Speaker for the Dead: Paul Pines’ Divine Madness

Divine Madness is a liminal book. It traces the inner lives of a number of visionaries who dwell in the margins of our culture.  It looks at both gods and men, to see where they have been cracked, and shines a light through the fissure to create a pattern of connection. These poems about people expose the places where the tower of human society has cracked only to make a building game out of the resultant rubble.

 Paul Pines has listened to the dead whisper, and in these poems, he becomes a speaker for a diverse assembly of cultural ancestors. Thomas Paine rubs elbows with Leonard Bernstein. Columbus and Giordano Bruno are enshrined with Audubon and Telemachus. His ear has been attuned, and now he can share the same ear that Chan-Bahlum “pressed to the spirit tube / on the platform / of the Temple of The Inscriptions / at Palenque” and so can empathize with the life of Van Gogh who “chewed so much foxglove / his world turned yellow.” In listening closely to these lives touched by the madness of the Muses, Paul is able to show his readers that “the voices of the gods make us / ciphers for what cannot / be deciphered”.

To truly listen to the dead speak, the volume knob of reason will need to be turned down. “We who are trapped / in a nation / of lost intimacies / can’t hear // what the dead / buried / in our hearts// ask us to honor / in their name”. Peoples boundaries have become rigid. The veil separating the living from the dead has become thick, where once it had been thin. The underworld is a clogged sewer, filled with all the things humanity rejects. Children feel this “unspoken / terror of our fear”. To really sit and be with the fear requires the person who has been infected with divine madness to go and sit on the edge, between sanity and lunacy, between wilderness and civilization, between the outer person made of skin, bones, body, and the inner self, of our imagination, the shining body, and the eternal flame. Paul Pines has become comfortable walking these edges.

Vulcan is another edge-walker who appears in the pages of this book, “whose hairy blacksmith hands”  can make “a net of fire in water” or a net of words thrown across the page in brief dancing lines. The spaces in between those lines make another kind of confluence, just as the workshop of Vulcan lies deep beneath the oceans waves in a cavernous cleft of volcanic lava.

The artisans of culture sit forever betwixt the crossroads on the outskirts of town. They are exiles, whether from Olympus or Eden. They are alchemists who take the raw ore buried in the earth and forge it into the ploughshare that is also a sword. Agriculture and warfare, are the uneasy twins of the city-state, progeny of the blacksmith. The inspired gifts brought forth by the hands of the metal worker are both fearsome and awe-inspiring. These poems elicit a similar response in how they mediate Paul’s encounters with the numinous. The terror and ecstasy which come from making contact with powers and beings outside of oneself are both here.

Yet these words also speak to the “alchemists / of the every-day heart” who experience the “coagulatio et separatio” even as they “punch a clock / drive kids to school //support the weight / of a routine”. I may meet gods and daimons in the inner worlds but I come back here to my wife and children and work. Even if I climb Jacob’s ladder to the stars and their snaking heavens, I return to this place of my body and face my own mortality. Paul writes, “His wife kisses him / then turns away / a pillow tucked to her chest // awake in the hotel room / afraid of death / he counts possible years / left // calculating his daughters age / if he lasts twenty more”.

This where Paul Pines excels. He sends the reader out on a “raft of snakes” into the terra incongnita, pushing the voyager to cross boundaries and seek new horizons, and then he shows the common rubble everyone must contend with, and brings it all back home, into the present, making Divine Madness something that anyone can aspire to be touched by.

The book is published by Marsh Hawk Press.


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2 Responses to Speaker for the Dead: Paul Pines’ Divine Madness

  1. Fred Waitzkin says:

    You’ve touched all the bases in this eloquent review that fully rises to the level of Paul’s deeply imaginative and inspiring poems. Great work!

    • Fred,

      Thanks for reading the review. I thought it was interesting I published the review on Fat Tuesday. I guess the next book of his I’ll have to pick up is the “New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros” which he read from on his recent trip to Cincinnati.


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