Italiano | Deutsch | Français | Român | Nederlands | Русский | 한국어 | 中文 | 日本語 | ภาษาไทย | Việt

Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / The Sentence of Madison Morrison

The Sentence of Madison Morrison

Ron Phelps

Sentence of the Gods is a vast cosmological epic consisting of 26 separate books. In an unprecedented tour de force the books exhibit a stupendous unrepeated variety of literary forms, most of them invented by the author.

The 26 books are, variously: a sequence of epic sonnets; two hysterically funny avant-garde novels, one of which is based on the illustrations to a book by Raymond Roussel; two epyllia, in nine-syllable meter and iambic pentameter; exquisite scientifically detailed nature writing at the level of Thoreau or the great naturalists; a book of dream poems; a memoir, heartbreaking in its honesty and pathos, of the author’s life from infancy through college and beyond; found poetry; ebullient travel writing that tirelessly treks through and engorges practically all the nations on earth; mad exhilarated interweavings of videotape-like journalism with the Bhagavad Gita and the Analects of Confucius; and so on, and so on.

This constant experimental generation of new forms is itself an awesome feat of sheer literary creation, quite apart from the other manifold aspects of the Sentence of the Gods.

All this encyclopedic carnival midway does not, however, constitute merely a farrago or a cadenza. Quite the contrary:

Each of the 26 books has for its title but a single word: Her, Realization, Revolution, Possibly, etc. Taken in sequence, these queer and willful book titles form the Sentence of the Gods:

Sleep O Light U Need A Revolution Each Second Every Magic Realization Engendering Her Exists Regarding All Possibly Happening Renewed Or Divine In This Excelling Life.

This charming ukase, with its cosmic madness, playful dogmatism and minimal punctuation, is profound and positively spermatic in its implications, but what is secretly imbedded in it is mind-boggling, rather in the way the Periodic Chart of the Elements is imbedded in the baroque profusion of chemical reactions. The first letter of every word in the 26-word sentence spells out, in a beautiful snaking ladder of letters, the names of the seven gods of classical western mythology and, in order, the seven days of the week they rule:

    
S
O
L U N A
R
E
H E R M E S
E
R
A P H R O D I T E
L

Sol, Luna, Ares, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite, El. El, a bit of a stretch, is, the author tells us, “the Babylonian, Sumerian and Hebrew name of various gods associated with the Greek god Cronos and the Roman god Saturn (see Saturday). He represents time, death, and the golden age.” Thus the author’s epic of the universe and of his life ends, appropriately, with death. Yet in one of his most brilliant, and characteristic, reversals, he has titled the final book Life.

Sleep, O, and Light = SOL. Etc.

These seven gods are also correlated with the seven planets of ancient astronomy and astrology, the seven basic substances or factors of alchemy, and on and on into the remotest depths of the obscure and the occult.

The famous characteristics of these deities also govern all the books in any particular sequence forming one of their names. For example, all nine books comprising or spelling out APHRODITE (All, Possibly, Happening, Renewed, Or, Divine, In, This, Excelling) are Aphrodite-like, reflecting her attributes as the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. The author has constructed nine entire books, of bewildering variety, with this supra-requirement in mind, so that when readers are, say, enjoying the gorgeous nature-landscapes of Arizona in All, they should remember that they are always, so to speak, “inside” Aphrodite, experiencing Aphrodite-ness.

Yet All is also a corner book, its “A” making the last letter of HERA. So All will also have Hera-like characteristics, those of the Greek earth goddess, and of Arizona’s deserts and mountains.

Nor is this all. The scheme of 26 letters can be read backwards, yielding seven other entities: LE, ETIDORPHA, AREH, HERMES, SERA, ANUL, LOS. These contain multiple, often obscure meanings, as with SERA, the Italian for “evening,” or LOS, Blake’s god of imagination.

And thus the sentence, too, can be read backwards, forming a most peculiar edict:

Life Excelling This In Divine Or Renewed Happening Possibly All Regarding Exists Her Engendering Realization Magic Every Second Each Revolution A Need U Light O Sleep.

Actually, there is a paradox: in the forward version, the center god, SEMREH, is the only one whose name reads backwards. When the scheme is read backwards, he attains his ordinary name, HERMES. This accords with his dual, androgynous nature and his position as a wobbling or unwobbling pivot at the center of the entire epic. Forwards is backwards and backwards is forwards.

