On Holy Ghost: An Interview with David Brazil

The first poem that drew my attention in David Brazil’s Holy Ghost was one of the last in the book. “The Year That King Obama Died” is a dazzling and heartbreaking recasting of Isaiah’s call to prophecy and his vision of the heavenly throne, substituting Obama for the sickly profane king of the biblical text. I had kept company with the Isaiah text for a few good years while working both on my doctorate and what I called my “shadow doctorate” with David and with other Bay Area poets. I wanted to find a way to enter into that rich and associative conversation again with David to mark and celebrate his new book, and take up some of the echoes of our past conversations. We decided to frame our conversation (now going back and forth between Oakland and Tel-Aviv, where I now live) by the somewhat arbitrary temporality of the omer counting. Omer in Hebrew is a measure for counting wheat, and the omer signifies the 49 days counted between Passover and Shavuot (or roughly, Easter and Pentecost), the time between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest — and in ritual-memory-time, the time between the Exodus from Egypt and the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

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YOSEFA RAZ: There are lots of points of entry for me into your luminescent work: Ezekiel, Isaiah, Obama, dachshunds, wedding veils, Christ in Oakland/Zion, almonds at the port shutdown … but can we start with song?

 I’m particularly moved tonight reading these lines in “Thirty-Six”:

so a song a mother sang is in
your ear two decades hence as

one lost charm of what a love may be when
you’re in need of it.

Can we take these as a gate into the kind of work you’re doing, making these songs as kind of bread crumbs left along the way of love or liberation, making us these untimely rhymes?  

DAVID BRAZIL: Dear Yosefa, thank you for your inauguration! Which day of the Omer is this, the fourth? It’s already getting away from us!

Every year on Easter Monday I re-read Ted Berrigan’s collection Easter Monday, whose title poem concludes with the line: “Give not that which is holy to dog” (speaking of dachshunds!). Even in this poet mostly known for talky urban savoir-faire the scripture is still refracted. (Frank O’Hara has a poem called: “St. Paul and All That.”)

No doubt something lives in language, and in transmission itself, that represents its kernel or potential. I grew up going to seders with almost no content — we didn’t use a haggadah, no Hebrew was spoken, and the seder plate’s zeroa was a clay lamb shank my mother made in grade school. It’s lost now, except for my telling you about it, like the Baal Shem Tov story that Scholem recounts at the end of Major Trends [paraphrased here]:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and mediate in prayer — and what he had set before him to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers — and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs — and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he had told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

I’m really in love with the line from Frank O’Hara poem: “such little things have to be established in the morning / after the big things of the night.” There is a lot of establishment of little things in the morning in your book, getting up again after all the spiritual or political upheavals. I think I’ll do a bit of divination to get me started by opening your book at random. Okay, so, “My Wife, Her Phone:”

My wife she slept
as in a frieze

and dreamt a dream
she could not seize 

and there beneath
her cover lay

in still and peace
for just this day

and in that room
we called our own

came slight sonatas
from the phone

I like that you’ve managed to situate the phone within myth, within spiritual life…there is something humble about this ceaseless work (you write earlier) “Any bit of tune will do/ to work this opening of the heart.”

It reminds me of how right outside my house in Oakland, the summer before Occupy, you spotted some words etched into cement: New Egypt.  Then my house became the “New Egypt” campus for our study: German for Kafka, Minor Prophets. Office-hours: Now-Time.

It’s very gratifying to me that you approach Holy Ghost with bibliomancy, since the book was designed to be used in that way. What is there to say about the phone? A kabbalist of my acquaintance, with a young son named after the angel of healing, spoke almost despairingly about the future available for his child and said, “I mean … the phones.” He could have spoken about nuclear war, environmental devastation, proto-fascism — but it was the phones.

In your quotation from “Holy Ghost Tune,” you dropped part of the line: “Any bit of tune will do / to work this work of opening the heart” — a syntax whose internal accusative strikes me as pretty Semitic and therefore a residue of our study together.  Is there really no fixed grammatical description for the phenomenon of the emphatic infinitive followed by finite verb?  I guess I always call it the “dying he shall die” construction.

I guess “New Egypt” is still there in the concrete, unless they’ve repaved the driveway.  There’s something connected with recognizing what’s already there as our prophetic basis — we had to see, say, and share what had already been put in place for the campus to become true, for a moment anyway.

I always have to pray in the morning, these days, as my basis for anything else. As soon as I open my eyes I say the shema, like it says in Berakot.

So sorry for the delay. This Omer counting is turning into a counting of the days I don’t count Omer. Negative space Omer counting.

