From the Files of the Immanent Foundation
Dos Madres Press
$17, 120 pp.
I WANT TO BELIEVE
“Decision,” the first poem in Norman Finkelstein’s new book, announces an end to preliminaries and prolegomena:
decide for the sake of whatever you love,
whatever it is you still would cherish.
Here is the formula. Here is the program.
Here is the talisman. Here is the code.
Formula and program, talisman and code: near-synonyms in different registers for the text beneath the text, the esoteric content teased out by scholars and mystics, analysts and hackers. The Immanent Foundation: an imaginary edifice or organization or conspiracy or cabal, a non-site, an heuristic for readers who can decide for the sake of whatever they might love to read a poem as a prophecy, or a prophetic text as a poem. This is a book for the Fox Mulders of the world, as so pitilessly encapsulated by Melissa Brostoff in a brilliant essay on the legacy of The X-Files: “Your basement office under the panopticon is so close to where the maps are made, it’s off the map. You’re a polonium-tipped dart’s throw from knowledge but so far from power that they don’t even bother harassing you half the time. So you curl up in the belly of your own surveillance, eat sunflower seeds out of the bag, and jerk off at your desk beneath your iconic poster of a grainy UFO with its block-lettered caption, I WANT TO BELIEVE.” “To be a Mulder,” Brostoff concludes, “is to be a kind of idiot, and to be right.” (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-31/essays/missing-time-2/) “I know we were all duped,” remarks the nameless swain of “Love Letter” in a Mulder-esque moment, “but it doesn’t matter / anymore. Lucy, I’ve volunteered for the next / expedition.”
Finkelstein is more wry, less embittered, certainly less directly informed by pop culture than Brostoff, but the dialectical dance she identifies between knowledge and power—or between power and poetry—animates his book like an itch. Both The X-Files and the Immanent Foundation offer fraught, coded tours of the experience of what Pierre Bourdieu has memorably described as “the dominated fraction of the dominant class.” “We have made a study of it,” the speaker of “Meeting” assures his reader. “Not a ritual.” Ritual, after all, combines bodies to some strategic purpose: a gesture repeated for the sake of acquiring power. The speakers of Finkelstein’s poems walk that unsteady line, though more often they reveal themselves to be befuddled schlemiels, or Borscht-belt style tummlers like the speaker of “Executive”: “They must serve us dinner / when we arrive. We have reservations. / I have reservations about the whole affair, / the project, the plans, whatever.” They are idiots, and they are right: “Some of us are puzzled,” writes the speaker of “Love Letter,” “but some / of us understand. I stayed up late, reading and/ transcribing.”
Certain poets pursue lines of metaphysical flight along dualistic tracks—I think of the profane and sacred poems of Joseph Donahue, or the underworlds and overworlds navigated by Alice Notley. Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish neo-Gnostic, has pursued lines of metaphysical inquiry in the series of poems and books that fall under the name of Track: short lyrics which, as Mark Scroggins has written, resemble both epistles and midrash, “an endless expanse of commentary” that elides the distinction between version and vision. Finkelstein, whose career recently crested with the publication of The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016), now presents us with an alternative (to) Track with this hugely enjoyable, surprisingly narrative collection, crammed with characters constantly crossing between the ordinary and allegory: the Directors, the Founders, Margaret, Reb Derasha, Emma (in the section titled “Code Name: Emma”). The book reminds me of something Finkelstein himself once wrote about the work of the Wisconsin scrap metal sculptor Tom Every, aka Dr. Evermor: “Dr. Evermor’s immense sculptural environment embodies a visionary combination of whimsy and sublimity.” Dr. Evermor’s dual vision is built upon “castoff industrial detritus and salvaged materials of modern life”; the mysterious Immanent Foundation and its “files” are built upon the salvaged detritus of bureaucratic language, as though one sought Christ through neither faith nor works but in stacks of discarded Vatican memoranda. “It has come to the attention of the Directors,” writes FInklestein in a poem from the book, “Previously Classified Document”
that these materials, both mechanical and organic,
are called on to bear too much weight. Consider
this little automaton. It tends to topple over
Another poem, “Forgery,” reveals the existence of “a manuscript by one who has renounced his art / and yet who has gone on writing secretly, filing away / poem after poem, story after story, spell after spell” (italics in original). It’s a sly game the poet plays, with story the transition point between poem and spell: “The Directors understand that / thaumaturgy always has to be mediated by narration, / that narration, in effect, is a form of thaumaturgy.”
Lyric poems often feature personae but rarely characters; here allegorical and collective figures such as “the Directors” and “the Accountant” intersect with the fragmentary narratives of named individuals such the aforementioned Lucy, Margaret (the implicit heroine of the book’s first section “Margaret Resigns, & Other Rumors”), a “sensitive” who is the eponymous heroine of the section titled “Code Name: Emma,” Alanna, Reb Derasha, and others. One section, “The Dellschau Episode,” obliquely relates the “secret history” (italics original) of the outsider artist Charles A.A. Dellschau, who in mid-nineteenth century Texas created a world of his own with an aeronautical theme, a collection of drawings of planes and airships centering on “The Sonora Aero Club,” of which he was apparently the only member. Finkelstein’s Immanent Foundation, like Dellschau’s imaginary club (one of the book’s many tongue-in-cheek moments takes the form of a grant application to the Foundation on the club’s behalf) composes in effect a suite of Gnostic gestures, by which the fragments of bureaucratese and faux-medieval emblems achieve a hallucinatory wholeness.
By the time the book resolves itself, or rather completes its disappearing act, in its final section, “Lucy Rescued,” the reader has traveled to the borders of fiction and back. “‘How to distinguish between false prophecy and true?’” asks a certain Reb Derasha in “Dvar Torah,” which refers to the practice of sharing and commenting upon a portion of Torah, of scripture. “Derasha” itself means “sermon,” “discourse,” or “homily,” so in the person of Reb Derasha we have a commentator upon commentary, a practice of accumulating layers between reader and text (I am tempted to pun here: a layering on of hands), akin to the Gnostic distance between the world of shards and the irrecoverable light of the pleroma. Or as Michael Heller, one of Finkelstein’s comrades and interlocutors, puts it in his poem “Mappah” (named for the cloth in which Torah scrolls are traditionally wrapped, “Let this be put another way; the cloth that shielded the Torah from light shielded light / from the Torah.” “The uncertain light takes form,” writes Finkelstein in “Dvar Torah”—yes, the light must always take form, and in so doing sacrifice something of the quality of light—something like this insight is what gets enacted by this darkly playful and electric book as it approaches and retreats from the boundary of story in the form of “meta-commentary,” however discouraged it might be from the Directors of the Immanent Foundation—now closed, the epilogue tells us, and yet: “the work of the Foundation will continue through the efforts of our various associates.” Reader, be like Mulder, and let yourself be enlisted in the quest.
Norman Finkelstein (born 1954) is an American poet and literary critic. He has written extensively about modern and postmodern poetry and about Jewish American literature.