Vinograd: “The Book of Jerusalem”; Farrington, “Flares and Fathoms”; Ladin, “The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something”.

Julia Vinograd, The Book of Jerusalem, Zeitgeist Press 2024

Julia Vinograd, poetic portraitist of Berkeley street life from the sixties on, worked throughout her life on a cycle of poems, which has now been published by the Zeitgeist press as The Book of Jerusalem. When the book first appeared, forty years earlier, in 1984, it did so as a volume almost too slender to sustain a perfect binding. But it became the nucleus of an ambitious, and triumphant, poetic cycle. The poems are largely dialogues between God and Jerusalem, in which Vinograd deals with such imposing themes as religious violence and the silence of God. Because the dysfunctional relationship between the paternal deity and his earthly consort is necessarily a gendered one, a feminist subtext also present.

Not since Blake has there been a book of poetry that expresses so many levels of meaning, from the most metaphysical to the most personal, through a coherent, newly created cast of symbolic beings. Like Blake’s prophetic books, this work is deeply engaging and frequently startling, long before one has found the key to its deeper meaning.

At the highest level, Jerusalem personifies the human longing for God, for transcendent meaning in life. In the poem Jerusalem’s Tears, Vinograd describes this as a wish,

When Jerusalem weeps, she weeps stars
living stars, dead stars all still shining, climbing
and all to be wished on.

This ineradicable longing can never be fulfilled (“dead stars all”), because God is, for Vinograd, ultimately unreachable—or at least beyond human power to influence. God is here reality itself, in its incomprehensible totality; Jerusalem is as beautiful as only unrealizable dreams can be. This beauty arouses in God a love for her which never ends, because it can never be consummated. It is a relationship as dysfunctional as it is eternal—and, Vinograd implies, it is eternal because it is dysfunctional. It is a relationship God and Jerusalem cannot and do not want to escape, even though it consists of antagonizing one another. In the poem significantly titled Scars, God says to Jerusalem, “We are each other’s scars.”

God punishes her by his distance, Jerusalem revenges herself on him by her cruelty, as in the poem Gifts,

. . . the Lord comments
as he puts the last finishing touches
to a bitter aching cry
going hopelessly human, the way humans go hopelessly mad.

“What about your own people?”
the Lord reminds her.
“Oh, them,” Jerusalem pauses a moment,
smoothing her hair with a half-steady hand,then shrugging carefully.
“I thought they were yours.”

On the human level, the impossible longing for God (which Jerusalem personifies) results in frustrated obsession, and this manifests in turn as the violence inspired by religious fanaticism. (As Vinograd observes in the poem Accusation, “there is no hatred without desire.”) Vinograd’s Jerusalem is not consciously responsible for the violence that encompasses her existence, but she rather enjoys it. And as often as God deplores her ambiance of bloodshed, she replies that it secretly excites him—an observation he smarts under, but does not deny.

The marital squabbles of God and Jerusalem are the primary theme of Book One of The Book of Jerusalem, and this topic has been good copy for a long, long time.  From Isaiah (8th century BCE) to Malachi (5th century BCE), the poetic project of the Hebrew prophets centered on slut-shaming Israel, personified as God’s unfaithful wife, who “went whoring after strange gods.” Vinograd offers a wryly feminist rewriting of this tradition, presenting the drama from the woman’s perspective. She shifts the emphasis of the prophetic critique from idolatry to religious violence, from theological scruples to their human cost, and recasts Jerusalem as a charismatic vamp rather than a penitent whore.

Not since Shakespeare’s Cleopatra have we seen so thoroughgoing a femme fatale. She is spellbinding, capricious, flirtatious, cruel and amusing. She toys with God and handily defeats him in every encounter. Their squabbles always begin in seeming earnest, and always end with the bemused revelation she’s been playing with him. But while Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was an engaging villain, a male caricature of woman as wily and unprincipled, Vinograd’s Jerusalem is an embodiment of human longing itself—which is far more wily and unprincipled.

Vinograd’s Jerusalem is one of literature’s magnificent characters. That she is a woman, and drawn by a woman with insight only a woman could possess, makes her utterly unexampled—for we are still in the dawn of a literature written by women speaking in their own truth in their own voices.

Vinograd’s psychological self-explorations provide the most important and brilliant passages of the poetry. She is in a sense a Jewish Euripides. That playwright, not wildly popular in his day, depicted gods and heroes with unglamourous but profound emotional realism. His brilliant deflations of Greek religious feeling earned him a reputation for atheism. A century after his death, and ever since, his works were the most widely admired productions of classical drama. Their disenchanted stance makes them seem as modern as Chekhov or Ibsen.

