The Book of Lamps, being a psalm-book
Drug-tired, at a loss, how to fuel and busy the engines of resistance, to make of the ceaseless
and self-annihilating speech of inwardness, speech against self-annihilation, like a speech
before the gate-work, before the limit-work of setting-out, ostracized, for when Bellerophon
became hated by the gods [of Money] he wandered all the black earth, eating his heart out,
refusing the roads and trusts of men, but he did not jump, he wandered––ostracized––
in the debtor’s prison of his own skin, sucking the black extract from his heart and refusing
to jump, heart swollen by depression, swollen by debt, swollen from the refusal of trusts,
he made his heart the two-fisted engine against self-annihilation, o sad gargantuan,
there it is: the heart to bar the jump, there it is in the pause of second thoughts, see it
in rückenfigur, swollen with the black extract of refusal, o sad gargantuan, can you hang
that two-fisted engine from the wailing wall in your gut, add it to the beleaguered haul of days, happy
with its black meat, drug-tired, up against the limit-weight of the debtor’s cell of the black earth of
exhausted trusts, fat hands gripping the gate-work––the limit of the jump––at a loss to quell the
ballad of four seconds no music can remedy, at a loss to quiet the chronic speech
of exhausted inwardness, of wash-thin trusts, thrown under the fatigue within resistance––you
your own unrelenting lightness––left wandering to the lucid and unsparing psalm against,
outcast by callous policy that will not bar the jump, ostracized by the body politic
that refuses to reckon the count within the ballad of the chord, surrounded by the debtor’s prison
of his shoulders, wandering––ostracized from his own heart––under the monstrous lightness
of the Western sky, drug-tired to make the case against beleaguered days, drug-tired
from the ceaseless weight of inwardness, at a loss to keep its inertia from becoming the jump,
at a loss four seconds above the limit, the lucid waves, there he is in rückenfigur, palms still
pressed against the railing, head shagged with hair, all gargantuan and beleaguered, surrounded
by wash-thin shoulders, reckoning the palimpsest of the refusal of trusts, resisting the limit-speech
of suicide-notes, exhausted by the drug-tired trusts, worn-thin from the limit-weight of resistance,
o sad gargantuan, can you engine the lucid and unsparing psalm against, can you wander
the waves of days––with their wash-thin music––wander in your wash-thin shirt (a palimpsest of
suicide-notes and second thoughts), wander––ostracized––reckoning the debtor’s prison
of inwardness, that blank case no music can remedy, reckoning the limit-work of refusing
to jump, looking out––drug-tired, even your eyes exhausted––over the four seconds, their lightness,
palms pressed against the railing, shoulders––the engines of the jump––weighted with debt,
looking out for the clearing, at a loss to psalm over wave against the killing bay.
“The Book of Lamps / being a psalm-book” is from the collection Striven, The Bright Treatise, and was written in the wake of my brother’s suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. On January 7th 2007 my brother Tad walked the bridge’s footpath at dusk, climbed railing over to the chord, and jumped. By the summer of that year, a brief period of writing without intention or genre, a period in which writing served purely to sublimate my grief and depression, had already given way to more structured forms of composition, and I knew I was in the process of writing a book of poems against my brother’s suicide. I started writing “The Book of Lamps” in July of that summer.
The poem began with its title and the concept: one stanza for every light pole on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are 128 light poles on the bridge, and these light poles were used to map from where a person jumped. Of the 1300 known bridge suicides, 833 were mapped in this way; however, since an official count of suicides is no longer kept by the relevant authorities, they no longer map using the light poles as coordinates. So the poem began as an idea, a poetic assertion and memorial to work against the effacement of bridge suicides.
“The Book of Lamps” developed over the course of the follow year with each quarter attaining––as in the interrelated movements of fugal structure––its own shape and theme. At 24 pages it was (and remains) the longest poem I’d ever written. When I began to assemble the poems of Striven, The Bright Treatise into a collection I spaced “The Book of Lamps” so that the reader would encounter 32 stanzas at a time, and the poem’s evolving theme and repetitions would punctuate the music of the book.
During the conversations with my editors, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, J. Michael Martinez, and Sara Rene Marshall, at Noemi Press, each voiced concerns about how “The Book of Lamps” effected the shape of Striven, The Bright Treatise as a book. I was not entirely persuaded by their reservations, but decided––as an experiment––to undertake a radical revision and compression of the poem: to reduce the poem from 128 stanzas to a 128 lines.
The revision transformed the poem from brief yet intense stanzas which involve an improvised pattern of repetitions into sprawling lines that (visually) approach the condition of prose; the lines are numbered which is a kind of a trace of the epic, and both of these last characteristics lend the poem a narrative feel even as music is a forceful, insistent lyricism, and nothing happens.
In the new 128-line version, the evolving repetitions and themes remain; however, a new element which previously hadn’t been part of the poem’s patterning emerged: “the four seconds,” the interval of time it takes a body to fall from bridge to bay. This fact was mentioned only once in all of the 128 stanzas, yet when revising the poem it asserted itself in and through the poem’s themes. As the revision shifted the poem from a series of stanzas, which moved down the page, to long lines, which move across the page, my brother emerged more fully present to me as a figure in the poem; suddenly the poem was less about itself as a poem, and became newly about him standing there at the railing, which is the limit of my imagining––thereafter is the absolute and radical privacy of his jump, its four seconds.
Drug-tired, at a loss as how to fuel
and busy the engines of resistance.
To make of the ceaseless and self-annihilating
speech of inwardness,
speech against self-annihilation.
Like a speech before the gate-work,
before the limit-weight of setting out,
For when Bellerophon became hated
by the gods [of Money] he wandered
all the black earth, eating his heart
out, refusing the roads and trusts of men.
Jeffrey Pethybridge is the author of Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press). His poems appear widely in journals such as Chicago Review, Volt, New American Writing, Poor Claudia, The Iowa Review and others. He is the North American editor for Likestarlings, a web-based archive of collaborative poetry and poetics. He grew up in Virginia.