review of Opening the Eyelid, poems by David Rattray, pub. by diwan press, 96 pp., ISBN 0‑9627430‑0‑3, $9.95, 161 Eckford, Brooklyn, NY 11222. 1990
I kept thinking of Jim Morrison and the Doors’ “break on through to the other side” as I read David Rattray’s Opening the Eyelid. Reading Rattray’s poetry is like a refresher course in the language of the mind’s eye, which is, after all, the way of the body. Rattray’s poetry is a poetry which opens up the relationships of the human to things through a kind of Brechtian de-familiarization which forces the reader to re-think the relationships of language to things and the relationships of the reader to that language. At the same time it is a seduction brought about by a celebration of the thing-ness of language, its physical pull toward music.
At random I open the book to “Bug Juice.” Rattray orchestrates light, language, and the play between words and the time of light's movement that takes us journeying between the names of the star commonly called Beetle Juice and the sudden insight (or is that in-site?) that we are also composed of starlight:
The star we drank to
was a ghost.
Go ahead, drink me.
Never forget, though,
even while you are wondering
if they're going to
dump you in the ocean as
a mere decade after you hit
a floating needle
in the surf at Wildwood,
that what you really want is
to make smoke water and then blow.
In “Bug Juice” Rattray mentions the butterfly as if pointing toward the poem of the same name that occurs a few pages later. Again the poem is about speed, relationship, the wonderfully revealing qualities of common language, how the “deep image” is often that image most nearly on the surface of consciousness (“I'm at the end of my rope”) that leads to uncommon seeing into the working mind (“She wondered how Phoebus was doing. Was he preparing to blow his brains out...”). The image of the woman yawning is followed with a brilliant revelation, the kind that Pound recognized in the best of imagist poetry, that “The caterpillar’s vows don’t bind the butterfly.”
In the long prose poem called “The Cloud” is the key passage that turns us upon our own capacities for self-realization by its turning our vision toward the most familiar of natural things, allowing us to re-see through re-thinking one of our landscape’s most commonly overlooked wonders: “The only things that even come close now are the golden arches of MacDonald's.” The seemingly trivial event of a leaf hitting the windshield of a moving car is the occasion for the language of celebration:
Stuck to the windshield is a golden leaf. It interrupts the horizon like a golden blimp in a dream intimating that we are leaves which come in the flower season of the year and are each at the point of flying off the branch like a candle flame in a breath of air....
What about the title of this book? When I wrote the first draft of this review I misspelled it; I called the book Opening the Eyelids, plural. I was concentrating on what seemed to me, and still does, the essential revelation of the book: the common experience of seeing is uncommonly marvelous, a way, the Buddha’s way, of salvation. There is a poem in the collection called “Opening the Eyelid,” and there are the necessary clues to why the poet or editor chose to make this the title poem. It is about seeing, spirituality, sexuality. But I find my clue in one of my favorite, and seemingly less ambitious, poems in the book. In “First Human” he joins seeing with saying, with the passivity of looking with its “translation” into the act of speaking, the essential responsibility of speech based on saying what one knows. The poem opens with these lines:
All hell broke loose in kindergarten
That Hallowe’en. Me a third grader put
Back for the day, I’d
Stuck my tongue out through an eyehole of my
Skull mask and wiggled it at the little ones.
When Miss Vollmer smacked me
It wasn’t stars I saw but a blueprint of
Hell does break loose in these poems, our hell, the strangulation of the categories that keep us bound to seeing the ordinary as common. Also, though the young Rattray saw the State, embodied in Miss Vollmer and her attempt to control what is permissible in language, we now see the stars, see how casually, seductively, he controls the construct of his language to make the connection of the mundane to the cosmic.
I have no knowledge of Rattray’s connection with Buddhism or with the Sixties psychedelic scene. A recent issue of intent. (Vol. 2 No. 4/Vol.3 No.1) has a wonderful double page spread of Rattray's translation and explication “Summer Harvest: From the Greek of Valentinus The Gnostic.” It is obvious that Rattray is in the Pound tradition, making the ancient contemporary. Unlike Pound, he is willing to take the risk of making his translation “transparent” by explaining it word for word. The bio mentions that he “works as an editor and translator.” I have no doubt that he excels at both. The bio also mentions that he translated “major portions of the Artaud Anthology.” Perhaps his affinity with Artaud is why his poems, though restrained in their formal experimentation, suggest to me psychedelics, or rather suggest that he is informed by the visionary experience that mind expansive drugs attempt to provoke. Rattray is no Eastern religious dogmatist nor an aging hippy looking backward, but he has arrived at his vision of the extra-ordinary relationship of the common to the marvelous, even the sacred, through his attention to visionary poetics, a poetics of passion and politics, which is, in spite of the proliferation of the banal lyrics of the schools and the fools, the only poetry game worth playing.