Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light
Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2018
Paperback, 90 pages
Reviewed by Michael McKee Green
When Geoffrey Babbitt writes “I’ve never belonged in the center. I am at home in the margins”, he not only speaks about the surface-layer subject in Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light—the history of marginalia in medieval iterations of the Book of Hours—but his own ontology for explicating both his subject and himself. For Babbitt, “existing within margins” is only partly figurative, as the columnar poems place moments of the confessional self (the “I” whose name is Geoffrey Babbitt, who went to Catholic school and “plagiarized in a high school Spanish class”) literally to the side of centered poems on saints and illuminated manuscripts.
In reading Babbitt’s margin-heavy poems, the eye reaches a conundrum first, because the focal points of these poems are prosaic while poems in the margins have sonic flourishes and revelations, and secondly, because the poems are not conventionally legible, given that it is difficult for readers of English to read panels both from left to right and vice versa. However, the reader will almost certainly resolve this conundrum by experiencing these poems as triptychs, a form that becomes Babbitt’s central mode for interrogating and eventually coming to know himself. The history of marginalia in Catholic texts rendered in one panel and the personal history of a formerly Catholic person rendered in another forges a superimposition between the self that has lost faith and details of that faith itself. In one of these margins, Babbitt quotes Michael Camille stating “marginal art is about the anxiety of nomination and the problem of signifying nothing in order to give birth to meaning at the centre.” Camille’s thought illuminates the work of these triptychs, as the prosaic history lessons in the middle panels are imbued with meaning though the (ostensibly) unrelated left and right panels. The sides work as the appendix to contextualize the speaker’s compulsion to write/transcribe the middle columns.
Because the margins of the triptychs often speak to self, they often focus on the speaker’s loss of faith (e.g. “I traded my Catholicism for poetry”)—but loss is never this seamless, especially in a book that does not believe in the firm seams of the page/poem. Babbitt knows this well when he coyly remarks later on in the book “I’m agnostic—except when writing poetry, when I am gnostic”. The faith once held by an altar boy bleeds into an adult poet’s images (e.g. “wing-white clouds” is haunted by the negation of a religious imagery) and volte (e.g. “acknowledging the way—nature folded // into grace” can’t resist turning toward the Biblical). In Reading as Belief, Joel Bettridge suggests that “[e]ach time we read a book we place our hearts on reading—we act in faith, thinking that a certain literary work will provide us with an emotional, philosophical, or even a distracting experience, just as to pray is to have faith that god is there.” Babbitt, throughout this book, is trying to replace the faith he had in a higher power with faith in finding meaning through reading marginalia. Similarly, as his readers, we place faith in Babbitt’s ability to find this meaning, and overcome his antecedent worldview. For example, in order to prove that his newfound faith in reading is a better decision than retaining Catholicism, Babbitt delves into the history of the Catholic Church to point out its ills (even going as far as to write near-elegies for the 3000 dead during a feud between bookmaking saints). And through reading, Babbitt’s shift from faith in God to faith in reading begins to affect his speaker and their speaking, as well as the poems’ subjects and rhetorics. Take this ekphrasis of a 15th century fragment of marginalia:
sprays, gilded ivy leaf,
bryony tendrils, gold pavé
buoyancy—motor cells in
the pulvinus synthesize
bouncing light, con-
vert eye movement, displace
polar auxin transport—
downwarding becomes lift
In this poem, the truncated enjambment of “con / vert” bucks the reader from the text just far enough to offer the word multiple valencies—both letting it reach into the lexicon of Catholicism, but also back into the earlier sections of the book (namely the section stating “missionaries found [margin] illustrations to be powerful tools of conversion because they enhanced the vividness of descriptions”). The slippage of the sign here shows that the agnostic speaker is pushing against their Catholic source. Similarly, “light” contains all the contexts of the sign throughout the book—both the biblical: “‘God is light’ might better be understood as ‘God is to a worshiper as light is to a viewer.’”, and the personally revelatory: “the Vision I had was absolutely terrifying but also humbling and comforting. The extreme intensity of the light. So bright I could feel it in me.” Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light, thus, has its own religious sign-systems that can’t be escaped. Even the flora here, brimming and shifty as it is, cannot be itself without first being read through the inheritances built up by the text/speaker; regardless of it being used as an adjective, “bryony” forces the poem’s temporality to move to European antiquity (not to Babbitt’s childhood home of Idaho or current locale). It seems, as such, that Catholicism remains in the dialectical negation of Babbitt’s loss of faith in it. But and however, rather than passively be trapped in this language, Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light reconciles and reappropriates its Catholic signage, and through this work, Babbitt finds a way to speak as himself with words borrowed from his past worldview, faith, and childhood in order to enter into his new life as an agnostic person who reads and is read faithfully.
