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Lyrics of the Crossing
by Michael S. Judge
$23.50 730pp. ISBN 978-1-879193-28-4
In America, history and myth are forced to share the same land. America isn't the answer to impossible questions, just the result of their friction. We live on terrain permanently ripped between historical malpractice and millennial ambition. We're a myth constantly collapsing into actual atrocities--a dream with the power to kill.
As we export our dreams for the world to consume, the world finds American sleep a hazmat, its half-life apparently eternal. "And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget / falls drop by drop upon the heart / until, in our own despair, against our will, / comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." Thus Robert Kennedy, misquoting Aeschylus onto the murder of Martin Luther King, two months before his own assassination.
This astonishing novel, vast, visionary, and grieving, is ambitious beyond any we've ever published. It aspires to tapestry the inner life of our American experiment in its three threads: despair, wisdom, and grace. Despair: each individual trauma as a local case of our national pathology. Wisdom: the ineradicable record of our wrongs. Grace, the awful grace of god: a mythic disclosure that cannot lie, though it can destroy. These three strands, and their mangled topology, are Michael S. Judge's Lyrics of the Crossing.
Review by R.M. Haines:In language at once feral and precise, condensed and protean, the voice speaking to us in Lyrics of The Crossing has amassed within itself the cosmologies, histories, taxonomies, and legitimizing deceits of multiple civilizations. The voice has grown at once diseased and pregnant-- cancerous-- with this content, and so intones on into the world night, possessed of a rare vigilance that has moved past horror and despair, arriving at a vision that borders on the prophetic.
The experience of reading the book is singular. First, one notices the style. The language exceeds itself, suggesting whole constellations of fugitive significance: "Or else spines planted in a row. With topknots severed, so the wind can make them bleat a ram's-horn summons" (28). This and countless similar passages call to mind the visionary intensities of Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, or, more recently, Will Alexander. And yet it is difficult to overstate just how intentional, controlled, and definite this work is. This is no mere surrealist play, no free associative stream: this is a mind that actually thinks in images. Moreover, it does so without succumbing to its own conclusions (or vapidly delighting in its surfaces). That is to say, this is poetry. Choosing a passage nearly at random, I discover a language of extraordinary purity and mythopoetic resonance: "As when a baby's unclosed skull butts up against the first thing tuned to different mothers' warmth. And realizes that not only is the world made of strange mothers, but that its skull will have to close beneath a storm" (149). As lavish as the language seems at first, this is in fact a concrete description of the fontanelle; and this rootedness in the tangible intensifies the way one comes to imagine the "storm" the skull closes beneath (as consciousness, biology, history, etc.). Thus, despite the language's electricity and range, its connection to the tactile is a source of its genius. So much of the pleasure of this book is in allowing the force of this imagination to transform one's eye.
Above all, Lyrics of the Crossing is a profoundly informed and staggeringly imagined indictment of America. In this, it is very American. And yet its idea of America is radical: "Because there are no nationalities except American and Failed American; there are no countries but America and What-Should've-Been-America." One thinks of Burroughs' Thanksgiving prayer and his assessment of America as "the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams." Certainly, the narrator of this book is possessed of a similar severity and moral acuity. In one of the more harrowing passages:
"We read from an American holy book, The Anthology of Burned Women. Each entry concerns four things: her crime, i.e. where she forced our dreams; how the burning married her to her crime; how we performed quick surgery afterwards for the correction; how the burning casts a longer thicker smoke than even the crime that provoked it. We read The Anthology of Burned Women to figure out how we got here and why we're full of women's ashes." (495)
Out of context, the passage has the compressed genius of a parable. And yet it leads onward into denser and deeper things. In fact, the book is overfull with such wisdom, twisting against itself, exceeding and annihilating itself as it goes.
Ultimately, the eye of power finds a mirror in these words capable of reflecting it back with equal force -- of performing a reciprocity of empire, of failed civilization, of lies. One would *hope* that such reflection might awaken power and allow it to slough off what binds it in sclerotic repetition. And yet all hope here is provisional and threatened with the specter of its own degradation: "Hope that one's hope isn't hope for the wrong thing." I don't know how many people will want to look into what is reflected here, or how many will know what they see; however, I think anyone who claims an interest in art's activity within history, and who is sensitive enough to register the power of myth for articulating the world we have inherited, owes it to whatever god they have commerce with to buy and read this.
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