Similarly the 26 books can be read in reverse order, or in many orders. The Sentence of the Gods has no beginning or end, or rather it has multiple beginnings, multiple endings and multiple centers. The author has said he believes that “time goes forwards and backwards simultaneously. In other words, we live in the future and the past, as well as the present.”

Nor is this all. The books have other relationships among themselves. For example, in the backwards version All, Regarding and Exists form a triptych immediately followed by two more triptychs: Her, Engendering, Realization and Magic, Every, Second.

The books can also be related vertically. For example, the third column of letters in the scheme contains five letters: S, O, L, R and H. The R and H books—Realization and Happening—are therefore predominantly solar books, Sol-like.

Nor is this all. As a cosmological epic written by a poet, the Sentence of the Gods is a heaven-storming attempt to continue in the tradition of the great epic poems, most notably—though by no means entirely—Homer, Dante and Milton. It is an epic poem, an epic poem or nothing.

The author realized, however, that most of the 26 books were in free verse or prose (though Madison Morrison’s work, like that of most other great literature of this century from Proust to Finnegans Wake to rock songs, finds its voice in some shadowy unclassifiable genre-busting interface between prose and poetry). Therefore the poet found a formal replacement, or equivalent, for the ordering principle of metrical regularity in numerology.

The numerological complexity of the Sentence of the Gods would require a slightly boring little chapbook to elucidate. At the most axiomatic level, the number of books is 26; 2 + 6 = 8, or the cosmic number. And the total number of sequences is 7, which, added to the whole, or unity, again gives 8.

The number of pages of each book has significance for its ordering, for the balance of its parts, for formal relationships within individual works, and for the Sentence as a whole. For example, the first book, Sleep, has 52 pages, making a 7, the number of sequences; it has 17 poems, making an 8, the number of the Sentence itself; thus its very first book contains within itself an adumbration of the entire epic poem.

This use of the ordering principle (lines, pages, sections, whatever) applies to all 26 books.

Nor is this . . . but I could go on till the Apocalypse. The author keeps gaily grinding out, and launching like paper airplanes, charts and diagrams of ever more extravagant levels of formal symmetries in his “system,” one of them correlating the work with the 26 dimensions, hidden and unhidden, of string theory!

These charts, pretty as my nieces and rainbow-colored like children’s drawings and intellectually formidable as the organizing algorithms in Dante and Joyce, suggest a certain congenital whimsy, the kind of playfulness we indeed find in the most advanced contemporary physics. Or pataphysics.

Yet all this is merely a rigorous geodesic framework. One of its functions is very important: it allows the epic to manifest encyclopedically, where appropriate, the entirety of human historical civilization, both West and East. The Sentence of the Gods is therefore a universal history, a compendium of culture, a maniacal academy of Comparative Religion whose aim is to become a religion itself, a para-journalistic time capsule of the late twentieth century in all its vulgar techno-optimist glamour, a breezy irrefutable analysis of the essence and directionality of the western canon of literature and philosophy, an imperial yet adoring grasp of Oriental thought and art available only to expatriates and Chinese speakers like himself, and, my favorite, a fête of modernist panache both sumptuous and ascetic, deriving in part from the idealist, Gallic heights of the avant-garde, from the odd combination of populist humor and exotic super-erudition found in Pound and in some contemporary scholarship, and from the fresh mystical vision of Madison Morrison’s stubborn and rather frighteningly idiosyncratic mind.

At this point one would need a hundred or so pages to describe the way in which the Sentence of the Gods, like its main rival, Finnegans Wake, has grafted, injected, interwoven the whole of the eastern and western canons, the “classics” of literature and religion, into its very substance or protoplasm. "Whole" is of course an exaggeration, but the general effect is of a gigantic compost of a Humanities curriculum at Johns Hopkins and Max Mueller’s Sacred Books of the East.

On this level the work is a university, exemplary in its terrible sublimity, and as with a university its main function is to lift us out of our trivial, dreary, quotidian lives—that crushing mundane life, with its usually frustrated promise of poetry and transcendence, which is the subject matter of much of the Sentence of the Gods.

But, too, contrariwise, the (only apparently, that is, to the unenlightened unenergized mind?) boring trashy purgatory of our workaday lives provides a comic deflation of the highfalutin’ heights of imagination and religion and ethics, the way the bourgeois domesticity of Ulysses is a gentle and kindly satirical bringdown of its heroic Homeric model.

