Christopher Bernard reviews poet Ivan Arguelles’ Ars Poetica



Photo of poet Ivan Arguelles

Ivan Arguelles

Ivan Argüelles


Ecstasies in a Great Darkness


Ars Poetica

Poems 2006−2013

Poetry Hotel Press

320 pages, $24.95

By Ivan Argüelles


A review by Christopher Bernard


“Dazzling, brilliant, inspiring, eloquent, demanding, confusing, chaotic, flummoxing, the work of a mad genius, the work of a genius madman” are some of the things that may come to mind as one reads the work of Ivan Argüelles. And this is what one might expect of someone whose dense and difficult poetry is some of the most vital literary work by a contemporary American writer. Dark, lyrical, intense, and at its best of a deep, if at times willful brilliance, Argüelles’ writing shows little patience with the flippant ironies of the postmodernists, yet he takes the modern skepticism of any metaphysical certainty seriously and uses his work to probe some of its darker implications. His work has long been a Commedia of our nihilism.
And yet he is a natural ecstatic, which gives his writing a profound poignancy. He subscribes to a kind of maximalist Augustan modernism, seized with prophecy and the divine afflatus, though fully capable of dips into the slangy and demotic; he is, refreshingly, a master of that rarest of literary voices, the contemporary high style, a style unafraid to assert and insist, yet that, at every step, undermines its own insistence:

once scattered on earth, light,

is it what matters entering

this Mansion, darkened music

altered for descent, looking

no other way for shadows in

defense, the suddenness of Red

who in an act of levitation moves

one heaven into the next …

—“(mnemosyne at AMOEBA)”


Argüelles has some of the ambitions of the early modernists, but embedded in a suspicion of the very absolutes they craved: think Pound and Eliot partying to the irrationalism of Rimbaud in a carnival with booths busking the romantic lyricism of Lorca, the torments of Vallejo, the dry wit of O’Hara, the street smarts of Lamantia. It is inspiring to see so gifted a poet in the 21st century, ignoring the fashions of false modesty and coy disdain for “taking oneself too seriously,” take the poetic vocation with this kind of ferocious seriousness. For him, poetry seems to be a hard, stormy road to salvation, alluring, treacherous at times, sometimes feverish with delirium, with no guarantees, a quest through the dark night of the soul broken with gorgeous landscapes strobed with lightning that vanish as soon as they appear.

Ars Poetica is the latest in a series of books by the poet going back to the 1970s. It is a very long book and reads somewhat like a poetic diary, with each poem dated in what seems to be strict chronological sequence, describing the laments of the middle-aged poet as he faces love and death:


bewitches man with her hair

flame red apostolic ruin of a text

going everywhere at once

like the Prophet in the tavern

in everyone’s eyes but Nowhere

in sight a riot of color in a place

called the World unexamined

entering Etruscan country

near the gateway to Hades



Despite echoes of the Beats, a deep lyrical sweetness and love of ancient rhetorical cadences frequently breaking through the modernist fractallage of the surface, show Argüelles’ roots in English and European traditions where he sometimes seems more at home than in the breezy, grizzly man, Whitmanesque glad-handed informalities of the American; his work is less insular and more cosmopolitan – less Protestant, more Catholic – than most contemporary American poetry, which often seems, like the rest of the country, to have cut itself off from the rest of the planet. He combines Old World learning and high seriousness with a very American sarcasm at overweening pretensions and impatience with arbitrary limitations. He clearly loves the literary tradition, the much abused “canon,” but he will not let it limit him. And his gift for literary mimicry lets him shift into local vernaculars whenever the mood suits:


I wanted to marry natalie wood

winsome little tart waving the flag

that killed buzz gunderson

we never know the limit of darkness

—(natalie wood)


three hundred million firearms

three hundred million firearms

registered in America today

the whole sky cast in gun metal

as earth rounds its lunation

with a crazy misgiving about

the human species…



In particular, the poet, who comes out of the often fraught (especially in the modern world) philosophical, moral, and theological contradictions of Catholicism, is deeply linked to the tradition of Dante, and his own ambitions are not so different from the great Tuscan’s: see, for example, his book Comedy, Divine, The. Few contemporary poets are as willing as he is – one might even say, as compelled – to take on, on their own terms, the greatest poets of the past and poetry’s deepest metaphysical themes.

Given Argüelles’ love and knowledge of early music, and especially the operas of Händel, the poems sometimes give the impression of baroque arias shattered into a thousand pieces, then reassembled into slightly mad collages of the rhetoric of vaunting ambition, romantic passion and bleak despair, softened by the eloquence of ancient rhythms and the gentle echoes of viol, harpsichord, oboe d’amore, before being savaged by a digital randomizer.

