Poetry Book: Daimonia. Poems 1997-2001
Allahabad: Cyberwit. 2019. 312 pages
This volume of poetry follows a clear line of thought which describes the shattering of a solid belief system, and attempts to rebuild and reshape it. In its five sections, it moves through the stages of
This book thus takes a more specialized approach than the
previous one, Life as We Know It (Cyberwit, 2019), which meant to
showcase a wider topical reach. Furthermore, the current volume contains five
longer poems called "syllogies" - as a written word analogue to a symphony. I
will address several relevant themes and key poems in the following.
The main theme is, of course, faith - faith not just in
religion, but authorities, truth, states, everything. This could be called the "Sturm
und Drang" ("Storm and Stress") phase of my poetry that breaks with rhyme and
traditional forms, but codifies new ones. There is use of stream of
consciousness, postmodern word plays, and a cacophony of languages. The use of old
languages like Ancient Greek and Latin is a play on both the breakup of
language, but also on the theme of authority - as the former imperial languages
of Rome, they still hold some importance in Western culture. My use of these
languages fulfills two purposes: firstly, to pay homage to the old ideas, which
are expressed in the respective languages, but secondly, to invoke them in a
ritualistic fashion almost like magic, just as the "Requiem" poem quotes
directly the parts of the Latin mass which form the basis of its meditations.
A second theme is dreams or dreaming, which is related to
glimmers of hope in the chaos, to hoping for a better world, or even trying to
find a way out, but also, in a more nightmarish fashion, almost yielding to the
notion that hope might very well be lost, and dreams might constitute the last
refuge for the lyrical I.
Part One, Certainty, depicts faith with clarity,
sincerity, and matter of fact; not with fervor, but the stability and calmness
that unshaken belief can bring.
"DREAMS DEEP DOWN" is part of a series of nine poems
(my Ennealogy) that is formally very coherent, and thematically prefigures some
of ensuing themes in this book.
"REQUIEM" of course stands for alignment with
Catholicism, but also for a serious reflection on mortality, on guilt, sin,
inner demons, and the role of religious hope. We'll return to the topic of
demons later. The section ends with a deeply sarcastic (or not?) depiction of
faith-based utopia in "THE DREAM."
Part Two, Introspection, begins to question reality,
and to focus eventually on the absurdity and overwhelming nature of life in the
face of the sublime - which can be a reflection of G-d, the divine, or simply a
nature that is bigger than us. Such a realization has the potential to break
us, and to shift our understanding of everything.
We open with an exercise in ancient script by illustrating
the "BOUSTROPHÊDON" approach to writing - where at the end of the line,
on the right of the page, the next line also begins on the right, facing left,
with letters turned the other way, writing just like an ox (bous) would
plow a field by making a turn (strophê) and changing direction. The
theme of the poem is turning and the sense of some change.
What follows is my largest poem to the date of its finishing
(with about 10000 words) - now, 2019, only my sixth largest. I will spend some
time introducing the formal structure here, as it will be helpful for
understanding the text and the motivation behind it. (see also: Building the Climax)
"KΛIMAΞ / CLIMAX" means ladder, but of
course also climax. Size for its own sake does rarely matter, if at all. Yet
sometimes, you need size, you need weight, you need impact - sometimes, you
need to unleash it all with utter might and force, laying out a tapestry of
thoughts and forms overshadowing all previous things, and all what had been
done till this point will look pale and shallow and small in the grasp of this
There are two different thoughts behind the making of "Klimax".
The first is delivering something like a climax indeed; building the mountain
top towards which all other things are oriented. The second premise is
thematical, and it is expressed in the subtitle of the poem: De Sublimitate
- On the Sublime. My aim was to create something to reflect the madness,
the insanity, the utter might which such a topic would have to conjure up.
The result is frightening indeed: more than 10'000 words,
forced into an artificial and oddly balanced five-part super-structure, mixing
various styles and drawing from various story threads I had come up till then.