For example, Homer and the Bible, the two pillars of western culture, are fleeced, carded and stitched into the two adjacent books Second and Every. The first half of Second threads passages from the Iliad like a Jacquard loom, while the second half features a bouquet of poems meditating on the adventures of Odysseus not through the Mediterranean region but through the western tradition. Every, with divine or blasphemous impertinence, eats Holy Scripture for breakfast.

The next book in that sequence, Magic, digests “the third tradition,” the Egyptian and Gnostic. The first half of this autobiography is a lamination of The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the second half uses material from the Corpus Hermeticum. The first forwards, the second backwards.

This split-in-two, forwards-and-backwards business is, the reader may have noticed, appropriate to the dual and central nature of HERMES, the location of the triptych Second, Every and Magic. Or SEMREH.

That is merely an example:

Realization incorporates India: the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita.

Engendering takes up the Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ch’ing of Lao Tzu.

Her makes a tempting pâté of Hesiod’s Theogony and the Works and Days with sonnets of Asia and, Lord help us, Oklahoma City.

Three of the parts of HERA are based on Chinese landscape painting.

This: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Divine: Dante’s Comedy, of course. Renewed: Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Possibly: Don Quixote.

Etc. etc. The author has graciously provided us with bibliographies! Better still are his seminal essays, readable and jargon-free, which together form a kind of self-explication or an exploration of his intentions and the trend of his researches.

When I hear the word “text” I reach for my revolver, but I suppose a little hermeneutics never hurt anybody. How is all this material used? The Sentence of the Gods serves up plenty of “quashed quotatoes” as a side helping, but the entire rest of the smorgasbord is the word of Maddy Morrison his own writ. The author tells us he has employed four types of intertextual relations:

Hypertext. A text in which the primary text is linked to a secondary text, which also hovers above it, as an authority.

Intertext. A text interwoven with the primary text so as to amplify, commentate or ironize it. Accordingly, the primary text and the intertext may stand in complementary, oblique or contradictory relations to one another, with many possible variations and combinations of these modes. The relationship between the two texts may also shift at will.

Pretext. A text used to incite another text, as in the case of the 1000-page Norton Anthology of English Verse, the inspiration for the 1000-line poem, Need.

Subtext. A text used as a model to form a ground for the primary work. The dynastic types of Chinese landscape painting employed as general models for the last three books of HERA provide examples.”

Many of the books use two or more of these techniques.

By now the reader will have no doubts about all this being merely the tip of an iceberg tailor-made by the gods to destroy the unsinkable Titanic of the smug, corrupt and desperately infotaining love boat of commercial literature.

But something wrong here. Perhaps even everything. At this point the reader may be annoyed, probably is annoyed, by a suspicion of the muscle-bound strenuousness that seems to mark our sclerotic fin de siècle literature, of the sweat socks smell of gym class or the musty mold of Algebra II, and the fear of a hellish boredom.

I know for certain that the author, at least, will be annoyed, as he will be annoyed by my constant comparisons to Joyce, a fellow Prometheus who has not influenced him in the slightest (he once told me, after my ravings about my beloved Finnegans Wake, that he didn’t “believe in circular world-views”).

No, I have missed the real point, and I have cheated him, and you.

Madison Morrison is just like that big glob of mercury my best friend brought to homeroom in the seventh grade. Every time I put my finger on it, it skooshed away, wriggling. We played with it in fascination all day and I cannot forget it: the glob had weight, it had authority, it had the solid shiny glamour of the metals, yet it had the feminine elusiveness of the girls I loved. It finally disappeared, alas: too many pokings and pourings dissipated it into ever more tiny droplets, into a silver scum.

I don’t want to make the same mistake with the Sentence of the Gods. As soon as I have it pigeonholed as being cold, factoidal, urban and impersonal I discover it to be warm, imaginative, pastoral and disarmingly candid.

And funny. It is a comic epic, like another world-swallowing Pop-Art-ish rival, Gravity’s Rainbow. Cosmicomics. It makes you feel good, it restores your appetite for life. Its plan or form is stochastic, statistical, open-ended, open-minded, open to everything. He himself has said he is not sure where the work is going, like life itself, as if he were trying to spread a rumor that he didn’t quite know what he were doing.

Revolution is, above all, a comic novel, intended for readers who think it fun in a book to combine four different settings: America Today, Ancient China, Revolutionary France, and France Today.”

The key word here is fun. Madison Morrison is not going to lie down and let the pop songwriters and the filmmakers have all the fun, rather in the way Stravinsky embraced syncopation in order to keep the popular and jazz musicians from having all the fun. On opening his work the most uninitiated reader will see the fun and may very well have an impression of frivolousness. The Sentence of the Gods is a party, at which no guest is sober.