I asked you about the holy ghost and am thinking about rhymes, and the Semitic construction, I thought of mot yumat, but of course that’s the one you have in your head too. “Die he will die.” The infinitive absolute (in Hebrew makor = origin) + the imperfect. There must be a better name for it, but it points also to the Hebrew love/tolerance for word repetitions, Martin Buber called them leitworten, the theme that is worked through words with the same roots appearing in the same passage. For example, the way in which the words blood-red-Adam-earth-Edomite (dam-adom-adam-adama-edom) work through the first part of Genesis. Do you think your sometimes almost deliberately stiff rhymes echo this kind of meaning-making through what is quite a humble rhetorical figure?

What do you mean you designed the book to be used in bibliomancy? How does one design for that? What kind of deliberate decisions did you make? 

As I was walking home getting ready for this virtual conversation, I thought, I should ask him about being a Christian, becoming a Christian. I love that I am sitting in my apartment in Tel Aviv, but it is through imagining your Oakland that I am imagining the New Jerusalem. 

Your reflection on “negative space Omer counting” speaks directly to the conflict of temporalities in which we are living: the holy time of the Omer and the profane time of, well, capitalism. Lauren Levin gave a great reading in Oakland last year in which she spoke about the so-called double time scheme in Othello — the play appears to have two different, irreconcilable temporalities at work in it.

When I think back to my mother, of blessed memory, I am pretty sure that I can remember her lighting sabbath candles exactly once in my childhood. But that, I suppose, was sufficient — like Scholem’s retelling of the Baal Shem Tov story. I was thinking about liturgy-degree-zero (with no content except its transmission itself, the taking-place as the communication — a theme Agamben inherited from Benjamin) at Passover this year.  I grew up going to seders with no haggadah, no liturgy, no songs — just the seder plate and the afikomen and gefilte fish.  But that was enough to get me interested in the fact that there was such a thing as tradition.

You say “stiff rhymes” (of Holy Ghost) and I wonder if you could give a specific example for us to talk about? I’m interested in the aesthetic judgments we bring to bear around rhyme, seeing as it’s a basically inoperative technique in contemporary poetry (and yet alive and well in most all of the contemporary music people listen to). There’s a line from Vergil about a royal garment “stiff with gold” that I’m also thinking about since you brought up that adjective.

I’ll think about how to answer your bibliomancy question! And I will tell you something about being a Christian, if God gives me the opportunity. It has to do with grace. 

Okay, “Holy Ghost Name.” I love this poem! The appearance, the scene of revelation, that repeats so often in prophetic calls:

so try to say,
so try now to say,
what it was you gathered there at
point of most appearance, giving
sense as the gift to our reckless poverty,
losing letters of the name so that I
wanna know,
I really wanna know,
how it was o how o how o how it was,
o how o how o how did I get over,
how I got over

I mean it could almost read as (only) a private epiphany: the self addressing the self, the poet trying to gather together a sense of coherence and meaning in the mind, in the composition of the poem. But it is also the holy ghost talking, or being addressed, gathering the name — that comes to Moses at the burning bush for example. What’s it like to inhabit the prophetic mode, for you?

The reckless poverty in “Holy Ghost Name” also reminds me of the “splendor in humility” (our kabbalistic theme for this omer-day) which returns me to my question about rhyme somehow — the rhyme which is both a sign of poverty/humility but also, as you mentioned “stiff with gold.” You asked for a specific example. Well, what about “Slave Song”?

Kingdom weathers
cool and breezy
says that o my
yoke is easy

The words are short, and the rhymes seem easy: breezy/easy; speeches/ reaches; slave/grave; eyes/rise. I wish I had better vocabulary for rhyme, but these don’t seem like slanted or half rhymes? What are they called — masculine rhymes? The words being one or two syllables —  it’s hard to melt into the language. It must be the meter too: it sounds like iambic tetrameter broken up by the lines into two parts. As opposed to places where the language becomes more casual and folksy (for want of a better word) this is really formal, this is stiff brocade. I wonder if the laws of rhyme have anything to do, for you, with the laws of behavior and ethics, with halacha? And the place that the meter breaks a bit

my tongue’s broke on
kingdoms speeches
far as Pharaoh’s
army reaches

reminds me of Moses’ stutter, which makes me think that the fissures in the scene of revelation go way way back, turtles (and broken tongues) all the way down (to the root of language).

Also, do you think that the story Scholem tells is sad?

I don’t think the Baal Shem Tov / Scholem story is sad at all — more like absolutely hopeful. We can take everything with us, which is good, because we will have to. Did you ever read Peter Sloterdijk’s Derrida, an Egyptian? Actually one of the best things I’ve ever read on Derrida, and short, and relevant to this question I think. Is it too much to say: a phenomenology of language as exile? People die and we carry their names with us, like Joseph’s bones.