It is situated within my third phase of poems under the theme of "Chaos kai
Nomos - Chaos and Order", and plays on both these concepts.
To achieve such size, it is necessary to provide a poem with
a structure able to carry such weight. Size for its own sake is not a
worthwhile argument, but for "Klimax", size meant something very specific:
The size reflects the topic of sublimity. Only
within a certain size can a specific topic of a certain complexity be treated
Size allows for more freedom, ideas need not be
compressed too much, I can take my time in developing a thought pattern.
In relation to this, there is more room for
experimentation on the formal level. The larger the body of text, the more
representative can be the result for a specific style; it can also carry a
certain idea of aesthetics.
A larger text can be more independent from the
rest, it develops a gravity of its own.
The larger form fosters a more open, direct
style, moving away (and setting itself apart) from the riddled-language
fortune-cookie kind of poetry that's so common in everyday culture. That
underlines a second genre-transcending impulse of mine, creating something like
an essayistic or meditative poetry.
The five-act structure is motivated by my interest in the
classical theater play, as well as classical music, where I prefer the
I then had the idea of a mathematical twist. Act one would
be the core piece, the actual treatise on the sublime. The thematic background
for the entire treatise partly follows Burke's essay "A Philosophical Enquiry
into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful."
Act I would need a sub-structure within itself. I decided
for a three-part structure with a prologue and epilogue and an in-between. The
central idea was to create a mathematical matrix with the determinant being
zero, alas an ironic play on the content: Even though there are many, many
words uttered, the result is empty. (Though it may seem tempting, even though I
name the act "Matrix", it has nothing to do with the famous movie as such; the
mathematical component has been the key motivator.)
I wanted the elements of the matrix within a column to
rhyme, and ten was the maximum of rhymes I thought bearable. The Greek
numbering even allowed for the first column (Haze, Maze &c) to rhyme with
its title (heis=one). I only wanted half a matrix: it was sufficient to
prove my point with the determinant. I also liked the graphical component of
decreasing intensity. So the matrix itself would form steps, a play on the
title of the poem, creating a climactic (or anticlimactic) structure. If the
order ("taxis") of the matrix is anticlimactic, the prologue ("prótaxis") was
to be climactic, and it, too, had to climb up ten stairs (ten metric feet to be
achieved by the end). The "epítaxis" could have used a similar logic,
but that would have meant outdoing it, it would have been too predictable, so I
wrote a "normal" stanza, returning to the stairs only in the middle of act two,
and again at the end of act four.
The five-act structure was originally not planned in
advance, but emerged later: "In Dreams" originally was a stand-alone piece, and
I incorporated it only after I recognized it to be the perfect conclusion to "Klimax",
as in the end, I had absolutely no idea of how to end it. So the original
structure has the Protaxis in the beginning and end, and loosely in the
middle (as act three is so short). Sometimes, words have a logic of their own,
and once you set yourself on a path, things seem to fall into place, and all
planning is just theory...
The matrix itself is now executed in the following parts,
with two of them standing out; 1.10 "Days", which will stay empty to make the
calculation work out; and 5.2 "Be", which is a rather erratic piece of
biological terms put together, underlining the physicality, the rawness of
being, the part of the sublime we carry within. The final part, 10.10 "Rise",
starts with resuming the "wake / and make" formula or mantra that will now be a
central part of the story arc throughout my following poems. The epilogue, "Epítaxis",
is less a closer than something pushing forward, again, returning to "wake /
and make", and leading further.
The first interlude, "Clues", explains the mathematical
principle behind the Matrix, and expands on the issue of nothingness. Its
reductionist approach is illustrated by its decreasing structure: the first
stanza has 16 lines and 8 feet (foreshadowing the coming hexameter in the next act),
the second 8, the third 4, the fourth only 2, the fifth 1, and in order to
reduce further, the feet are reduced in the following, from 8 to 4 to 2 to 1.