This incredibly weird and original blending of fun, of the silly giggly joy of life in all its maddening dumbassness, of a Dionysian love of travel and girls and nature, the blending of this with the icy Aeschylean altitudes of the author’s mystical and intellectual withdrawal to a height above the timber line where no man or woman can live, with his exemplary (and suicidally unfashionable) avant-garde priestly idealism, is surely the most striking feature of his absurd project. Peter Carravetta has memorably said that “Madison Morrison takes no prisoners”; absolutely, in a sense, but I am not so sure that little girls cannot apply without fear of the bowstring.

My earlier analyses may have given readers the impression that in reading the Sentence they are dutifully attending a lecture by Professor Paul Elmer More or Professor Irving Babbit or some other virtuous Humanist, as if the Sentence of the Gods were a Book of Virtues. If so, then what are we to make of these bits of exalted religious transport, from A?

Hey, Is That Goldie Hawn?
Golden Looks for a Golden Girl
Two Golden Girls Who Work Out of the West

Beauty Bar: The Art of Self-Perfection
How I Fight Insomnia
Herbal Medicine

and

So. You’re very
1973.
Helpless? Never . . .
Are there times when
you feel like you’re
the only two people
in the world?
Puerto Rican Rum
won’t intrude on
that feeling.

Or this almost unbearable memory from the three-hanky yet psychotically detached Magic.

In 1951 my mother is forty-four . . . Though not asexual, she has never in my memory had a sexual bearing about her . . . She does flirt with men, but in an asinine way . . . Her sexuality has somehow been linked with—or sublimated into—hysteria.

She also has a strong penchant for sadistic punishment. For example, she likes to make me stand in the kitchen while she goes outside to get a switch, stripping the little branch of its leaves as she returns, then using it on the back of my legs . . . No wonder in later life I feel no affection for her. She has reaped what she has sown.

Though my parents have an obsessive attachment to one another, there is in the house-hold no sense of free play, no involuntary love, no spontaneous affection.

Or the quite accessible prose, acidly observant and sweetly sophisticated as The New Yorker, from the political satire Revolution, the radically counter-revolutionary Revolution, one of the best entrances into the labyrinth of the Sentence.

When he woke up Saturday morning he was still feeling horny, but now he was also depressed. Against his better judgment he had spent an evening at the movies. Histoire d’Adèle H., billed as a French love story, had ended up in a graveyard. It was all too much like history for Jen. The author had kept the poet offstage and offered up the daughter instead, who had gone off to America in search of her loved-one. Her problem seemed to be that she didn’t know how to stop writing . . .

Jen dressed and, skipping breakfast, headed for the Grand Palais, where the first Millet retrospective since 1887 had been assembled. The paintings had come from everywhere, but Americans owned a surprising number. Though the show seemed out of place, as he walked back and forth, up and down, Jen began to get the drift. French art in the nineteenth century had been a machine. The painter produced the works. All these tough characters dressed in the French Flag! They weren’t intended to make you any happier. “Life is hard,” that was the message. “Art is even harder,” said Jen.

He was glad to be outside again. Where history takes place, he thought.

Or this immortal flight of Pegasus from U, worthy to be memorized by schoolchildren as they do the Gettysburg Address or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Freddy’s front gas-tank has exploded . . .
Luckily he arrives to find no
Trees on fire and the youngsters taking
Care of the situation. They’ve all
Joined hands in a small circle around
Freddy’s flaming hood and each in turn
Spits a big goober into the blaze.
Soon the fire is out (with a goober
From Bob serving as the real quencher).

Clearly not the way to win the Nobel Prize. This stuff is about as academic and Nobel-Humanist as kill-the-ho gangsta rap, The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.

The very title is a joke, a superb double entendre. We are told that the word “sentence” may be taken in its “grammatical, judicial or gnomic” meanings. I would go further: the word “of ” may be taken in two senses, yielding at least four interpretations:

A discourse or proclamation either handed down from the Universal Absolute or handed up from the Collective Unconscious.

  1. A statement about (all) the gods, as in Homer or Ovid.

  2. A penal sentence, not excluding death, imposed by the gods on the cosmos, the human race, or the author. Thus a redemptive task, a labors of Hercules, imposed on the author. We are all, as John Lennon said, “doing time.”

  3. A sentence of penal servitude and suffering, not excluding death (Götterdämmerung), imposed on the gods. As in Christianity, God must merge with the world, suffer passion, and die.

