Leonard Schwartz, Heavy Sublimation (Talisman House, 2018)
In his most recent book of poems, Leonard Schwartz takes on the burden of modern human history, the sedimentation of triumph and defeat, technological achievement and moral bankruptcy, heroism and depravity, and so forth. As the book’s title suggests, Schwartz ponders our predilections for pontification, for the far but always about to be grasped realms of transcendence, or, as he says, sublimation. This tendency is countered—some would say corrected—by the turn to immanence, to whatever numinous values inhere in finitude. Not surprisingly, then, Schwartz alludes to a number of books and movements (aesthetic, social, cultural, etc.), texts and ideas, that almost collapse under the weight of their formidable predecessors. Indeed, the very proliferation of books can always be understood as the collective failure of language and ideals to bring us any closer to understanding our purpose, our place, in the universe, much less among the universes, putting the lie to the concept of progress. These philosophical ruminations are thus all over the place, but certainly the middle of the book, twelve enumerated poems called “Poetry As Explanation,” deserves especial commentary. Here Schwartz deploys his motif, the singular word “because,” as a kind of mocking, taunting signifier, signifying, per Shakespeare and Faulkner, the sound and fury of nothing. On the one hand, “because” is a false start, an index of clauses that come up short, fail to resolve the if-then relationship of logic), causal or analogical: “Because the eye contact is divine.” (47) On the other hand, every apparent causal or analogical assertion is undercut almost immediately by its qualification: “Because the known is dipped/In the ink of the unknowable” (36).
In this book, then, ontology maintains its distance—the measure of phenomenology—from epistemology. Thus, the cognitive cannot satisfy the appetites of the affective; in a night without end, logos wrestles with pathos. Though reason is the source of order and stability, desire “fights back/in the form of a fruit/Shooting its juice at the sun/Through ripped overs of its own bright skin.” (34) Thus, “Desire [is] feral,” (69) its object specific or general, as it tries to escape the gravitational pull of culture and society without spinning out into the bodiless space of pure abstraction. In this regard, Heavy Sublimation bears a strong thematic resemblance to Noah Eli Gordon’s 2011 book, The Source. Although Gordon’s book of quotations, a fulfillment of Benjamin’s oft-cited dream to elude the limits of context behind a wall of citations, is more “serious” than Schwartz’s, the compulsion driving both authors is similar. Desire for the particular, in all its permutations, is all over Heavy Sublimation, as though Schwartz recognizes that the desire to utterance, for example, at the most basic unit of meaning—the phoneme—is inseparable from or perhaps only analogous to—the nonverbal “meaning” of a pheromone: “Behind phonemes/Are pheromones and//Behind pheromones/Are forms” (3) Articulation is thus a sixth “sense,” material and immaterial (as meaning), and thus evidence of how we are born into contrariness, borne upon parallel paths that nonetheless intersect. And whereas the very strategy of assembling a book from other books implicitly affirms unavoidable belatedness, an uncrossable divide from what Gordon calls “the Source,” Schwartz can only resign himself to his own unoriginality, slyly placed on the penultimate page of Heavy Sublimation: “One has read this before, this wondering about nothing, this/interruption of the obvious, these bodies ready to ripen yet confronted/ by ice.” (110) The immediate context here is the perilous descent from a mountain by two children, a brother and sister. This story of children, an all-too-human story, a story of the future, is as enrapturing as it is paradigmatic: the heavy trod of immanence trudging once more toward the acme of transcendence. The perils of human possibility, however indefinite and indeterminate, are thus poised against the desire of the reader, if not the storyteller, to “interpret” a story about children as a story about children as commodities, as tools for the present and the future. It isn’t a great leap, then, from this abstraction (which precedes the primitive accumulations of capital) to the projection of human traits onto in- or non-human entities, even though “Angel and distressed/Remain, at best, insects to one another.” (82) This abstraction projects temporal futures onto idealized atemporalities, invocations of the infinite that nonetheless always retain finite (human) features.
Coming back down the mountain, we see Schwartz enumerating all the usual bona fides of poetry and philosophy. From the belief in (if not the actual realization of) the universal distribution of, and access to, knowledge whose leveling effects (“SADLY, we are all wise”) have no necessary relation to hierarchal dyads: “A thermos of water//Imagines itself/Superior to rain.” (2) The culture/nature problem asserts itself in terms of value and scale: “A rock detached from/The rest of The Earth/And thrown into outer space//Could not be more forlorn/Than the plastic chair/Now planted, on the highway divider.” (18-19). And depending on who and what one is, an ocean may signify “calm” while a pond or puddle can be dangerous for both the “…overdosed/ (And the aged)” (28) Yet, whatever the failures of reason, its opposite is not a solution. After all, “When the personal asserts itself/As the dominant truth//We can be assured/A larger subjectivity will bubble up.” (8) Ditto for our attempts to parse that old bugaboo of free will and determinism: “Bound together/ Intention and driftwood.” (6) For Schwartz, the problem is categorization itself. The foundation of every concept, classification stands less on the rigor of a transcendental logic than it does on what the “attorneys for the bird” (6) might call case history. Thus the eponymous poem of the book concludes with nods to William Bronk (“…light does not exist/To illuminate the objects,”), Pamela Lu (“The parking lot is a parking lot”), Elizabeth Willis (“The human abstract mixes well/With chanterelles”) and Donald Revell (“In a dark age/We live in monasteries.” ) (21-22) These allusions to his contemporaries seem appropriate since, for Schwartz, “the world is unfinished…because bodies cannot resolve to become/ either organisms or elements…’” (24) Heavy Sublimation reminds us again and again that however we conceive of the “Forest” as “a mosaic of mineral/And life,” each separate piece of that puzzle, “each particle/Leaks into the other.” In the forest of language and desire our very individuality dissolves into food, not (only) for future years, but also for worms, concrete, bacteria, existents bleeding into one another, a communal history that amounts to “Leakage in the night.” (86)
 Hence the various modes of communication tend to slide into two categories: verbal (speech and writing) and nonverbal (sign language, reading one’s eyes, physical touch, etc.).