11.1.2001

On Peter O’Leary’s Watchfulness

Peter O'Leary Watchfulness
Watchfulness, poems by Peter O’Leary
Spuyten Duyvil (ISBN# 1-881471-73-X); 144 pages. $12.00

    Despite its deep-searching mysticism and splendid inventions of gnostic histories, Peter O’Leary’s first collection, Watchfulness, shares little with the tradition of Western devotional verse. Although the tonal and iconic elements might resemble in passing Herbert, Blake, Hopkins, even R.S. Thomas, these poems derive more starkly from, say, Ronald Johnson, the American poet whose long sequence ARK (1996) is an unacknowledged masterpiece. The affinities are not by mere dint of influence: Johnson’s posthumously published selected poems were edited by O’Leary and this volume is dedicated to his memory. Both poets are difficult, diffracted and delightful — alchemists who savor the slippage between spiritual insight and the material world, whose poetic constructions create new narratives and arrangements from either received scriptural beliefs and histories (O’Leary) or the visceral sensations of nature (Johnson): “Ah lachrymose/ Alchemyst/dares the slipping mercury/a storm daemon bore bottled in/volatile lumen.” Each poet shows a fidelity to content, a resourcefulness in extrapolating from appropriated texts and upsetting conventional rhythms to raise architectonics of their own that are original and necessary. O’Leary, like Johnson, could be accused by the jaundiced eye of being hermetic; while it is true that his poems require a serious concentration of engagement (and which innovative work does not?), it always arrives at that “volatile lumen,” not to mention that limen (from the Latin root for “threshold”), and their optics yield up their revelatory zeal to the reader quite readily.

    The volume is divided into three sections — “Ikons,” “Holy Trinity,” and “Jerusalem” — which correspond to a movement through stations. Or more specifically, a progress through historical translations of the sacred and its readjustment through incremental, transitive identities in which the mythological, theological and human merge. O’Leary has noted that the “Ikons” cycle and the Midas poem in the first part are dialectical in nature, informing and opposing gold in their discordant frequencies, as it is inlaid as Byzantine decoration, as metaphor, as value both terminal and immortal. The Ikon poems indicate a “transforming into the gold of spiritual matter” while Midas shows “the punishment of gold.”

    O’Leary the alchemist is also a wizard of architecture: the third section (which in itself forms an internal tryptich) converges the patterns of linguistic, geographic and scriptural space into a prismatic fulfillment of vision: “It is the Man of Light.//I found light in force:/it phosphoresced its million brilliances.” O’Leary can incorporate a devotional air in his poetics, but it’s never enveloped dogmatically into orthodoxy’s recesses; less arch than Geoffrey Hill, he evokes the sensations of belief (tutored by Johnson but all his own) within his validating scope of discovery. With repeated homage to Louis Sullivan and the restless, ordinary world, O’Leary assures us that mystical presence is always aligned with its human counterpart so that they are fused, recombinant DNA with its divine analogue, a holy organum — resuscitative, mutual and surprising: “The Lord is Odysseus in my our Body/ the stars glutted with miracles; his vessel is Holy/Trinity; I am his companion….”

    Words in O’Leary are radials, fractals, windows, mirrors, eyes, portents, and prayers. His inventions and visions (the two are symbiotic, after all) bring us increasingly to a focus whose clarity is plain. In the Jerusalem section, the reader encounters the term, “Ephphatha,” which means “Be thou opened,” as rendered in the parable found in Mark relating Jesus’ healing of a deaf and dumb man. O’Leary’s verbal and visual shutter is always opened, urging the reader to join him. Be thou opened. I can think of no better advice — or prediction — for prospective readers of Watchfulness.

Jon Curley (© 2001)