The slippage throughout Babbitt’s book can work like Edith Sitwell’s verse, especially in the way she explores faith through similar slipping moments (e.g. “clear angel-face on hairy stalk”). Images (signs) are abstracted and defamiliarized by sharp lineation and wild syntax in both poets’ work. Babbitt:
calfskin soaked in running water—lime
away—lime as long
again—in sun over pumice
…Through gilded trellises
Of the heat, spangles
Pelt down through the tangles
Of bell flowers; each dangles
The musics of both poems are quite similar also, as they both use rhyme and other forms of repetition to offset the difficulty of turning the words into a single image, and both use cesura to cordon signs off from one another and thus force paratactical readings rather than linear ones. Babbitt’s image of vellum being created for an illuminated manuscript and Sitwell’s image of a garden show the emotion of the speaker’s relationship with their subjects rather than the subjects themselves. Both poets are painting with their emotional palettes rather than in photo-realism. However, unlike Sitwell, who works as a poet and collaborator with musicians, Babbitt enters into the hybrid as both curator of documents regarding his subject, generator of his subject—even rewriting bits of the history brushed over—and collaborator with himself as the writer of his own marginalia. Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light, as such, works to explore the self in all its anxiety and inheritance in a way that Sitwell could not in her verse, by virtue of her formality and attention to aesthetic/image without having events, personal narrative, or the triptych Babbitt employs.
The hybrid utilized throughout Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light forges may be more akin to a poet like Edmond Jabès than Edith Sitwell. Virginia Kochan writes of Jabès’ work that it is “poetry that emitted a scream in place of seemly language and a stream of questions in lieu of intractable postulations: poetry that danced between language as signification and language as inscription, or between purely opaque materiality and [what’s] perfectly transparen[t].” This description fits Jabès as well as Babbitt, as both poets redirect the expectations of language being clear or having one purpose, and use form—documentarian writing and the triptych in Babbitt’s case, textuality, the meta and prose in Jabès (e.g. “even the most daring diver could not separate the words in my books from the sentences written in the vast bottom of the sea where any question dies of its questioning”)—to question the word and world rather than feign answers. The line between marginalia and centered poems in Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light works to question the role of marginal versus centered experience, and offers illuminations (or “scream” > “seemly language”) of what one might expect to be brushed aside, just as Jabès centers his role as writer in front of the writing itself. However, because Babbitt’s poetry is filled with documentary. lyric of the highest order, and images of marginalia, rather than just a layer of meta, he is able to build a lattice of ethos to deconstruct Catholicism (using deconstructed and reappropriated signs) rather than just access the self in relation to faith. While Jabès, Sitwell and Babbitt all, in similar methodologies, write toward their own religions by re-centering the self and destabilizing the canon, Babbitt attempts to scrape the gilding of his Catholicism rather than polish it clean. Babbitt transmutes the language he was offered through Catholicism into the language of his readings of margins, and in turn, marginalia: the strophe of the book is transmuted into centerpiece: apostrophe. What else but alchemy or poetry could do that?
Michael McKee Green‘s first book of poems, Fugue Figure (Kent State University Press), was selected by Khaled Mattawa as the winner of the 2017 Stan and Tom Wick Prize. Poems of his appear in journals such as Michigan Quarterly Review, Tagvverk, Fog Machine, and his poem “In Remit” won the Burnam Poetry Scholarship (Judge, Ed Skoog).