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Satanic Verses?

Book Review: Ghost Pain by Sydney Lea


You don't often meet Satan in modern poetry. Generally relegated to fire-and-brimstone sermons and movies with too many special effects, the personification of evil seems like a relic of a more superstitious age. But not in Vermont poet Sydney Lea's "666: Father of lies." The devil appears there in person, albeit with "no cape no horn no swinging tail." Instead, the protagonist sees:

Fastfood franchise manager, maybe frogflesh middle, lividity, polyester shirt,

petty authority's manner: smirk upon smirk.

The devil is here in his classic role as tempter: The poem's protagonist, an unnamed "man," is an alcoholic experiencing a dark night of the soul. In "Dry drunk: the rowing," the "father of lies" appears again, enticing the newly sober hero to fall off the wagon:

The polyester devil offered a steaming toddy,

Vodka-clean, warmed on his backyard grill

In a beaker shaped like an owl . . .

A thoroughly modern incarnation, the "polyester devil" mocks the idea of truth and works on his victim's insecurities, parroting the "jargon" of recovery movements: "paranoia, depression, anxiety, guilt." Yet the protagonist is convinced that "Truth for all its battering by him / crouched in his mind's dim den." Eventually, given time and a reverent attentiveness to the natural world, the "battered" truth emerges. "Every- thing out in the Yankee woods / recalled the hour of its creation, / and even dying, declared it good," Lea writes, describing the "man"'s epiphany in "Talent from birth."

A modern salvation narrative, peppered with biblical language and allusions, is a lot for a poet to pull off. Newbury author Lea knows what he's doing: He is the founder and former editor of the New England Review and the author of seven previous poetry collections -- one a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His spiritual concerns are firmly rooted in the physical world -- a world that's beautiful and grotesque, amusingly wanton and terrifyingly random. It's a world where a rural drunk can come into a recovery meeting and sum up his life by saying, "We found the bottom of stupid and dug us a hole" (in "Hole"). We grin at the wit of his metaphor even as we flinch from the suffering it conveys.

Ghost Pain comes in three sections. In the first, "Was Blind But Now," Lea gives us poems with an autobiographical cast -- snapshots of a violent childhood, vignettes of life in a rural Vermont town. Their dark undercurrent reaches the surface in "Epidemic," a catalogue of the poet's friends and relatives who have been struck by cancer. Here, as often in the volume, Lea questions the potential of mere words to measure up to the realities he's describing.

I incline to think my life wasted in trying to say the unsayable, hunting new words for old

catastrophes and not screaming to something for what, not much, I'm worth, Save them.

That questioning turns to despair in the second section, entitled "A Man Walked Out," in which the poet's "I" vanishes and is replaced by the potential everyman figure of the title. Lea starts this section with an old joke -- "A man walked into a bar" -- that quickly becomes a briskly gruesome narrative of drinking oneself blind. From there, we follow "the man" through his struggles with the devil and a childhood memory in which he asks where the soul goes after death and is told "Ask the Old Indian." The enigmatic figure comes to represent his hope of transcendence. Though that hope is fulfilled by the end of the poem cycle, the man's battle is far from over.

In the third section, "Broken Haven," the poet's first-person voice returns, and his subjects again become more diverse, though there's no mistaking the unifying themes. While the phrase "broken haven" appears to refer to a church, Lea leaves no doubt that even a broken haven is better than none. The book ends with a beatific description of a concert in Prague's Church of St. Francis.

Stylistically, Lea does perhaps the most important thing for a modern poet -- he keeps the readers attentive by keeping them on their toes. Some poems are conversational, adopting slang and the language of no-nonsense rural folk -- "crazy as a landlock loon," for instance. Others sprawl long sentences across enjambments and incorporate latinate words that sound like literal translations from French: "enounced," "pelage." (Ghost Pain also includes several actual translations of acerbic, tantalizing prose poems by the 20th-century French surrealist Henri Michaux.)

Lea experiments with rhyme, as well: Some poems are blank verse, others waver between full rhyme and assonance or consonance, and many end decisively on a rhyming couplet. The best poems take us from "poetic" to colloquial language and back in a few sentences.

The imminence of death, the insufficiency of words, the beauty of nature and the solace of religion are hoary themes for poets. By showing us the grit inside the beauty, the predators who prowl the natural landscape and the devil inside the man -- a "polyester devil," no less -- Lea makes them new. He also offers something to a culture in which religious believers and skeptics increasingly regard one another with suspicion. Readers who have come to associate "finding God" with the smarm of televangelists may be struck by the image of a congregation in "Ghost Pain":

We're easy to mock, and aren't we hypocrites, you ask?

Nowhere does faith claim we're not.

Hypocrisy comes with the territory:

being human.