The Concert in the Egg

MICHAEL YOST is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems have been published in places like Modern Age, First Things, The University Bookman, Dappled Things, The Brazen Head, and others. He substacks at The Weight of Form.

The Concert in the Egg

And now we climb the marble stairs, and roam

Beneath the LED’s electric wash.

We see, within the art museum’s dome.

A painting by a follower of Bosch:

I

Placed in the quarter of the upper right,

A snake hangs on a branch that seems to grow

Out of the chaunt-book’s leather back. By sight,

Notation’s bars and measured ratio

Are present, silent. See a branch suspend

A slender rosy jug for furniture,

that seems impossibly, to rest its end

Upon the polished, creamy curvature;

While further up the branch, a basket holds

a dead upended bird, an orchard limb

With fruit, of shadowed pinks and quiet golds.

It dangles lusciously, almost by whim.


Then sang the funnel hatted quack: 

“I read the birds, and note the star,

And scan the viscera of pigs

For knowledge of the things that are.


And these are the most casual facts,

That anyone could understand.

The world expands, goes round, contracts,

And blows like grains of gusted sand.”

                              II

The lapwings, stork, the bat in half-light blacked,

An owl, with eyes in back of the beaky head,

A neck that twists like one whose body’s racked,

Are met, as ghouls who come to eat the dead.

The owl winds talons in a wimpled nun’s

Habitual veil. He hovers over tangled

Night, who sees much, hears much, in the sun’s

Departure, over air presiding, angled

On eastern winds. And he is thus their vane

and orient; eyes black, intelligent

of good and evil, of desire’s pain,

And old rebellion’s rich impoverishment.


And harped the man with the tuberous nose

“To make a lad feel young and gay

There’s nothing like a tub of beer

Make haste, for all things pass away.


For drink and life are much the same:

There’s both too much, and not enough.

I drink enough to keep me tame,

And to forget the other stuff.

                              III

Over the open fissure of the shell

— Whose slabbed sides cracked like pistol shot,

Or plates of broad midwinter ice in hell,

that frigid deadland, deep as hate or thought —

Thus, in the dimming dawn, (or end of day),

The snake is honored in its figuration.


A type and image merely for the way;

Effective only via dispensation.

One man, birdhouse on head, in back, observes. 

A stork stands on the crimson chaperon

Belonging to the piper who disserves

His neighbor’s ear with wheedling semitone.


And pipes the man in the scarlet hat:

“The wealthy never need resign

their riches to the poorer man.

Of Virtue, Wealth’s the surest sign.


My avarice is needed, too;

It all coheres, in one great whole

Where good and evil, false and true

All twist toward one final goal.”


                              IV

Beneath the egg’s receding, round horizon,

a village of the plain lies feverish,

Afire. Floating in darkness’ orison,

A leopard guards a tender, cooking fish.

A tortoise plods beneath the egg as well

Who’s yet to be flipped over, unstrung, bored 
And hollowed with a knife blade from his shell

To make a merry lyre’s sounding board,

And blend all chaos in harmonious love.
His peeling, wrinkled hams drag needled claws,

His ancient eyes scan all the scene above

For food to pinch and tear in beaky jaws.


Then sang the fish on the cooking grill,

“The fireside is near and warm

But though it burns a bloody red,

I know it will not do me harm.”


Sensation heats my chilly flesh

And is a sign, at least, of life.

A sign is substance, rendered fresh,

And cannot lie, or deal out strife.”


                              V

Then breaking out, a monkey blows a shawm,

And hunching, gazes cunningly at you,

And grips his instrument with hairy palm,

As if to hide it secretly from view.

The egg tilts on a ledge, half off the ground,

Into the dark, where, lit by new moon’s shine,

An elf prince sits, attended all around.

His nude well-favored, red-skinned concubine,

Flirts and displays herself to minute men,

Who tender their respects, with downcast cross-eye,

to her idolic, tiny frame; and then

All nuzzle closer with their stiff probosci.


Then sang the scarlet elfin queen

“Come close, my thin-legged lovers all,

There’s more to sight than you have seen.

Come feel the flesh that caused the fall.


There is no love that knits all life

Together, save rampaging lust,

Therefore, embrace me, little men

And bend your bodies as you must.”


