A Micronaut at Last
HOIL: An Unfinished Elegy
by Iván Argüelles
With an introduction by Jack Foley
A review by Christopher Bernard
Celebrity, “cultural attention,” fame (“that last infirmity of noble mind,” as Milton said in “Lycidas,” another elegy), is fickle, often very strange, sometimes preposterous. Andy Warhol may have been an optimist: in the future everyone will be famous for no more than fifteen seconds, with anyone famous for longer than that in serious danger of being trolled by the envious until they wish they had never been heard of.
Yet there was, at one time, a point to fame: the holding in memory by a culture, a nation, a people, of exemplary beings whose deeds inspired the rest of us to strive to shape ourselves into something truer, nobler, finer—proofs of what a person is capable of for good. We have examples enough of the contrary, their “fame” one more proof of our eternal human folly.
The noble spirits among us go almost unseen, unregarded; condescended to with a nod here, an award there, but taken for granted for the sake of the mad men, the mirrors of our weakness, who genuinely fascinate us. We are of course free either way—but, born ignorant, needy and weak, and needing as we do to learn everything from the darkness of our beginning, we require examples to teach us which to choose: nobility, infamy, indifference, golden mediocrity? Or?
One criticism of democracy has always been that it pretends the ordinary person, the “common man,” capable of few or no superlative acts, nor claiming to be so, is an ideal. And yet perhaps it is one, an ideal worthy of respect and value: the basic decency of the ordinary person—once the adolescent manias have been seared off via an acid bath in reality, leaving a rooted awareness of vulnerability, our ultimate powerlessness—is surely closer to the reality of the human condition than the brief exhilarations of conqueror, genius and saint.
The exceptional person inspires us to demand more from ourselves, sometimes more than is possible—they can be as cruel to those around them who are less able to endure it, as toward themselves. The ordinary person reminds us that our limits are as absolute as our promise; that the greatest of all human beings will be never more than human: that all of us live in bodies that are born, are vulnerable to vicissitudes we can neither prevent nor even know the existence of till they strike us, and that perish as completely as if they had never been.
Which makes it all the more revelatory of our painfully contradictory position—as vulnerable, mortal, and limited beings of flesh, blood and bone who at the same time have the minds and spirits, the gifts of gods, demons and angels, and the will, in our small way, to use them—when we see a direct expression of the nobility of our spirits meeting the nothingness and cruelty of our bodies, and the meeting does not end in stalemate, but in an eloquence that, while only a partial victory, is nevertheless a sign of the holiness of existence, of life and mind, of humanity and the world.
Such a revelation I believe can be found in this book. For the poet Ivan Argüelles has given us a book of great beauty and emotional power, heart rending and moving, because we see enacted in it a human nobility in stark confrontation with ultimate human weakness—in woe and wonder, bafflement, grief, and a strange and grateful joy.
Early in 2018, the poet and his wife lost their son Max. Max had suffered for almost four decades from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain contracted when he was ten years old. He spent most of his life with his parents, moving from crisis to crisis, in and out of hospitals, severely challenged in mind and body if not in spirit. In recent years, the poet had also lost his brother and identical twin, José Argüelles, about whom he has written eloquently. But this new death, though long expected, clearly wounded at an even deeper level, calling up an anguish not only over the loss of what was, from all accounts, a loving and gentle soul, but over the mystery, the apparent cruelty and senselessness of his son’s fate.
The result has been an anguished outpouring of poetry, a despairingly eloquent questioning of life, the universe and the emptiness suffusing it, of himself, the world, and the void; of “the Unknown,” as he puts it—a hopeless yet determined quest for an answer he knows, believes, suspects, and fears cannot be found. The poems have been collected into this, his most focused and moving book – “HOIL” was a word of unknown meaning that (according to the poet) Max wrote on various drawings in his early childhood, and thus especially appropriate for this book.
In these poems Argüelles displays what anyone who knows his work would expect: a seemingly limitless inventiveness of startling imagery, a gift for paradox seducing assent, surrealist elisions of logic that seem as natural as breathing, and a near perfect ear—coupled with a mastery of condensed statement that demands, and rewards, close attention, to say nothing of a depth of personal feeling and illumination, vulnerability, in some ways unique to his poems here.
There are poems “spoken” by Max:
I can’t tie my shoe strings
my pulse is fluttering madly
black spots devour my left eye
and people randomly assembled
all with someone else’s hands
what are they doing and saying
where is the illuminated globe
and the scissors that cut the wind
—from SHORT CIRCUIT
And poems spoken to him:
tell me you’ve just gone
to a temporary Elysium
where flowers are made of paper
in colors that last a day
a place where they burn water
because death does not exist
tell me that on the other shore
your hands are still making
shadows that the blind can feel
—from MAGIC MAX
There are poems about Max:
great and splendid the mornings when
in your magic chair you greeted the first light
. . .
and with joy bush herb grass tree leaf
beloved of bug and bird alike you blessed
. . .
and when you reached your happy hand forth
to greet and bless the homeless and hungry
who in their morning passage came to you
a benediction in their grateful smiles
—from SAINT MAX
And about his child’s game of traveling through outer space, powered by a favorite toy:
. . . I was a miconaut
in my plastic toy sailing the galaxies
—from MAX: A SHORT AUTOBIOGRAPHY
There are poems about the basic mystery of being:
all the schools of thought
fit into a blade of grass
the heat and magma of the past
the very turbulence of the cosmos
a dew drop a petal in the wind
all expressions of the seen and felt
are nothing in the sweep of time
. . .
. . . the rapacious gods
flash their gaudy crowns
parading magnificent see-through
bodies like shadows of alabaster
they too are nothing but absence
—from IN PERPETUITY
. . . and the mystery of death:
where does one go when the door shuts
are there windows inside or a trap-hole
hidden in the ceiling or secret words
to transport the soul to its next destiny
. . .
does it feel like an ancient ruined temple
the feel of moss the scent of damp grass
blind statues representing the gods
of futility and longing . . .
. . .
is it easier to sleep again to forget what
it was that was being sought—a hand?
There are poems made up, partly or all, of questions with no answers:
how many is number? who talks to the comb?
who are the zero? what letter comes second?
who counts the echoes? who sets light in the glass?
who emerges in the cloud? who sleeps with the child?
who wakes in the well? who pronounces the moon?
—from THE PURVEYOR OF SOUND
And poems about the anguish of this death:
the discarded comb
the useless shaving brush
and what the mirror no longer holds
distance of immeasurable hours
nowhere now in the spent landscape
of discarded talismans
—from THE REMAINS
you have become sleek a streaking flash
in the night heavens which we scour looking
for the brilliant dust of your swift passage
into eternity a micronaut at last
—from MICRONAUT II
And there are poems about the responsive questioning and questionable responses of poetry:
when they wrote that page
who was at the window watching?
who could restrain the hands of the wind?
it came from a chasm of ink
illegible words of a rotating night
errors in punctuation and syntax
what could be the one way forward
if not opening the side door
and going directly into the woods
Above all, there is the embrace of mind, spirit and heart of a noble soul (when will fame come?) speaking from the depths of sorrow and grace:
you reached out for a handful of air
to define your true being the essential inner you
great internal blossoming of sand and rock
imprinted with the hearsay of the archaic
enormous unfolding waves of letters
missives from secret gods hidden in liquid gold
what their mouths were telling you in a language
fever and ancient fingerprints HOIL
which you wrote in your mysterious passage
to the underworld riding the enigmatic thunder
Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His new novel Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Café will appear in 2020.