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O Wheel
Peter Sacks
University of Georgia Press, $15.95 (paper)

by Donald Revell

The title of O Wheel signals an outbreak of energies true to their ancient canonical sources, and these inspire Peter Sacks toward a poetry of the imperiled soul. The Ezekiel who reports the cry "O wheel" had obeyed the order of a throned voice and eaten holy writ. Thus fed, he prophesies to a captive, impudent nation. Likewise nourished, the scholar Peter Sacks, author of The English Elegy, exteriorizes canon into cry and addresses the catastrophic Zions of his native South Africa, his adopted America, and himself. Enthralled and stiff-hearted--with pride, with power, with learning--these addressees Sacks chastises with a fire taken, like Ezekiel’s, from between the moving wheels of Vision. And his uses of chastisement are liberation, another canon of the wheel. From the Orphic tablets, formularies of the Eleusinian mysteries, came the first confession of the Orphic soul: "I have flown out of the sorrowful weary wheel." Sacks means to break bad cycles of vanity with true poems, in the classic manner of Orpheus. (Orpheus was, after all, as Jane Harrison proved, a Puritan.) O Wheel turns upon a turn from explication to election. It shouts to freedom. Many of its poems are chronicles, miniatures of the agonized Puritan daybooks. So, as chronicler of his nations and selves, Sacks conducts an errand into the wilderness of proud, perjured words and dangerous texts.

O Wheel opens with an echoic text instantly original. In "The Tree," danger is sublimed to wildness, and canon returns to organic time:

This was a different sound, repeated from the
   other side pressed to the disappearing throat,
face, fingers, memory of.

The door blew wide on swells that shone back
   through the tree the ocean swung from--
single leaf.

Branch by branch you climbed to where the
   voices rained.

You held up the song frayed to the whispered
   friction of grass when wind drops & the
meadow whistles under a dipping finch

the surf swept backward by a larger breath
   than you could draw till now.

Releasing everything, you climbed again
   among the others reaching through

to where the world, surprised by hearing pieces
   of its name, looks back into the crowd of
those still vanishing. Who called?

Difference proliferates through originals. I think of Ezra Pound’s "The Tree," the poem he insisted must always open every edition of his collected shorter works: "I have been a tree amid the wood / And many a new thing understood / That was rank folly to my head before." I think also of the very first piece in Berryman’s The Dream Songs: "Once in a sycamore I was glad / all at the top, and I sang." Sacks draws singular testimony from a common source, the radical root-work of words accomplishing flesh again. Repetition dies into the world through "the disappearing throat, / face, fingers, memory of." Repetitive no more, the echoic tree unfolds a "single leaf" for real. Prophecy is the latest news of a changeless truth. The trick is getting there, and this Sacks does, in the good old-fashioned way. "Branch by branch, you climbed to where the voices rained." Sovereign originals barely concealed by a pun (rained/reigned) fall down while newness rises through them. Wind and whistles wear the elder texts away until an only tree, the tree, stands revealed. In his new reality, the latest Orpheus draws "a larger breath" than ever. He is released into the unwritten purposes of his errand, and the old Eurydices disappear. There is a new call. There is wilder work to do.

In "Leopard," the most ambitious and beautiful of O Wheel’s chronicle poems, Sacks enters the wild of actual numbered days to ascend real mountains. In named terrain and the track of a true beast, he ventures out of allegory, away from the lectern, and toward the annihilation of all identity and measure. "Offstage. Out of harmony," he finds his "face-mask loosening," his "Hair prickling. My face pulled off," "Nothing of myself except heaped over meaning." Metaphor, merely another Eurydice, disappears, succeeded by "My only metaphor for dying, more life." Prolific fact drives each day forward to emergence and ever more uncertain births. Sacks is on Mt. Vision, not an Eliotic stair:

11.v.’91

Nothing of myself except heaped over mean-
   ing,

a breeze, an overhang of orange rock. The tape
   is being erased.

11.v.’91

Enlarged, roaming, the unseen leopard.
   Smoke-like.

Of both worlds.

Languid, ruinous. Accelerating. Held only as
   held outward, issuing…

Lyric, ghost-offering of life, lustered mineral of
   twilight.

Leopard skin. Flesh of resurrection. Pelt. Lyric
   pelt.

As chosen words do carry the shaped residue.

Recharged. Emergent. The rancid odor again.

Scanning boulder caves and ledges. Lurk and
   freedom. Scanning
shadow-play.

Hair prickling. My face pulled off.

12.v.’91

Clouds the shape of mountains.

Water, birdcalls link

through sweet

joy I can’t tell from solitude.

Whole valley, sunlit, opening behind me,
   cloaked.

