Holy Ghost by David Brazil / City Lights Books / 9780872867147 / 113 pages / May 2017
Originating with the poststructuralists (Derrida and The Gift of Death being one example), then reaching a sort of apex in Badiou’s Saint Paul, the religious turn in continental philosophy continues to garner interest. And despite valid criticism of the “movement,” there is no denying that the work produced under its banner forces us to question orthodox Marxist assumptions about faith. This is to say, the adherents—broadly speaking—have an urge to (re)assert faith’s political dimension, some even suggesting that it might inform, rather than impede, radical politics.
Might we find a similar urge among our contemporary poets? Of course, poetry has always concerned itself with faith, in both a narrative and thematic sense; one has to look no further than the trinity of Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth. But what differs between these poets and the type of poet being proposed is that, for the latter, religious allusion directs us towards the future, not towards some idyllic past. There is perhaps no one more well-versed in this future tense than David Brazil, a Bay Area pastor-cum-activist-cum-poet, whose recently published collection, Holy Ghost, takes as its central question faith and the role it must take in any revolution, poetic or otherwise.
In order to begin constructing a more radical future, it may be necessary to outline the order of things in the present; the poem “An Unopened Letter From Diane de Prima” seems to reference the brutal ousting of Occupy protestors from Frank Ogawa Plaza and Snow Park, events Brazil would have presumably experienced first-hand:
Lord defend from their clubs & their poisons,
from them who strike in dark of night,
from them who wound the ones who sleep unarmed.
Lord keep us safe from their armies of death.
This emphasis on the now, however, opens up Holy Ghost to a particular critique, namely that it gets bogged down in its presentism, ultimately exhibiting characteristics of what has come to be called the “New New York School”— incessant name-dropping, obsession with celebrity, the banality of a type of “I did this, I did that” narrative one would typically associate with poet-dandies like Andrew Durbin and Ben Fama, among others. We see this in the very first poem of the collection, “Prayer”:
Prayer for the soul of John Lennon
Prayer for the soul of Barnett Newman
Prayer for the soul of Frank O’Hara
Prayer for the soul of kari edwards
Prayer for the soul of Stacy Doris
Is Brazil, like the New New York poets, reducing poetry to a list, one that merely functions as a way for him to broadcast his cultural cachet, that is to say, his brand? I would say no, and that by placing this poem at the beginning of the collection, Brazil is instead foregrounding the somewhat banal, but nonetheless pertinent, question: is presentism the de facto religion of our late-capitalist society?
A resounding “yes” would be his short answer, and this is where the future once again enters the conversation; if we are met with a system that so totally incorporates the present, then it is evident that we must turn towards something else in order to ensure radical change. And as the past has, by definition, already been lived, acting as source from which we can draw inspiration, no doubt, but never as something moldable in and of itself, we must instead look towards what is to come. Underlying such a turn is the explicit assumption that the times we occupy, are, in fact, the worst of times:
O song how shall I pay the rent
O sun how shall I eat
And shall I get back what I spent
On whiles and winds and wheat
O bird how shall I pay the tithe
O day what shall I sell
To have enough to feed myself
And some for you as well
This is the core of any (good) leftist praxis, the same core that participants in the religious turn—as well as Brazil—have thrust back into the collective imagination: perhaps the bulk of our efforts should not be spent on petty inner disputes but rather on spreading the message that capitalism is unsustainable and that a new system can arise if we believe, faithfully, that it can. A platitude, perhaps, but one that is increasingly relevant in a time when Trump has already weaponized his own call to the future (albeit one tainted by incessant references to the past).
If I were to suggest a canonized figure in the English tradition that Brazil might compliment, it would be Milton, which is not to say that there is some sort of affinity between the two poets in terms of biographical detail or formal ingenuity; one would be hard-pressed to find historical similarities between the English Civil War and our contemporary fight against corporations, nor could one really compare Milton’s carefully constructed blank verse with the free verse of Brazil. Rather, I would suggest that both poets recognize the privileged position faith must take in an any sort of revolutionary act. While Milton reminds us to that hell can be made into a heav’n, Brazil turns our gaze towards the future: “[t]he joy that comes, the world that comes, ensemble.”