Good cultural objects have a way of tying the present to the past while providing some celestial points for sailing into future waters. This is basically a very human thing, using our nostalgia, or at least our perception of the past, as well as engaging a sort of inherent need to contextualize the moment in which we’re living. In Ascend, Ascend, Janaka Stucky reaches back into poetry’s mythic and mystical past and brings it into our moment, one in which the primary focus of publishing appears to be an emphasis on identity and exploring the self through the ways in which we live embodied lives external to us.
In the initial read through, Yeats came to mind, who attempts at nonegoic writing through the use of a Ouija board in an attempt to channel something beyond himself—or beyond our observable world at all. Beyond our realm of sensations and figurations. It becomes easier, in that context, to see Stucky’s work here as part of a lineage, a continuation of lyric processes that run alongside the grand narrative of the Enlightenment and the attempt of those who follow its principles to move beyond mystic, beyond supernatural forces that have some kind of reign upon our lives. Whether one believes in the premise that either Yeats or Stucky are working within hardly matters: what matters is the product that appears for us as readers to engage with. Of course, Yeats’s goal was to rid of the self in these works, a marked difference from Stucky, who instead leans into being and self.
There is something deeply romantic in reading Ascend Ascend, a reminder that there may be some great consciousness to tap into beyond our own, which Stucky has managed—but that we want for ourselves as well. There is a great deal of comfort to be had from engaging in the spiritual realm, but for Stucky it is transcendent, something in these pages he is called to take part in, some desire for his work to be the reflection of some greater experience. Poetry fills a gap, as it were, between event and experience, experience being the thing that is the remainder of what comes out of event. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, in Poetry As Experience (Stanford University Press, 1999), argues that rather than simply describing events, poetry tasks itself with working in memory and the sensations of a moment: "A visit in memory of that experience,” Lacoue-Labarthe writes, “which is also in the non-form of pure non-event.”
But experience is decidedly not memory, or the recollection of event, either—it is the sense and flash that remain even when memory fades. Poetry does not merely record in the way other types of writing or media can, but rather provides the sensation that event leaves in its wake. Stucky here does not provide us the event, but rather attempts to bring his readers the experience. The foreword, by Pam Grossman, provides us with ample event, but the pages that follow provide us with what poetry and art can: the remnants of those experiences in order for us to engage not only with the event, but the experience of that event. Grossman writes that “poets instead take on the impossible task of trying to pin the wings of the ineffable with words.” Indeed, this task seems in the wheelhouse both of poetry as genre, but this particular poet as well.
Before we can buy into experience, first we must buy into language, and in the opening section of Ascend, Ascend, Stucky provides us with incantation, with a call not to prayer or to arms, but another spiritual point entirely. To be “blessed,” a word Stucky repeats throughout the book, but primarily in the opening, suggests that these things, these materials, these realms, have already been touched, already been gazed upon. This is that lyrical past coming back for us, to remind us that the things we have gazed upon and touched in this world have already run through many hands and before many eyes. There is something comforting, even to those of us who have pushed our spiritual selves away, in being brought back into that space. The word “bless” pushes us to view the world as something touched by what is beyond ourselves, gazed upon and adorned by something that keeps subatomic particles attracted to one another, in rotation together.
There is something subtle in that rotation that Stucky plays with by repeating words, phrases, and constructions throughout the text. In the fifth section, it is “I explode”:
I explode in blood sublimely
Rags of light honeycomb my emerald dying
I explode in blood sublimely spindle
Down through a jade of tears
I exploded in blood sublimely free
From the terror of my seeking heart
This explosion of self is a thread that runs throughout Stucky’s book. There is a kind of spiritual awakening happening at the center of the poem that is so urgent that those subatomic particles reverberate off one another and cascade with energy. As the work progresses, the language becomes that which can be ripped into with the teeth, something tangible in a world of spirits. A word like “seething” creates a visceral experience so close to ecstasy that in the final section, when Stucky repeats “Cleave to me,” what has been spiritual throughout the text collides headlong with the corporeal in something akin to jouissance, a moment when a work of art rewards with some kind of joy in the end.
The book ends in a postclimatic silence, a “silence where even / the noise of nothing does not exist.” The background radiation of the universe makes a kind of noise that we can record, but in the end of our universe, there will be nothing in motion, not even light. In the end of the self, there is a remnant thread, something we can only hope to tap into through whatever means. Stucky seems on a career path to bring us back to a kind of spiritual foundation in poetry, a genre that exists to be torn between its ability to convey great depth and its desire to remain beyond directness. It’s charming really to see a work that approaches the self in a completely different way—a way that does not attempt to identify and define, but rather eviscerates the body in favor of the geist, that intangible thing which ought to carry on beyond us, like a work itself.
by Janaka Stucky
Third Man Books, 2019
$17.95 paperback; ISBN: 978-0-9974578-3-4