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Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness
Peter O’Leary
Middleton (CT): Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
$24.95, 268 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6564-4.

Joanny Moulin
Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I

At first, this seems to be little else than a few random considerations on psychosomatic diseases, the effect of words and therefore of poetry on the body, and poetry itself considered as an illness or neurosis for which writing is the cure, the whole of it being conducted in a rather amateurish sort of way. To some extent, this is what it remains to the end, Robert Duncan and his poetry being little else than the chance occurrence of a personal experience in the protestant tradition.

Subservient to this discourse is some hazy atmosphere of belief in paranormal influences, which happens to have also been the contagious climate of Robert Duncan’s lectures on poetry at New College in San Francisco in the 1980s. This otherworldly, at once mythical and mystical dimension is related to what Duncan identified as Charles Olson’s “Open Field” in his own poem of the same title. O’Leary’s thesis in Gnostic Contagion is that Duncan is the agent by whom the “spores” or germs of Gnosis were passed on to modern America, and that he had taken this “disease” from H. D. The theological systems of the Gnostics is briefly summarised, with its aeons cascading from the pleroma, down from the first centuries of Christianity (incidentally Origen is quoted among the sources with an Origin-al misprint) together with the usual basic information about Hermes Trismegistus and Asklepios, etc.

All this is done rather cursorily, and soon to be followed by an exposé on H. D.’s psychoanalysis with Freud in the hay-days of Madame Blavatsky, with little attention paid to the radical materialism of the Freudian doctrine, which tends here to be recuperated so as to validate and legitimise H. D.’s spiritualism, although she is much more clearly on Jung’s side of a well-known controversy. Robert Duncan, who considered that “Poetry is a womb of souls, which we as poets attend”, is thus presented as a disciple and Boomian ephebe of H.D. It turns out that Duncan’s vision of the world also has its roots in the religion of his adoptive family, who belonged to the Hermetic Brotherhood of California, an American branch of the Theosophical Society.

The homosexual poet would later distinguish himself by developing his personal myth from the figure of Narcissus, which finds an expression in his recurring central experience of the “Atlantis Dream”. He would explain his anti-rationalist aesthetics in the essay “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” in which Keats and his Negative Capability stand as an emblem. Similar ideas would find echoes in Whitehead’s Process and Reality as well as in the works of Creeley and Olson and crystallise, at Black Mountain College in the 1960s, into what came to be known as the Black Mountain school of poetry.

O’Leary’ effort to make Duncan’s concept of “apprehension” and Olson’s crypto-Jungian, projective poetics coincide with Geoffrey Hill’s notion of “Poetry as Menace and Atonement” remains perhaps too sketchy to be utterly convincing. But the intellectual affinity of Duncan with Eliade, the author of Shamanism, is particularly striking. What is remarkable, too, although it has never been mentioned, is the extreme resemblance between Duncan’s work and poetics and that of British poet Ted Hughes, his contemporary and also a self-styled poet-shaman, whose final Cave Birds poem is very close to “My Mother Would Be A Falconress”. On the whole this book is symptomatic of what is perhaps its author’s refusal of rationalistic vision and academic method, for it never steers clear of psychological shallows, stitching together sometimes thought-provoking but systematically undeveloped insights. The final digressive swerve into examining now the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey, fascinatingly interesting as it may be in itself, tends to deal the final blow to the attentiveness of the benevolent reader, who is left to trace for himself whatever tenuous link there really is between the vatic scat rasp of Mackey’s voice, monophysism, H.D.’s psychoanalysis, Duncan’s homosexuality and nice reproductions of Jess’s paintings, except an obscurely dizzying odour of Gnosticism.

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