Divining Divinity

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Divining Divinity: A Book of Poems
by Joseph Pearce
with illustrations by Jef Murray
Kaufmann Publishing, 2008
43 pages, $10.95

Harold Bloom has written extensively about the “anxiety of influence” and its hindering effect on those poor souls tortured with poetic ambitions. The greatest poets must be readers of poetry and are therefore (or so Bloom reasons) doomed to produce only weak, derivative work until they cast off the burden of influence and make some extraordinary contribution—an act of genius unique enough to capture the attention of posterity. The fledgling poet, therefore, is prey to acute anxiety. His first poetic volume must either be a conflicted mess of agonized allusion or a prolonged display of ostentatious precocity. There can be no middle ground.

Not so for Joseph Pearce, respected biographer, literary critic, and now poet. In Divining Divinity, Pearce’s first official poetical foray, there is a great deal of influence and nothing at all of anxiety. Pearce readily acknowledges the “princes of imagination” who have so inspired his own poetry—indeed, he goes so far as to dedicate the volume to them. Such a dedication is symptomatic of the overarching tone of this delightful posy of poems. The list of influences proffered does not hang like the sword of Damocles over Pearce’s head; no, these are a merry cohort, a high poetical communion of saints, all of whom (the reader feels sure) enter into enthusiastic enjoyment of this slim volume of modest literary and spiritual wealth. This poet displays the virtues of both the Romantic and the Modern traditions without the tortuous melodrama of the one or the self-aggrandizing lewdness of the other. Quiet, thoughtful, charming, modest, and skillful, Pearce, a jack-of-all-literary-trades, proves himself once again proficient in them all.

Pearce’s deft, skillful use of language is apparent from the start with “Summer Solstice,” from which is drawn the volume’s title:

From deep draught of thought,
to prayer,
tasting sweet living water there,
Divining Divinity.

The consciousness of “place” and of nature, so characteristic of the Romantics, resonates here, and with profound contemplative effect. The “I” of the poet, introduced early on, disappears after the third stanza, but the intensely personal nature of human interaction with the Divine becomes increasingly palpable with the passage of lines. Sublimity in the natural world is not merely a showcase for the poetic ego; it is the springboard to deep, intimate prayer.

This poem, and those that follow, could even be taken as an inspiration and guide for less skillful poets. Pearce plays with alliteration, assonance, consonance, end rhymes, internal rhymes, half-rhymes—as if these poetic pieces were facile, friendly toys. A particularly memorable encapsulation comes in these breathy lines:

Breeze through rushes,
shhhh, ….and hushes,
in silent awe at a maiden’s blushes,
Conceiving the Sun.

The promise of this early accomplishment does not fail in the poems that follow. In particular, “The Grammar of Assent: An Ungrammatical Ascent”—a theological exploration of mostly pronouns—is both a challenge and a delight. “Deconstruction” provides a keen perspective of all the danger of the tradition (Derridaen or otherwise) while at the same time demonstrating the process by deconstructing the “minimalist trinity: / sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” down to its expected doom: “The omnipotence of impotence.” The seriousness of this piece is not suffocating or oppressive; the musical quality of Pearce’s prose (even in a Waste Land-esque voice) rescues this prophetic indictment from despair. It is this balancing of perspective that is the backbone of Pearce’s thematic skill.

This dark intensity attains even more rich eloquence with “Preyer,” a chilling demonic twist upon the Hail Mary. Yet, even when the darkness of evil is so well understood, the promise of hope pierces the darkness. “Dante Dilettante” speaks to Siegfried Sassoon, not in maudlin tones, indeed, but with a pregnant understanding of the poetry of World War I, concluding, not with despair, but with a marching cadence of assurance:

And so Sassoon,
So soon, Sassoon,
You lurch triumphant,
And find the key
To liberty
From the search circumferent.

This is the “key” that “unlocks / The paradox / Of Paradise” and leads to the final dismissal: Ite, missa est.

