Kylan Rice
Against Paradise

Black Sun, by Toby Martinez de las Rivas. Faber & Faber, 72 pp., $15.92.
The Glass Constellation, by Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon, 562 pp., $35.
Earth is Best, by Peter O’Leary. The Cultural Society, 112 pp., $20.

In his lectures on Parmenides, delivered at the University of Freiburg at the height of World War II,  Martin Heidegger explained the Greek idea of truth as “unconcealment,” a bringing-to-light of things in themselves. Our experience of reality as it really is: a series of luminous revelations, one small apocalypse after another, where “apocalypse” or apokálupsis simply means in Ancient Greek an “uncovering.” For the Greeks, Heidegger explained, “everything that is arises, most basically, out of the essence of concealment and unconcealedness,” to the extent that even day and night were not primarily understood in physical, naturalistic terms, as the solar effects of a radiant body on a turning earth, but in terms of myth, as icons or images of “clearness and concealment,” of presence and absence. A body of such images, myth or muthos, “the word that expresses what is to be said before all else,” allows what is present, the daily objects and people that surround us, our hearths and public thoroughfares, to be grasped as prescencing made manifest, truth glimpsed at its nakedest core. Myth makes things into images of appearance itself. And so myth’s tyranny: every evergreen in mist, every droplet gleaming on its needle-tips, the massed and matted sorrel glistening below, all reduced to the peek-a-boo of how truth works, truth as a pattern of revelation, seals unsealed, less the shining surface of a thing than what it shows of surfacing.

And so the light that everywhere shines in Heidegger’s writing is not light at all. Instead, it is a mythic image of apocalypse, which is forestalled in Biblical myth by a different gleaming image, the appearance of a rainbow, which was understood to signify the earth would not be destroyed again by such catastrophe as massive flood as long as now and then suspended drops of water bent and split the light around them in the air. In Greek mythology, the rainbow was figured by the goddess Iris, who gave her name to the colored corollae around the pupil of the eye. Iris, sometimes described as golden-winged, had a sister, named Arke, whose wings were iridescent. During the titanomachy, Iris took the side of the usurping gods and Arke joined with the titans, an allegiance for which she dearly paid when Zeus tore her wings from her as punishment and gave them to Thetis, mother of Achilles, to whom she gave the wings in turn to wear in battle on his feet. Achilles shod with iridescence raged along the coast of Troy. Just so the militant eye that sees in rainbows less the temporary promise of deliverance than a spectral sign of hope subtended by the shadow of apocalypse. The eye enlisted by myth to see in images a single-minded vision. A vision of darkness and light, black and white. That sees in iridescence only armor-shine. And in the dragonfly emerging from its jeweled carapace, the image of a gaunt Christ shed of his cross and flesh.

The problem with myth is that it irradiates the image, stripping it of strange specificity and reducing it to a familiar symbol. The problem with vision is what it does to sight, transforming the eye into a glittering war-machine that sees in everything apocalypse. Even the early twentieth-century imagists, who sought to use their often shining, iridescent images to present the thing in itself, the thing and nothing else, enshrined in their doctrine an occult principle, an idea of the image as a “complex in an instant of time” that revealed an ur-form out from the spiritus mundi through the superimposition of two or more earthly forms on top of each other. So when Ezra Pound wrote in his imagist phase that “the pine-tree in mist upon the far hill looks like a fragment of Japanese armor,” he was less interested in how armor looked like pine, or vice versa, than in their “planes in relation,” perceiving in that interrelation what Daniel Albright describes as an “ideal pattern-unit beneath both the pine-tree and the armor,” a “master-key” to the “world of form.” For Pound and other imagists like H.D., the image was essentially visionary, not itself but luminous of something else. To create “the beautiful image” was to create an “eternal act”; images of beauty could be used to “strew our path to Valhalla,” the warrior’s paradise. “I tried to make a paradiso / terrestre,” Pound wrote at the end of his life, admitting that instead he had “lost” his “center / fighting the world,” a fight that brought him, through poetry, to the studios of Radio Rome, where he broadcasted treasonous, pro-fascist speeches containing dark visions of widespread economic conspiracy. In Black Sun, Toby Martinez de las Rivas makes a confession that is perhaps similar to Pound’s, writing in the first lines of a poem called “Tender Image”:

Lost my life to a dark dream. Lost my life
in the rain beyond Simonsburn
& Bywell where our manners fell away
& we struggled for purchase in the wet earth.