Pop Art . . . Madison Mercury Morrison rightly bridles at any attempts to label him, but though the Sentence tracks relentlessly into the next millennium (because it is ultimately a stencil or template placed over reality) it always and ever bears the marks, like a lightly whipped slave girl, of its gay origin in the incomparable Sixties, when the distinction between High and Low magically disappeared, “when The Beatles spiritualized us all.”

The Sentence is a shiny flat acrylic, not an oil, painted in discrete Ben Day dots. It has the glaring blaring frontality, the faint carrion whiff of crypto-nihilism, the pseudo-genial blank horror vacui of Warhol, who said, “Pop Art is about things you like.” Lichtenstein said of one of his last works: “I think it’s very cheerful . . . that is, unless you find my work depressing.”

When Pop Art died, everything else more or less died. No one is now a Populist except a fool or a political or artistic opportunist. Mass Culture sank back into the lumpenproletariat, and High Culture, sadly singing Beatles songs, retreated back into the ivory tower and raised the drawbridge. Except in the Sentence of the Gods.

Pop Art . . . one of the most harrowing experiences of my life was a quiet May afternoon when I had tea in Madison Morrison’s living room. He is, or maybe was, quite the cup-of-tea host, downright Henry James-ish; I wasn’t afraid of committing a faux pas—I am absolutely certain I could have stretched out on the immaculate wood floor if I had had an Okie mind to, or even vomited on it (he referred to the behavior in his home of a mentally ill poet friend of ours as that of “a country squire”)—it was that I was afraid of defiling the Mind, of dishonoring The Project (“What’s The Project?” Susan Sontag was asked. “Seriousness,” she replied).

Some fear, some seriousness. The soft-spoken devil was perfectly aware of my predilection for disturbing radical doctrine (Norman O. Brown, Wittgenstein, Mao) and he calmly, too calmly, proceeded to one-up me, for all time, by telling me that Television was Everything.

I believe he was on a Whitman kick at the time but at any rate the idea was that television was Whitman, was the I-am-you-as-you-are-me cosmic populist democracy, profoundly American, that Whitman in his hyper-Emersonianism had envisaged (at least before the Gilded Age had taken some of the afflatus out his sails). Morrison told me that Johnny Carson was far more important than any writer of our time. He told me that he had watched television for years with his son and that by the time his son was twelve years old “he knew everything.” Literature, as Sartre said, was done for. Any other position was snobbish, reactionary, naïve, and doomed to extinction, like the old insistence that all truly educated people must know Latin and Greek. In other words, Oprah really is God.

Something of this obscene creed may lie behind the stupefyingly inane yet—when cast into rigid stanzaic form—mysteriously resonant “AUGUST 17, ’74” from A. Twenty-two pages of reverent transcribing of a single day of The Gospel According to Our Sponsor:

The Fresh Face of Martha: she washes with Noxzema every day.
Freddy cared more about his wheels than my legs. Phil was a sports-
man. But now, with David, I use Neet. It leaves my legs smoother.
That just-brushed freshness with Dentyne. David and Andy! We’ve
done a few things in L.A., ladies and gentlemen. Say it again, say you
love me again. I’ve heard it before, I’ll hear it some more.

A tornado
was sighted
on the ground
a mile from
Ellington.
But it sounds like
wedding bells to me.

Phelps’s Law: The Higher The Brow, The Worse The Taste In Popular Culture. Pynchon, Eco, Joyce, Paglia, etc.

I am being unjust here since I believe the author no longer promulgates his terrifying and very plausible thesis that CNN is Reality. The dog may be wagging the tail again, and I doubt if he watches thirty minutes of television a day. As with many another writer’s oeuvre, the Sentence of the Gods is a graveyard littered with the corpses of previous enthusiasms. Yet all the ghosts have a ghastly vitality.

On the other hand, I am not surprised to learn that the author has embraced the computer and the Internet with gusto, and that he is considering making a video game based on Sentence of the Gods.

There is no such thing as postmodernism. There is only modernism, and barbarism.

Nevertheless, if such a thing as has been called postmodernism existed, then the Sentence of the Gods would surely be its foundation myth, its ur-text, its indispensable bedtime story, its encyclopedia, its academy. It flaunts that loving, double-edged irony, that obsession with rhetoric, that expensively educated over-culturization combined with a bland enthusiasm for popular culture that are said to characterize this decadent, late-late-Roman phenomenon.