And at the centre of it all, alive,

Bizarre, grotesque, and painted out of tune,

Out sprout a clutch of human beings. They strive

Like lilies in the thorns inopportune.

Remember: “ex nihilo, nihil fit.”

What hen, I wonder, laid and warmed this brood?

What blimpish, half-breed cockerel seeded it

With half-born harmonies and music rude?


Then sang an echo from the egg:

“I am myself, a ship of fools,

And all my crew are born in me

And learn my inner logic’s rules.


They breed, and fight, and learn to play

The little game I teach to them.

It is a game where no one wins.

I hatch them only to condemn.


And when at length, they break my crust,

And venture through the outer space,

The darkness is all light to them,

And all the road before their face.”


We leave the gallery, and take the street.

And silence breaks beneath the weight of feet.

The Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley

MICHAEL YOST is a poet and essayist living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems have been published in places like Modern Age, First Things, The University Bookman, Dappled Things, The Brazen Head, and others. He substacks at The Weight of Form.

The Testified and Witnessed Ballad of the Truly Risen Elvis Aaron Presley (As Reported in World News Weekly)

He rises from the purple sheen

    And velvet of his box

His sequined vest aquamarine

    Pomade spread in his locks,


His face unaged, bright red with youth

    As an immortal god.

He’s risen! This I know for truth

    (Although it may seem odd.)


He rocks death’s jailhouse even now,

    From Graceland, where he waits,

To play his last, and take a bow,

    Before the mighty fates.


For when Amurka’s own true king,

    Begins to gyre his pelvis

The juke-box joints will leap and sing

   “Salvation comes from Elvis.”


His golden buckle girding on,

    Likewise his golden shades

The King has come in bronze and brawn

   As our world’s music fades.


And after Armageddon, all

    Will be Banana-Bacon-

Peanut-Butter Sammich. All

     The lost, unloved, forsaken


He’ll shower with amphetamines,

    Cake, Coca-Cola, Jam,

Butabarbital, morphine,

    And piles of honeyed ham.


    Girls will dance naked, all for love

And T.V. sets will ring

    And squawk our songs and praises of

Our Once and Future King.

Joyce’s sense of history

Jacques-Emile Blanche 1861-1942. Portrait of James Joyce
MICHAEL YOST explores Joyce’s life, work, and theory of art

Homer’s Odyssey begins thus: “ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον…” or, in translation: “The man, to me, sing, O Muse, many-sided. . .”His word “polutropon” has been rendered as referring to a man “of twists and turns,” “of many devices” and, more recently and bathetically, “complicated.”  But in whichever translation one prefers, I could think of no better passage of literature with which to introduce James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.

Joyce himself interwove the warp of his artistic identity around the woof of several imaginary literary identities; most famously, Odysseus and Hamlet. Yet no matter whether we look through the world of Joyce’s creation through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s mock-heroic man of twists and turns, or watch Stephen Dedalus wrestle with his mother’s ghost, we are always looking through Joyce’s eyes. He never removes all of his masks. But neither does he ever seem to be wearing one. To read him is to be immersed in a delicate stream of emotional, physiological and mental observations that seems to belie the real intricacies of his craftsmanship. The intended effect is minutely historical; we are reading the collected and transfigured experiences of the author. Whenever we read Joyce, we are, in a sense, reading history. Or rather, we are reading personal historical experience that has been atomically restructured into story and myth.

It is no secret that Joyce was deeply interested in setting up a place for himself in the literary history of Europe, but he was also driven to arrange and rearrange his own history within it. If, as T. S. Eliot put it, Joyce makes use of a “mythological method,” he does so only to frame personal or individual history as myth, if we accept myth to be, very broadly, a story told about somebody that is really a story about everybody. For example, we see Joyce’s proclivity towards the grand, operatic gesture in the very titles of his works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, The Exiles, and last, and certainly least read, Finnegans Wake.

