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Each Sunday, I post a brief introduction to a collection of poetry I've been loving. I highlight one poem that I think really sings. No review. No need. If it's here, you'll know I recommend it. If you have one to recommend (yours or someone else's), send it along. I'll do my best to be here every Sunday.


The word 'fierce' gets used to describe the work of Reginald Dwayne Betts, and it fits, but I worry about reducing his brilliance to ferocity. There is a pulse in his words, but it is a rhythmic and emotional complexity, anything but one-note. Take, for example, this excerpt from "If Absence Was the Source of Silence," (found in the collection Felon) starting about halfway through to the end:

From me, my sons will hear a story about

how hands like theirs, like mine, made

something wretched of the memories

of women we love or don't know at all. This

is true. & there is a map to take us to

all that hurt. Some silence saying it all. But

let's say the world is ours. On that day

all the silenced tongues would have

speak, without fear or being doubted,

of the cars & hellos that became dungeons,

of friends who became the darkness

that drowns all until only rage & sadness

remain. & maybe after, we can build

memory that does not demand silence;

all the things that happen now, as if

a part of being, would not be --

& my son's lives would be carved

out of days in which their hands

& bodies do not suggest weapons,

days where all their mothers

& sisters can walk down any street

in this world with the freedom

that comes from knowing

you will be safe, after dusk or during

those moments just before dawn

unlike today, & yesterday, & now,

when, the quiet & what might ruin

it, is the threat that circles.

Betts's story is fascinating, and if you haven't yet discovered him, let me urge you to learn more. This video is one place to start. Then, take a look at the Freedom Reads project (formerly the Million Book Project) which he launched. And then come back to Felon. It will not disappoint.

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.

Word: Hierophant

Definition: (n) 1. A priest in ancient Greece; specif: the chief priest of the Eleusinian mysteries

2a. Expositor

2b. Advocate

Origin: LL. hierophania, fr. Gk hierophantēs, fr. hieros + phainein to show --- more at FANCY

Source: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

In the film a hierophant of ancient times holds a small community in thrall. He dispenses cruelty to the men and abuses the women. One woman opposed him. To show his power and to punish her, the hierophant casts a spell. The woman crosses a stream. She takes a step and her foot comes down in the moon's reflection. She is caught in the stream; she cannot move from the moon's reflection. The hierophant comes and beats her where she stands helpless. Still she cannot move. Left alone, she asks a wood of birch trees to help her. As the hierophant passes through the wood, he becomes caught in the tangle of birch trees; they bind him and pierce him. He cannot move and eventually dies. The woman is released from the moon's reflection. Moon/Wood contains very little speech and what there is is incomprehensible. The woman and the hierophant speak their own language which has nothing to do with ours. The true language of Moon/Water is simple, stark imagery: moon, darkness, water, trees. (115)

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is a trim novel, 245 pages in length, yet it contains infinity.

The title character (not his real name, but one mockingly bestowed by the man he calls The Other) lives inside a vast House, so expansive as to seem endlessly unfolding with new Halls full of marble statuary, grand staircases, and doorways into the as-yet-unknown. The bottom floor contains an ocean, the tides of which Piranesi observes and chronicles with scientific precision. The upper floor opens onto sky and cloud and starshine, which he frames into constellations of his own design. "The Beauty of the House," he tells us, "is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite."

This description of one of the surviving films of Sylvia D'Agostino does in a few sentences much of the same work of the whole novel: someone is trapped, perhaps due to a spell-casting of sorts. Freedom might be in reach, but it is complex and fraught with violence and the upheaval of things once held dear. Holding all these elements in place is the hierophant. A totally new word to me, hierophant is one that made enough sense in context to move on without trouble. Once I looked it up, however, I was again dazzled by the way a single word can bring an entire piece into greater focus. Without it, I still deeply enjoyed the novel and its teasing corridors of knowledge and mystery. With it, I feel like Piranesi, standing before an expanse of space, newly unfolding where before there was nothing.

I love when words demonstrate their history in this way, one form passing a baton to the next, year over year. In this case, I was taken aback by the reference to FANCY. I had not (though I should have) considered that today's 'fancy' has shared roots with 'phantom' and 'phantasmagoric' possibly because fancy seems so ordinary a word, tainted perhaps by a country twang (and by Reba McIntyre's 1990 song, which lives rent-free in my head for all time). Phantasm and its ilk, however, have a magical, other-worldliness to them conjuring images of ghost and hauntings. All of these words tread the same ground as 'fantasy," of course, and Piranesi is an excellent example of what I want to call Fantastic Realism.

Thinking I might be inventing this term, I looked it up. Some sources want to conflate it with Magical Realism, a genre I love but would not use to describe Piranesi. Others rightly point researchers to the world of visual art. A brief definition explains Fantastic Realism as the product of a group of artists in mid-century Vienna, whose work was grounded in realism but includes expressions of "religious or esoteric symbolism." Looking more closely, I find waves of overlapping ideas, perhaps best summed up with this passage from one of the original artists of Fantastic Realism, Ernst Fuchs:

Things that you could not see in the normal world always pursued me. I always occupied myself with a kind of painting that renders pictures other people see in dreams or hallucinations. I could pass the barrier of this world of inner pictures even in awakeness and normal condition. The change from the world of dreams or phantasy into the world of in reality visible pictures for me was constantly possible. My themes where from the beginning on religious or mythological so that the contents of my pictures of surrealistic or phantastic character can be found in nearly all stages of my work.

This passage (found on the English translation side of Fuch's website) explores many of the themes of Piranesi, and its use of 'phantastic' takes me back to the start of my journey: hierophant: hiero - sacred + phan... - to show, and then there's the link back to FANCY, which includes this definition:

(n) an image or representation of something formed in the mind.

Susanna Clarke notes the dangers of the hierophant, the one who can cast a spell and entrap, even in the beauty of the moon's reflection. But Susanna Clarke -- it must be said -- is also the hierophant herself, rendering us immobile in the face of beauty and mystery, battering us with truths as we stand helpless. Having finished the book, I can't help but wonder if the woman, once freed from the spell, ever returns to that stream, dipping her foot in the moonlight, wishing she could return.

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