December 20, 2019KR Reviews

Rummaging for Gold: The Gospel According to Wild Indigo by Cyrus Cassells

Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018. 103 pages. $15.95.

The word “couplet” comes from the French word meaning “two pieces of iron riveted or hinged together.” The term was first used to describe successive lines of verse in Sir P. Sidney’s Arcadia in 1590: “In singing some short coplets, whereto the one halfe beginning, the other halfe should answere.” A large majority of the tightly-woven poems in Cyrus Cassells’s sixth collection, The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, are in the form of couplets—he is, quite simply, a master of the form. The couplets are mostly open, with the sense or meaning of the line often wending paratactically through the poet’s muscular syntax and surprising language, rich with alliteration, for many lines until stopping. From “A is for Augustus”:

On a glove-yellow morning
of gleaming oyster shells,

crow-carried mussels,
placid seagulls perched

in priest-gentle pines
like festive Christmas ornaments,

beside an alluring Sea Island beach,
I first met up-front A.—

Ecstatic, to say nothing of oracular, verse, is not necessarily in vogue in twenty-first century contemporary poetry, rife with descriptors like neo-sincerity and post-irony. And yet, so many poets live to defy this, Cassells in particular, with incendiary verse that proves lyric poetry proper is alive and well. The same cultural suspicion over ecstatic verse could be said for sensual verse, another of Cassells’s gifts reminiscent of both Rumi and Rilke. But Cassells’s take on the erotic is not that of consumed lover or rebel apostate, but, rather, a Virgilian guide into rapture and its limits. “We will love and lose,” one poem states bluntly; in another, the speaker asks, “Have we learned a little / about toppling desire?” In these poems, morality of mind is wed to carnality of body—take “Lovers Borrowing the Language of Cicadas,” in which a lover rejects the memory of a passionate affair, after learning that the man who gave him so much pleasure had a “kept-quiet wife”:

I want to strike out

those Aladdin’s carpet escapades
like glaring errors,

because a lie is a lie
in any language,

even the cicadas’—

The Gospel According to Wild Indigo is a formal achievement for the sheer beauty and musicality of the verse, but is also much more: it is a prayer book, a testament, a lover’s discourse, and a philosopher’s stone. Richly peopled with characters living and dead, personal and famous (including Saint Joan, Keats, Robert Graves, and Van Gogh), the individual lines are what architects might call “load-bearing walls”: they give but don’t crumble under the corporeal weight the speaker puts upon them, with a bravura display of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs: an “unlatched treasure trove” of lavish excess that both overjoys and sates the senses. But Cassells is also a craftsman of skilled ingenuity: the narratives these poems so often contain (about lover’s trysts, puppets brought to life, quarreling poets, Sibyl’s songs, travel, student days, revolutions, Keats’s deathbed, the institution and legacy of slavery, homosexuality and the AIDS crisis, and Dachau, among others) are never lost or obfuscated despite the baroque language of the poems—a difficult feat, indeed.

The cornerstone of the book is contained within the last stanza of the poem “Caesars and Dreamers”: “who better to define freedom / than a slave?” Whether the poems address slavery directly or not (and they often do), the idea of a song of songs borne from oppression and unfreedom is at the heart of the book, bowed heads giving way to exultant hymns. From “Two Poets Quarreling Under the Jacarandas, III. Torch-Pass”:

       I’d never fashioned a single stanza
in the time preceding the war,
but after your upending death,
every word of our denigrated language
became precious ore.

The title is alluded to in the title poem, which reads:

from the gospel according to wild indigo,

in which death and defiling
bondage are transformed

into foam and fish-scale blue,
a heron’s swoop,

and bold-fisted hurricanes dismantle
the masters’ belligerence . . .

The transformation of suffering into song might be the collection’s leitmotif, but in an interesting reversal, the poet turns traditional Western, Judeo-Christian forms of transcendence (from matter into mind, flesh into spirit) on its head. From the long poem “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo, XV. The Hurricane”:

dash it to pieces, Creator, Destroyer,

you pirate god . . .

. . .

And yet it dares to be born,
mud-fresh, mud-fresh,

like a foal,
amid the wreckage, the bankruptcy:

from spirit into flesh again: 

This reversal is elsewhere enacted in the collection, amid “love’s bodacious vowels,” “unmonitored lovers,” and “unshakeable hallelujahs”: a deeply embodied argument for what the speaker calls in “The Pines of the Villa Pamphili” “here, here.” Even if “here” (the “bracing earth’s / hard-to-pass-up pines, // consoling blossoms, and conveying seas”) “will never save us // from exodus, transport from this world,” the present day and known world, with all its possibilities for resurrection, are, for this speaker, paradise enough.

According to James Longenbach, the line’s function is sonic—and “poems are poems because we want to listen to them.” Cassells’s poems demand not just to be read, but spoken aloud—he is truly an exemplar of the bardic tradition, and many poems in the collection allude to the poet’s dual role, throughout history, of performer and scribe, “tenor and storytelling prodigy.” Adding to the enchantment is Cassells’s deep investment in the traditional modes of the lyric, from lyric address to the trope of memory and forgetting. “So help me,” one poem states, “I can’t recall—” And later, describing an interaction between friends, “why is that the singular moment / I can’t relinquish?” But these poems never sink into Lethean waters, nor forget their basis in craft. One such memorable moment in the dance between form and content reads:

listen, when the wind balks,
their keen caesura is the cool

hiatus, the hush of a Roman well’s
rain-softened stone—

These poems, at last glance, ritualize life through song. Unafraid of tackling subjects large and small, and of embodying what the poet calls “dayclean” (a Gullah word conjuring sun), this is an important and timely collection in our “post-everything” age, to remind us of the splendor of the natural world and the poet’s stance in articulating it, with gravitas and joy, eros, hope, and resilience. From the “first indispensable lullabies” the poet hears as a child to the more mature, darker songs of youth and adulthood (not immune from struggle with the world’s evils, including the Holocaust and fascism), each poem in this book proudly takes its place in what Michel Foucault called “the order of things,” announcing with perfect pitch and oratory delight, what it means to be alive amid both tragedy as well as its transcendence, an “ecstatic carnival of fire.”