Just as Dubliners is not merely a collection of vignettes, but a series of symbolic miniatures that, taken either together or individually, make up Joyce’s obsessively rendered critique of Ireland’s capital, so Portrait is not merely an autobiographical künstlerroman, but a depiction of the journey every true artist must undergo, if we abide by Joyce’s definition of the term as “a priest of the eternal imagination” (which he obviously thought applied perfectly to himself. If, as Joyce said to Marie Jolas (wife and collaborator with Eugene Jolas of transition fame), “In Ireland Catholicism is black magic,” then the real hero of Stephen Hero was, by contrast, attempting to practice something like literary white magic. When we reach Ulysses, we see Joyce’s method a little more clearly. Here he emerges as an architectonic creator on par with the mythical Dedalus or the historical Dante. Joyce’s choice of names (Dedalus and Ulysses or Stephen and Finnegan) conjure up not only notion of sojourning, craft, deceit, and labyrinthine cunning, but also of heroism, martyrdom, and the possibility of resurrection and return. We know from the beginning that Joyce is attempting something on a grand scale; an epic, but also something in which the multifaceted and constantly changing specie of perception and imagination can subsist, like an illuminated text from the Book of Kells, of which Joyce said:

In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.[i]

This method of transposing history into a superstructure of myth, (or, as we shall see later, of aesthetic philosophy) is also evident when we consider Joyce’s practice as a craftsman.

We can discern a repeating pattern in Joyce’s compositional method. First he creates a text, or texts, in which he musters his characters. He develops this to a greater or lesser extent, then abandons it, having since (with his characters now in situ) re-conceived it. He then newly develops the re-imagined version, occasionally cannibalising the earlier texts in the process. Thus we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerging from the fragments of Stephen Hero, Ulysses emerging from the fragments of a sequel to A Portrait, from Giacomo Joyce, and from a planned but unwritten Dubliners story (also called Ulysses).  His big books are, in a sense, a two-step process, a single step being too high a climb. The ur-works are like enzymes precipitating his creativity. [ii]

Such a statement ought to convince us of the sheer systematic effort with which Joyce crafted his work. We must also see on reading him, that one of his models, if not in style, yet in structure, is the Summa Theologica, insofar as the project of a systematic philosopher such as Aquinas is to create a whole out of parts, in which, to use a quotation from Schiller, “quietly and unceasingly he directs the greatest force upon the smallest point.” In such a system, the influence and weight of the whole is felt in each part, and the whole is itself a work of consummate artistry in which each part is ordered toward the achievement and weight of the whole. As Joyce himself wrote of Finnegan’s Wake: “every word can be justified.” But what, in the ultimate sense, is this justification? As I suggested earlier, it is nothing more or less than history itself.

In Dubliners, for example, the role of history is obvious. Joyce wished to bring Ireland to an examination of conscience. As he wrote to Grant Richards, a London publisher who would have the care of Dubliners, in 1906:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, Maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.

They were, he said, written “in a style of scrupulous meanness” with a complete commitment to representing exactly what he had seen. . . The Irish, he declared, needed to look at themselves.” [iii] History, in this case, is directed towards a kind of national confession, in which the repressed, unrepresented, subterranean evils of the subject’s psyche are made known in all their filth-bespattered amplitude. However, we should not imagine that Joyce did not re-arrange his experiences with an eye towards his own artistic goals. Such a merely documentary ‘realism’ would be far from him, as his later works show. In any case, in Joyce’s infamous correspondence with his wife, we see a similar desire to simultaneously hide and to disclose what Joyce, prior to his apostasy, would have known as sin. This confessional turn, which Joyce uses to wallow in sensuous and often disgusting detail, is a paradoxical counterpart to the ‘matter-of-factness’ that is the basis of Joyce’s fantasia.

But this sense of degradation is also, clearly, a projection. It was not the only projection that Joyce would make of himself and his inner states upon an unsuspecting world. A single reading of Exiles serves to confirm for the reader Joyce’s irritating, pompous, hyper-romantic level of self-concern. The main character is a nearly un-veiled version of Joyce, as the other characters are thinly veiled versions of Nora Barnacle, his son Giorgio, and other associates. It is a failure in the same way that Portrait is a success: in a way, we never step beyond the realm of Joyce’s imagination. In the same way, Joyce incorporates and re-schematizes Dublin in Ulysses, famously claiming that he wanted to write the book so that it could be used to rebuild the city if need be. Christ said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days; Joyce fragments, coalesces, warps and congeals Dublin in the space of one. Here, history is the substance, the prima materia of artistic creation. It was to be so always with Joyce.