No wonder the wonderful Italians, with their wise and witty post-Marxist mélange of semiotics and Superman comics, have loved, critiqued and published Sentence of the Gods. The French, who have the same surrealist roots and the same intransigent Olympian hypertrophy of the intellect as the author, will surely follow, saving him as they have saved other American writers, underrated at home to the point of invisibility, from Poe to Faulkner to John Hawkes to Philip K. Dick.

All is not, however, insouciance, any more than the hilarious “light” movements in Shostakovich’s symphonies overshadow their predominantly somber character. A rapt submissiveness before nature in the eponymously titled All generates a sacred landscape exfoliating through fourteen pages of a prose “sonnet”:

Author gazes past pines into the starry night, into its flood of luminosity, at individual constellations, at the Milky Way. A rabbit rustles past through blackened brush.

Horizonal flush, followed by darkness. Again, the star-brightened heavens, ever receding, ever enlarging. For reference points, only the faint yellow of pulsating stars.

He peers into dusky surround, its smoky black, its nebulous grey. Stars appear through trees outlined only in charcoal.

The galaxy is dissolving, others are forming.

A cabin light in the distance.

At the opposite pole of intense observation, one is offered a Disneylandish tour through the Svenska Stål steel-making factory in Luleå, Sweden, from In. There is no such thing as post-industrialism; there is only industrialism, and bourgeois bullshit. The author’s paean to the basis of our life, and his (his father worked in the steel business), deserves a Lenin Prize:

We have arrived at the parking lot in front of the ovens, where red-hot coke is about to be “pushed” into a cooling wagon. When coal is heated in a closed chamber, volatile matter is distilled from it in the form of gases, and the coal becomes coke. Fuming, it empties forth from a holder half a meter wide, seven meters tall, dropping like volcanic magma into the wagon. It is then used as a reducing agent in the blast furnace. Red, yellow, hot; “more than 1000°,” our guide comments. Black smoke and flames swirl off its surface, as the cooling wagon moves along the track to accommodate the rush of burning cakes.

Or take the strange case of Light, still my favorite of all the books. It is a poem of 216 ten-line stanzas. This regularity produces a “serious,” mesmerizing effect, somewhat mystagogical and much to my Gothic tastes. Despite my admiration for Ashbery I consider Light the finest long philosophical poem since “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” and yet it is in reality an almost immiscible colloidal suspension of extreme physical action and utter reflective quietude, of drama and solitude.

The mysterious power of relaxation the book had on me led me to pronounce it the perfect bedside, pre-sleep book, and it was only decades later that I learned it was based entirely on the author’s dreams! I really had thought much of the action was “real.” No wonder it made me voluptuously sleepy, yet it completely lacks the usual tedium of dream accounts, partly because it incorporates interpretations of the dreams, and other reactions, into the “story.” Dreams, that is, as pretexts for meditative poetry by “an extremist in an exercise”:

From the steep incline a
woman addresses the audience,
partly hidden by the railing.
I drop to the floor. Though
a butt of ridicule, yet
I have escaped. And
when the goddesses assemble
with the missing elements,
only seven remain,
but that will be enough.

It is possible that the reader is beginning to have doubts as to the author’s (not to mention his commentator’s) mental balance. Since loss of control is manifestly not at issue, a different, perhaps previously unknown, psycho-pathology may be implicated.

Take the two epyllia, U and Need. Both of these two very original and slightly repellent quasi-masterpieces are “stories” written in exactly 1000 lines of verse apiece, in regular meters. The first uses a nine-syllable line in what the author calls “a colloquial and deliberately gross” style (remember those goobers?) to adumbrate a domestic phantasmagoria that resembles the somewhat nightmarish and absurd deconstructions of Suburbia found in certain independent filmmakers. The second, the companion and mirror opposite of the first, uses perfect iambic pentameter in an “elevated and deliberately decadent” style to tell a mythic and heroic tale of one Alexander and his mysterious “she.”

For both books the author composed one line of verse every day for one thousand days. And for Need, the author read one page of a 1000-page chronological an­thology of English verse “each evening in preparation for the next day’s line”!

Was ever the Muse in this humor wooed? Anima of the Thousand Days?

This kind of obsession, and inhuman Napoleonic discipline, applied to the whole Sentence itself, suggests the eccentric yet inspiring attempt by that Czech immigrant, continued by seven of his children after his death, to carve, sculpt, a statue of Crazy Horse out of an entire mountain in the Dakotas. A life work: if Madison Morrison were not one of the most sophisticated and delicately reticulated minds of our time, his project might resemble those vast and intricate works of verbal or plastic folk art secretly elaborated over decades in basements, desert gas stations, or mental institutions by unknown industrious folk “geniuses.”

