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    aerial photo of a mud flat

    Church of One

    A Review of American Divine by Aaron Poochigian

    By Andrew Frisardi

    April 27, 2021
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    American Divine, the winner of the 2020 Richard Wilbur Award, is the fourth book of poetry in Aaron Poochigian’s already (at midcareer) impressive body of work. As always in Poochigian’s books, the reader of this collection can count on being charmed and linguistically turbocharged by the poet’s inventiveness with whatever he is writing about. His poems are a blend of everyday speech, sophisticated rhetorical devices, American slang, pop culture, and educated allusion, orchestrated by superb technical skill. Poochigian is a master of meter, rhyme, and other artful sonic effects, and of received forms, especially sonnets. He writes like someone on a mission to revitalize poetry, purifying the language of the tribe but leaving its vernacular earth intact, and making it accessible while using a range of techniques from the tradition (he’s also a translator of Sappho and Baudelaire, Aristophanes and Apollonius, and others).

    The subject matter of Poochigian’s poems can be anything he observes in his surroundings – urban, suburban, or rural. They are often autobiographical, although, after his first collection, The Cosmic Purr (2012), seldom “confessional” in the sense of psychologically probing or memoirish. In many of the poems of this book as well as in his second collection, The Manhattanite (2017, contemporaneous with his verse novel, Mr. Either/Or), Poochigian is like an itinerant poet-anthropologist – a “flaneur,” as Dana Gioia says in the preface to American Divine – noting and portraying places and people, including himself, in pluralistic postindustrial America. Frequently in these poems, decrepit or destitute subjects (a pregnant feral dog, street people, a drugged-out friend) reveal something unexpected and even redemptive by means of surprising metaphors or turns of phrase, or through the sense of fun and discovery created by poetic effects such as Poochigian’s prodigious rhyming.

    The first section, “The One True Religion,” is a series of takes on religious customs, vestiges, longings, delusions, and experiences in contemporary America. The “pursuit of awe,” as Poochigian calls it in the title poem of the book, is often isolated or syncretic in postmodern life, so a poem here about Hindu neighbors with a statue of Ganesha lives cheek by jowl with ones featuring a Pentecostal baptism in the Spirit and an apotheosis of Artemis in the form of a many-teated dog. Osiris, the dismembered god, becomes an apt image for a culture whose center (as Yeats famously put it) will not hold:

    . . . all the sap in you has turned crude now
    and soaks from ruptured pipes into the prairie.
    Your sex is wild boars goring Arkansas.
    Who axed you, handsome? Who has dumped you, raw,
    on this democracy, this cemetery?

    . . .Dead god, dead god, come alive
    on the count of number five.
    One, two, three, four . . . (“American Osiris”)

    In this poem Poochigian hits a quasi-bardic note:

    I sense dejection in the vegetation.
    I get how red a sun is going down.
    And there they go, the dogs all over town,
    howling like widows. Ambush, mutilation,
    dumpsites across state lines – the deed is done.
    Streetlights will keep on burning all night long
    in memory of you, the youth, the strong
    seed-giver, the delight, the vital one.

    aerial photo of a mud flat

    Alluvial fan, XinJiang, China. Photograph from the USGS

    This and a few other pieces in the collection are as expansive and authoritative as anything in Poochigian’s poetry to date. The second section, “The Uglies,”contains poems about contemporary America’s economic doldrums and social tensions, as well as the narrator’s sense of uprootedness or existential disorientation in that milieu (“This place feels lost, like, if you had a compass, the needle / would just keep spinning round and round”). The poet finds himself back in his hometown in North Dakota, a “treeless plain” and “alien alluvium” that would seem to have not much to offer the cosmopolitan sophisticate he has become. But on a visit back there he concludes that, despite his having shunned his origins, “it’s always where I’m coming from,” although it is a homecoming that’s not exactly homey: “I can admit I am beholden / to what I am beholding here – sublime oblivion.”

    The third and final section, “The Living Will,” opens with more on the theme of social dissolution or decadence (“I have to say / the world is breaking down, down, down for good”) – as usual in Poochigian, however, with a high energy and flair that avert gloominess. As a poem about the tumultuous year 2017 concludes:

    Despite the bad times now and worse to come,
    despite disaster and a crass regime
    of lies and thugs, despite the national scam,
    I will be conscious. I will not play dumb.
    Eyes tracking everything I can redeem,
    I will be right here; I will give a damn.

    But this final section also turns out to be the most personal of the book, and contains some of its most lyrical passages, as in these lines: “Ash-eyed, raw-skinned, / with a peak of snow, / he is facing the wind / off the Atlantic.” A sonnet about the death of the poet’s father – who was a philosophy professor and had talked not long before his death about the paradox of a geometrical point, that it has “No length, no width, no depth, but it is there” – ironically concludes there might be something in us that survives our being reduced to a dimensionless point at death. The sonnet which closes the book, the title poem of this section, is a renunciation of fixed mental habits or mechanical routine (“all my sessile / growths and impediments”), or of anything that stifles the awe of the creative imagination, so that the narrator pictures himself in a kind of poetic afterlife, “beyond the round world’s spalling / margin,” where he will “hear Odysseus’ ghosts / squeaking like hinges, hear the Sirens calling.”

    This is the pursuit of awe for Poochigian, something other than the “neoclassical” approach that has been identified in his poetry. That is present for sure, but there is too much of the romantic religion of art (“You are a church of one, a private parish”) in Poochigian’s aesthetic for his poetry to be adequately described by that word. As this last poem states, Poochigian has no intention of stopping up his ears to block out the Sirens.

    Contributed By

    Andrew Frisardi’s most recent books, both published in 2020, are a poetry collection, The Harvest and the Lamp (Franciscan UP), and a prose volume, Love’s Scribe: Reading Dante in the Book of Creation (Angelico Press).

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