Yet Joyce, even in his lyric poetry, reaches towards the impersonal control of a creative demiurge. But although in Portrait, one sees a picture of Joyce-as-Stephen, his tongue as sharp as a sword, and his mind full to the brim of syllogisms, distinctions, and all the rest of the furniture of his Jesuitical-Scholastic education; by the time he re-appears in Ulysses, he is embarking on a screaming bender with Buck Mulligan. Likewise, from the time after he proclaimed his emancipation from Ireland, Catholicism, and his family, Joyce’s life as an exile was in a continual state of shipwreck. Much like his father John Joyce, James was a drunk, a narcissist, a pervert, and a spendthrift, frequenting brothels and regularly eschewing the responsibilities of a husband, father, son, and brother. He was an arrogant dandy, iconoclastic, cynical, and boorish, who “loved obscene words, ‘savoring them like candy.’[iv]” He contracted venereal diseases that may have caused the deterioration of his eyesight. After his marriage to Nora, he worried (rightly) about his potential for abusive behaviour, the kind which we see again and again in the fathers and husbands of Dubliners. By this time, Joyce’s utterly sottish father had once attempted to strangle his long-suffering, highly religious mother, only to be wrestled ignominiously to the floor by John Stanislaus, Joyce’s younger brother, who would, at great personal cost, bear Joyce’s financial burdens for much of Joyce’s life. It takes very little effort to see to what degree Joyce’s obsessions, sins, and failings were bound up with those elements of himself that he believed to be most important: his vocation as an artist, his apostasy, his devotion to his own freedom, et al. He suffered much, at his own hands and at those of others. But whether it was self-inflicted or not, it was all, in a sense, a martyrdom.

Adolf Hoffmeister. James Joyce, 1966

On the theoretical side, this failure of The Exiles comes, in part, from an inability on the artist’s part to live up to his own aesthetic theory. An understanding of the course of Joyce’s career, taken alongside the aesthetic theory advanced in Portrait, shows us while Exiles was attempted, but also why it failed, and why Ulysses and Finnegans Wake followed.  In Portrait, Stephen holds forth on his advancement of Thomistic aesthetic statements with the perverse and bestial Lynch: “Aquinas says ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”  These, according to Stephen, correspond to the order of knowing. In his terms, we apprehend something in its “wholeness” when we see it as a unity, as one thing which is distinct from others. We apprehend the “harmony” of a thing when we grasp the nature of its internal order in what Stephen terms “the rhythm of its structure.” We grasp that “it is a thing.” We “apprehend it as complex. . . made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum. . .” At the third step, we reach what Aquinas terms “claritas.”

Here, Stephen brings to our attention the fact that he has chosen to translate this word in a certain way:

It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind. . . the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions.[v]

In other words, a certain aesthetic philosophy threatens to become, for the newly fledged Stephen Dedalus, an aesthetic theology. It is a crucial moment for the “thoughtenchanted” boy. “But that,” he concludes, “is literary talk.” By this he means, with an echo of Ibsen trembling in the vibrations of his voice, that it is unreal. Rather, he returns, “You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination.[vi]” Rather than a transcendental, ‘Platonic’, theological aesthetic, Joyce, through Stephen, yokes his brand of Thomism to the wagon of materialist realism, rejecting outright the link between species and their genera, between universals and particulars, and between his art and God. In other words: non serviam. The affirmation of the term “quidditas,” usually referring to the formal qualities that a thing shares with others, should not fool anyone. Here, Stephen quite clearly uses the word to mean something closer to another scholastic term: “haecceitas,” which refers to the material, rather than the formal distinction between beings that might otherwise be members of one species. It is this obsession with a thing’s material particularity that plainly marks Joyce’s artistic concerns and style.

But Stephen quickly passes over into a consideration of the three genres of literature: lyric, epic, and dramatic insofar as they correspond to the three qualities of beauty:

