Beauty Between Words
Beauty dwells in the tension of liminality, in-between words. I find in this collection of poems by Dennis Slattery and Christopher Paris, a Hegelian movement of visions of beauty throughout history. The Greeks equated beauty and the beautiful, kallos and kalon, with the good, agathon. The Hebrews associated beauty with holiness, perfection, and God. Roman poets Horace and Lucian spoke frequently of beauty, pulchrum, in poetry. The poems in this collection reflect all of these layers of perceptions. They engage eros, as the embrace of Psyche & Cupid by Canova on the cover suggests. In Plato’s Symposium, the wise Diotima clearly states that beauty and love are connected. According to the 6th century Greek poet Theognis of Megara, the muses sang at the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia: “what is beautiful is loved, what is not beautiful is not loved” (Fragment 1.15). Reading these poems, I felt transported in a mythical time where I experienced beauty through its manifestations of memory, dream, grace, story between words and worlds, past and present, above and below, divine and human.
My first reading of the poems was an invitation to the world of the ancient bards. Although the experiences expressed by the poets are contemporary, and the voices of each are unique and original, their homage to tradition and history gave me warmth and grounding. A rich poetic dialogue is there for the reader to discover in-between words and worlds where beauty is found between Platonic idealism and twentieth-century existentialism. It is, in the words of Stephanie Pope, “jazz poetry” where feelings expressed by words are played against sounds, where uneven syncopated rhythms mimic the soul’s states, where the variety of phrases create vitality.
Dennis Slattery, faithful to the bardic tradition of Hesiod and Homer, begins with a hymn to Polyhymnia and Clio as an early prayer. He evokes the muses to “unveil the mysteries of dream and poetry.” (10) Thus, the poet invites us to enter with him in a sacred oniric time and space to savor “the embodied insights” (11) the muses have inspired him to sing about. As psychopomp, Dennis leads us with “a mytho-poetic method” as a sacred initiation text into the world of poetry and unveils “Beauty between Words,” poetry infused by a mythology to make visible the invisible. Dennis the poet teacher guides the student, reminding me of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
There are poems that speak and sing through each other. In What Hides in Our Worlds, I find a jazz pattern in-between the beats of word sounds, “the filigree of sound” hiding in our words; the rhythmic movement of a fire fly in Meditation evokes the steady beats of a metronome. Similarly, “the soothing bells” of Saints Days, the “sighing leaves” and “the scratching of a tarantula” in Listen are all representatives of the pulsing heartbeats of the world. The alliteration mimics the soft hidden sounds one discovers in a state of meditation.
The mood in Restless Cardinal is dynamic and vivid. The staccato movements of the bird mirror the soul of the poet. The window glass stands in-between the two, as a boundary of reflection. “The quick double peck beat of beak” charms the ear as well as the heart. The Zurich Swans offer a different kind of a movement. They glide, light and free in a dreamlike state; dreams that flow like a river between night and day. They are a luminous presence in the dark moments of the soul.
Dennis plays mostly open horn in Out of Dry Desert a Moist Word. Every “o” in the words “Psalm, Lord, Saul, stone, song, soul, John, floor, pour, record, form, so, over, robe” sounds like blowing the shofar, the ceremonial Jewish horn.
Oh Skin has an intimate conversational style where embrace bridges the boundaries of I and Thou. Space is almost nonexistent; tight as skin; focused and intense. Between the poet and the world, skin is the limit where beauty and love are engaged.
An existential mood envelops A Soul in Mid-Season. The awareness of aging is in itself sad but beautiful. As long as the heart beats steadily, Eros continues to feed the individual soul. However, its objects are different:
He considered now in the blue morning
The hands that give to family and friends are beautiful to behold. The eyes are drawn to The Back of Hands, the hands that carry the markings of a human life; each brown spot with a story to tell; gestures that hold the tension of liminality:
Canadian Soldiers – No More is a sweet slice of time from childhood, depicting memories seasoned with nostalgia. The imagination of absence is powerful here. It paints over a blank canvas sometimes sadness over “soldiers [who] died over the water;” sometimes vulnerability over an “uncertain Spring” like “larva without parents.”
In his introduction, “A Poetics of Grace,” Christopher Paris shares his process reminding everyone that “those things we have the temerity to characterize as things we all share the same cosmic dust with.” He sees the poet as a nightingale in the tradition of poets throughout history. The nightingale has always been a symbol for the poet. Aristophanes, Callimachus, and Virgil have viewed the poet as such in Antiquity; Milton in the seventeenth century; Keats and Shelley in the Romantic era. As Shelley writes in A Defence of Poetry: A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” Christopher Paris’s poetry is the nightingale’s song with its magic and power to touch, to move, to transform, to “liberate Hegel’s owl of Minerva to fly at twilight.” In the words of John O’Donohue, it is what “graces the passion of individuality when it risks beyond its own frontiers” 1
In Christopher’s poem, Peaceable Kingdom, Still, Rapture Embracing, blue acts as a beat, a pulsed rhythm. It has a free jazz improvisational style. Words are suspended like held notes that evoke anticipation found in stillness, in a kind of love that unites time, space, and soul.
Thirty-Nine Years after the Fall is in a key that evokes ghazal, the love poems of the Arab poets of Al-Andalus. Lyrical descriptions of the beloved lady-muse and of nature alternate with torment and pain. Flashbacks in italics have a lulling effect between past and present. Love and freedom are entwined throughout the poem. The lover’s vulnerability and purity of feeling are particularly catching. These are accented by word repetition, a poetic device we find in the poems of Catullus, in the ghazal of the 8th century Arab poet Ahnaf, and in Shakespeare:
Vertigo Bridge takes a different turn. There the fast pace of the whirling motion of vertigo makes it a complete abandon of the self.
Verses Ancient, be they Myth, are Prophesy unveils the boundary between imagination and reality, between the historical figure and the mythic archetype to create a timeless dimension of experience.
In History Repeats, the poet sings:
Christopher’s lines echo the claims of Heidegger who writes: Art is “the becoming and happening of truth” 2. In this poem, Christopher builds up momentum moving through higher levels of intensity. This reminds me of Ravel’s Bolero where more instrumental voices gradually join the orchestra for a full explosive ending. The progression of insights is then achieved with an epiphany: Truth and Beauty are one and eternal.
The poet as seer in Grail Quest advises the hero. The last lines of this poem vibrate like a battle song:
The shield, helmet, scabbard, and spear, hold the paradox. The heroic odyssey is both attack and defense. Here mythology merges with phenomenology to reveal grace in all her nobility of wisdom, faith, and courage.
In Talisman, the words exchanged between father and son permeate the poetic sensibility of the reader. The father sees the child as his talisman; the son sees his life journey inscribed in the stars. We all share a longing for a dream, a magical moment when the universe responds to our desire by giving us signs we recognize as being road maps for heroic journeys. Each individual sign is unique, yet each belongs to the imaginal body of the universe we all share.
Beauty between Words unravels the mysteries of life in sublime stillness and graceful movement. When beauty is present, the encounter is numinous. The poets express the eternal in the familiar, the divine in the human, the imaginal in the sensual, merging words and meanings and inviting us readers to recreate the world together anew.
Dennis Patrick Slattery
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