Vinograd’s genius for depicting psychological drama is nowhere more evident than in the poem Anger, while the best instance of how she uses this to make metaphysics visceral is in the poem Jerusalem Remembering, where Jerusalem says,

“I hear guns and prayers, even children pray
but children believe more in the bogeyman hiding under their beds
than they believe in me. And laughter and the sounds
lovers make in bed. And kitchen arguments that aren’t about
what they’re about. And they call me mysterious?”
Jerusalem shrugged, her bare arms a herd of antelope
disappearing over the horizon, her emotions arching
like stained glass windows.

The Book of Jerusalem is arranged in roughly chronological order. Book One is made up of the twenty poems of the 1984 book, unchanged and in their original sequence. Book Two contains the Jerusalem poems she wrote between 1984 and 2013, in the form and order she gave them in a manuscript. Book Three consists of the Jerusalem poems she wrote between 2013 and her death in 2018, arranged by Bruce Isaacson, her close friend, publisher and literary executor.

Book Two is closely focused on war, and Vinograd exploits to the full the irony of men playing at war and children suffering for it. Here she speaks with a poignant, humane  indignation that places her solidly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. But Vinograd carries out a brilliantly bitter refutation of all belief. By her account, belief in love leads only to lovers’ fights; belief in God leads only to religious wars. In this grim world, Jerusalem, who is here, as in Book One, Vinograd’s alter ego, has no place, and is nowhere at home. The people who love her, who die for her, do so only because they completely misunderstand her. God loves her, and will not come close to her, because he understands her only too well.

The saddest paradox of our utterly brilliant and painfully modern poet is that she believed only in the physical, understandable world, and spent her life clothing its nakedness with poetry. Her truly Shakespearean level of pessimism sweetens, however, in the middle of Book Two with the poem, Jerusalem Escapes. The aging Vinograd turned, as Shakespeare did, from tragedy to fairy tales, from the world of Lear to that of the Tempest. Now she offers idyllic visions and comforting resolutions, if not solutions, to the problem of being human, as in this Sabbath memory from the poem Jerusalem’s Book of Fairytales,

The smell of bread coming out of the oven
filled the house like prayer.
Outside children played marbles and jump rope
swimming in safety.
Their voices rose like birds that know no borders
flying in and out of God’s beard while He slept.

A momentous question is posed by the strange disparity between the character Jerusalem, who is clearly drawn from life, with an authority that only comes with autobiography—and Vinograd herself. She lived alone, never had a lover, and was notably abstemious as regards drugs and drink. Her publisher estimates she sold, by hand, chapbook by chapbook, upwards of 150,000 of her slender volumes—which cannot have left much energy for private life. She lived on the street, in cafés, and at open mic poetry events, an entirely public person.

So, whence the powerful Jerusalem character, whose full-blooded realism and psychological truth makes Euripides’ Medea seem conventional as a Halloween witch costume, this Jerusalem whose feminist chtuzpah that makes Ibsen’s heroines seem anemic? How did the hermitess Vinograd come to channel this most potent iteration of the “fatal woman”?

The mystery of The Book of Jerusalem is solved, not with the help of the Kabbalah, or by feminist critique, but through a judicious scrutiny of the biographical facts. Julia was an epileptic, a condition which ultimately earned her an SSI income. Also, she suffered from polio when very young, which left her with a life-long leg-brace and a limp. She had an invalid childhood, in which she turned to books as a substitute for the active outdoors life which disease denied her. This sequestering prevented her from developing even that rudimentary social armor every normal child develops.

When her health and mobility improved, she attended an all-girls high school in Pasadena. The cruel social realignment all children suffer after elementary school was no doubt worsened by the special competition among girls in early adolescence. With her leg brace and her seizures, Julia must have been singled out for unusually cruel treatment.

Her singular erotic shyness in Summer-of-Love California, which endured throughout her life, may then have stemmed from a sense that she was defective, unlovable, unwelcome in the world of intimacy. Undoubtedly her mother bears much of the blame, and the cruelty of “popular girls” in high school did the rest. Thus she passed the decades in Berkeley, like a nun, erecting around herself an impenetrable persona, a bizarre and self-sufficient poetic identity. In the trademark motto she wore buttoned to her hat, she was “weird and proud.” But within her were all a woman’s feelings and need for love, and these ultimately erupted in The Book of Jerusalem, a grandiose fantasy of erotic confidence. 