…the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

It is worthy of note that Joyce himself composed or attempted to compose in each of these three genres. Chamber Music, his first collection of poems, was published in 1907, but had been distilled and arranged from a mass of verse written while Joyce was still in Dublin. In that same year, Joyce began adapting Stephen Hero into Portrait,and was still trying, as he would until 1914, to find a publisher who would take Dubliners without major changes. The original title of his first novel, Stephen Hero, gives a suggestion of ambitions towards the epic, as per the English ballad Turpin Hero. If we accept the Joycean definition of “epical”, we see that Portrait does define Joyce’s relationship with himself relative to others within this work. That might be said, in fact, to be the burden of the novel. But of course, Portrait begins with the bedtime story being told to Stephen in the third person, and ends with fragments of Stephen’s diary, written in the first person. By the time we reach Finnegans Wake, Joyce has truly disappeared, “like the God of creation. . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.[vii]” But the material is the same: Joyce’s impressions, his fragmentary sensations and observations, his literary tics and typical menagerie of references to Shakespeare, the Tridentine Mass, and the Irish mythos. But as Joyce himself claims: the more the artist approaches the “claritas” in which the “quiddity” of his art is known to his reader, the more he himself retreats, though his image remains. His fiat creates, transforms, the flux into a thing. Here is the ultimate use of history: not simply to rearrange the past, but to re-present it, and to draw our attention more closely to its reality, and to the quiddity of things; to define them, and to reveal them for what they are. To return for a moment to Stephen’s earlier interpretation of claritas as the radiance of quiddity: it should be clear now that for Joyce, words are imitative of language, not symbolic of them. Because things are nothing more or less than themselves, words must be nothing more than themselves, or at least, their imitative objects. Consider Stephen’s attention to the onomatopoeic qualities of the word “suck.”

Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect’s false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

The word “suck” is not defined. It is felt. And herein lies an artistic challenge for Joyce. A word has no meaning beyond itself, as an object has no meaning beyond itself. There are no genera for Joyce, only species, and thus every object and experience become, ultimately, a thing unto themselves; the single member of a species of one, as St. Thomas says, for very different reasons, of the angels in paradise. Here we reach, perhaps, the place where Joyce’s aesthetic begins to devour itself in contradictions. Joyce has written works and passages of works that are truly unique in literature, and seem likely to remain so. He has created beauty. But he attempted to express things that were, perhaps, uncommunicable when he attempted to ground words almost utterly in the material, accidental eccentricities, of the ever-changing river of history, rather than on the formal, natural, essential qualities that are, in themselves, knowable. He may well have ended, not falling to the earth on burning wings, but rather trapped in a labyrinth of his own design.

 Bibliography

Joyce, James, Ulysses, Modern Library Edition, Random House Inc., New York, 1992

Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976

Joyce, James, Finn’s Hotel, Ithys Press, 2013

Bowker, Gordon, James Joyce: A New Biography, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2012

Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983


[i] James Joyce to Arthur Power, Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983, p.545

[ii] From Danis Rose’s preface to Finn’s Hotel (Ithys Press, 2013)

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid, p. 234.

[v] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pg. 480

[vi] Ibid, p. 480-481

[vii] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 483

Faith and formalism

Ezekiel’s vision

The True Gods Attend You

Clarence Caddell, Bonfire Books, 2022, 71 pages, £11.80

MICHAEL YOST finds a collection of original religiously-inspired verse rather forced

There are two major traditions pertinent to verse literature that are seldom engaged in, but for all that are the more interesting when an artist does make use of them: the theological and imaginative Christian tradition of faith, and the much more practical tradition of formal verse craft.

In most people’s minds, the two probably go together; one thinks of the Anglican John Keble’s Christian Year, the Roman Catholic James Matthew Wilson, or the American Protestant Longfellow, all of whom reward the interest of their readers. However, the major religious tradition of the West is less often engaged today, and many Christian poets take the outward and visible signs of form as Luther and Zwingli took the outward and visible signs of the Eucharist: conventional, and unessential.

T.S. Eliot suggested in his essay Religion and Literature that what was needed was not religous literature in the obvious, propagandizing manner of a Keble or Chesterton, but rather the unconsciously religious literature of a Dante or a Joyce. As I have suggested in another essay, Eliot’s idea of the relation between religion and literature also is true of any set of first principles, or overarching metaphysics; the reason Eliot sought for an unconsciously religious literature was because he wished religion to inform the bones and marrow, the form and substance of literature, not merely decorate it with the furniture of, say early-mid-twentieth century Anglo-Catholicism. In brief, the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.

This is not to say that formal verse is always the work of deists. But it is per se the work of people who have some stake in things as ordered, even if the order is conventional, or merely conservative in character. Here we come to Clarence Caddell’s The True Gods Attend You, a chapbook published by Bonfire Books, the Australian press. What makes Caddell interesting is that his poems do often address religious themes; but in each case they are pitched with a deep and seemingly impenetrable irony. In reading them, I cannot help but place them in the category of consciously religious.

