Doppelgänger, poetry by Brian Henry
Talisman House, 2011
Doppelgänger would be a good book to read when one is down with the flu and running a high temperature and the body is under assault and has a foreign feeling to it. The intensity is weirdly delicious and the feeling inside is strange. It is a feeling of shadows, of things lurking in us that aren’t exactly human. Monstrosities of our interior subterranean life. An inner life that we know is a dimension of our own being, but is also foreign, uncanny, phantasmal and dark.
I know this feeling. I have felt it most keenly on those occasions of misery when my bones ached and I was stuffed with antihistamine and codeine. I hate being sick, but there is, admittedly, a side to it that resembles the dance of hallucinogens in the blood stream. There is a poetry to it. An alluring blur of hectic umbra.
Not that I’m suggesting that Doppelgänger is a book suited to illness, or that one should run a high temperature to gain entry into its imaginary realm. The writing is strong and will induce that sensation without a viral invasion and a runny nose.
Doppelgänger is a German word meaning “double walker,” and refers to a supernatural double typically representing evil or misfortune. The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, as if one were witnessing one’s own ghost, a portent of illness or danger or possibly even death arrayed in the ghostly raiment of dream.
The Doppelgänger is our shadow self and as such has connections with the underworld. In this circumstance, there is no afterlife. The “upper and lower worlds are the same,” observed James Hillman, “only the perspectives differ.” “There is only one and the same universe, coexistent and synchronous, but one brother’s view sees it from above and through the light, the other from below and into its darkness. Hades’ realm is contiguous with life, touching it at all points, just below it, its shadow brother (Doppelgänger) giving to life its depth and its psyche.”
Doppelgänger, at a glance, could be taken to be a series of poems, or one long poem. Which it is. But it has an evident narrative structure and unfolds like a fable of mortal longing.
The central character is an old man who appears to have had a history of cardiac problems. In the first poem, his discomfiture during the night panics his wife and she takes him to the emergency room where it is discovered that he is ok, “Though his heart bleeds and bleeds / Unless his shadow self has left / And crept to where it waits / For an other’s actions / to draw it back.”
Henry’s lines are short, studied fragments of information, searching, probing, and fraught with anguish, yet curiously neutral in tone, a sort of plainsong tinged with an undercurrent of worldweary resignation. A cantus firmus for self and shadow self and a host of apparitions, the kind of nightly presences that might haunt an old man’s memory, including the road not taken.
“What is it that dwells / On the surface of the eye,” asks a poem a few pages in,
And moves with the eye
When it moves
Not a windbrought speck
Not a discernible scratch
Not a hair calcified and stuck
Not sleep or matter or gunk
The eye carries some thing
With it when it opens
And cannot distill its self
From what its surface allows
To intrude on the surface
The conscious self glances
To one side and sees its shadows
Until the eye draws down
On the image affixed
And no there was no one there
The attentive reader will discover what is almost an unheard thwack, thwack, thwack of a shuttle making the warp and woof on a loom. Line by line a gestalt forms, hazy around the edges, informed by darkness the same way a room will come to life when a candle is burning. We form something soft and reflective to hold ourselves, but then a sudden shudder thrills through our being and we realize we are sitting in a void. There is no actual floor beneath us, no actual walls to separate us from the universe. We discover before we are dead that we have an existence in that other realm before we die.
We do not know precisely who this old man is, but religion appears to have failed him. It is suggested that his religion of choice is of a Protestant, southern Baptist ilk. Jimmy Swaggert makes an appearance:
The old man is so tired
He nods through every meal
Like a suckfist sermon
Jimmy Swaggert sweating
All over a woman’s bosom
The old man wants a holy man
To draw the shadow out
And hurl it into a pit
Of fire there to burn
But no man is holy
The old man learns
His search gone cold
Barren sermon dissolve
Outside of some Native American and New Age practices, there is no shamanistic tradition to help us die and guide our spirits into the next dimension. Happily assuming, of course, that there is a further dimension after we slough off our mortal coil. Christianity is all starch and no meat. The lifeblood has been sucked out of it by years of vain, pietistic ceremony and stultifying dogma. Christ would have to return to put the zip back into it. But the Christian fundamentalists would either ignore or crucify him again for conflicting with their get-rich-quick and magical thinking schemes. And the pope would no doubt vilify him for consorting with thieves and whores.
“The invisible swells inside” proclaims the first line of the adjacent poem. There is richness in this line. I feel what Henry means. I feel it more strongly with each passing year. As the body ages, the spirit grows. The air is charmed with numina.
The word ‘swell,’ however, evokes more than growth. It also suggests pain and inflammation. What Nietzsche, in The Birth Of Tragedy, calls the “wound of existence”:
It’s an eternal phenomenon: the voracious will always find a way to keep its creatures alive and force them on to further living by an illusion spread over things. One man is fascinated by the Socratic desire for knowledge and the delusion that with it he’ll be able to cure the eternal wound of existence. Another is caught up by the seductively beautiful veil of art fluttering before his eyes; yet another by the metaphysical consolation that underneath the hurly-burly of appearances eternal life flows on indestructibly, to say nothing of the more common and almost more powerful illusions which the will holds at all times. In general, these three stages of illusion are only for the nobly endowed natures, those who feel the weight and difficulty of existence with more profound reluctance and who need to be deceived out of this reluctance by these exquisite stimulants. Everything we call culture emerges from these stimulants: depending on the proportions of the mixture we have a predominantly Socratic or artistic or tragic culture - or if you’ll permit historical examples - there is either an Alexandrian or Hellenic or a Buddhist culture.
“Getting old,” Ted Enslin used to tell me, “is not for sissies.” The body becomes a burden. Health care, if it is affordable and available, is either a blessing or a curse. Doctors are intent on one thing and one thing only: keeping the patient alive. Death does not exist. There is no such thing as dying. Consequently, I have seen people suffer needlessly. As soon as modern western medicine recognizes death as a reality and a part of nature, and ceases prolonging a painful terminal illness with drugs and surgery, they can focus on ways to alleviate suffering when the inevitable time has come to let go of the body.
Henry has chosen a fascinating and compelling topic and approached it with a graceful simplicity. Even the space between the lines has a mute presence, the presence of absence, the song of the Doppelgänger, the shaman within. “Medicine fails words,” Henry proclaims. Illusions are fat with words. Belief, which some insist has the power to cure, ameliorates suffering for those who find in its words a more powerful medicine than what science offers. Practical medicine provides instruments and chemicals. Its words are throttled by frequent, accurate, controlled observation. Prayer and poetry, however cherished or scorned, extend beyond the pale of mortal life and overflow the lumpish ground of our heavy world with the shadows of elsewhere.