BOA Editions ($16)
by Spencer Dew
Able to breed only inside the feline digestive tract,Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite,
that works its way deep up a rat’s brain
and lays its cysts all through the amygdala,
unsnips the dendrites from networks
or instinctive fear that repel
the rat from cat pheromones, and reconnects
the wiring so the rat’s testes swell
with attraction at the smell
What, pray tell, might this have to do with the divine? Questions of this sort drive Bruce Beasley’s inventive collection Theophobia. He glimpses “Eternity / in the tail-whip of gamete, in the condom’s // spermicidal tip,” reads the “scripture & scat” of DNA, and, having Googled the Holy Spirit, performs an exegesis on Its Wikipedia page.
Extremophiles, glossolalia, associative interpretations of numbers, the myth of the miraculous Holy Foreskin of Christ—these possible manifestations of the transcendent share space here with more banal metaphors for purgatory or grace, like the requests ignored by “the robot-voice on the TiVo Customer Service line."
—Live person, I say.
—Hmmnn . . . I’m not sure I got that.
—Would you like to talk with a live person, or continue working with me?
The overlay of registers—a kind of palimpsest between the digital present and the analog past—acts as an engine here, propelling Beasley’s musings on theology and ontology. Yet he manages to keep the reader connected by stitching such abstract and conceptual musings to the recognizable and known. Voicemail messages warning of call volume, popups containing password reset prompts, the vernacular idioms by which we express ourselves in a stuttering resistance of expression: Beasley uses these to gesture at broader philosophical concerns:
He was like, “Fuck off, fuck-
hole,” and I was like, “Like shit
I WILL,” then he was like
We were all
like, not quite
what we were.
for instance, or to return to the interminable time-out-of-time on the line with Tivo:
Because some days being feels
some voice inside the hissing
keeps saying to us (robotic, anachronistic): Reenter the code.
These moments are balanced by references to layers of the religious past: medieval, classical. The poetic voice feels, in one poem, “As if always / in some dim scriptorium . . . / As if scrambling always to catch // up with a cantor’s syntax . . .” while another piece ponders the “mutilated oracle” or a fragmentary text: “Poverty, / saith the moth-eaten Saying.”
“By what schema has the rhapsode stitched together the song”? For Beasley it is, in part, by linking the liturgical and the pedestrian, the language of ritual and references to the de-icing of airplane wings. A “popup / wizard” warns “A new password must contain / more unorthodox punctuation, // punctuations, for the gushed / pneumatology of your going-in” while a break with the past is framed as a covenant with Terminus, “implacable // god of all our severing” sealed via blood sacrifice, an offering of “spleen, red pulp, white pulp, // this sanguinous-formation, this / hematopoiesis and reservoir / of not-yet-re-pulsed blood.”
Beasley has a tendency to go too showy, and occasionally churns out lines that, aiming at clever, code merely as cute. “He’d never really understood the difference / between contractions and possessives / but knew to call a doctor if contractions / came ten minutes apart,” for instance, or the play on the phrases “God is nowhere / or God is now here” or a belabored routine about squid ink and sharks. But sometimes the stretch pays off, and a phrase like “dawnshadows’ undergnarl,” though sheened with sweat, still flexes impressively, as does “Insomniac, what aubadal / song when you don’t wake // having unslept.” And sometimes the frenetic play of sound is precisely what Beasley needs to capture, putting down in poetry the frothy ricochet of religious logic, as in this hyper hermeneutic tackling of the famous signifier 666: “-Cide means kill. As in decide. Six-sided, // inexorable and unstable as a die, the form rehearses and rehearses its hearse-ridden ending.”
This is a book that wrestles with religious forms as well as religious notions, considering religious practice and experience in relation to current-day concerns. This includes not only the putting of lines on paper, but also waiting for customer service or meditating on the grand design of the Toxoplasma gondii lifecycle. A creature of multiple hosts, a parasite bridging predator and prey: T. gondii seems tailor-made for poetic consideration, but what sets Theophobia apart—as a thick, varied, and always thoughtful exercise—is considering such a phenomena as a religious task, revealing of something essential to our understanding of God, as Augustine argued in relation to vipers and worms. And as Augustine looked, too, to the infant suckling its nurse’s breast or the way dreams and memories of eating differ from eating itself, so too Beasley casts a broad net, dredging deep in this important contemporary addition to poetic wrestling with the religious.