This is largely because the primary concern of the poems is, as in a devotional poem, religion and religious experience. The difference is that the religious poems are counter-propaganda; they are devotional poems in reverse. Not much to their credit, the poems’ engagement with religion largely draws from the fragmentary and derivative gnostic texts of the Church’s early period, as well as two books that each propose a conspiracy-theorist’s account of the origins of Christianity. There are poems of some formal merit, such as Initiations, The Golem, Passover Feasts of the New Covenant, Elegy With an Omen, and A Mobius Wedding Band; as well as a long blank verse narrative poem, The Candidate. These I would single out among the collection as poems whose ideas are engaging, but more importantly, solidly executed. In many of the other poems, there is a distinct lack of metrical control. Cadell’s hand is often shaky as he tries to unpack complex situations, parallels, and resonances within a brief space. Trochees, eye rhymes, weak rhymes, (such as the anachronistically signaled elision “o’er” that exists in order to rhyme with “floor”) and awkward syntax abound, marring an energetic idea, crippling a final stanza, and perhaps most difficult, undermining the authority of Cadell, the poet and speaker. On one or two occasions the concrete situation of the poem is nearly impossible to discern.

There is also a distinct difference between the poems that rely on history, the re-formulated symbolism of the Gnostics, or the tendentious and ludicrous thesis that Christianity was a political invention of the Flavian dynasty, and the poems that seem to draw from Caddell’s own experiences of life, love, and loss. The aforementioned poems can be by turn, difficult, energetic, and reliant upon an imaginative world inherited by Caddell. When they succeed, they succeed because Caddell unlocks their complexity, which pours out in a torrential fashion reminiscent of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. This is the case in the Blakean Initiations. But where they fail, it is because that complexity has failed to materialize in an ordered way. Caddell’s more intimate poems, by contrast, work precisely because that same intricacy is in play, but in a context that is both familiar, tender, and surprising, such as A Mobius Wedding Band. But even here the shield of irony is raised. I wish to turn to that particular poem as a success: an English sonnet that treats of married love; a love that is painful and yet inseparable, desired and feared. It plays with the same themes of distance, suffering, betrayal and desire that another of his poems, Vicar of Christ, engages; but with a more perfect union between form and content, a clearer direction and drive moving through the entire poem, and a perfect complication of the symbolic ring of marriage. Here, the symbol seems to truly mean something, even in its reversal.
The Candidate, the longest poem in the collection, details the conversion and reversion of a family man to and from the Roman Catholic Church, or at least, a parodic vision of that church. Throughout the poem, the sincerity of his spiritual search is pushed back against, and ultimately revealed as an expression of his own narcissistic quest for “religious experience.” The heavy-handed moral is that the candidate should avaunt church-shopping and return from its distractions to his wife and family. It is singular insofar as it depicts an often undepicted subculture within Catholicism. But it does not ascend above the level of caricature.

Earlier in the review, I suggested that “the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.” How does this apply in Caddell’s case? The True Gods Attend You stands half within the world of traditional religious expression (if ironically so), and half out of it. Likewise, Caddell has difficulty fully achieving coherence and rigor of poetic expression. His poems are indeed “formalist” as the blurb of the chapbook declares. But often the poems are (it seems unintentionally) rumpled. In both cases, it is hard for a Christian reader not to suggest that both constitute a falling away – an imperfect or misunderstood discipline. In sum, there is something to commend the originality and force, as well as the wit behind The True Gods Attend You. Caddell has skill, and an idiosyncratic vision. What remains to be seen is whether both, in time, develop.

The Deadlift & Towards the Pebbled Shore

MICHAEL YOST is an essayist and poet living in rural New Hampshire with his wife and children. His essays and poems can be read at Crisis Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review and Hearth and Field, as well as at his website, poetryofmichaelyost.com.  

The Deadlift

The name rings hollow: pig-iron

In gravity’s deep wallow.

The unpoetic callus 

On each palm’s pad too hard 

To feel the microscopic knurl

Packed white with chalk, the burnished steel

Bar like some eel of river shining

Yet stippled still with the pock of rust. 

The body, braced against itself feels fear

For its own softness, singing for sweet rest. 

The plates all packed like brothers on the bar, 

Their edges sharp from the white hot lip of the mold. 