I mention this not to “explain away” this brilliant book. These comments do no more than note contributing and contingent circumstances. Thus one might chemically analyze the glaze on a Tang ceramic, which in no wise detracts from the work of art. Noting the merely circumstantial factors, we can better appreciate the unique and self-chosen ones.

The parallels that come immediately to mind for Vinograd’s Jerusalem are Andy Warhol’s numinous silkscreen portraits of movie idols. If we bear in mind his invalid childhood, in which he turned to movie magazines for a ideal imaginary life, in which he too lived among the stars—so unlike his real life as a sickly, picked-on kid—we can appreciate the poignant sadness of his silkscreened Marilyn’s glamor—and set aside questions of whether he was making a “statement” about the semiotics of cinema.

Likewise, knowing Julia Vinograd better, we can appreciate the special intensity of her poetic self-assertion as a woman so confident in her eros she could, at least verbally, defy and defeat God, and dispute the conditions under which he gave her life. Thus Julia Vinograd’s Jerusalem gained the neon magic of Warhol’s best silk-screen paintings. Out of her personal suffering and her poetic genius, she created an iconic image of Jerusalem that is unforgettable, feminist, and startlingly modern.

Margot Farrington, Flares and Fathoms, Bright Hill Press 2005.

There was a twenty year hiatus between her first book, Rising and Falling (Warthog Press, 2005) and this book one, during which Farrington set aside writing and busied herself with theater work. Though I have a special regard for all the evanescent art forms, theater, dance, cooking, sand-painting, which gain in immediacy what they lack in duration, I am very glad Ms. Farrington once again spared a thought for posterity.

Her poetry is what Sylvia Plath would have written had she been able to take simple pleasure in her existence. Farrington is the only living poet I know who manages Plath’s richness of diction, that dense weave of assonance and alliteration that make you stop and read a line around to fully savor the texture of her language.

Plath’s depression suffused all she saw and recorded with deathly drama that made the most ordinary things seem ironic and grotesque. Farrington, in sharpest contrast, delights in her corner of the ordinary—though admittedly, it’s very curated—which largely consists of charming objects, old furniture, and the small creatures of forest or shore. Her work calls to mind Victorian bell-jar dioramas: she achieves a similar enchanted stillness. As in one of those landscapes in a glass, everything takes on a curious clarity of detail, one’s vision seems unnaturally acute.

She also has, as did Plath, and very few others in English, the gift of exceptional compression. She addresses a snake she accidentally mowed over, “Ribbon of God forgive me.” She says of an inept poetry reciter, “each poem ducks through the door of her own importance.” A clock with its mortal tick is “beheading seconds.” The action of a match is conveyed with “red strike rough, and the flame exclaim.”

At this point, I fear I shall begin to repeat myself, having previously reviewed Farringtons The Blue Canoe. Or worse, I shall create a pseudo-Farringtonian prose poem as I attempt to convey what she has already so well realized. Suffice it say this is another scintillating volume one will want to add to the shelf.

[A selection of poems from Flares and Fathoms will appear in the Fall 2024 issue, Sept. 1]

Joy Ladin, The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something, Sheep Meadow Press, 2017

[The poems given in full in this issue have their titles in bold.]

Is a transgender “poetics” possible? That is to say, can one articulate its rationale—give a reasoned exposition of the principles at play in transgender poetry? I believe there are defining characteristics of men’s and of women’s poetry, and that we may reasonably expect the same here. This entails the perhaps unpopular assumption that gender transition is not a simple shunting from one side to the other of the binary, but that a trans person has also a special sensibility, on the threshold or in the twilight between two genders.

A particular sensibility gives rise to characteristic experiences, and these, I propose, are the raw material of any poetics. But not all a person’s important experiences are structural. Some are, however important, due simply to historical, contingent events. For a trans person, these often arise from the conflict between trans identity and societal expectations. In this category I would include the more painful consequences of transition, some of which are expressed in Ladin’s verse. I am thinking here of her ravaged marriage, to which the poems Divorce and Family Probate Court bear especially wrenching and poignant witness. In these poems mundane physical details—plain pine chairs, the roar of an air conditioners—become, as in a play by Ibsen or Tennessee Williams, the emotionally supercharged emblems of a story’s psychic tension. These are poems which, like the best of late Plath or early Sexton, could only have been written by a woman. Admittedly, male authors like Ibsen and Williams similarly invest something as commonplace as a dollhouse or a glass animal with archetypal power—but it takes them a whole play, not a dozen lines, to do so. 