Though de las Rivas does not specify the nature of the “dark dream” to which he lost his life, it is difficult not to read the line in light of Black Sun’s reception and the accusations by readers like Dave Coates who claim that the poet was “pushing nakedly fascist ideology” in this book—ideologies that both Heidegger and Pound promoted, too, as they looked for truth and paradise. Primarily these readers took issue with de las Rivas’s use of iconic imagery, in particular his “black sun,” which has associations with Nazism, also criticizing the poet for his explicit and implicit defenses of certain forms of “radical” conservatism and British nationalism. Granting de las Rivas the benefit of the doubt for a moment, ceding to him his counterclaims that the black sun is a theological symbol deployed with no knowledge of its Nazi history, it is nevertheless used in his poem “Avenging & Bright” as “a symbol of vengeance rising over London,” a city embodying decadence, corruption, and “a certain notion of England” to which the poet has stated his emphatic “hostility” in a 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. Against “the metropolis” and “a particular kind of urbane sophistication,” De las Rivas points out that his work is instead  “loyal to a kind of Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise.” A paradiso terrestre. Perhaps it is this vision that the poet perceives “in the rain beyond Simonsburn / & Bywell,” in the rural, unmannerly landscape, slipping in its mud. If so, de las Rivas recognizes that the “Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise” is a kind of “dark dream,” perhaps less due to the chauvinistic politics that it may imply, and more to the totalizing eschatology on which it depends, a vision in which some are damned and some are saved on the basis of a mythic ideal. 

In the midst of a dark dream that may or may not consist in what Coates describes as “the visible residue of a totalizing ideology,” de las Rivas glimpses a tender image, much as Pound imprisoned for treason would watch ants near his open-air cell, and see in the “forefoot” of an ant clinging to a “grass-blade” an image of his own tenuous sanity. Watching “the sun, withdrawing,” staring “beneath the ragged fringe of the cloud-base, / the shining fields retted with dew,” de las Rivas implores his beloved to kiss him on the mouth and on his open eyes while they lay together in the grass, crocuses broken beneath them. As haunted as it is by dreadful iconography, Black Sun is full of gentle images like this one that mirror a tension throughout the collection between vision and sight. In “Thalictrum ‘Elin,’ Wildhern,” de las Rivas presents a gorgeous portrait of meadow-rue that does not, on its surface, strive to achieve status as allegory or symbol, as do the kestrels and falcons that gyre ominously elsewhere in the book, things of this world that double as the harbingers of worlds to come:

Set down once & for all in this white earth
the light pink inflorescence of Thalictrum
like an airburst candled in pearls of dew,
the bipinnate leaves gathered in deep shade,
the flowerheads thrust into early sun—
as ornate, as delicately woven
as needle lace, or like the ghostly aureole
that heralds God & the moon in frost.
Unparalleled, scentless, barely present in time,
as gas igniting & a faint cluster of stars,
the flowers exhale beneath the threshold of
hearing, constellate their little season
with pinpricks of joy, suffer the tempest, fall,
& sleep untroubled through wintry soil.

