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The Chops of Hell

Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems, by W.S. Di Piero. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

"Freud," wrote Jung in a moment of lucidity, "has unfortunately overlooked the fact that man has never yet been able single-handed to hold his own against the powers of darkness—that is, of the unconscious." That afterthought changes this from a quip of medieval theology to an orientation for modern psychology; nevertheless, Jung's title for the book in which this barb appears—Modern Man in Search of a Soul, published in 1933—asserts these undertakings to be more or less the same thing: the state of your soul is as psychological as it is spiritual. Efforts to fathom inner meaning and to structure cosmic meaning were, after all, at the heart of the project of depth psychology: your mood was a sign of a deeper self. Today, psychopharmacology manages mood into shallower symptomatic pools, from which psychology evaporates. Nevertheless, then as now, temperament determines our experience: we are how we feel.

Robert Burton famously digressed for a thousand pages on this idea, locating mood in the four humors of Hippocrates: blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy. "A humour is a liquid or fluent part of the body, comprehended in it, for the preservation of it," he recognized, calling spirit "a most subtle vapour" that acts as "the instrument of the soul, to perform all his actions." It's true, after all, that the darkness, as Robert Creeley warned in 1962, surrounds us. The melancholy that overwhelms the modern age, which Burton first announced in 1621, Jung felt to be at core a loss of spirit, a loss of religious meaning. "During the past thirty years," he intoned, "people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me." By which he meant Protestants, Jews, and a few Catholics. Of his patients over the age of thirty-five, he observed, "there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life." Freud must have been appalled to read this.

In his poem "Stanzas," first appearing in 2001 in his book Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero admits:
I'm druggy
while my doctor fools with dosages
to stagger my soul's bad chemistry.

I need a looser world and words for it.
Last night I watched the Dog Star burn
blue then frosted mercury.

I wouldn't want these lines to serve as a cipher for Chinese Apples, Di Piero's new selected poems, but they characterize aspects of his work worth dilating on: their self-consciousness and melancholy, for one, refined into a kind of alchemical psychology; their reliance on experience that drifts into confession to organize and locate the poetic; and the integral, attentive, clever music of their language (the sound and rhythm shared by druggy, stagger, and Dog Star, or the drifts of o sounds from doctor to fools to dosages to soul's to looser to world to word, bent, in the end, into the u sounds of burn and blue).

Normally, I would avoid making too much of the pronouncements of melancholy in a poet's work; after all, there's nothing new about poets having the blues, nor about them taking drugs to manage them. But Di Piero has more or less encouraged his readers to think of his poetry with depression in mind. In notebook entries published in Poetry (October 2006), he writes, "Clinical melancholia doesn't color one's feeling for reality, it determines it." That Di Piero prefers the antique label "melancholia" to "depression" seems less a verbal affectation than an honest admission: he seems to recognize his affliction to be as literary as it is neurochemical. He calls it "systemic, a toxin in the circulatory system of the spirit." Furthermore, like an occultic precipitation, it's a visitant—alchemically morbid and revelatory: "You don't contract it, it comes for you, genetically and in the world—it weaves its tacky filaments into your temperament." Earlier, in notebook excerpts published in 1996, Di Piero provides this: "I write poetry to seek not serene wisdom but a state of nerves that's deliberative and self-aware, an intensity of the moral moment," adding, "I believe temperament is critical in determining the rhythms and textures of a poet's language. By temperament choleric and melancholic, I expect my work to be dyed by these colors."

How? It's one thing to expect something of your poetry, or to intend something to happen in your poems. It's quite another to register such things as the reader of such work. If I were to characterize Chinese Apples in one word, from the early poems of The Only Dangerous Thing (1984), through the twenty-four pages of new poems that conclude the selection, I'd choose the word "literary." I don't mean to use that word at all pejoratively, but rather as a way of describing the effect of the imagination, as Coleridge defined it in Biographia Literaria, as "the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition . . . of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am." Di Piero's poetry is literary in that it reflects Coleridge's sense of the imagination as a living power, made visible by literature. I also want to indicate a quality of the language, which tends to be lush and allusive, and an element of the poem's settings, which frequently take place in the presence of fine art, paintings especially.

