Notes on Norman Finkelstein’s Columns (Track Volume II)

Columns by Norman Finkelstein
Columns, Norman Finkelstein.
Spuyten Duyvil (ISBN# 1-881471-73-X);144 pages. $10.00

    In 1938, Gershom Scholem came to New York City from Jerusalem to the Jewish Institute of Religion to deliver the Strook lectures. He was forty years old. Upon his return to Jerusalem, his friend Walter Benjamin urged him to expand these lectures and publish them immediately. It took him two-and-a-half years, during which time a fleeing Benjamin took his own life in Spain. When in 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism was published, it bore a poignant dedication to his “friend of a lifetime,” the metaphysician, scholar, and critic. One feels Benjamin’s attending ear throughout these lectures, written with an intimacy borne of friendship, but asserted with the explosiveness of revelation intended to revolutionize the way we think. It’s a book whose importance is impossible to overstate, in which Scholem presents a version of the development and flowering of the varieties of Jewish mystical thought and practice, of which he identified two dominant strands: Merkabah, or “throne” mysticism, because of its creative visualization of the vision of the throne-chariot in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel; and Kabbalah, the “received,” a multivalent tradition of contemplation and hermeneutics on esoteric elements of scripture, most especially the sefirot, the shattered vessels of the Tree of Life. Merkabah mysticism is nearly as old as Judaism; Kabbalah is a more recent practice, coming fully to life in 13th century Andalusia when Moses de Leon published the pseudepigraphical Book of Splendor, otherwise known as the Zohar.

My sense is that American Jewish poetry has been deeply imprinted by Scholem’s book, especially in its recovery of spirituality as a driving theme and practice. Furthermore, Kabbalah has entered the mystical mainstream, in no small way because of Scholem. Even the New Age pundits acknowledge his work, no matter that they apply the teachings of Kabbalah in books of financial advice based on partially apprehended tenets of the tradition. In terms of American poetry, no one has done more to engage Kabbalah in his work than Jerome Rothenberg. His seminal anthology, A Big Jewish Book, is a hungry importation of the themes and variations that mark Kabbalistic practice into an idiom of experimental American poetry, contextualizing the work with 20th century Jewish poetry from America and Europe. His more recent book, Gematria, consolidates this practice into an endless act of poetic repetition. Linguistic gymnastics characterize Kabbalah, whose mercurial aspirations are the opening of an unabated pneumatism between the void of sign and signifier. Kabbalah’s applications in a poetry of fragmentation are perhaps too obvious (maybe even too easy). Much less visible is the presence of Merkabah mysticism in American poetry. Perhaps with a too gross a simplicity, I might characterize Merkabah as the visionary counterpart to the lettristic focus of Kabbalah. Indeed, Merkabah mystical practices are characterized by attempts at a visionary descent through the sights offered at the beginning of the prophecies of Ezekiel, toward a visitation of the seven heavenly palaces and then the seven paradises beyond. Where Kabbalah is a mysticism of disorientation, Merkabah is one of praise and glorifying. The visionary experience invariably leads to a vision of the Holy King on his throne of glory.

What links these two practices in Scholem’s understanding of the tradition is revelation. Tellingly, he writes:

Revelation, for instance, is to the mystic not only a definite historical occurrence which, at a given moment in history, puts an end to any further direct relation between mankind and God. With no thought of denying Revelation as a fact of history, the mystic still conceives the source of religious knowledge and experience which bursts forth from his own heart as being of equal importance for the conception of religious truth. In other words, instead of the one act of Revelation, to himself or to his spiritual master, the mystic tries to line up with the sacred texts of the old; hence the new interpretation given to canonical texts and sacred books of the great religions. To the mystic, the original act of Revelation to the community — the, as it were, public revelation of Mount Sinai, to take one instance — appears as something whose true meaning has yet to unfold itself; the secret revelation is to him the real and decisive one. And thus the substance of the canonical texts, like that of all other religious values, is melted down and given another form as it passes through the fiery stream of the mystical consciousness. It is hardly surprising that, hard as the mystic may try to remain within the confines of his religion, he often consciously or unconsciously approaches, or even transgresses, its limits.
        (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken, 1961, p. 9)

Revelation allows for a combination, which is as much a transcending as it is an amalgamating, of the mystic text with the mystic vision. Not wanting to equate mysticism with poetry (nor the mystic with the visionary), I do want to suggest an analogous possibility: poetic revelation yielded from a bringing together of poetic text and poetic vision. A Throne and Kabbalistic practice united in a poem.

    Not a possibility, but a book: Norman Finkelstein’s Track, a compelling, visionary permutation on writing and revelation, a poetry of inflowing splendor and questioning. Finkelstein published part I, entitled simply Track, in 1999. Part II, Columns, was published earlier this year. Powers, part III, is currently in the works. This is one of the most vital poetries of writing we have in American poetry nowadays. Much as it bears some resemblance to Robert Duncan’s series of “Passages” (as Mark Scroggins usefully pointed out in his review of Track in Jacket 11), it seems most strikingly similar in my eyes to Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing “Song of the Andoumboulou,” not so much in its poetics (Mackey’s is much slipperier and more disjunctive than Finkelstein’s) as in its relentless infolding of material and language into its process, such that its repetitions are constantly opening the poem up, renewing it, invigorating it.