And yet, for all its gentleness, the “untroubled” image of hibernating rue is paired with a darker meditation on winter sleep that follows on the facing page. In “At Lullington Church/To my Daughter,” the flower in its slumber becomes the imagistic forerunner of a child who sleeps in a “kingdom” where it is “winter forever,” where time itself has frozen to a halt, where “the falcon has flown away with history,” leaving behind “the bare / branch” that “shall never know its May.” The image of a wintering flower quietly metamorphoses in the interval between these two poems into the symbol for a child threatened by the oblivion of the present, of presentism, a world filled with “suave faces fixed in the rapturous / cold light of screens tweeting into the hole.”  Replacing “the temples of stone / & the Hierarchy, the old courtesies,” the shallow, vanishing history of the Twitter feed invites an “annihilation / where the falcon draws out its staggered cry / above the city grown numb with pleasure,” an anachronistic return of the ancient God or gods of suffering to reinaugurate a sense of historical depth in which the radix or roots of culture as agrarian cultus “drive down among the lost chieftains.” Yearning for that return or second coming, the poems in Black Sun are a series of “simple & plaintive cr[ies] into history

for the illusion of security
that was the past & will be the past once
more when the foundations are broken down
& all things stand reconciled to their first
natures, when the lamb lies beside the tiger
& the bullfrog is crushed in the way.

Channeling biblical images of the end of days, de las Rivas attempts to orient himself and his family in time, in the family-time of genealogical history, which many of these poems explore, as well as within the larger temporal valences of national and religious history. The poet works to replace the ahistorical tweet-hole full of scrolling, disconnected memes with a black sun or black hole with its all-enfolding event horizon, a totalizing singularity. Again and again in de las Rivas’s book, the image resolves into an icon, symbol, or allegory that points toward a coherent worldview presided over by a dark vision of that world’s end, its fiery regeneration.

Darkness is the prerequisite for vision in Black Sun; the image is lit from within by a black penumbra or surrounded by a mandorla, the almond-shaped gold halo that in medieval painting would encircle a saint or holy figure stepping free of a shadowy center. Perhaps this is true of all visionary poetry. Dante needed to pass through the dim Inferno first to be able to witness the starry spinning roses of paradise. And for all its darkness, the Inferno, like the heaven it mirrors, is a highly ordered place, honeycombed with hierarchies, rings and pockets and levels. Just so, in Black Sun, the visionary image is an image of coherence and stability. The poet acknowledges: “I have searched my whole life for a studied / artifice in which the image can neither / wilt nor grow, but is fixed like a rose in ether.” Such an image is evidence that “the centre does not wither—/ it stays & stays through each changing season …” In this way, de las Rivas’s image is the opposite of the “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi” that “troubles” Yeats’s sight in “The Second Coming,” a poem to which the author of Black Sun responds through his book by recurring many times to the same falcon that turns and turns in the “widening gyre” of Yeats’s concept of history. Fearing that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats heralds an apocalypse or “second coming” from which he just as soon recoils, for it is not Christ returned he sees, but a “rough beast” who “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” For Yeats, the apocalypse that follows the decay of the “centre” produces the image of a monster. For de las Rivas, by contrast, the apocalyptic image proves that “the centre does not wither” at all. It is a rose in ether, perfect. Brightened by darkness, the splendor of the image is its structure.

For de las Rivas, as for the imagists, the image is not a rough beast; it is not a monster. As Daniel Albright points out, “monsters are parodies of images. An image represents the point of collapse where two terms become one: a monster represents a spastic half-metamorphosis, a painful hybrid that cannot fully terminate either as man or as fish, as carburetor or octopus.” The true image is a collapsed oneness, a visionary singularity. On the other hand, the false image is incongruous, unshapely, awkwardly assembled, hideous half octopus, half carburetor, an allusion to Ezra Pound’s critique of surrealism, which tends to produce “an aerial mermaid three parts carburetter, with tentacles of an octopus.” In “Magnetized,” from his book Dazzled (1982), included in the newly released The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems, Arthur Sze wrestles with the incongruousness of images or of poems in which images monstrously and magnetically accrete, as though for their own sake. Just as “Jimson weed / has nothing to do / with the blueprint of a house, / or a white macaw,” so too “a knife in a dog / has nothing to do / with the carburetor of an engine.” While Sze qualifies his claim by adding that the half-metamorphosis of dog with carburetor only “appear[s]” to be incompatible, he gives voice to an anxiety similar to Pound’s, contemplating the weedy, unruly image, the image without rule or hierarchy underwriting it. Different from de las Rivas and Pound, Sze spends his entire career as documented in The Glass Constellation exploring the possibilities of the monstrous image, its unresolved nonsynthesis, the glimpse that does not devolve to vast revelation. Irradiated, iridescent, Sze’s poems offer a way to see without seeing darkly, which is to say, without seeing apocalyptically.   

