It is with a heavy heart that I report that much modern poetry lacks a great variety of characteristics which even the early twentieth century’s poetic exemplars were able to execute both easily and artfully. A great deal of the poetry that gets praised today in the mainstream (if, indeed, poetry can ever be said to be “mainstream” in any modern culture) “takes risks” with a total deconstruction of form, and often of sense, in its pursuit of originality, truth, and the authenticity of the author’s voice. Subject matters may vary into areas that would have been considered risqué or even inappropriate in previous generations, but it often seems that doing so is more for shock value than for artistic purposes. What so much of modern poetry ends up seeming like, to a jaded traditionalist poet like myself, is an experiment in line indents and spacing, lack of punctuation or capitalization, and stating inspiration from one source and then going so far afield from it as to have little that truly links signified subjects to poetic language’s signifiers … with a few “fucks,” “shits,” and either “cocks” or “cunts” thrown in for good measure.
However, all of the above does not remotely apply to Erynn Rowan Laurie’s first book-length collection of poems, Fireflies at Absolute Zero. Many might know Laurie’s earlier works, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, and A Circle of Stones, and likewise her essay and poetic contributions to the Scarlet Imprint esoteric poetry anthologies Datura and Mandragora, amongst a variety of other publications. As a practitioner of filidecht, the Irish and Scottish art of otherworld-inspired poetry, Laurie is an excellent example of how the traditional and the spiritual can be ably and enjoyably balanced with the best insights in presentation and voice afforded by the larger mainstream of modern poetic practice.
Those who are familiar with Laurie’s works from other anthologies (including some from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina) will see some of those poems again here, and they do not lose anything on a second, third, or thirty-fourth reading. Twenty poems comprise the first section, “Seeking the Spring,” which includes many of those poems found elsewhere, and their poesy is often dedicated to a variety of deities, mostly from Irish or Egyptian traditions. Among the offerings is “gates,” detailing the seven guardians of the gates of Irkalla, the ancient Mesopotamian underworld; “Venatio Apri: The Boar Hunt,” on the famous hunt of Antinous and Hadrian; and “your light,” a narrative of Thoth’s game with Khonsu to create the extra five days of the year in the Egyptian solar calendar. The goddess Brigid, the geilt (“wild-man”) hero Suibhne, Miach and Airmed (two of the children of the Irish healing god Dian Cécht), and the Egyptian Seshat are also the subjects of several of the poems in this section. For anyone devoted to these deities, these poems could make powerful hymns, or could serve as entertaining artistic offerings for the enjoyment of both gods and humans at festival occasions.
However, sacredness and the gods do not only dwell within the first section of this collection; they are to be found throughout the book, often in unexpected places.
The second section, “Walking to Charlemont,” has many poems that draw more directly on the poet’s personal experiences. The poem “all the stars are falling” from this section was perhaps the best artistic response I’ve yet encountered to the most searingly disturbing and controversially graphic event of the early twenty-first century (and I’ll let readers remain in suspense as to what that event was until they read the poem and it becomes clear toward the end). “The Night Sutra,” a section with many poems on dreams, picks up some of the spiritual threads of the book’s earlier sections. The fourth section, “Poetics of Desire,” is perhaps the reason that this book — though all of it is excellent — won the first Bisexual Book Award’s Poetry Award in early June of 2013. The final section, “In Cedar Time,” resumes the directly spiritual themes once again, with particular attention to the importance of place and nature and humanity’s position within it.
My one regret with this book is that I did not savor it as much as I should have. I read it in about two sittings, which is far too little time to have given it. I’d recommend taking no more than one section per day and really digesting it, re-reading the poems where necessary, and truly enjoying every drop of them like so much honey poured from the flowers of spring. These poems are full of savor without over-sweetness, and are likewise fresh while remaining timeless … and thus nothing like either honey or spring flowers, perhaps, and yet the image nonetheless recommends itself as an approach to take to this volume instead of a description of its contents.
Unlike most modern poetry books, this one is not only larger, but it is fuller: full of experiences, insights, tradition, spiritual depth beyond the expressed angst of the seeker or the eternal questioner (a persona all too often assumed by the modern or post-modern poet), wisdom in a form that is never trite nor cliché, and of the direct and indirect presence of many goddesses and gods. It is a collection that can equally well be understood as incantation, recollection, and manifesto. In short, it is everything that a good book of poetry should be, and that so many of them fail to be.
If you only buy one book of poetry this year, and especially one book of poetry by a practicing polytheist, let Fireflies at Absolute Zero rank toward the top of your list!
[P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender person, and one of the founding members of the Ekklesía Antínoou–a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures–as well as a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a practicing Celtic Reconstructionist pagan in the traditions of gentlidechtand filidecht, as well as Romano-British, Welsh, and Gaulish deity devotions. Lupus is also dedicated to several land spirits around the area of North Puget Sound and its islands.
Lupus’ writings are available in several Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes, including Unbound: A Devotional Anthology for Artemis, Waters of Life: A Devotional Anthology for Serapis and Isis, and Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate;From Cave to Sky: A Devotional Anthology for Zeus, Out of Arcadia: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Pan, The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, Anointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East, andQueen of the Sacred Way: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Persephone, a sole-authored book of poetry, The Phillupic Hymns. Lupus’ poetry has also appeared in theScarlet Imprint anthology Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis and Galina Krasskova’s anthology When the Lion Roars: A Devotional to the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet. An essay by Lupus appears in the anthology edited by Lee Harrington, Spirit of Desire: Personal Explorations of Sacred Kink. Fiction by Lupus has appeared in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, Inanna Gabriel and C. Bryan Brown’s Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story, and the e-zine Eternal Haunted Summer. Three books in The Red Lotus Library, the Ekklesía Antínoou’s publishing imprint, are now available, The Syncretisms of Antinous, Devotio Antinoo: The Doctor’s Notes, Volume One, and All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology. Further publications will be mentioned here as they become available!]