A crank, then, with a private schizoid cosmic system. Like Stockhausen’s Licht, also in seven epic parts organized by the seven days of the week, a seven-night opera more complex than the Ring and as nutty as Dada. Like Blake’s Prophetic Books: Blake, pitied for being mad by his rationalist Enlightenment contemporaries, all now forgotten.

Like Performance: “the only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.”

Salvador Dali: “The difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad.”

Harold Bloom says the prime prerequisite for admission into the canon turns out to be, of all things, strangeness. For thousands of years countless thousands of writers have tried to Do the Job, delight and improve humanity, achieve recognition and enter the Pantheon. They had talent, intelligence, sensitivity, learning, imagination, wit, industry, virtue, good intentions, worldly wisdom, and even cosmic vision. Like our modern novelists, they had everything, and they have all completely disappeared, their books crumbled to dust. They just weren’t crazy enough, queer enough.

I am not especially disposed to apologize to readers who may be offended or unconvinced by the sycophantic tone of these remarks, hobbled as I am by grotesque space limitations in dealing with something of the scope, ambition, and achievement of the Sentence of the Gods. What would such readers do if they had a handful of pages to describe and defend the Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost to an open-minded person who had never heard of these works? Their tone would be either suspiciously raving and glib or suspiciously constipated and cautious. Advancing age, with its deterioration of patience and self-control, has loosened my inhibitions as it has loosened my bladder. I choose the rave.

I am not alone. So eminent a poet as the great James Merrill could hardly be accused of groupiedom, cultish idiocy or ulterior motives, and it is amazing with what perspicacity he perceived the Sentence at such an early stage of its construction: “We want double vision from our poets,” he says, “but Madison Morrison . . . is not about to leave it at that. He must persist until as many of the world’s “appearances” as humanly possible, along with its multiple faiths and literary modes, have been called into play. In this ongoing binocular museum what we know is distanced, what we do not know is brought near, always with skill, erudition and great good humor.”

Or Peter Carravetta, who in his subtle and very funny “Toward a Cosmographica Poetica” assays a quite respectable grab at The Glob in only a few sentences: “From the very beginning, he is off on the scriptural charts of the endless journey, and unlike a pious Christian, he is not so convinced there is a salvation Afterwards: there is only the search, la busqueda, la sfida perenne, l’entretien infini, a communication with the world both seen and unseeable apparently just around the corner, beyond the next crest, or perceivable somehow on the riverbank across . . .

“One begins to get the sense that according to Morrison there is no ONE life, one identity, or a single unifying Logos or Ratio that can hold all these interlocking vicissitudes together. This is not seen as a crisis, but rather as an opportunity . . .

“. . . he is not satisfied with self-irony and social parody. Morrison will not wallow in self-indulgent defeatism. He will look outside, further out, further into something that might contain both his body/soul and the ‘sense’ of life, of society, indeed of the universe. Here then commences the endless journey.”

Or Terry Kennedy, whose graceful blurb for Or applies more generally: “With the movie camera’s impersonality—at every angle undercut by the poet’s heart—Morrison conducts our tour of Siam, recording glimpses of its ancient culture but focusing on its present-day life. Everything changes, he seems to say. We all seek something!—a classic temple. Anything—a Coca Cola. From within her ever-unfolding lotus, sound the siren chants of Asia’s modern mantras. Morrison blesses us with his innuendo yet passes no judgment.”

Mr. Carravetta’s salient concept is endless journey. On the very first page of Excelling we find:

The boat rolls onward, its graceful progress sympathetic to the senses. Before long night will fall. Tomorrow will bring a new day.

The adventure is underway.

Adventure: I understand one of the author’s next self-assignments is a voyage upriver into the jungles of Africa. No one undergoes such danger in an imploding continent except National Public Radio correspondents or scientific researchers, and they get paid for it. Folly: like the Sentence itself. And as the books become evermore picaresque (the whole work is picaresque anyway), one almost hopes that Madison Morrison would disappear forever on this berserk pilgrimage, like Ambrose Bierce, leaving EL, perhaps appropriately, unfinished.