This half-hearted reduction is reversed in the next act by a
full climax towards an hexameter in the form of
· · - · · - · · - · · - · · - · · -
... which means 6 anapests, equaling a total of 18 feet in the
end. Each stanza will grow both in width (feet) and height (number of lines),
forming a matrix starting with 1*1 leading up to 18*18; and this time, there's
no empty element. Furthermore, all stanzas will have the same end rhyme. The
end rhyme of each stanza is cited in the penultimate feet of the first line of
the next stanza, thus providing an element of continuity (e.g., "Fall - All
will; And kill - And fill out"). The additional feet of the meter are added to
the front: - // · - / · - // · · - &c. The dots in the beginning of a
triplet of stanzas signify the number of "finished" anapests. The structure is
broken up in the middle by an interlude repeating the "wake / and make" (later
translated to Latin as "excita / et face" - while the true imperative for facere
(to make) would be fac, I modify it to the archaic or dialectal form face
to align with the meter).
When I'm already using archaic forms anyway, why not go all
the way in. I've always wanted to write something in Latin, played around with
it a bit in my earlier poem "Breakdown", created the free-association-kind of
translation of the Latin "Requiem", so now it had to be something directly
written in Latin. I already cited Plato's Apology of Socrates in
the "Matrix" part and had also written two smaller sections in Greek. But a
whole part in Latin (and, were it not in the direct context of "Klimax", a
whole poem in itself) would be something entirely different. But why do it at
all? The why is answered in the how: Language is at the center of poetry, and
different languages can express different things differently. If you look
closely at the second interlude, you will see that certain associations are
possible in Latin more than they are in English (like "cades/cecidis/caecatus
es"; and the "sci/audi/vide" paradigm). Thus the desired content in a way
dictates the form; with all the connotations accompanying it.
As form is all-important in the entire poem, the interlude
has a framed structure, framing the content by the words audire (to
hear) and videre ( to see) - the senses in the center of the effects of
the sublime - while scire (to know) is questioned.
The next act, "Descent", is basically content-driven,
resuming my (till then) almost canonical six-stanza rule, though breaking up
rhyme and meter when necessary: Formal elements not having an importance in
themselves, they have to be motivated; once such motivation can only be
artificial, it should fall.
Limbo, the third interlude, is just what is implied by the
title, resuming the tone of Taxis 5.2 "Be" and "Epítaxis." The motto of
the phase, Chaos Kai Nomos / Chaos and Order ("order" in the "nomos" sense of
political, normative order; thus juxtaposing natural self-ordering (chaos) with
culturally imposed order (nomos)), is mentioned directly, followed by a direct
attack upon received hierarchical thinking in religious canons. That may appear
surprising after my more conservative-looking utterances in "Requiem" and my
earlier poems in German, but it isn't really; those are all creative counterpoints;
I despise dogma, and once I cite it, it's always a citation waiting for a
As said before, the form is waiting for a counter-argument;
so the relation between Interlude Four and Act Four looks rather odd size-wise;
the interlude having gained in relation to the act itself. In a motion in favor
of categorial unity, a double-line from "Boustrophêdon" is taken up and varied
(B.: "not the slightest doubt gets lost here / not the slightest piece is mine
dear" Kl.: "Not the slightest piece gets lost here"), thus turning a more
pessimistic tone into a more optimistic one. Thematically, Act Four closes the
treatise as such, and the Interlude becomes more of a conclusion; retaking
previous arguments and bringing them to an end, therefore also being termed a "Remix."
How to conclude? Structurally, thematically, and phase-wise,
"Klimax" is the real break with my well-ordered rhyming earlier poems in my
Phase Two. This needs to be made clear in a more obvious way, so I need to
refer back to the past and create a motion towards the present. The cornerstone
of Phase Two is the Ennealogy Thread (represented in this book by "Dreams Deep
Down", see also philjohn.com), so this is what needs to be cited. Thus the
Remix ends with citing the catch-phrases of said thread: "Dreams Deep Down", "Fire
Walks With Me" (in itself quoting David Lynch's "Fire, Walk With Me" phrase
from Twin Peaks), "Light and Shadow" (with is also meant as a strong
allusion to Manichaeism in general, and specifically Wagner's Ring, Babylon
5, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings) and "Neverwhere", here cited
indirectly by quoting Poe's "Nevermore" from his "Raven."
