- Allusive and Hieratic
156 Pages; Print, $21.95
Language at its richest, most allusive, and most hieratic can be found in Pierced by Night-Colored Threads by Dean Kostos, the latest of his six books of poems. The Egyptian god of writing, Thoth, is invoked at the start of "Named a Name like Thought," a poem which encapsulates the progress of written languages and ends with Thoth, who "navigates // the ghost-oceans of / cyberspace." Readers may remember that James Joyce also invokes Thoth at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).
Encyclopedic reading lies behind many of the poems in this book. Poems mention Emily Dickinson (seen floating downriver in a barge-like bed in the very first poem), Walt Whitman (with special reference to "The Wound Dresser"), Geoffrey Chaucer, Pablo Neruda, Arshile Gorky, and especially Carl Jung (many poems describe pages from his dream books).
There are ekphrastic poems here like "Painted with a Razor Blade" about Arshile Gorky's portraits of himself as a child with his mother who died as a result of the desperate flight of the family to Russia during the Armenian massacre by the Turks. He had only one photograph of the two of them. Another ekphrastic poem is "The Penitent Magdalen, a Tree" about Donatello's astoundingly gaunt woodcarving of Mary Magdalene in the museum of the Duomo in Florence: "He carved / me ragged: My / wooden gown hangs jagged / on my frame."
Surrealistic drawings are the subjects of "View from the Country of Setting Sun" and "Otherwhere." In "Rosario" Kostos describes a David Janssen portrait as "illuminating what is not—the way Vedas / describe the Divine" ending with a guess that "it's the lid of a reliquary / into which missing features—like Saint Lucy's eyes, / proferred to the brute she refused to wed—glisten / on a platter: sinister jewels."
The many descriptive poems about Tarot cards are also ekphrastic. An example would be "The Lovers: Card VI":
Instead of breathing paradise's perfume, Eden'shapless pair waits before a tree—Eve's features smudged.
Instead of bearing apples, her tree sprouts an eye,a tongue, a finger flickeringfrom its branches. Warning.
Instead of tempting Eve to tempt Adam,the slandered serpentribbons the trunk.
Instead of reaching for an apple, Adamguards his own tree,leaves bursting into flame.
Instead of crumbling, it becomes a candelabrum.Summoned by prayer, Raphael, angelof air, wears the sun as halo.
Instead of blowing out the flames, he presseslips to a fiery trumpet. Musicdoesn't pour from its bell.
Instead, it exhales molten glass, fusingthe couple's handsin a fragile & tentative love.
I believe the real core of this book, its pulsing heart, to be the imaginary correspondence between Alan Turing, the mathematician who solved the Nazi Enigma Machine, and Jung. These letters are sonnets, five in all, and a long poem, "Messages from the Unseen World: Imagined Lost Writings of Alan Turing." In the earlier sonnets, Jung and Turing compare their interests and disciplines, while, in the fifth, Turing explains his suicide by cyanide-poisoned apple as a way to escape the testosterone shots mandated by a homophobic British government. He likens himself to Snow White, also sent into death by a poisoned apple, who "eventually / recognizes her powers & reclaims / the Prince."
It is interesting to me that Kostos is working a vein of poetry we haven't seen since John Keats and Percy Shelley or, more recently, Hart Crane. He is not "confessing" the private truths of his childhood (except in the villanelle "On a Retrieved Cassette" in which he listens to a recording of his father's voice). He is not addressing present and former lovers or even describing his daily life, as Elizabeth Bishop often did when she lived in Brazil. We don't learn his family history as we might in a Robert Lowell poem.
There is a theatrical aspect to this work, of the quality of masks...