It would require a separate study to convey anything of the fascination, daring and opulence of the “travel books”: Realization, Or, Divine, Happening, etc. The first books in the Sentence give the rather austere impression of a forbidding and hieratic solitude; this inwardness ends up auto-destructing like unto a dynamited dam, in which an irresistible flood sweeps the author away to, almost literally, the ends of the earth: Thailand, Finland, The People’s Republic of China, Italy, India, and so on.

A sort of shorthand style that sometimes uses sentence fragments and omits unnecessary words enables the travel books to amass a mountain-mosaic of observed detail as huge and grandiose as Olympus Mons on Mars. These tens or hundreds of thousands of photo-like jewels have their number enriched in every sense by the use of the intertextual technique; Divine, for example, has quotations from Vasari, Claudio Lazzarro, Dorothy Sayers, Benvenuto Cellini, Plotinus, Veronese, Pliny, Ruskin, Jan Morris, Castiglione, Taine, academic scholars, and just about anyone else who has ever shed light on beautiful Italy.

From solitude we go to a cast of thousands, a Whitmanic tsunami of humanity the peripatetic lunatic sees, speaks with, interacts with. He has a delicious friendly time in Thailand, discusses Mel Gibson as Hamlet with a young lady in Scandinavia, and in India writes of his collection of “Americans in Madras” and “Rich Madrasis” with the disillusioned affection of a Maugham. And always he is looking, staring, in the sheer pleasure of seeing. His only rival in describing people’s clothes is Tom Wolfe, and few have described backwater cities so me-ticulously, lovingly, not to mention every pretty woman the Good Lord ever made and distributed among the races of Man.

The exotic is preferred (though his style makes Houston, Texas exotic), possibly in part because these worlds are disappearing as they are homogenized by global capitalism and ground up into Wendyburgers. There is a pathos in all the travel books; the author catches irreplaceable historical cultures in all their color and provinciality at the moment of their vanishing into the 21stcentury, as Ms. Kennedy noted; he pins them like butterflies and seals them forever in the glass cases of his books (compared by James Merrill to a “museum”). The exotic for its own sake, dhotis and idli and vaporetti and the Piazza del Duomo and wats and Bangkok tuk-tuks and Norwegian caviar and fjords in fog and Cross-the-Bridge rice noodles in Yunnan and the Chongqing Economy and Technology and Development Area and the Rothko Chapel.

And all of course synchronized with its proper position in the master plan of the Sentence. The traveling is itself an allegory: the adventure is underway.

What is behind all this? Anything? The author rattles his saber. Quite menacingly, at any invasive interrogation as to his “intent,” but if it is possible to mutter in a letter he has muttered, grudgingly growled, that perhaps, in part Sentence of the Gods might be seen as an attempt to find a “realist” alternative to or equivalent for the modern realist epic novel (he refuses to read contemporary fiction).

Or rather, who is behind all this? Anyone? He has lately dropped hints that the “I” of the Sentence should be taken as undefined, as a fluid variable; he says that one of his friends refers to him as “the so-called Madison Morrison.” Certainly well-called: what artist would not envy those tripping alliterative dactyls, a name as if deliberately designed for immortality by a committee of poets?

No “I” . . . O.K., I get it, but I have the misfortune, so to speak, of knowing the author personally, and behind everything I can’t help seeing perhaps the most unegotistical college teacher I have ever observed, a veritable finger pointing to the moon, with the power to transmit to his students by osmosis his infinite delight in, his salvation in, literature (and painting and film). I also know for a fact that he has had a very difficult life, yet in every encounter with him I have been struck by his serenity, a serenity that also dominates the Sentence of the Gods as its central characteristic. This Zen-like tranquillity has been, believe me, hard-won, and when I think of his quiet mellifluous voice and his Buddha smile . . .

That’s it . . . his smile. That damn smile.

Updike: “The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes an artist from an entertainer.”

As the world becomes progressively dumbed down into an inane visual culture based on a religion of senseless noisy motion, motion for its own sake, as literacy becomes a mandarin skill, as writers either make their pact with the Devil or slink off to drink themselves to death, the so-called Madison Morrison remains at his lonely post like a soldier whose comrades have all gone over to the enemy. Emulate his equanimity, if you can, but don’t be misled by it or by his love for women or his predilection for comedy or his maddening lust for fame. Yes, postmodernists, there are literary martyrs. Torches. Condemned to his own sentence, to his life sentence of hard labor and obscurity, smiling in his chains, he upholds challenging standards of purity and rigor that have become an embarrassing anachronism, and an eternal inspiration.

Madison Morrison puts us all to shame.


Ron Phelps