And yet, like the author of Black Sun, Sze is “desperate for a word, a sign, / a coincidence, a kind of simultaneity, / a touch, a little whisper, anything.” Spanning almost fifty years, Sze’s collected poems reveal a poet obsessed with coincidence and simultaneity, with images “super-pos[ed],” as Pound put it, on top of each other in hopes of discerning a universal pattern. Sze testifies again and again to the pareidolic and pattern-seeking qualities of the mind, its aggregating tendencies, indiscriminate and magpie-like, confirming Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sense that “there is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.” Witnessing the reciprocity between world and eye, Sze remarks

How quickly at dawn one makes out power lines,
cloud, fence, blue awning, orchard, plank
over ditch, but twisting chimney smoke
incites one to mark white apple blossoms
by a low gate, whale bones in a backyard,
chile roasting in a parking lot, or the memory
of wrapping an exposed pope, the sizzle
when our tongues meet.

At the same time as he maps the dispersals and coalescence of attention, Sze diagrams the tenuous relationship between disparate components of reality, how they group and fall apart, a gyre with a shifting, wobbling center, so many gnats in a pocket of sun. What do whale bones have to do with twisting chimney smoke, much less chile roasting in a parking lot? As he works to answer this question, Sze’s meditations on the coordinated existence of jimson weed with white macaws seem to echo William Carlos William’s little imagist poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in which

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

But even as he evokes Williams’s celebration of the arbitrary linchpins of reality, Sze complicates the vision, so that while “A Galápagos turtle has nothing to do / with the world of the neutrino” and “the ecology of the Galápagos Islands / has nothing to do with a pair of scissors,” it is also true that “the invention of the scissors / has everything to do with the invention of the telescope” and “the world of the quark has everything to do / with a jaguar circling in the night.” Entangled but radically discordant, Sze’s image-quanta fuzz and shimmer on the verge of sense and structuration, a kaleidoscope of shifting, iridescent patternicity. “Everything is supposed to fit: mortise and tenon, / arteries and veins, hammer, anvil, stirrup in the ear, // but it does not fit …,” Sze writes, acknowledging the world’s imperfect joinery, the body made less of fasciae than of cirrus tufts.

Compared to the darkness of de las Rivas’s vision, Sze traffics in the bright but uncoordinated colors of the image, a palette that indicates the poet working in The Glass Constellation has great capacity for discernment, but little sense of (final) judgment. Nuclear radiation seeps through poems that contain Siberian tigers and the aroma of mint. The threat of anthrax exists in the same world in which “lionfish proliferate / in the Caribbean, traces of uranium appear // in an aquifer, and the beads of an abacus / register a moment in time: the cost of cabbage, // catfish crammed in a bubbling tank—and words / in the dictionary are spores: xeriscape, fugu, // cloister, equanimity.” While “someone // dumps a refrigerator upstream in the riverbed,” you “admire the yellow blossoms of // a golden rain tree.” At the same time as Sze’s poems register scenes of violence, extinction, pollution, such images of destruction are indiscriminately grouped with those of gentle noticing, enjoyment, and curiosity. Sze’s universe is large enough to admit apocalypse without being reduced to it. If for Heidegger the image is an image of imaging, which is to say, of the apocalypse at the essence of reality, for Sze the image is irreducibly itself, and in this way it is anti-apocalyptic. A five-hundred page volume of poems that rehearse the same gesture of loose upgathering again and again, looking for a moment then letting go, The Glass Constellation searches for the infinite in the exotic diversity of the commonplace, for endlessness in the numberless things of this earth.

