ON Other Psalms BY JORDAN WINDHOLZ
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY CAROLINE TSAI
“From the retina we extract the face / of the man in the moon, stuff our // pockets with photographs of his / limbic gesticulation,” begins the speaker of “(Psalm),” a poem that sets the thematic precedent for Other Psalms. “From the retina,” from sensation, comes the basis of human experience; yet sensation can also be experienced indirectly, through “photographs of his / limbic gesticulation.”
And “photographs” are by no means the only human creation that has enabled indirect experience of sensation. As the reader, we are active participants in the sensory experience interwoven throughout Other Psalms. In his debut collection—recipient of the 2014 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry—Jordan Windholz tells both the story of how humans are created, as well as the story of how humans create, illuminating the relationships between the self, language, and religion.
Creation begins in “Myth,” in which Windholz breaks down traditional syntax, tracing human lineage through the evolution of language. In couplets, lines are paired like the original man and woman, and language is broken and distilled into its prototypical form, telling the story not only of the creation of mankind and the beginning of human history, but also the birth of language. Without Adam and Eve, without people, the speaker asserts, there is no concept of “Other // I, she, and other you, he.”
The our before was and is
shall will out our now. All of
This this the said said. One God so
like time, before made these two, only
so little, and down it all came.
Not on time, but very like
God, if there were her and him, and he
And she like God, down came time (“Myth”)
And the story of human history takes on many voices as it begins to unfold. For instance, history takes on the voices of nomads who discover that “journey and wandering // [originate] from the same seed” (“The Psalm’s Parable”), nomads who ironically realize that they have neglected to construct an altar after having “already slit the throats of the unblemished // firstborns” (“The Nomads”). History tells the story of an angel ruminating its past life on earth, who is surprised “to find a life / I never knew I lived in / those desiccated texts” (“An Unnecessary Angel Recalls Unearthing Its Terrestrial Existence”).
As human beings biologically evolve, so too does language. In this collection, neither language nor biology are static; organically, language evolves with the human body. In the sixth stanza of the titular “Other Psalms,” the speaker considers the “riddles the bones pose for the body,” imagining the scapula “as the evolutionary promise of wings or as the fossils of their loss.” In the same way that language is organic, the biology of the human body is a story in itself, still in flux.
Language, the speaker continues in “Epiphany” and “The Incarnation,” becomes not only the means through which we perceive nature, but also nature itself. One could “close the eyes and see that darkness is written on the fleshy veils [...] that a breathing corpse might dwell within a word // that a word structures the body’s bony labyrinths” (“The Incarnation”). In “Epiphany,” language and nature are interconnected, incarnated as a hummingbird, “a thrum // of sentences burled in verbs.” With the precision of biological terminology, Windholz contemplates “emphysema’s elegance” (“Of Revelation”) and the lament of the “stereocilia” (“The Incarnation”).
In adherence with tenets of Romantic tradition, human thought and sensation are celebrated as the highest level of achievement. In “Parable,” Windholz writes, “The thought: it should crack the crown, emerge from the temple a goddess.” Articulated human thoughts have the power to create, to build; the human mind has the power “for shaping words // into the winged things that / circle the incensed thrones like seraphim” (“An Unnecessary Angel Recalls Unearthing Its Terrestrial Existence”). What is substantive about human beings is not “the body’s systemized network of electrical impulse,” but “its traffic” (“Other Psalms”); it is not the movement of biological things under skin, but rather more insubstantial, immeasurable miracles. Windholz urges us to consider the soul, the unseen, the intangible—the human gift for poetry and language.
Yet language is less of a luxury and more of an inherent human urge. Windholz writes, “There always exists the desire to speak / despite speech’s occlusion” (“The Incarnation”). In order to truly experience human life, we are compelled to speak, even if we don’t know to whom.
By contrast, Windholz explores a world outside of the innate human desire to speak, to partake in conversation. In “Of Apocalypse,” Windholz imagines a world “after that splendid flash,” in which we have left Plato’s allegorical cave, ready to feast on “ersatz delicacies” of our corporeal lives. This Life 2.0 software upgrade resonates “honeyed boredom” and “contoured warmth,” soundtracked by the easy listening and haze of inconsequential sounds of “muzak,” an experience so dulled and sanitized that it no longer resembles the real thing.
But what exactly defines the aforementioned “real thing”? Perhaps sensation, what we experience, is not sensation itself, but sensation as translated by human processing of language. Even the most visceral sensations come down to perception. Hunger is not hunger, but “the idea / of our needing to be hungry” (“Of Apocalypse”); before sunlight is “the idea of sunlight” (“Ruminant”). As the speaker in “Intercessory” posits, reality is entirely based in human memory—because human perceptions are perceived through the medium of language, a medium that is easily distorted. In this way, human beings become the arbiters of history and time.
In tune with unpacking sensation, Other Psalms also explores the inherent contradiction that accompanies reality. There are “hymnals // poised with noiselessness” (“Ruminant”). There is an angel who, “though devoted” is “pagan,” who sees “myself as if in a history / of sudden futures” (“A Necessary Angel Recalls Unearthing Its Terrestrial Existence”). This contradiction is indicative of considering God through an apophatic view, dictating that one cannot define God by what He is, only by what He is not. Prayer, then, can often feel blind, confused; “O though I say I / don’t know // to whom I say what / I say (what’s said),” contemplates the speaker in “A Prayer.”
But it is only through this contradiction that Windholz can balance opposites: human and holy, the existence of darkness despite light, prayer despite uncertainty, sensation without language, a world “burning from the inside out” (“The Heretic”).
Jordan Windholz was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with his family. Having received an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder, he is currently a PhD candidate in English literature at Fordham University. His work was published in Best New Poets 2007, Boston Review, and other journals.
by Jordan Windholz
University of North Texas Press, 2015
$12.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-574-4-1600-8
Caroline Tsai is a high school senior from Indiana. Her writing has appeared in Crack the Spine, Cuckoo Quarterly, and The Best Teen Writing of 2014 and 2015, and is forthcoming in Polyphony H.S. and Vademecum. She has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Foyle Young Poet Awards, and is an alum of Iowa Young Writers' Studio and Kenyon Young Writers' Workshop. This fall, she will attend Harvard University.