The poetry reminds me, slightly, of certain contemporary poets working a similar vein: August Kleinzahler or Carl Phillips, maybe. But it seems more helpful to compare Di Piero to dead poets: James Merrill in terms of diction and techniques of transforming observations and experience into verse; Ezra Pound in terms of investment in Italian medieval and Renaissance material; Basil Bunting, whom he clearly admires above nearly all twentieth-century poets, in terms of musical phrasing; and Wordsworth, whose "capacious symphonic effects" Di Piero has admitted being drawn to, modeling his own work after them (albeit in miniature—he's written nothing as long or grand as Wordsworth). But even these comparisons don't register the often ebullient music of Di Piero's language, nor the glassy melancholic depths of his imagination.

There's another element worth noting, one absent mainly in the work of any of these other poets I've mentioned: Di Piero is invested in rehearsing biographical elements in his poems, especially his connection to Italian and Italian-American culture, most prominently to his self-professed working-class origins in South Philadelphia. Di Piero has written that reducing his poetry to the story of where he comes from makes him impatient; nevertheless, he dwells, particularly in his prose, much of which serves as a sonic expansion and explanation of his poetry, on this notion of coming from "the working class." To be honest, I don't quite know what to do with this admission in terms of his work. It's not like that of Philip Levine, in which being of the working class often justifies his poetry; nor that of a younger writer who authenticates his poetic role with working class cred. More often than not, Di Piero's origins come through as an anxiety in his work, neither as romantic nor as sustaining as literature, from Wordsworth and Blake through Whitman to the Beats, might suggest. If there is, in fact, something choleric in Di Piero's poetry, this frustration is likely its source. What makes the working class references hard to place in the work is that they seem to deflect poetic identity rather than reinforce it, while nevertheless continually drawing attention to the biographical fact that, yes, Di Piero comes from the mean streets of South Philly. It's curious, after all, to encounter a fixation on working class origins that serves to texture the poems rather than validate them.

Reading through Chinese Apples is to be struck, again and again, by incredible lines. A few favorites, in sequence: "The elevators, a hundred miles away,/wrinkling on a watery band of dawn" (from "The Incineration: Kansas");
The black stargazer
lurches closest
to the manger, his hand

stabbing deep shadow
between the rough nest
and his gift.
—From The Adoration

"The dirigible's dragon shade/absorbs us" (from "Augustine on the Beach"); "Forget likenesses,/live inside your carbon soul, the moon's black and blue,/in the soul's time the world's one winter together" (from "St. Francis of Assisi: 1944"); "The stars rub their great noise on me" (from "The Bull-Roarers"); and this Brueghel-like vision, from "The Wedding Dance":
At our table, my father
("Let's break this up")
grabs my arm and gimps
toward the dancers' circle
and its untouchable one,
where he light-foots
snappy fat-man moves,
happy storybook dragon,
boilermakers on his breath,
sexed up, cutting the boards,
while itchy at the edge
I blur into forgetfulness.

Much as these lines draw attention to fixations and orientations within his poems—for instance, the predominance of religiously-inflected subject matter; the repetition of the word "dragon"; the desire to characterize the experience of being in the world—they are linked mainly by their memorable music. In the lines from "The Adoration" above, there is a completely unflashy but vivid movement in sound from the "black stargazer" to the "stabbing deep shadow," from the "rough nest" of the manger to "his gift," that suggests skill and mastery well beyond observational powers or mere poetic talent.

"Man has always stood in need of the spiritual help which each individual's own religion held out to him." That's Jung again (still criticizing Freud). What happens to you when your own religion offers no solace or help? Di Piero's poems, at their best, feel like something held out to the poet instead of religion—not as a replacement but as an expansive commentary on that loss, one that encourages the gorgeous design and reflection exemplified in the lines quoted above. An early poem, "Easter Service," commemorating a visit to Mass, begins strikingly:
He half expects a Chinese dragonhead
will bloom from the weave of golden chasuble,
its fangs grinning behind some scalloped fire.
Choir voices surround the lifted chalice,
the elemental dying God wrapped
in music made to storm the sky and purge
the debris of fact.