Though Sze thrives in the absence of a governing eschatology, his poems are not without a fine distilling logic. Though loosely coordinated, they are not without their own discordant harmonies. He writes, “Hang glider, sludge, // pixel, rhinoceros horn, comb, columbarium, / wide-angle, spastic, Leica lens, pincushion— // these have no through-line except that all // things becoming and unbecoming become part / of the floe …” There is a presocratic vision of eternal flux holding all together here, or perhaps an image of the world as a shimmering rhizome, but it doesn’t glint with dread—the dread of decay, decadence, disorder. Instead, it favors transience over the ether rose. For Sze,

the pieces of a life stay pieces
at the end; no one restores papyrus
once it has erupted into flame;
but before agapanthus blooms,
before the body scorches, razes
consciousness, you have time
to puzzle, sway, lurch, binge,
skip, doodle, whine, incandesce.

The way that Sze’s poem dissolves into a rush of strobing verb is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s meditations on the intimations of a “diviner love” that permeates and overshadows “the Love a Life can show below.” For Dickinson, knowledge of another world

… invites – appalls – endows –
Flits – glimmers – proves – dissolves –
Returns – suggests – convicts – enchants –
Then – flings in Paradise – (F285)

Both poets witness the turbidity of transience, but Sze turns down Dickinson’s paradise for the fraught pleasures of this life. Though frequently cosmic, contemplating quasars and black holes alongside eggplants and tin chandeliers, the poet is as uninterested in privileging the otherworldliness of myth as he is in divining an organizing or “ultimate set of laws to nature.” Able to torque across micro and macroscopic visual scales as an extension of his sensitive engagement with science and the fruits of rigid method, Sze nevertheless chooses to celebrate limited, earthly forms of sight over comprehensive visions afforded by penetrating astrophysical technology:

The Chandra telescope tracks
a particle’s X-ray emissions
before it vanishes into a black hole,
but pin your eyes to earth.
At sixty, you do not hunger
to spot an iridescent green
butterfly alighting on moss—
shift your eyes and it’s there.

Countenancing, but ultimately less concerned with, the optical principle that abstractly states “the angle / of reflection equals the angle of incidence,” Sze focus on the simpler fact “there’s exultation, pleasure, distress, death, love.” For Sze as for Keats, the ordered axiom is proven upon the pulse. The pulse in the wrist, the pulse in the radio thrum from distant galaxies.

Pound’s idea that the image is a form of “super-position” anticipates quantum physical propositions that the same subatomic particle can exist in two places at once, a form of simultaneity that would appear to contradict Einsteinian logic, which asserts that simultaneity is relative. In other words, what looks like the perfect synchronicity of two events to one observer will seem out of sync to another at a different location. Einstein claimed that every “reference-body” in space “has its own particular time,” inaugurating a vision of the universe as asymmetric, discontinuous, fuzzy, for which the theory was condemned by modernists like Pound who worshipped at the altar of coherence and of structural integrity, the occult rondure of Brancusi’s egg. But Einstein’s model of spacetime gave rise to the awful science that produced the atomic bomb. If space and time are interwoven, such that the passage of time is dependent on location in space, it followed for Einstein that mass (space) and energy (time) are equivalent. Knowledge of this equivalence enabled scientists like Einstein to intuit that cataclysmic quantities of energy could be released from tiny amounts of mass.

