By Jake Berry
7 Points Press, 2022
Reviewed by Hank Lazer
Jake Berry is one of Alabama’s finest poets. Much admired by West Coast poets Michael McClure and Jack Foley, Jake Berry remains somewhat underappreciated in his home state. A superb musician and songwriter (his twelfth album appeared in 2018) and an excellent visual artist, Berry may be best known for his ongoing long poem Brambu Drezi – a visionary epic encompassing a range of spiritual and mythic traditions. His latest book of poems, The Oracle House: Poems 2018-2021, is a more traditional work of poetry than many of Berry’s previous books. Perhaps through his deepening affiliation with Trinity Episcopal Church in Florence, Berry’s new work has an immediately accessible piety to it, though still informed by his sense of the tragic, the apocalyptic, and the intensity of visionary experience of his previous works. This newly explored religiosity of Berry’s exists within an Emersonian tradition of spiritual experience at first hand. Though there are recognizable Christian frameworks appearing throughout The Oracle House, Berry remains committed to reporting what he witnesses and experiences (rather than relying on the reports of others).
Berry’s poetry in Oracle pushes toward the experience on the verge of being overwhelmed, though finally rescued by the emergence of beauty, as in the ending of the book’s opening poem:
Before the last day
if faith has an eye in her grasp,
the prophet wails
and heaven descends
to recreate everything that was
with a laugh and a dance
and a sing-song tune
with a swinging beat
that rouses Christ to reshape our dreams.
It’s only autumn after all,
and all we can endure of beauty.
Ever on the edge of apocalypse, Berry’s poetry remains deeply engaged in a heightened alertness: “We trouble at thunder / and scry the night for signs” (11).
Though this book is more locatable in a Christian framework than Berry’s previous books, his poetry has always been actively pan-religious, and Oracle too has moments that sound, to my ear, quite Buddhist: “All that is sacred is all that is” (19), which reminds me of Dogen’s claim that “Nothing in the whole world is hidden.” Though Berry’s poetry has a visual precision located in this world, he leans more fully into experiences of the visible, the unknowable, and what lies just beyond our customary (and habitual) perceptual world.
As with his song lyrics, these poems too have their epiphanic moments of stunning intensity:
But this is the merest herald
and weakest foretaste of that which comes
to be revealed when the air rips clean
as a shedding skin and the pure animal
arrives in such terrible perfection
that we must recreate our eyes. (36)
Oracle is, of course, as poetry must eventually be, an examination of mortality, with Berry experiencing Christ as a guide, aid, and exemplar: “No one knew death could be so benevolent. // As gentle as Christ every Sunday morning / with nothing to do but roam the fields / and count the birds of communion” (37). And in one of the many peculiarities of contemporary culture, particularly in the seemingly more adventurous domains of experimental art and poetry, the direct naming of Christ and God in poetry, sadly, necessitates its own risk and courage. Berry’s poetry is a truthful, trustworthy writing of what he has experienced, felt, and what has been given to him.
There is a symmetry in death/dissolution and birth/recreation that runs throughout this book: each state of being and the transitions back and forth are central to Berry’s vision:
I stood in the door of the oracle house and wept.
Every wall had turned to dust
and was held together only by dream stuff
and I knew what is and how she rises
to create the flesh through which
eternity is breathing. (42)
It is this beautifully compelling sense of eternity breathing in and through incarnation that is so palpable throughout Oracle. Berry’s sense of eternity breathing though the flesh reminds me of lines in John Coltrane’s poem that accompanies the great album A Love Supreme: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet, it is our everything.”
Berry’s proximity to the divine is felt both in sorrow and pain, and also in moments of unexpected joy. He might ask, “Why do we drink so long at the well of sorrow? // The darkness of God is still God / waiting silently at an unremembered door” (43). To that question and many others, so much gets answered (and experienced) in my favorite poem in the book, “Embrace,” which begins by asking “What is it that brought us here, / to make our holy place.” Berry’s faith, perhaps like all faith that is truthful, is built upon doubt and heartfelt questioning, as well as on the sporadic affirmative experiences that so enrich the complexity of this miraculous (and temporary) human incarnation:
What is it the cat sees
flitting through the room
out of a half dream
through her twilit eyes?
We see nothing, but feel the presence
and follow it outward
where the heart that drew us
into this long, sublime embrace
solves the mystery waiting at the gate
and we nestle into
all the love that made us. (38)
Oracle is inspired and inspiring poetry, written by one of Alabama’s very finest.
Hank Lazer is a writer, educator, and critic whose works include more than thirty collections of poetry. In January 2014, Lazer retired from the University of Alabama where he continues to teach innovative seminars on Zen Buddhism and Radical Approaches to the Arts for New College and the Blount Scholars Program. He received the 2015 Harper Lee Award for Lifetime Achievement.