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The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

The Ratio of Reason to Magic by Norman Finkelstein Dos Madres Press, Ohio

In February 2006 Andrew Crozier wrote to me concerning the possibility of his poetry being republished and pointed out that he didn’t have ‘enough additional work to justify another collected edition’:

‘Furthermore, I incline to the view that when I have a worthwhile sheaf of new work it would be preferable to publish it as a separate volume rather than as an addendum to older work. The “new & selected” formula has always struck me as rather fainthearted.’

I never really understood what Crozier meant by this last statement and now seeing Norman Finkelstein’s The Ratio of Reason to Magic I understand it even less! This substantial new publication from Dos Madres Press is a landmark edition which places the poetry of Finkelstein within what Mark Scroggins termed the ‘idiom of hieratic quest and questioning, of wanderings within history, philosophy, and scripture both secular and sacred’. The selection is drawn from nine earlier volumes (nearly forty years of poetry) and in order to focus upon one aspect of this remarkable poet’s output I intend to just glance at one of the very fine new poems incorporated into the last section of the book, ‘Oppen at Altamont’.

In 1968 George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Pass, near Livermore, in Contra Costa County and the first of Oppen’s ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ (published in Seascape: Needle’s Eye, 1972) opens with the image of ‘Moving over the hills, crossing the irrigation / canals perfect and profuse in the mountains the / streams of women and men walking under the high- / tension wires over the brown hills’. In an interview with David Gitin (Ironwood 5) Oppen commented on this image:

‘It was necessary to park one’s car and walk a mile. Nobody looked at my wife and me, and people had, what the poem says, before the music started, everyone turned sharply into himself or herself.’

Finkelstein’s poem opens with Heidegger’s concept of ‘Throwness’, that sense of dasein which presents us with the inescapable: we are thrown into the present and this leaves us with

‘The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves
forward

The movement forward felt in the short lines, the urgency, carries not only the speed that becomes ‘they are running / from or toward / the helicopters’ but also the Olsonian inescapability of the dead preying upon us. The entangled and entangling nets of being, the trammels which recur, lead us to the ‘fall of Saigon / re-enacted endlessly / in a musical’. The throwness is there in the music of the Stones:

‘And the music –
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago “the songs…
are no one’s own

The italicized words are taken from ‘Some San Francisco Poems’ and throughout Finkelstein’s re-creation of the importance of that attendance at that event we are given echoes from a long gone world which is our present. The ‘sickening acceleration / that no poem may stop’ does not prevent the poet as artist being in the privileged position of almost expecting ‘to see them / walking back toward the car’. The poet stills the moment…for a moment. In an interview with Kevin Power given some few years later and published in Montemora 4 Mary Oppen said

‘After we’d left the car we walked miles and miles. There were cars as far as you could see, up on the mountains in every direction representing millions and millions of dollars.’

They left Altamont before the murder of a concert-goer by a Hell’s Angels bodyguard took place.

Norman Finkelstein wrote the last essay in the Curley and Kimmelman collection from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, which I reviewed for PN Review 229 earlier this year:

‘…Heller’s poetry, and his concomitant thinking about poetry, establish and maintain an ethics of meaning in the practice of the art. “What sets one free / within the sign and blesses the wordflow // without barrier?” asks Heller in “Lecture with Celan”. For the poet, it is a question which must always remain open, yet it is also one which he must perpetually seek to answer.’

Looking at this admirable collection of Norman Finkelstein’s poems we can see that search continuing.

Ian Brinton 27th October 2016

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