    Columns opens in the same manner as Track, with a large number sign “#” followed by the title “TRACK,” followed by two number signs, “##,” an orthographic feature which is repeated at the beginning of each new section of the poem, a mysterious assertion along the lines of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in the 1885 edition, perhaps? The first poem is an ascension, an entry into the Gnostic vault of the Aeons:

Now Duncan goes up
into that great constellation

Love in his hands
like a newborn star

Like a track across the sky
the lights lit in order

Across a sea of numbers
an uncountable host. (7)

The track across the sky is as much a way, a path, as it is a pursuit, a spoor, something easy to lose. The lights in Duncan’s hands are something to be puzzled out. The apprehension of the meaning of these stars becomes an incantation, a spell. Finkelstein recognizes that he is writing a latter-day amulet, a poetic charm for which Duncan (and later Ronald Johnson in a moving tribute) are intervening angels:

This was intended
to be a book of magic

Forbidden spells
written and unwritten

Cast in time. (33)

When he qualifies this writing and unwriting, Finkelstein makes light of the delineations of one of his precursors, Louis Zukofsky, when he asserts:

Upper limit
music of the spheres

“what he had in mind
was planetary”

What was planetary
was his mind.


Lower limit

Yet “It is unspeakable,
that which exists.”

To say


The perfection
of the unspeakable

The unspeakably perfect (24)

That last line is followed by the graphic of an equilateral triangle, pointing up, skyward.

    Columns is a poem about approaching the unspeakable whose upper limit is cosmology itself, and then the theurgy of speaking that story of creation out. As the visionary makes his way to the sight of the Holy King enthroned in glory, he recognizes the curious nature of his work, a process of becoming through a series of repetitions:

Strange to think
that by spells and numbers
quotations, repetitions
endless reflection

A sufficient pattern
should or should not emerge

Strange reflection
that by endless spells
quotations, repetitions
numbers think (55)

These lines are exemplary of Finkelstein’s unhurried technique in this poem: a series of relatively simple words uttered then reflected on, only to be repeated with slight alterations, yielding a different meaning. What is the sufficient pattern either emerging or not emerging in the poem? It is paradise itself, “Sufficient to carry one/ on the way to language” (55).

Paradise the accommodation
of violent incursions
repeated impediments
along the way

Paradise the inoculation
of verbal shocks
measured sequence
of a larger pattern

Paradise the pattern

Paradise the way. (57)

Paradise is the track we’re following in this poem, the spoor we’re on, the prey we’re tracking. As a pattern, paradise refracts language, even as it constellates and organizes thought. Finkelstein tells us, “Paradise no telos/but of a larger pattern…” (56), adding “No message from the throne,” in case we’re waiting for it. By way of these canny manipulations of our expectations, Finkelstein attains in Columns what Scholem identifies as the work of the mystic: a poem whose true meaning is yet to unfold to the reader, even as that reader is enmeshed in its paradise. Reworking a poetic midrash in the light of Jabès, availing himself of a deceptively simple poetic line which has antecedents in Michael Palmer’s recent work, and then referring to scriptural hermeneutics throughout, Finkelstein has created an amazing new kind of poem: as tensile as it is frangible, as spiritually reviving as it is philosophically zeroing. Toward the end of the poem, Freud — master hermeneut and oneiric spelunker — appears in an allusion to his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia”:

Seeking to fasten
upon an object of mourning
to be saved from melancholy

The shadow of the object
fell upon the ego
henceforth to be judged

By a special agency
as though it were an object
the forsaken object. (93)

There are allusions throughout Columns to the death of a father — presumably the poet’s father. The forsaken object in these lies may very well be his father (who appears in the section immediately preceding this one). Finkelstein follows this action with an allusion — in my mind — to one of his chosen poetic fathers, Ronald Johnson, whom he beautifully eulogizes only a few pages earlier in the book. Johnson appears as an American Ezekiel in these lies, a prophet of Oz:

Seeking to flee
from the loss of the other
the loss of the self

Came upon
an expansive fantasy
innumerable numbered

Within and without:
Ezekiel’s fractals
alight in Oz. (93)

The loss of the self expands in the encounter with a poetic realm, whose visionary ascension begins in a Merkabah throne vision (I take these lines to be an allusion to Johnson’s ARK). The work of praise, then, never ceases, even as it is continually confounded:

Immense the enchantment
of this world
immense this world

Immense the disenchantment
of this world
over which contend
immense powers. (102)

The Powers awaits us in the next installment of this poem. Let us attend, then, the track of light across the sky until its arrival.

Peter O'Leary (© 2002)