Because the universe is discontinuous, there is an atom bomb that splits apart the properties of the horizon that the poet’s eye is thought to integrate. As fascinated with radiation as with radiance, Sze returns frequently to scenes of nuclear detonation, the apocalypse that has already happened, atomizing everything, illuminating an essential incoherence. In this world, there is no superposition, “only layering.” In this postapocalyptic world of astonishing, dyssynchronous diversity, “maybe you look in a store window and see // twenty-four televisions with twenty-four images: / now the explosion of a napalm bomb, / now the face of an axolotl.” Lecturing on Parmenides just two years before the sun went black in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Heidegger’s mythic vision of unconcealment, of coherent underlying darkness at the heart of truth, instantly dissipates in the all-pervading radiance of the nuclear blast. Throughout his career, in the long aftermath of the atomic bomb precipitated by the kind of totalizing thought that Heidegger transmuted into philosophy, Sze tracks radioactive ions and muons and x-rays as they pass easily through solid bodies, registering a zig-zag universe of light, all light, consistent in its inconsistency.  “I have no special theory of radiance,” he writes, “but after rain evaporates / off pine needles, the needles glisten.” Shedding special theories, be they theories of radiance or relativity, Sze chooses to attend to light as it merely gleams and glints, scattering across a scattered world.

The cloud that blooms in The Glass Constellation near Bikini Island “into a fireball that obsidian[s] the azure sky, // splay[s] palm leaves, iridescent black, in wind” towers above the horizon in the shape of a brilliant mushroom, the fungus that eclipses Peter O’Leary’s sight in Earth is Best. In this visionary book, O’Leary asserts with adamance that the loamy gloom from which the mushroom springs is essential to vision, seemingly returning us to a Heideggerian worldview that sees the earth as an “in-between, namely between the concealment of the subterranean and the luminosity, the disclosiveness, of the supraterranean.” Indeed, O’Leary writes, “It is a dual Earth, dualized /  by darkness and light …” He sees in the mushroom the “Mysterious expansion of this point / of revealed darkness, breaking forth,” a bio-physicalization of the fact that life “bursts form from the hidden supernal glooms,” a “life that shines, shining forth.” Though it would appear that O’Leary rhapsodizes the mushroom because it furnishes an allegory for shining unconcealment, for the dark, Manichean rebirth of “the Earth we keep as our shithouse,” and though he frequently channels the language of the Jeremiad and of the prophets of apocalypse, in fact the poet presents us with the mushroom in its mushroomness. “What if the god is a mushroom after all?” O’Leary wonders, reversing the allegorical paradigm that would see in sporing image of the resurrection, rather than vice versa. Intent on its this-wordliness, O’Leary mythologizes fungus in the hope of returning us to the earth not as a purified paradiso terrestre, but as an uneven terrain of laborious and localized healing in the aftermath of catastrophe.

As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing observes in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, “when Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, it is said, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom.” O’Leary offers a similar image when he writes in his “Mycopoetics” essay at the end of Earth is Best that though “Mushrooms around Chernobyl, once edible, have become toxic,” the very becoming-toxic of the mushroom is a form of environmental “remediation.” O’Leary joins the American mycologist Paul Stamets in proposing “a process of relatively simple inoculation and ‘myceliation’ of toxic zones with benevolent fungal spores, for instance, to clean up ground toxicity, oil spills, and to break down woodlands ruined by fire.” Though the “beast-headed” mushroom is indeed a self-emergent messenger of apocalypse in Earth is Best, it is also, and perhaps more poignantly, a figure of postapocalypse, of slow, localized, untotalizing response to trauma. “What should your appearance be to us?” the poet asks of the “little glomerous godlings,” the little networked gods that surface to succor large and small disasters, even something as small as a spouse’s wracking cough, the “phlegmy mesh of hexes” from which “tissue / mushrooms / might / abundantly / spring.” Though “night detonates an emanationism / theurgic Earth encloses / up through shadow / rung to rung / throng / to / throng,” a sentiment that would suggest the poet’s primary concern is a hierarchical vision of “emanationism” and not the earth that supposedly encloses it, in the end what O’Leary offers his readers is a mycological mosaic forming a “mesocosm” or image of the earth for its own sake, strange, unruly, sudden and blistered as a mushroom in the woods. When the poet brings down invective on “humans, who do not see,” calling them “obtuse…, [u]naware of how full the world is of / strange, invisible creatures. Of hidden things,” it is not an abstract, totalizing vision of hiddenness as such with which he would endow us, but instead a fruiting vision of specific creatures, including the royal catalogue of mushrooms that makes up the “Twelfth Amanita Ode: To Replace Waking with Realization,” a procession including the splendid Goliath Webcap, the Bitter Bigfoot Webcap, the Leathery Goblet, the Hairy Hexagon, the Earthfan and the Oyster.