That debris of fact is the "fixed thickened everlastingness" whose "core translation" of matter into divinity and word into flesh is the promise of resurrection. It's not that the poet doesn't buy this truth; rather, that it encourages in him a confusion that "worsens with belief." Later, amid the "aggrieved angel-noise" of the liturgy, Di Piero recognizes that "belief/isn't knowledge," providing him an epiphanic vision of what exists beyond the ceremony of faith, "unrecorded stars, the happy chaos cry/of galaxies." Not God but the sonic booming of cosmic emptiness:
It's what he hears
in the infinite covered space stuffed with song
that curves, unsettled, inside his desperate ear.

In the poet's head, in the cathedral of his sensorium arising there, the ceremony of his poetry enacts what the divine procession of the Mass lacks for him, a vigil to commemorate a faith long gone. If this can't be called a spiritual help, then at least it is a poetic one.

So, how to locate this collection and the poet who put it together? Is it enough to say Di Piero is a fine, melancholic poet? That makes him sound mirthless and mopey, which he's not. Would it be better to call him a religious poet for an atheistic age? That makes him sound hopeless and pretentious, which he's likewise not. I think Di Piero is what William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience calls a "sick soul," his label for someone who wants to believe but, searching his heart, recognizes he can't. Nevertheless, the primary symptom of Di Piero's sickness, just as it was for James, who passed off his own journals as those of a sick-souled French physician in his book, is his need to write about what he can't believe in. I think this holds as true for Di Piero's working class identity—it's just not something about which he holds any sort of creed or conviction—as it does for his native Catholicism, or any other religion for that matter.

I'm impelled to confess a few things at last. Prior to being asked to do so, I hadn't really read any of Di Piero's writings, poetry or prose. There's nothing in the work that advertises it outside of its literary scope, nothing particularly flaunted to attract your attention. (I'm reminded of Bunting's comment in Briggflatts on Domenico Scarlatti, who "condensed so much music into so few bars/with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,/never a boast or a see-here.") It seems pretty clear Di Piero wants it this way. Another thing: I find the work solitary, lonely even, which seems, on reflection, a necessary quality for the poet's survival. Though the poems depict vibrant scenes, I sensed them happening inside the poet's head: the circulatory system of Di Piero's spirit tends to swirl his poems into rather ghostlier demarcations than celebrations of the self. In a later poem, "My Message Left Next to the Phone," Di Piero relates a terrifying scene in which, while driving across "the bridge" (Oakland Bay Bridge? Golden Gate?), the interference of bright sunlight with the bridge's fretwork causes him to hallucinate freakish "sexual shadows/scissored into life," the vision of which drenches him in panic. "I felt they'd come for me, all that speed,/come to gather me in their motion,/.../I was theirs for the taking." The poem nevertheless ends placidly, fatalistically:
To evaporate in that traffic air
with them, delivered to some place
I never knew before. I made it to
the other end. Next week I'll try again.

It's hard to tell whether he means that he'll try to cross the bridge again, or that he'll indulge again in a suicidal fantasy. Reading Di Piero's book is to allow for both possibilities: survival and doom.

Robert Burton proposed that religious melancholy, which he called "the chops of hell," arises from the contemplation of God's magnitude—
a sea full of shelves and rocks, sands, gulfs, euripes and contrary tides, full of fearful monsters, uncouth shapes, roaring waves, tempests, and siren calms, halcyonian seas, unspeakable misery

—and is cured by good counsel, advice, and "physic," all of which resolve in faith. It's clear to me that what Di Piero believes in is poetry, not redemptively but descriptively. Poetry allows him to see the world, which enables him to bear living in it. When he says, "Next week I'll try again," I think he means to say as long as poetry provides him visions in language of such things as "sexual shadows scissored into life," he'll keep going. And I can't think of a better reason to read this fine book, to keep that language going, and out of the chops of hell.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine


  • Peter O’Leary was born in 1968 in Detroit, Michigan, and earned a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His recent books of poetry include The Phosphorescence of Thought (2012), Luminous Epinoia (2010), Depth Theology (2006), and Watchfulness (2001). He is the author of the critical study Gnostic Contagion:...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Chops of Hell


  • Peter O’Leary was born in 1968 in Detroit, Michigan, and earned a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His recent books of poetry include The Phosphorescence of Thought (2012), Luminous Epinoia (2010), Depth Theology (2006), and Watchfulness (2001). He is the author of the critical study Gnostic Contagion:...

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