The collection is divided into yearlong sections, the longest devoted to a bumper crop of poems written in 2012. The poems also fall into sequences, some broken across the entire book including a “baroque Augustan,” romantic Vedic and Homeric-Virgilian. Other sequences are on “the redhead at AMOEBA” (the California music store chain), Madonna (the pop singer, and crisscrossed with allusions to the Virgin and the singer’s notorious insults, or “rereadings,” of the Catholic tradition), and, in the last half of the book, the longest, and most moving, sequence (if it can be called that, as it is broken and dispersed among poems on other topics) on the poet’s beloved deceased brother, Joe.

The poems are not always successful individually; sometimes, as in the opening half dozen or so poems, the poet seems to be rambling, doing his throat exercises before singing in earnest, though throwing off random acts of brilliance even so, and free-associating without an editorial scruple in his head – entire quires of the book read like batches of unused DNA in a chromosome, placeholders for meaning, noise above of which an occasional melody rises – and yet there is something to be said for wading through the sometimes oppressive noddings and noodlings: the breaking through of a vivid phrase here, an eloquent passage there, has its poignant, eloquent effect only because of the verbal fog that surrounds it. The reader learns a long patience with Argüelles, as with an otherwise very different, echt modernist writer, Gertrude Stein: not every moment need be sensible for the whole to make its own redeeming sense. (Though I still think the book would have been strengthened with some judicious pruning by a sympathetic but ruthless editor.)

The most successful poems (I am thinking of such poems as “(rg veda),” “(aphrodite),” and “(infierno)” but there are many others) are those where the poet subdues his free-associations to a single, well-modulated theme:


you, again, and again, infierno

in black lingerie or even aging

infierno with hair all over in every

shade and mouth impossibly red

or just darkening a shadow of a

infierno the inelegant floral display

shot against a water of still-life

photography casacading infierno

into the everyday mutilation of

desire infierno light has a sudden

explosion inside you like windows

through which nothing else enters



Sometimes the reader must push through pages of free-associational riffs before he meets something as strong as “(shaking dark)” or such foundational poems (eloquent of some of the poet’s more probing philosophical meditations) as “(vedanta)” or “(gods),” or “(beautiful)”, but the wait is invariably worth it:


it isn’t every day

it’s today the world ends

it’s today clouds crumble

shaking invisible axles

of the firmament to powder

and on the rim of all juxtapositions

straddling the voice of harmony

the single unit of spain

a guitar jungle-green with energy

breaks down the azure infinite



Some of the most powerfully moving poems come near the end, in which the poet’s brother Joe appears as a ghostly memory:


wearing my brother’s hands today

morning in an echo of sky cold and infinite

where to place these gnarled hands

these knuckles and joints without feeling

—(new year’s eve)


immense the loss


where cytherea danced on the skiff of time

who will ponder this

elegance gods dressed in distance

do sleeping now in cloudy raiment

go into their absence



But death is not allowed to have the final word:


look into Desire!

fire burning higher

light me up shadow

dream me up flame

don’t touch there

don’t smoke there

move as shadows

burn as flame

moth drawn forever

into Desire’s eye

—(heaven, or, the postcard from Thailand)


For all the poet’s command of high rhetoric, classical eloquence, and his gift for the true sublime, many of his most powerful moments are in his most intimate poems, the moments of quiet that show a master’s light, pure touch.

In Ars Poetica, Argüelles shows, not the art of writing poetry, as in Horace’s famous poem of the same title, but the art of being poetry: what is poetry? What is art, really – art, poetry, song – the aestheticization of expression – at its most luminous, at its most dark? Oddly enough, if we understand that, we might just begin to understand a little of what it means to be human:


writing the poem was the poem

the intent was to go beyond

not what literature has to say

but what it cannot say

I am the avenue and the way

neither to this side nor that

everybody is a window

nobody can see past the reflection

where darkest sublime feeds

on the roots of fire

where in the event of an accident

or an inflammation of the brain

the universe proves the Random


sitting in the same room forty years

are not developed

have not sung

is not being nor are others

insidious pornography of art

rearranging the non-existent


can you hear me?

—(“life is the same as death”)



Christopher Bernard is a writer, poet, editor and journalist living in San Francisco. His books include the widely acclaimed novel A Spy in the Ruins; a book of stories, In the American Night; and The Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs. His work has appeared in many publications, including cultural and arts journalism in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, and poetry and fiction in literary reviews in the U.S. and U.K. He has also written plays and an opera (libretto and score) that have been produced and radio broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry films have been screened in San Francisco and his poetry and fiction have been nominated for Puschcart Prizes. He is co-editor of Caveat Lector ( and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine.


Photo of poet Ivan Arguelles

Ivan Arguelles