The Devotional Poems, by Joe Hall. Black Ocean. 80 pages. $14.95, paper.
In his 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly, Ingmar Bergman famously portrayed a god in the form of a spider. The woman to whom the god appears, a young schizophrenic named Karin, initially reacts to the sight of the spider with horror—and then revulsion. After being administered a sedative, she calms and says, “I was frightened. The door opened. But the god that came out was a spider. He came towards me and I saw his face. It was a terrible, stony face. He crawled up and tried to force himself into me, but I defended myself. The whole time I saw his eyes. They were cold and calm.”
Bergman wrote in his production notes: “A god descends into a human and settles in her. First he is just an inner voice, a certain knowledge, or a commandment. Threatening or pleading. Repulsive yet stimulating. Then he lets himself be more and more known to her, and the human being gets to test the strength of the god, learns to love him, sacrifices for him, and finds herself forced into the utmost devotion and then into complete emptiness. When this emptiness has been accomplished, the god takes possession of this human being and accomplishes his work through her hands. Then he leaves her empty and burned out, without any possibility of continuing to live in this world.”
Joe Hall’s newest collection, The Devotional Poems, reads like transmissions from deep within that burned-out emptiness; it’s a book of broken things, broken people, broken homes, broken dreams. It’s also a book of tremendous complexity and beauty, a song of tortured howls and almost manic celebration—much like the weird dance of religion itself.
My body failed, my brain failed, stopped
cell phone clock, a torn abdomen—intervening hell, Lord
like a hatch on a zeppelin over the city
That bit of text is taken from the poem “‘Even Iron Heals,’” the final installment of a cycle called “2 Exorcisms.” The idea of an exorcism is of course inextricably linked to the invasion of supposedly evil spirits, something uninvited that is animating the body in unwanted ways. And then there is the idea that the spirit mediates between body and soul:
Will you encircle me?
Or are you here, without passage
Is this a passage
Between words? Your tongue moving
When all the horns do not blow
Or is this between two voids, passing?
Lord, are you the basin?
That’s an excerpt from the poem “Locating.” Many of the notations I made while reading (and re-reading) The Devotional Poems were concerned with Hall’s dealing with the connections between spirit and body. Like these lines, taken from the poem, “Homes:”
It is right to kill
That which takes what holds us
Because that is us
And we are nothing but that
I think that is what you said
It is hard to understand
What fire is speaking
The Devotional Poems, like prayer, is composed of a language of repetition, or, the repetition of language. Certain words—and their various permutations—are used and used again to great effect, words like “lamb,” “trash,” “stone,” “Our Lady,” “continent.” The refrain of “O Beast, O Christ” is called throughout the book like some kind of pleading, hopeless mantra—and each successive time it’s said becomes that much more powerful for the very fact of its repetition.
The stars were switching places, the traders’ stalls were
Caked with sandy mud, I was weeping or laughing
I couldn’t tell the difference—O Beast, O Christ—I was following you
Down the stone stairs under weird smoldering lamps
Of red moss where you asked me to take my clothes off and I did
Hall is the kind of poet who can write something like a “factory/fills my voice” and make it resonate with the echoes of empty and scorched cities; he’s the kind of poet who can take an image like mosquitoes breeding in a Big Gulp and make it live like so many other blistering memories we only half remember “while we accelerate toward the margins/of the universe.” He’s the poet with cold and calm eyes and The Devotional Poems is the spider crawling up the wall in an attic room.
David Peak’s most recent book, Glowing in the Dark, was released by Aqueous Books in October, 2012. He is co-founder of Blue Square Press, and lives in New York City.