Then suddenly, the mind resolves itself to mass,

White pylons of tense bone, and round well fatted muscle, 

Presses itself in feet and shin through concrete ground

And grinning, pulls through gravity like broken glass. 

And there they hang, the bar and plate, all clattering in air, 

Yet shaking violently as if they cannot stay, like leaves

or bells quite badly made, to ring the chimes and iron hours

Of body’s powers, pains, and passing finally away. 

Towards the Pebbled Shore

My Papa took me out the day before

to sit outside the ancient red barn’s door, 

All painted black, and sliding back to shut. 

He told me I was helping him out, but 

I couldn’t help but feel he wanted me 

To witness something. I was there to see. 


The barn’s inside was dim, and cellar-cool. 

Its walls were lined with seed-bag, wire and tool;

The floorboards wide, unvarnished, roofbeams barked.

One long swift century had weathered, marked

It for its own. The sun outside showed all 

The colors of the world there were. The ball

I played with sat still in the north field’s green

Long blades, bright rubber blue. The sheen

Of light struck firmly off each branch and stone

And gave each thing a presence all its own, 

And lit the rock wall flaming low with moss,

As coals flame low and heavy in the loss

Of fire in evening. Papa loped out, took

The cockerel by his claws, and with a look

Of concentration laid him down upon 

A stump, quite still. A stroke: the head was gone. 


It fell down flat, heraldic, violently;

Beak parted, tongue out, crowing silently. 

One eye looked up; alone, to watch the sky, 

The other gazed at earth. The pool and dye 

Of blood, much brighter red than you would think

Dripped down the empty ruff, in squib and plink

Into the metal bucket, drops of jewels 

Upon a field. Invert, above these pools, 

The bag of muscles twitched just where it was. 

The dead bird’s gray pin feathers and gray fuzz

Soon littered all the lawn. The entrails out, 

The feet off, Papa turned the bird about

And carved at each distinct and white-pink joint. 

I stood and shuffled, looking at one point

At ground and sky, and back again as well,

Made nervous by the casual, wholesome smell

Of cockerel’s blood and feathers in the air. 


I grabbed a quill, and put it in my hair.

At that age, I could barely think or talk;

But still some thing as round and firm as rock,

And yet as broad and moving as the gust

Of wind that blew that day came as it must;

Yet everything retained its form and color

And multiplied its mass; no shade was duller.

I knew myself as something with a shore, 

Where water laps and freely spills. Before

I thought myself the world, some kind of all

Without circumference, gravity, or fall. 

Samson’s Riddle – At Saint So-and-So’s – Caravaggio Catching Fireflies

MICHAEL YOST is a teacher, freelance essayist and poet. He lives in rural New Hampshire with his wife and two sons.

Samson’s Riddle

From the stench of rotting hide,

From the hot and muscled weight of death,


From the hunter’s tawny jaw,

From the ancient eater’s mottled mouth,

            Comes wealth of peace;


Comes a city from the open side,

Comes the hum of honeyed breath,

Comes the transformation of the law,

Comes the manna in the drouth,

            From all decease.

At Saint So-and-So’s

Highway traffic scores and hums

Beneath the Sabbath hymnody.

Laymen in tropic shirtsleeves come

Their wives in wireless fidelity arrayed.

The seating is precise, the manners casual.

Grins and handshakes are exchanged

Inside the sanctuary gate as usual.

Outside, Escalades and Honda Pilots range.

The Victim crouches on his cross an hour,

Tired as an aging wall-flower,

Who will not speak to the rotarians

Any more than Pharisees or Arians.

He turns with an embarrassed groan

Towards the altar, with its flower pots

And the altar boys, their hair well combed

Whose sagging bodies tell their wandering thoughts.

Soon these will return to the world they know;

Soon ever and again they will return

To low-calorie beer, boutiques, and late night shows,

To spread-sheets, focus-groups, and therapists in turn.

They will leave the cobwebbed well

And wander through the desert’s stations

For gross are the hearts of the nations

And uncultivated is the soil.

Caravaggio Catching Fireflies

As the sunlight fades and dies, Caravaggio catches fireflies

amid chiaroscuro, and the studio light;

With pestle reforms fire into night

Cups the light, turns alchemist, and drinks

Converting it to darkness as the daylight sinks.