Our inquiry properly begins with the trans person’s “out of body experiences,” a phrase we should ponder in all its possible meanings, noting as well what meanings it does not have here. A trans person is of course not at home in their anatomical body. But as dire as dysphoria can be, it is not quite the same as the body-horror which finds such ready expression in horror writing which, by contrast, positively exults in images of physical pain and decay. That body-horror is best understood as an encoded expression of sexual repression. (The special gift of Catholic authors, from Bram Stoker on, for this genre, is all the evidence than need be fielded for this assertion.)

For the trans person, the body is regarded not so much with disgust and loathing as with a sense of otherness. The body is not self. This is indeed a recurring theme in Ladin’s verse, from the addresses to God in Psalms I: 3

I talk to you incessantly
But you can count on the fingers
Of the hand you don’t have

The times I’ve heard you answer.

and again in Psalms II: 8

. . . it’s you
I’m waiting for, for the breath of you
That entered me once

And refused to leave
Until the mud I was
Learned to rhumba

or at least to shudder
In your presence.

and, most appealingly, in the poem Physically, where detachment from the physical form yields a childlike awareness of the mortal condition as, also, hilarious,

Your body is too much fun,
like a dozen apes trying on shoes . . .

Out-of-body sensibility, though valuable as a touchstone of transgender authenticity, is not however of supreme interest. It is, ultimately, an external awareness, which does not fully define inner experience. It is not of the essence, though it is an essential precondition.

I would suggest that transgender poetry is uniquely characterized by a sense of mutability. To understand what this can mean, one may turn to Ovid, the supreme poet of metamorphoses. He can be a disappointing teacher for trans topics if one scrutinizes him only through such lens as the index of The Metamorphoses provides. The stories from which one would anticipate the most satisfaction, those of Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Hermes and Aphrodite; Attis, who castrated himself to become a serving girl of the goddess Cybele; Iphis, transformed by Isis from a girl to a boy—these are dull perfunctory episodes.

The wisdom Ovid can impart here is rather to be sought in his genius for capturing the very moment of transformation, and stabilizing it into a visible emblem of a coherent yet contradictory existence. We see this not only in the spectacular transformation scenes of his stories, but in the fine and constant detail of his genius for word-play. Here his signature technique is the poetic palindrome, of which one example will suffice,

it seemed he could not look at her enough,
and it was not enough to look at her.

The trans-potential of this rhetorical tumbling act arises from its apparent union of opposites, pulling in two opposed directions, and producing a new beauty from that very tension, like a musical note from a tensed string. And this Ovidian mode is one which Ladin uses consistently. It finds its most striking employment in After Life, an elegy for the poet’s father,

Feeling and failures,
feelings of failure
and failures of feeling
drift like balloons
over death’s horizon.

Ovid’s engagement with the topic of transformation, of  tensely twofold being, was so profound that it extended from his rhetoric to his most distant interests. It led him to write two more books addressing the theme from brilliantly unexpected angles. These volumes, unfortunately lost, were on ladies’ make-up, and on natural camouflage in the animal world.

For an explicit statement of the system that underlay his insights in mutability, we turn to the fifteenth book of his Metamorphoses, where he reveals himself as an ardent adherent of Pythagoras. Ovid took the doctrine of soul-transmigration seriously enough to become a vegetarian—a far more radical and revealing stance for an ancient Roman than it is for us.

Though Ladin is hardly a Pythagorean, her sensitivity to metamorphosis led her to a view of the natural world which suggests Pythagoras’ doctrines. Plants and animals are, for her, intelligent actors in her poems, to a degree one rarely encounters outside of children’s books and folk tales. This is visible at large in the  2017 poems Tarot Readings Daily,  and Kindness—it is a theme that has engaged her for some time. Five years earlier she explored it in The Bird that Sings at Three AM. Ladin’s animals sometimes have more than human intelligence, while human beings may appear as aquatic creatures negotiating the symbolically equivalent deeps of unawareness and of sleep. The separation of human and animal life, for which the use of reason is the border, has dissolved.

4: Sightseeing from the poem Wrestling, explores the out-of-body theme in a way that comes within an ace of explicitly declaring for Pythagorean metempsychosis.  This topic is splendidly addressed once again in Respiration,

but only the body can die
and only the body can live

and the soul is only faintly aware
that the bodies

through which she passes
as she passes

through life through death
bow before her

like blades of grass
before the unbowed wind.

The doctrine of metempsychosis could supply the inner logic of these poems—but it needn’t. Archetypal insights, such as this one into mutability as a condition of being, unconsciously call forth their proper constellation of ideas and symbols. Ladin is intuitively, rather than deliberately, an adherent of Pythagoras.

