In the End Notes of his audacious new volume of poems, Patrick Pritchett anticipates the question his readers are bound to ask: “What is a gnostic frequency?” Is it “the strange language in the middle of the way, on route, that speaks from the other side of knowing . . . The poem that desires, above everything else, some small vision of the otherwise?” “Becoming gnostic,” Pritchett goes on to explain, “means listening to the heretical speech of the caesura, to the extravagant pulses and rhythms of the unspeakable as it swirls about us, allowing language itself to speak. The poems in Gnostic Frequencies pay tribute to the thread of hermeticism that runs from high modernism to postmodernism.”
Centered in the tradition of modernist poetics engaged with ancient forms of inner knowing (gnosis), Pritchett’s book of “extravagant pulses and rhythms” is the most recent addition to a growing number of works by contemporary poets who can be described as “gnostic,” including Nathaniel Mackey, Joseph Donahue, Peter O’Leary, and the late Paul Bray. Susan Howe’s investigations into American antinomianism may be described as gnostic; so might the austere, “worldless” lyricism of William Bronk. Jack Spicer’s Heads of the Town Up to the Aether takes its title from an ancient gnostic scripture. O’Leary’s Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness places Duncan at the center of the tradition, looking back to the hermeticism of H.D. Pound’s Neo-Platonism surely deserves mention in this context, and of course, there is the all-important figure of Yeats, with his occult explorations both early and late in his career.
Pritchett’s book is explicitly gnostic in its range of references to ancient doctrines and beliefs; it honors modern “gnostic” poets by including poems dedicated to many such figures; and it is most deeply gnostic—and most intensely lyrical—in its expressions of longing for spiritual truths which may be glimpsed through and beyond the illusory world of fallen matter. This is where Pritchett is most at risk poetically: in the hands of a less skillful writer, the level of abstraction on which many of the poems operate could prove too rarefied, and the text could float away into a shimmer of illuminated image-fragments. Fortunately, this is not the case: Pritchett keeps a firm grasp on a variety of forms and procedures, and for a book in search of esoteric wisdom, the symbolic language it employs is remarkably clear and forthright.
Structurally, Pritchett moves between an open weave of free verse reminiscent of Duncan’s Passages, and firm, measured stanzaic poems resembling H.D.’s lyrics, or for a more current model, Michael Palmer’s recent work. However uncanny the vision, the tone tends to be calmly declarative, confident that what is uttered, even if it cannot be commensurate with the spiritual event, can be rounded into music. Here is the opening of “The Books of Remembering”:
In the spring, the city is full of gods.
They speak in the sun and the scent of absinthe leaves.
In the silver of the sea, the blue room of sky
in the whiteness of the streets, the trees alive with birds.
Here entire faiths arise out of words
for a king’s disappearance.
Nocturnes for the gaze which singed us.
The rain-touch of fever that turns our friends to stars.
But to cross out the world
with the promise of a World?
It must come back to Song—lumens, love & the names
for the double-flicker of what resists & resurges.
Pritchett understands that “entire faiths arise out of words”—or as Derrida puts it in Of Grammatology, “The age of the sign is essentially theological.” But although Pritchett looks back, perhaps nostalgically, to that age, he also knows that gnostic writing, especially the gnostic writing of poetry, must be on some level heretical, not allied with specific faiths, but with “Song,” “the double-flicker of what resists and resurges.” Although he returns again and again to “the book where reading is séance” (“The Book of Drowning”), it is not, in the end, the entertainment of ghosts—of prophets, of sages, even of poets—with which he is most concerned.
Winding in and out of Gnostic Frequencies is a female figure whom Pritchett calls Ariel, an imaginary lover of the third-century Neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus. Wise and sensual, Ariel understands that “The truth of writing / is in its disappearance” (“Ariel On the Truth of Writing”), that “the Book is built from the logics of loss (“Ariel On the Opacity of the Crystal”). She is the embodiment of what Pritchett calls in his End Notes “my desire to write a postmodern sophianic poem”—“sophianic,” from Sophia, the gnostic goddess of wisdom. But in the figure of Ariel, Pritchett has learned that the search for gnosis is always an undoing, that “In the pages of the Book / the lost things / are kept as lost” (“On Enigma”). In Pritchett’s book, the lost things, at least for one beautiful moment, are found.