As the mysteries associated with the dream are the epitome
of the sublime, the final act is called "In Dreams". And so, we begin in the
diction of the Ennealogy, but rapidly breaking the form by breaking both rhyme
and meter. That process of dissolution is assisted by two plays on form again,
in stanza V the first six lines are broken in two (the first half always being "In
dreams it is", the second half having no connection to the first and thus
starting anew with a capital letter), and in stanza VI, again in the beginning,
reducing the phrase further ("In dreams it is" / "In dreams it" / "In dreams" /
"In") while otherwise staying within the formal surroundings of the Ennealogy
(4 iambic meters and 10 rhyming couplets). Stanza V directly refers to the
previous content, taking up the motif of "Blood" from Taxis 5.2 "Be",
referencing to madness (and the Raven) with "Raving" and, finally, with the
obligatory "Wake!" back to the "Prótaxis". Stanza VI now delivers some
sort of transcendental harmony at the end.
The Postludium refers back to the beginning, again resuming
the mathematical impetus behind the matrix (that of emptiness) and ends with
quoting "Fade to Black", the final mentioning of the Ennealogy, the past. So it
is a return back to the point of departure; the poem is forming a circle, a
kind of ouroboros even, a snake eating its own tail.
Part Three, Trauma, illustrates the effect of
life-changing events. Following a succession of smaller poems - "GONE", "LET
IT RAIN", "DOWNWARD SPIRAL" and "HUSH NOW", which are
thematically connected -, "RAP" is an angry piece as a reaction to the
twin tower attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York city - "The stories have
fallen" refers to building stories, as well as stories about the event. It illustrates
the general distrust in established knowledge and authority that continues to
permeate the world after the attacks.
Part Four, Questioning, exposes full force the crisis
of faith that has been brewing since the beginning of this set of poems. "SILENCE"
is an apprehensive counterpoint to what is coming later. You know
the end is near, but you take time to stall in the face of the sublime, of the
inevitable. A few smaller poems, "HIDE", "CAN'T YOU JUST", "PUPPET"
and "INCONNU", are set between the two syllogies and
provide a sense of feelings of fear and insignificance, the need for human
contact, the feeling of being manipulated, and a fragile sense of hope in love
(in French). At last, "FAITH NO MORE" is the demonic scherzo,
similar to the Purgatory in Mahler's 10th symphony. The poem is a no-holds-barred
frustration-fueled rant against the establishment, especially the church. "ACCEPT",
"THE THIRD COMING" and "DISTANT" try to soften the blow, but
maintain the argument. "SEEK OUT" sets the stage for the conclusion.
Part Five, Redefinition, needs to level things out,
but also, like a good Sonata Form symphonic movement, recapitulate the drama
then came before. In "ΔAIMONIA / DEMONS", which is slightly longer
than "Klimax", I follow a polytheistic understanding of gods as daimonia,
forces that are within us. This echoes Socrates' understanding of his "daimonion"
as his inner conscience. Rather than to deal with external agents and
authorities, "Demons" deals with the inner self, and aims at resituating,
redefining the conflict of faith by creating a more wholesome understanding of
human psychology. Finally, "IN ALL MY DREAMS" aims for a hopeful
conclusion to this rather lengthy battle
of the poetic wills.
Thank you, dear reader, for joining me in this undertaking -
I hope you find the effort worthwhile, and that after (hopefully) hypnotic
meters and allusions and streams of consciousness you will have had a chance to
experience a similarly cathartic effect as when I was writing these lines more
than 15 years ago.