In an evolution of her special sensitivity to mutability, dreams became another area of especial depth for Ladin. Aubade is an intoxicating exploration of the rich and strange undersea symbolism of dreams, the oceanic resonance of which Shakespeare sounded in the best remembered song from Tempest.

In dreams, metamorphosis is a structural element, and this Ladin displays with Lewis Caroll-like humor in In this Dream We Can See Each Other’s Dreams, where, as in Alice’s adventures, motion becomes immobility, and cause and effect trade places. The poem ends with the author taking on the characteristics of a tree, in a startling final line that calls to mind Daphne’s transformation into a laurel, so famously sung by Ovid, and sculpted by Bernini.

Ladin creates a new mythology of sleep, in which the bed become the barque of the soul, as in Sickness and Health. These night visions, taken together with her praeternaturally communicative animals, and her nearly shamanic out-of-body experiences, set forth, almost programmatically, the framework of a new trans poetics—which one might call a poetics of lucid dreaming.

Parallels with shamanic experience would repay further exploration, particularly since gender ambiguity is frequently present in shamanism, as a reflection of the shaman’s participation in two worlds. The shaman, in ecstasy, is  literally “beside himself.”  This is nicely figured forth in the Chinese character for shaman or spirit-medium 巫, ,  which combines the symbol for work or skill, 工, a carpenter’s square, with a figure of a person, doubled 入入. The shaman has the skill to be in two worlds at once. The shaman in an archaic society typically makes out of body excursions, and obtains mastery of the language of animals, also themes that are demonstrably present and splendidly developed in Ladin’s work. I am course not suggesting that Ladin is a shaman, but that a true poet can access psychologically deep, archetypal levels of meaning, and express them in symbols that cross-cultural comparison will validate.

[I will note that possible influence of shamanism on early Greek philosophy, via Scythia,  has been noted since Christian Lobeck’s 1829 Aglaophamus, and has engaged the most interesting of the classicists (Rohde, Dodds, Meuli &c.) ever since. I agree with the orthodox classicists that the trace elements of shamanism in Presocratic philosophy (Pythagorean transmigration of souls, Parmenides’ out-of-body journey, Orphism) are of little use to classical philology. But because these trace elements give glimpses of how shamanism was understood by the greatest thinkers of a pinnacle civilization, they have considerable value for those who wish to understand shamanism in terms of its timeless cosmological, psychological, existential and poetic concerns.]

What constitutes a poetics is an assemblage of techniques, tropes, themes and images that best express a certain sensibility. I am proposing that the sense of dissociation from the body, leading to the conviction that physical form can or should be altered, and an appreciation that such metamorphosis is an integral aspect of existence, are the living infrastructure of a trans poetics.

Lest Joy Ladin appear an isolated instance, and my theory be able to claim no wider application, I offer two cross-cultural comparisons. Ovid is of course the classic example, with his continuous transitions between human and animal existence, but we may add Edmund Spenser to the dossier. To be sure, the great Elizabethan’s poetry is unambiguously “guy stuff”—his genius goes into high gear for battle scenes and splatter, and his heterosexual male oscillation between overvaluing and scorning women is everywhere on display.

But for Spenser, the price of patronage was paid by writing an epic valentine to the virgin queen, in which she might contemplate herself in the adventures of beautiful but butch warrior maidens. This externally sourced and purely literary case of gender dysphoria led him to make the finale of his unfinished epic the Cantos of Mutability. And the first printed version of the epic ended, in book three, with the most mysterious and intricate portrait of a hermaphrodite in English literature. (Spenser himself found this vision so disturbing he deleted the stanzas from the final version of the book.) Instances of a blurred line between human and animal life in The Faerie Queene  could be piled up like cord-wood, beginning with the Una’s all-but-human lion. It is no coincidence that the most intriguing and stimulating Spenser scholar of the last century, Camille Paglia, identifies as transgender.

What deeply held Pythagorean conviction did for Ovid, the need to please Elizabeth did, on a purely literary level,  for Spenser. However different their motivations, both poets stumbled upon techniques, tropes, themes and images which we also find in Ladin, though in her case they are used with the special coherence and precision of purpose which only personal experience and real identity can provide.

So Ladin’s book is indeed trying to tell us something, and as regards the unique potential of trans poetry, it is a voice from the future. Poetry’s greatest value is as the most vivid record of lived life, and as an articulation of how life can be experienced as meaningful. On both of these heads Ladin has succeeded to admiration. She has earned distinction both as a singer and as an explorer of the soul.

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