The poems are not all prophetic or weighty. A collection of pithy, self-contained poems is sprinkled throughout. Despite Pearce’s self-deprecating comments regarding “The Hedgehog” (composed, he tells us, before he ever thought of metaphysics), this whimsical piece embodies simplicity and charm and is skillfully crafted. This “shapeless creature” is pert, shapely, and self-possessed. “Hopkins” succinctly memorializes one “greater than Donne.” “Belloc” is a tightly wound, self-reflexive piece that plays with language as deftly as Belloc himself might have done. Most notable is the juggling of the word “bombast” back and forth to different positions in the metrical foot. Likewise, “Sunrise, Sunset” plays directly against its poetic forebearer (Belloc’s celebration of Catholicism, laughter, and wine) with a poignant reflection on the horrors that arise in the absence of Catholicism, so concretely manifested in the Second World War. The mention of Hitler, Stalin, and the Gulag Archipelago will readily remind the reader of Pearce’s status as a Solzenitzen biographer.

The samples of romantic poetry, principally represented by “Love and Cupid,” “A Husband’s Prayer,” and “Coeur de Lear’s Cordelia,” demonstrate thoughtfulness, affection, and an authentic chivalry that is refreshing and would be trite were it not for the sincerity of feeling and rich humor of the poet who speaks confidently:

I know I’m in love
But I don’t thank Cupid,
Heavens above,
I’m not that stupid.

Such works are arguably among the most challenging to produce without descending into overt sentimentality (popularly condemned along with large families, Charles Dickens, and gentlemen opening doors for liberated women—dare we say “ladies”?). But Pearce knows better and feels more deeply; thus he ably describes a “husband’s place” with supposedly archaic, but timely grace:

And heal her heart that sins hath torn,
And bless her head that it may wear
A halo not a crown of thorn,
And saintly kiss caress her hair.
This is the desire of my dirge:
To be her knight and not her scourge.

Finally, in an ecstatic paean to etymology and inspiration, Pearce runs the gamut through Shakespeare, Tolkien, Dante, Homer, and onward, to settle upon his own “maiden from the mystic West,” looking beyond the moment when “Death do us part.”

Several worthy poems remain and deserve mention. The metaphysical breadth of “Kneeling Stone” is complemented with the “philosophical fluttering” of “Mothematics.” This “lilting lullabye” with its “litany of light” once again asserts the very personal experience of a prayerful quest for understanding (“eternal sight”). “The Bishop and the Virgin” pays tribute to the long-neglected St. Withburga, the date of whose death is now observed as the feast of St. Patrick. Pearce’s celebration of the virgin is not in direct conflict with St. Patrick himself, but challenges the secularized revelry now associated with the bishop’s feast day. Finally, “Sunset” speaks nostalgically but with pensive wisdom of the true worth and the glories of England.

A word must be spared for the illustrations of Jef Murray and for the beauty of the book itself. In this time of inexpensive novels and airport editions (useful in their way, but a travesty in terms of any bibliophile’s expectations with regard to physical beauty), it is always refreshing to encounter a book of very attractive design. Although many of the images are simple and could not reasonably lay claim to any extraordinary artistic sublimity, there is something aesthetically appropriate and pleasing in the arrangement. The drawings effectively wed the text to the page, and seem reminiscent (with no historical connection to justify the allusion) to an eighteenth-century commonplace book. The reader seems to be sharing in poetical thoughts scribbled in abstraction alongside illustrations, and the experience is a pleasant one. We can only hope that the volume will assist in the great challenge to contemporary poets—rescuing poetry from academia and returning it to the people.

T.S. Eliot, in his 1922 essay entitled Tradition and the Individual Talent, argues that a poet cannot accomplish his proper work “unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” This “living” tradition (not the haunting, zombie-like tradition of Bloom) finds fitting expression in Divining Divinity. The obligation to precocity and neuroticism prescribed by Bloom is certainly and effectively declined by Pearce. The result is admirable. Without pretension and with a great deal of worth, Divining Divinity is pleasant and often very lovely indeed; thoughtful, and often very profound. Pearce concludes his whimsical but quietly substantial introduction with invitations to both the critic and the “more discerning reader.” Pearce, like Chesterton, expects the critic to miss the point entirely and impale himself on something completely different. He therefore warns such a censorious reader to “turn the following pages at his own risk.” The “discerning reader” is invited “simply to see the point.” Whether this reader can claim to be “discerning,” we feel the point is commendably clear.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a Dappled Things assistant editor and a UVa alumna (MA, English ‘07), works as a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. Her writing has also appeared in The Saint Austin Review. More of her work is available at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.