Again and again on the ascent, gorgeous actualities overwhelm memory with sensation, especially of trees and wildflowers. (Rarely since "Lycidas" has the botanical achieved such ecstasies as in "Leopard.") As time passes, velocities increase. Consciousness rives. Literary references--to Mandelstam, Herrick, Rilke--split off in one unremarked direction while the greater energies of the poem proceed along the bestial track. Where they end, limit is leap, and brokenness is a new entirety:

Ruin and promise.

The one inhuman solitary pressure of the spir-
   it’s love. Bound.

 

13.v.’91

Broken wheel.

Nothing outside--nothing that is not my
   track.

Birds flushed shuddering from the grass.

Passion where the shock hits current.

And brings the image. And the image riding it.

 

13.v.’91

Climbing fast down lower buttresses, last light
   torches on the riverwater, upward
through long grass, then shingled sand; then
   the half-light lifts.

              *

Knowing now how daylight leaves this valley,
   how the shadows drop downslope
over fynbos, few oaks, grove of poplars, how it
   leaves only the far banded slow peak in the
   east, then chalk, then ash.

Image rides upon image. Vision is a height where fact speeds change and understanding: "Knowing now."

After "Leopard," Sacks accelerates through a sequence of shorter pieces, testing his vision on the literal, fleshly issue of Being. The poet is a new beast of a new man after "Leopard," and his trace marks every poem. In "Refuge," he is a "thin wolf / running // with the snow / between / (his) teeth." In "The Change," he charges forward as a "braided // animal." New flesh follows new passions:

famished

for the form
of its own

perishing within
us

pull me now
from inside

further
into you

remorseless--

& we give it
life.

New flesh finds an otherness whose only name is its "remorseless" power. Without decorum or typology, the power suffered here outspeeds expression. Renovation, in the Orphic Puritan sense, is a leading without words, a desperate necessity: "look / the sack of // my despair / thrown / to the gravel" (from "Refuge"); "our last / words hardening // my only road" (from "Spur"). But in the eventual instant of renovation, the untitled features of power come clear:

Thus far afraid to shut my eyes
the features of the face stand forth.

Had there been grounds for hope

had there been other grounds?

The man has moved.
A navigable smell of blood-rot.

Shaking off the flies.

The uncertain births of "Leopard" are certain now. More convulsive and absolute than any change, renovation savages the poet. Having followed his track, we find his Way, and it is intelligible, communicable, sure. Wild work makes peace in "Look in Your Heart":

Unshelled

floatrock and mother-lode.

The mountain sagged then broke apart,

each ounce so concentrated nothing held
whatever stamp of its disfiguring

the mind made uncontainable.

Gloved tongues.

The body wrapped and set where space had
   been.

Crush out the breath crush out the words
they feed and carry it away.

Where we have fallen.

Crawling out under the flies.

All the violence here serves a tender sanity. Just as the opening throes of Astrophel and Stella culminate in the Muse’s redemptive compulsion of the poet’s flesh and bone--"Fool … look in thy heart, and write!"--so here do the outbreaks and animal pressures of O Wheel prove kind. Sacks has carried his body and book to a new fellowship--"where we have fallen" (italics mine). Love not only survives the "crush" and savagery. It depends upon it.

The one sorrow of a soul’s renovation is its utter singularity. The prophet reaches only himself, alone with God. The Orphic fellowship is one plus only one Beloved, generous but far. The closing poems of O Wheel remark this sorrow with sudden, sure calm.

The wind’s offshore.
It hollows out each swell,
rips spray--back-hanging,      gone.

Forget the rivers and the native land,
the dream of justice, even between
three or two, swept clear.

This crowded
still it gives back memory, the sea.

And love too steadies the gaze.

"As for what lasts,     the poet sets it down."

The fact of a poem recalls a Vision. The act of poetry sets Vision aside in order to go on. An elegist remembers more perfectly to forget, and forgetfulness is not the end. It is a turn. ("Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new," etc.) After "Votive," the book turns to its newly found necessities, imperative errands to a farther wilderness. Beyond elegy, across Lethe, election waits.

Where
we’ve come to
by no other way

_____

the red stone sleeps
from hand to hand

_____

look up
that unflawed

_____

steadiness--

_____

your hive of
signals
entering--

Sacks enters the unprescribed perfections of election not to make report but simply to enter. "The "hive of / signals" goes untranscribed. Virtue wildly minds its own business. In her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Jane Harrison avers that "poets are the worst of mythological offenders. By their intense realization they lose all touch with the confusions of actuality." Sacks would seem to have taken this rebuke to heart, because at the end of his "Election," confusion shines forth as an actual firm grasp.

O western
fear

_____

new votes
the long lines

counted

_____

through
(as in we’re through)

_____

afraid of
my own actions

_____

doubled
(dusk)

_____

pursuing,

laying hold.

The vote is in and counted: a numberless one. O Wheel lays hold to virtues still to be lifted, still to be pursued.

Donald Revell is author of six books of poems, most recently There are Three. He is professor of English at the University of Utah.

Originally published in the April/May 2000 issue of Boston Review



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