Indeed, O’Leary thematizes the unearthliness of vision, working to re-earth it, to assert that earth, this earth, is best, not some other world, and that its crises must be managed with the knowledge that a fungus gives, saprotrophic, slowly absorbing what is dead and toxic as a way of clearing a damp square foot or two for life. Holding pride of place in the middle of the book, O’Leary’s masterful poem “Hidden Stone” helps clarify the poet’s theory of vision. The poem begins in a definitively visionary mode, invoking a

Vision of the unspeakable cosmos of signs hidden
in the hyphal somaphoria. What
stirred? What did I see?
I saw a mesocosm in the Earth itself,
the stones whose living tissues it bodies forth
alive in ways unlike any other form of life.

Inviting vision in an attempt to decipher an occult matrix of signs, O’Leary begins to see “shadow intensify as gloom” among a “network of tree roots, thrum of sun the / euphoria of the foray enriches into panoramas of sense,” culminating in an impulse to

turn to the woods, the Oregon shore line, and
enter the pines
rising along the upthrust sandy hillocks and
rush to loose a rock-hard lordling, the first
edular phoenix-form,
reticulated stem fat as a grapefruit
early yet in its short life,
cap tucked in, penile, burnished a soft brown—
total godling.
I saw this one. And then another. And one after the next
for the next seven hours.

The poet’s vision brings him into the world, ours, a world with Oregon in it (“And Michigan. And lower Austria”), turned to the actual woods to observe this world’s creatures, its mycelial godlings, totally themselves, and not the emissaries of some other otherworldly god. O’Leary’s phoenix is not that icon of the palingenetic nation rising from the ashes of decadence that animates the dark imagination of poets seeking to build a kingdom of paradise on earth; instead, it is just a mushroom rising from the loam, magnificent in its modesty. Indeed, as eaters of the dead and embodiers of decay and impurity, the mushrooms in Earth is Best are essentially decadent, a decadence reflected in the neological lushness of O’Leary’s book, and therefore anathema to a palingenetic politics that sees in rebirth the purifying, destructive answer to a corrupted culture of excess. As the psychologist Havelock Ellis observed in his introduction to the 1922 American version of J.K. Huysmans’ À Rebours, frequently titled in translation as Against Nature, while decadence and corruption often carry negative connotations, they in fact correspond with a legitimate aesthetic that works to break up the whole for “the benefit of its parts.” Though in no way “against nature,” as Huysmans is, O’Leary reports, quoting Stammets, that “fungi are adept as molecular disassemblers, breaking down many recalcitrant, long-chained toxins into simpler, less toxic chemicals.” They work to “degrade,” rather than to architect. The “systems of energy” that they constitute are temporary, small-scale, networks traversed by the toxins they disintegrate. Iconizing this figure of corruption, this figure of the part in favor of the whole, Earth is Best submits the sometimes delicious, sometimes hallucinogenic or entheogenic decadence of the mushroom as the catalyst for intimate visions of this earth.

