Friday, February 01, 2008

Male Ascetics

I've been reading Joshua Kryah's Glean on the Metro this week. It's late here, and I'm not certain I'll have anything intelligent to say about it, but I'll give it a shot. Glean is a book that teaches you to read it as you go along. I don't have it in front of me right now, but it operates by suspending phrases, which both moves the lines along and creates pauses--at times, you feel rushed as to the edge of a cliff as the line breaks. At other times, you feel suspended in that linguistic moment. So, my memory is telling me that it operates less on the mechanics of syntax or the disruption of them, and more on the pooling together of bits of diction. Does that make sense? Many poems feel as though you are moving from language pool to language pool as the poem eddies down the page--the line breaks and positioning are not especially conventional.

I don't remember the language using a lot of metaphors--rather, the speaker is in search of the unknown, which is Christ or God. So the syntax fractures, truncates, etc., as the speaker gropes his way toward the divine. It's a work of asceticism--the lines feel, indeed, disembodied, and there are poems that discuss the specific rejection of the body. It is, as I would in my own immature way say, "philosophical."

Kryah's technique is really interesting, but I felt a surprising degree of resistance to the content. In some ways, I wasn't always sure that I was learning anything new about religious experience. There's a whole tradition of religious asceticism dating back to whom? Thomas Aquinas, I guess. The poems, one could say, lack bodies. They appear skeletal on the page: lines scattered here and there. The speaker talks of wanting to strip free of the world and the body, of looking for something that is bodiless.

What I finally decided was bothering me was, of course, related to gender--because that's one of the things I probably think too much about these days. Is it my imagination, or is it primarily guys who value this rejection of the body? Sure, there's Simone Weil, but her rejection of the body has been somewhat pathologized as an extension of her death by self-starvation.

But I find it odd that this leaving of the body behind is represented as a form of virtue, and that sense of virtuousness is often such a male thing. Here I am, not giving examples, but just going on instinct, wrong or not. My thoughts were that living in a state of bodily desire is a normative moral value, if you're a guy. Rejecting that makes you virtuous, even super-virtuous. Then it seems as though rejecting bodily desire is what is strongly emphasized to be a normative moral value for women. Living in a state of bodily desire is a form of moral collapse for women. No wonder Weil starved herself to death--how else do you get to super-virtuousness as a chick?

But reading the type of male asceticism that composes the meat of Glean was disconcerting for me. OK, I guess it wouldn't be "meat" because that has fleshly connotations. But it did--I heard the work, rightly or wrongly on my part, in a male voice. And that male voice's seeming insistence that God and virtue were found outside the body, in some sort of rejection of the body and experience, felt like something I wanted to push against. Why? why? why? I felt like my daughter saying that.

Sure, the body goes, the body is imperfect--hell, I know that, I've got Robert, a tremendously disabled kid. The body is not the sum of the soul and being. But I've never felt I had to strip myself of desire, of my body, to sense the divine. "God made real," a phrase a minister friend uses, is something I've experienced without, I think, denial of self, denial of body. It was an experience that felt encompassing, a letting in of the divine, an absorption--not a dissolution or an escape.

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