The mystery of prophecy, particularly in the Abrahamic traditions, remains live for me both as an object of study and a devotional attention. Talmud, in part quoting Torah, says that never again did a prophet like Moses arise in Israel, for the subsequent prophets saw God as though through a glass darkly.

Of course I believe in God, who speaks through his servants the prophets, and I am blessed to be connected with the Oakland school of prophets, which is not a metaphor. This relates to faith-life and justice-work, and I am slowly figuring out what it means regarding linguistic art, both in poetry and in prose. Mostly this year I’ve been publishing theological reflections on white supremacy, which is also a prophetic mode. But of course you and I have Blake in common, and prophecy wasn’t a metaphor for him either. He reported, of his encounter with Isaiah, that the prophet declared: “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” Getting honest is the hard part, in the midst of white-supremacy-settler-colonialism-patriarchy-capitalism and the litany of evils toward which the yetzer ha-ra leads us. Take your evil impulse to the schoolhouse, like they say.

“Slave Song” is, in fact, a song, so I think part of its metrical and riming character comes from this. If you have the broadside, the notation is printed on it. I sang it in the Poetry Room at City Lights — the reading is here and that poem starts at 23:00. Somewhere in “A,” Zukofsky talks about how his father grew simple.  I think this song is simple, and it’s OK to be simple.

Laws of rhyme have everything to do with both halacha and grace. I’m glad you brought it up. I think the first thing we ever talked about was the prophetic stutter? What can we do but stutter?

I’m actually writing to you at a profane, perverse, terrible time . . . slaughter taking place every time I refresh the news on my screen.

I walked home through throngs celebrating Israel’s winning of the Eurovision, from inside Pharaoh’s hardened heart.  Everyone covered in flags and glitter.

The poems take on more urgency when I hear them read aloud, and also good to hear your actual voice and the New York in it which is more familiar than I realized! I guess I always heard a bit of my family in your voice when we spent time together in California but didn’t realize it.

One thing I’m learning about Omer counting (and maybe it’s about rhyme too?) is something about the tension between this artificial counting 7 X 7 which exists through our correspondence, through the frame at least given to our correspondence, and the events of the world which start and end without any regularity . . . nothing you can count ahead of time, count or account for. 

I was thinking about what I want from our conversation in the next few days, what else we need to say and talk about. I think one of the centers of the book for me “The General Strike/ The Entry of Christ into Oakland.”

Now I’m so glad that I walked with you & that
  I will have walked.
We stood there in the perfect places, we
  sat down & we ate almonds.
We shut that motherfucker down.

The New York in my voice modulates depending on where I am. It really comes back when I return to the place of my nativity, which it would be a mistake at this point to call home. As I reflect theologically on the harms of settler-colonialism that afflict both our places, and both our souls, I wonder what it means to really be from a place anyway. And what does it mean to stand where we are, unrighteously, but humbly seeking atonement? Is this the contemporary call of Micah 6:8? And isn’t this supposed to be about poetry? But, well, wasn’t Micah a poet too? And Amos, who we read once in your living room on the New Egypt campus, Oakland, with a bunch of other exiles now disseminated to God knows where?

We’re reading and preaching Exodus at Agape, the community church I co-pastor with Sarah Pritchard. It’s mostly focused on white America as Egypt, a hard word for our predominantly European-descent congregation. What it means to read these narratives, so often interpreted according to the imperatives of a triumphalist nationalism, against the grain, points up the life-and-death stakes of hermeneutics, and reminds us that, like the shepherds who followed the star, we can always go another way. Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

For those who were there at the General Strike, the mythic did enter lived time, and continues to dwell there. Your writing brought back for me so well my own experience of cresting the rise and seeing that endless stream of people. Something happened in my heart that day. I didn’t say or teach a blessing, but something in me was prepared to be able to do so. God works in time, despite what humans do. We ought to remember, and tell someone about it. Or: “Not with you alone am I making this covenant and other, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not here with us today.”

These distances are relations, like Shavuot when the Law came and Pentecost when the Spirit descended in tongues of fire. What if the law is the spirit? But then again you’re the one who taught me in grammar that there are indeed two Jerusalems. Saint Paul knew it too, poor bastard.

On April 8, 2011 (I discover from my email), Matt Vollgraff sent me a JSTOR copy of Gershom Scholem’s article “On Jonah and the Concept of Justice.” In the months before Occupy Oakland, just as I was coming to be friends with you, long before we knew anything that would happen, I read: “In just actions, the messianic realm is immediately erected.” Righteous and peace kiss? Cold comfort to those grieving the losses in this Omer season, perhaps. But deciding to live in love despite the sin of this world sends us back to a prayer that the Lord would unbind our tongues, to say or stutter some prophetic word, a warning, or, God help us, praise.

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