Of his visions of “earthen thearchies,” the god or goddess that the earth is, that the Copper Brittlegill is, O’Leary wonders: “no more than this?”, drawing attention to the fact that his is an “esotericism of the actual,” a wild but unassuming meditation on the “secrets / of the Earth hidden in plain sight.”  To this question he quickly rejoins, “But this is the total encounter, to which / the soul aspires.” The dream of the visionary poet is the dream of pure presence, the quickening that comes of immediate contact with an alterity that assimilates you into it. In Earth is Best, O’Leary discovers that absorbing alterity in fungi, fully there, living as living image of no afterlife, no paradise. And yet, for all his heralding of earth and its mild, monstrous godlings, it must be acknowledged that O’Leary’s book is saturated with darkness, specifically with “gloom.” Even if O’Leary’s visions are of mushrooms, as he reports in the coda to “Hidden Stone,” registering his “involuntary retinal inventions flickering scene after scene” of the “repeated agarical discoveries” of a day in the woods, those visions are subtended, not just by concealing shadows, but by an all-pervading sense of crisis, even a yearning for apocalypse, as in the “Twenty-Fifth Amanita Ode,” subtitled “Corruption”:

Woe the destroyer’s eye absorbs, destroyer of the world. In the days of our becoming.
Wilderness surrounded us. Now
we surround the wilderness.
Blotted out.
Annals of political decay.
The scripture of starvation.
The wicked abounding in the world. Our
spiritual destitution. Plutocrats in jet packs …
Sweet old world. Stripped bare.
Stained in evil. The choice of evil. Imagining evil. The residue of evil clinging to everything.

It is hard to imagine stronger language of condemnation or a darker vision of anthropocenic catastrophe. And yet, the mushrooms to which O’Leary turns are not destroying angels. It may be true that “the God of compassion / and the God of destruction / are one,” but the profound gesture on the part of this poet haunted by the fact that “the Earth is in crisis” is to turn to the humble mushroom as the dark agent for a vision, not of a paradiso terrestre, but of corruption corrupted, a slow, gentle, hyphal breaking down, here and there, with meek ambition. Darkness may be the prerequisite for vision in O’Leary’s book, as it is for de las Rivas, but here it is the darkness of a dwelling-with, a quiet, decadent dark, splendid not because it promises a bright apocalypse, but because it teems and seethes with what there is, with this-worldly life. As O’Leary has it, “Living forms thread even densest earth / hidden hollows ghost forms throng in / go beneath. // Being alive is already an end.” Living is an end in itself. Being alive, we are already at the end. What comes after, life itself, is always post-apocalyptic, involving dutiful clean-up by means of “purposeful decay.”

The heroes in O’Leary’s book are not the heroes of the Iliad, Achilles with his flashing feet destroying Troy. Not conquering, not routing though they may root and rhizome, the hardy mushrooms in Earth is Best live in the shadow of the iridescent mushroom cloud, in a world that has already ended, but in which there still is life. They absorb the radiation that permeates The Glass Constellation, attenuating it, deintensifying it, so many small gilled shields. Like true images, they are ephemeral and disconnected. They bloom and heal and vanish in a night. Only tenuously appearing, they provide a way for thinking the part before the whole, the tattered glimpse before the total hierarchy, peripheral and centerless but no less worthy of our adoration. Worthier, even, O’Leary helps us see, in a vision that shows earth’s scattered softness is our best defense.

Works Consulted

Albright, Daniel. Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Coates, Dave. “On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas.” Dave Poems, September 2018.

De las Rivas, Toby Martinez. “A Response.” Poetry, November 2018.

Einstein, Albert. Relativity: The Special and General Theory. Hartsdale House, 1947.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. The Library of America, 1983.

Griffin, Roger. The Nature of Fascism. Palgrave, 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Parmenides. Indiana University Press, 1998.

Huysmans, J.K. Against the Grain, trans. John Howard. Lieber & Lewis, 1922.

Longenbach, James. Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Mercer, Lucy. “Black Sun: An Interview with Toby Martinez de las Rivas.” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 2017.

Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” Poetry, March 1913.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New Directions, 1996.

Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska. John Lane, 1916.

Pound, Ezra. “Vorticism.” The Forthnightly Review, September 1914.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Kylan Rice lives in North Carolina. His writing has been published in a variety of literary journals, including Denver Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. His first book, Incryptions (Spuyten Duyvil 2021), is a collection of essays.