ritual of the Mass; and the suppression of the mysteries and their adherents. Pound believes that the loss of mystery has reduced the collective consciousness of Europe to atheism, making it incapable of experiencing the theos that Pound calls ‘an eternal state of mind.’
‘Misery, misery, misery, mystery,’ I began saying out loud as I read it, a clawing for the divine, that ever so often becomes divine, ‘the eternal state of mind’ transposed in Dear Alain as ‘love’ ‘infinity’ and ‘revolution.’ The ‘mystery rites’ mentioned are those of Eleusis, the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. I see myself in Oakland and Katy in New York City. There is no Eleusis. I hear, in its absence, a ringing and a writhing — misery, misery, misery — mystery. On page 19, Katy writes:
But I gotta tell you, my friend Chad B said it best: ‘I don’t care if you’re the tiny-ist, whiney-ist, most pampered cheerleader or the hood-est, hard-est most jock football player, everybody got somebody put em fetal in the kitchen make em bat shit crazy.’ Is this the constant in the incompleteness theorem? Desire? I hate that word. What about capital L Love? Should I just ask somebody to write me a prescription and forget about it?
In this moment and others, there is a glimpse of the madness between lover and beloved, in this case between a poet and philosopher, but this is not a simple mimesis of love’s expressions. That we do not read Alain’s responses to Katy’s, side-winds a stark, resounding attention to the sound and shape of her desire, independent of his.
I think of Teresa of Avila, of the pain and pleasure of her visions. I think of the Pythia, the female oracle at Delphi, ordered to be celibate, or only restricted from sex with a mortal, for she is born to fuck the god from the middle of the earth, and out through her mouth — she speaks. I see Alain’s absent speech in relief, representative of her desire that exceeds his languaging of it. Simultaneously, I indulge my imagination that, in the societal absence of a pervasive structure and architecture that confirms and preserves the depth and primacy of human desire, could it be that love relationships are unacknowledged telesterions, halls of initiation, the place of the persistent reappearing of the god?
The bodies of the lover and beloved become initiations into a power. The rites of ecstasy are not only private but highly idiosyncratic, personal, flailing and fleeting, not amenable to a totalizing, universalizing, discourse, or are they? It seems that Katy understands this tension in the persistence of her letters to Alain, raging, ranging from ardent avowal to severe berating — as, for example, when she writes on p. 30, ‘Speaking to you on your terms in your vocabulary requires a tired precision I loathe. I like monkeys and raspberries and autumn squash cooked for one hour…’
Six pages later, she begins her letter with ‘I love you more than ever.’ She writes of the Egyptian Revolution, and the intensity of her tears in response to it. Her ‘love’ of ‘him’ does not end with him, but it is through the movement of ‘revolution’ ‘infinity’ is felt as ‘love,’ and the ecstatic is now public — he is a part of it, as she is, though along with, as she writes
every single person in the world who said things can be better’, it’s every single person in the world who dared to say ‘torture is wrong’, it’s every single person who dared to dream, it’s every single person who went to sleep with hope for a better future, it’s every single ignorant fucking imbecile who only said ‘no’ going to hell, it’s everyone who called me crazy for hoping, for believing, for wanting more…
I could locate Katy in a selection of lineages, from the Trobairitz, to Renaissance polymaths, to the Beats, or the women of the New York School, but what I find most compelling and enduring in the stresses of her poetry is a resistance to historicize, a concentration on the force that has no need, but pulls oneself outside of time, and the demand for emotion as gnosis, as vehicle — overriding while destroying, defining the mind’s structures — feeling not as deviant, but fire. In The Spirit of Romance, Ezra Pound, writes
Great art is made to call forth, or create, an ecstasy. The finer the quality of this ecstasy, the finer the art.
In Dear Alain, the page of which I now can’t find, Katy mentions writing, or waiting, with her ‘rouge talons.’ I see the redness of the tips of her fingers resonant of a Chinese abacus — beads sliding on wires or stones moved in grooves — counting, though placeless — or is it blood, is she a bird? That I can’t find where she wrote this, but remember the image, feels righteous.
The Symposium, Plato
Being = Space x Action: Searches for Freedom of Mind Through Mathematics, Art, and Mysticism, Charles Stein
The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser
The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Demetres P. Tryphonopoulous
The Seer in Ancient Greece, Micheal Attyah Flower
The Spirit of Romance, Ezra Pound