Andrew S. Nicholson

Review of Norman Finkelstein's The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems

(Dos Madres Press, 2016)


The writing of Norman Finkelstein is a cosmos. The entire body of his work, including his poems, essays, and full–length collections, is expansive. Subject matter and references—Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Judaism, the New American Poetry—appear and reappear, organized in different constellations. Finkelstein’s poetry displays the fullness of its kinetics and scope with the publication of The Ratio of Reason to Magic. As a new and selected, it presents an opportunity to survey the reach of his accumulative poetics. Cosmos—it is a complex and dynamic order.

In “Statement and Commentary,” from his essay collection Lyric Interference, Finkelstein describes two approaches to poetry—poetry as statement and poetry as commentary. Poetry as statement is a poetry centered in self–consciousness, tending toward concise perceptions internalized by the self, focused on finitude, and “struggling to come to terms with its finitude” (45). Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley epitomize this tendency. Poetry as commentary, on the other hand, “tends to be a generous art, an art which actively seeks the other…Obviously, the poem as commentary has something to say about a preexisting work, but it also intends the preexisting work as a paradigm of aesthetic, and hence of human relation. The new poem is an attempt to share in these relations, to participate in this model” (47).

Finkelstein’s tendency toward the expansiveness of poetry as commentary is evident from his earliest poems to his latest. Not only does the title of his first book, The Objects in Your Life, describe an attention that looks outside the self, but in the nine pages selected from this earliest of his books, Finkelstein directly calls to Matthias Grünewald, Francisco Goya, W.B. Yeats, Henry Vaughn, and Job. Beyond the literal commentary and allusion that remains a feature throughout Finkelstein’s career, his early work practices an outreaching, exploratory sentence. Consider the turns of the opening of “Odradek:”

Amidst no more care than those of any other man,
            he pauses anywhere, perhaps on the stairs,
or in the lobby, its fallen grandeur of tiles,
            dark wood and beveled glass abandoned
            to the sullen magistrates of dust. (33)

The literal image is that of a man pausing, but in the shifts of the sentence, the man is simultaneously a literal man and an instance in a series of all men; he is simultaneously pausing on stairs and pausing in a lobby. The man stands not in fact but in potentiality—even as an architecture develops within that potentiality, an architecture with both physical details and associations where even the potential dust on the potential beveled glass in the potential building is presided over by “sullen magistrates.” In this instance, the line quests through modality, exploring both the real and the possible, and it comes as no surprise to see an epigraph by Ashbery, a master of modality in poetry, only pages before.

As far as Finkelstein’s poetry is poetry as commentary, he grounds it in the continual interpretation seen in mystical traditions, the Talmud and midrash. No poet other than Edmund Jabès may so fully embody the epistemological radicalism of Jewish hermeneutics than Finkelstein. Interpretation does not exist to set down certainty but to participate in the text, the world of the text, the people of the text. In interpretation, the self dissolves into, joins with, and continues alongside the voices that came before:

 Reb Derasha opened,
saying that the verse
was nothing but its interpretation,
dissolving into its opposite
and passing away.

 Reb Derasha sat
for forty days and forty nights,
reading from the book
that has no ending,
the book of open doors,
the book of moons. (“Four Impromptus” 42)

Finkelstein has written directly about the possibility of the lyric self dissolving and participating in poetry in his essay “The Serial Poem, Dictation, and the Status of the Lyric.” In the context of the serial poem, he sees a participatory dissolution into the ongoing music of the sequence:

Seriality…implies the simultaneous dissolution and recovery of the self as singer in the continuum of the song…Rather than expose the ‘big lie’ of the personal, the serial poem provides us with something of much greater value: a structure and an aesthetic through which the self and its concomitant lyric utterance can be redefined and resituated in a new and variously decentered discursive landscape. (93)

Finkelstein’s own work with the serial poem occurs in his books Forest, Columns, and Powers, and the sections of the three books are gathered in The Ratio of Reason to Magic as a single sequence, Track. His description of earlier serial poems as a redefinition and a resituating of the lyric is evident throughout Track. The poem never leaves the sense of music associated with the lyric nor the sense that the entire poem occurs in a single consciousness. The redefinition is continual as each section feels contingent, shifting, waiting for the next line to change its context. Coins, pear wood inlaid, and silver are introduced in one section:

On this day he threw coins
and on this day he threw wands

 Pear wood inlaid with silver
seeking a number. (134)

And the following section resituates those same three elements in: “Sought pear wood inlaid with silver / to be played in the Room of the Peacocks / with silver coins at their feet” (134).

Track is the section of The Ratio of Reason to Magic that is most evidently altered by being in a book of selected writing. In their totality, the three books may resolve into a whole, the transient sections may gain a resonance of finality when assembled. Read as partial selections, there is no sense of a whole but of holes and gaps when the poem does not shift but leaps.

To have gaps added into the sequence is not necessarily a flaw. The serial poem feels more like a palimpsest in this form, and Track is where Finkelstein’s poetry most calls to Sappho in poetry’s preference for the concise phrase, song as ritual, and clear perception. All three of those preferences, as well as love, Sappho’s favorite subject matter, appear in these lines, for example:

Lovers’ knot
upon a shield
carried from the East

 Into the green wood
on such a day.

The Ratio of Reason to Magic ends with Finkelstein’s current project, a sequence of poems to be titled From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. The sequence already shows its overall shape: Finkelstein has invented an organization called the Immanent Foundation, an organization that at times takes the appearance of esoteric sect, of Illuminati–esque secret power, and of bureaucracy. The poems are set in the building of the Foundation, appearing as files, statements, and museum pieces that begin with the reader first entering and touring of the building:

Welcome to the Immanent Foundation.
Our headquarters are located in a large house
on a hill above the beach. Our headquarters
are located on a large estate in a forest of oak
and beech. The estate is called Arcady,
or the Memory Palace. After the house
burnt down, it reappeared in a grove
adjacent to the garden. (315)

The Foundation is all opaque organizations and no opaque organization. It seriously addresses large organizations, and it parodies large organizations. As the headquarters exist in multiples places and no place, the Foundation is all at the same time: an all–pervasive power, the site of mythic and mental constructs, and an absurd conspiracy. These new poems are especially playful, regularly delving into parody and pastiche, while the reach of the Foundation allows serious commentary on power structures.

The joy of ending with From the Files of the Immanent Foundation is the joy of having a new project sketched out. Instead of a smattering of recently completed poems, Finkelstein shows the ambitious direction in which his new work is headed. It is a direction that continues to seek and to welcome the other with generosity and to tease at its subject matter with a ludic sensibility as entertained as it is entertaining. His writing is indeed a cosmos, the next addition to which is the Immanent Foundation, its building still under construction but already taking shape on the horizon.

Works Cited

Finkelstein, Norman. The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems. Dos Madres, 2016.
—. “The Serial Poem, Dictation, and the Status of the Lyric.” Lyric Interference: Essays on Poetics. Spuyten Duyvil, 2003, pp. 86–96.
—. “Statement and Commentary.” Lyric Interference: Essays on Poetics. Spuyten Duyvil, 2003, pp. 36–57.

Andrew S. Nicholson is an Assistant Professor-in-Residence at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the author of A Lamp Brighter than Foxfire (Center for Literary Publishing 2015). His poetry has appeared in magazines and journals including Colorado Review, Bitter Oleander, and Eleven Eleven and has been anthologized in New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 (New American Press).