In “A Note on the Text” for his latest collection of poetry, Across the Vapour Gulf
(New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #22, 2017), Will Alexander writes:
When I first laid eyes on the writing of Cioran, I was smitten by the form. The aphorism seemed cleansed of detritus. Unlike the sequential novel (so appropriately condemned by Breton) the aphorism in Cioran’s hands seemed to spontaneously ignite. Poetry, history, philosophy, the essay, medicinally combined appearing on the other side of itself as insight.
M. Cioran, the misanthropic master of despair, seems like an unlikely
choice for Will Alexander, the master of ecstatic language, which makes this
encounter all the more engaging. Across more than fifty years, writing in
Romanian and French, Cioran focused on despair and emptiness with the
relentless of a bloodhound on the trail of a criminal, which, in this case, was
life and all its illusions.
Yet, despite the nihilistic gloom that pervaded every word he put to paper, Cioran was an alluring writer whose sentences pulled you in, holding you there, even if you could not reach the same dark conclusion. Another great stylist, the French poet St. John Perse, described Cioran as “one of the greatest French writers to honor our language since the death of Paul Valery.”
What Alexander shares with Cioran, Perse, and Valery is that he is not
averse to the obscure, as long as he can state it with an unparalleled clarity,
such as he does in this sentence which begins a section in Across the
Vapour Gulf: “Walking around an orchard of riddles, a milky density of ants
erupts, and the idea coalesces in my mind of mixtures of colour that emanate
from the spectral beyond the constraint of consensus optical limit.” Surely,
each of us have had a moment when it occurs to us that there are things we see that come from some place other than “consensus optical limit,” be it dreams or visions or insight.
Alexander is to English as Valery is to French: he honors the possibilities of
language (reality) by making them real. One way he does this is by being nuanced in the domain of heightened language: “As a poet, I am a ghost in a village teeming with certitudes and hatchlings. My co-inhabitants always distracted by consensus fate, always kinetic with ideology and procreation.”
As readers of Alexander’s writing have come to expect, it is swarming with
information from a vast library — like one lost in Alexandria — that the author
has absorbed into his bloodstream: philosophy; science of all kinds from
color theory to the study of insects and lemurs; alchemy, geography; the
Dogon; mining in Zimbabwe in 41,000 B.C.; science fiction; and the output of little-known writers. And really this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The question Alexander returns to throughout this book — I cannot think of it as a pamphlet, even though it is stapled together — is the nature of the
individual consciousness; what does it mean to be awake and to see? Are
your receptors open to receive what is there? As he tells us in his “Note,” he came to the aphorism because he felt it was cleansed of detritus. This is also what he and Cioran have in common. For all the excess of Alexander’s writing, it is extremely pared down. You cannot simplify what he says, as that would be an insult to the ignited inspiration and to the reader. What Alexander writes is not surrealist or lyric: It is one person’s celebration of the senses, including, at last, the intellect and its roots in Eros.