A Long Day’s Journey into Mystery

Norman Finkelstein

Friday

I write today about a wonderful collection of mysterious poems by Xavier English professor Norman Finkelstein. Full disclosure requires me to state that Norman was my best friend when we were getting our doctorates at Emory University while honesty prompts me to add that large swatches of Norman’s poetry have always eluded me. Writing about the collection gives me an opportunity to wrestle with his poetry in a systematic way.

From the Files of the Immanent Foundation (Dos Madres Press, 2018) is a series of 65 poems about the workings of a mysterious organization. As Norman observes, the poems are held together by a “subterranean or partially veiled ‘plot,’” but where that plot is headed we can never figure out. At the center is a mysterious Foundation that resembles those shadowy organizations that show up in Jorge Luis Borges short stories. In an explanatory note found in his earlier collection The Ratio of Reason to Magic, Norman tells us what the Foundation is not:

[I]t is not a governmental agency, not a sect or cult, not a fraternal organization, not a think tank, not a research institution—but I think it “exists” in the spaces between.

Perhaps we can think of the Foundation as a metaphor for the mind in all of its different manifestations. Reading about the Foundation, I think of Samuel Johnson’s elaborate description of the palace found in Rasselas. While the palace doesn’t play a role in the story, it functions as a metaphor for the work’s labyrinthine plunge into the human psyche:

The house, which was so large as to be fully known to none but some ancient officers, who successively inherited the secrets of the place was built as if suspicion herself had dictated the plan. To very room there was an open and secret passage; every square had a communication with the rest, either from the upper stories by private galleries, or by subterranean passages from the lower apartments. Many of the columns had unsuspected cavities, in which a long race of monarchs had reposited their treasures. They then closed up the opening with marble, which was never to be removed but in the utmost exigencies of the kingdom, and reorded their accumulations in a book, which was itself concealed in a tower, not entered but by the emperor, attended by the prince who stood next in succession.

Let’s say that Norman’s Foundation is the means by which we process reality, the foundation of our being. “Immanent” means “infused with spirit,” indicating that there is a spiritual component to the mind. This we can never pin down, however, but only get glimpses through cracks and crevices. Sometimes the Foundation sounds a bit bureaucratic, like a governmental agency. This is the aspect of the mind that follows certain prescribed rules.

But of course the mind is much more than a conventional rule follower, and Norman’s project is to capture the many different dimensions. Sometimes the Foundation functions as a think tank, a place to reflect upon the nature of reality and of poetry. Sometimes it works as a training institute, with workshops for those seeking access to alternate realities. Sometimes it is a laboratory in which various propositions are tested, sometimes a control room regulating incoming stimuli, sometimes a clandestine organization with agendas of its own. Always it seems more like a state of mind than an actual locale.

In the first poem (“Decision”), a guide waits to take the speaker to the Foundation. This is a serious journey offering real rewards, we are told, not a superficial one where we might pick up cheap tourist junk:

You have only to choose, says the guide,
benign and patient, but eager to set out.

The nights, the days spent waiting,
napping or in a sort of fugue—that’s over.

No more curios, says the guide,
little gods carved from rosewood,

No more faded posters, costume jewelry,
miniatures of doubtful provenance.

As the poem progresses, however, the sacrifices required sound more serious and perhaps not worth it. Maybe only an obsessive would undertake it. The guide no longer seems so sure of himself:

What to do about the orphans,
what to do about the strays in the alleys--

You can think about them later, says the guide,
wiping his brow, replacing his cap…

By the second poem (“Welcome”), the speaker has presumably overridden his doubts and arrived at the Foundation, where he and the others are greeted by a cheerful host. Wonderful skills are promised, which capture the magic of literature:

                             You have come to acquire
certain skills, acquaint yourself with certain
technologies, refine your powers of stealth
and diminution, possession and embodiment.
The rhetoric becomes magic as soon as you arrive.

Lest we get too carried away, however, the poem points out there will be hard work involved. In the following passage, imagine the “competitions” as struggles with literary predecessors, “visitations”  as inspiration from the muse, “elections” as successful poems (which are signs of divine election), and “ceremonies” as public acknowledgement of success. All these are very exciting. Then, however, the participants are reminded of certain basics about poetry, like getting the rhythm right:

In the days ahead, there will be
competitions,
visitations, elections, ceremonies. But first,
we will begin with a little voice practice.

I’ll finish up today’s post with the third poem in the collection, in which the new visitors are taken on a “Tour” around the Foundation. Sometimes the Foundation is “Arcady,” a mythical utopia that inspires poets, and sometimes it is a “Memory Palace.” As a state of mind, it can be anything and anywhere.

I especially like the Reading Room and the Room of Lost Manuscripts:

                           This is the Reading Room
Here we conduct the tests that measure
sensitivity to light, to time, to daemonization.
This is the Room of Lost Manuscripts Recovered.
After the notebooks were gathered and burnt,
they were found beneath the cherry trees by the gardener,
who then climbed into the sky and disappeared.

If we think, once again, of the Foundation as the poet’s mind, then we are seeing here memories of things read—and while they may be forgotten, they have a way of resurfacing in a wonderful blossoming. Involved in this endeavor is a spiritual guide (the gardener), who disappears after helping the poet make connections.

The house also has a Chapel where the Sun and the Moon make love, providing the poet with an archetypal image of wholeness. (All evaporates like a dream upon waking.) The walls have images from the Psychomachia, a mystical work from the Middle Ages, and the poet, like the scryers or seers of old, looks hard into the stones to detect signs of divinity. Sometimes he senses a pattern.

Here’s the poem in its entirety to give you the full effect:

Tour
Welcome to the Immanent Foundation.
Our headquarters are located in a large house
on a hill above the beach. Our headquarters
are located on a large estate in a forest of oak
and beech. This estate is called Arcady,
or the Memory Palace. After the house
burnt down, it reappeared in a grove
adjacent to the garden. This is the Reading Room.
Here we conduct the tests that measure
sensitivity to light, to time, to daemonization.
This is the Room of Lost Manuscripts
and this is the Room of Manuscripts Recovered.
After the notebooks were gathered and burnt,
they were found beneath the cherry trees by the gardener,
who then climbed into the sky and disappeared.
This is the Master Bedroom, where the Master
sleeps and speaks. This is the Ballroom,
which is adjacent to the Chapel, where we
celebrate the marriage of the sun and the moon.
The light from these globes has been captured
on nights when the moon is full, when she comes
to her husband. They converse and make love
all night long. At daybreak there is a procession,
there is a celebration, there is a moment
of utter stillness in which all evaporates.
Let us retrace our steps. That door leads
to the labyrinth, which is currently under repair.
The walls are painted with images from
the Psychomachia, but they have faded
and need to be restored. We are presently
seeking support, earnestly seeking, the scryer
peering into the stone even on moonless nights.
There are angels in the stone. All their names
begin with the letter A.

I love the matter-of-fact way that the speaker describes the marvelous. He regularly moves between the pedestrian and the supernatural, suffusing the first with special meaning and making the second seem not quite so far away. All the human emotions are put into play: hope, wonder, delight, disappointment, fear, paranoia. Like all good poetry, the Foundation appears inexhaustible and I will be revisiting it in future posts.

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