Signs and Abominations is a radical tour de force that interrogates the relationship between religion and art at the end of the 20th century in penetrating and sensuous prosody. It can be read as a series of damaged likenesses: humans as the damaged image and likeness of God, poems and other works of art as necessarily incomplete attempts to approach and represent the numinous and the ineffable.
The reader is guided through its five interconnected sections by diverse voices: Michelangelo, Andres Serrano, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Soren Kierkegaard, Augustine, to name a few. All of the book’s figures — the child-Crusaders stumbling toward Jerusalem, the man who wants to preserve for posterity his body entirely covered with tattoos, Andres Serrano submerging a crucifix in his own urine — set out on a deformed search for signs of the divine among the abominations of the profane. These poems are brilliance cast back at the hypocritical religiosity of those who refuse to admit that the spiritual and the profane inextricably encompass each other, and that art and religion have more in common than not.
Bruce Beasley is writing as close to the bone of meaning as any poet I can think of today. Signs and Abominations is a passionate, difficult book about the capacity for language to signify anything beyond itself. He wonders how the profane can hold the sacred, how the monstrous can contain the holy, how a deformed language can embody not only the soul’s deformity but its beauty. He comes down clearly on the side of essence, but the way there is a dark struggle.
–Mark Jarman, Vanderbilt University
Change and burden are at the etymological heart of metaphor, and this startling, original book works the borders of the sacred and the profane in poems that are themselves “translations”—embodiments and transformations of the doubt, irony, intelligence, instinct, and somatic restlessness intrinsic to spiritual inquiry. In his diary, Kierkegaard tells us that ‘the soul must have a complete alphabet’: this book is Beasley’s ‘errata sheet/for the uncorrectable proof/ of all things: initiation/into the half-/hearted and bungled’ (‘Errata Mystagogia’). Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress, Dickinson’s ‘Sermons on unbelief,’ the provocative artwork of . . . Serrano, a downed TWA jet, the Buddha, Michelangelo, Lazarus, Judas, Plotinus, Christ—all configure in Beasley’s spiritual lexicon, his desire both for the paradox of of ‘god who can’t leave matter alone, descending/into what craves/transcendence—‘ and for ‘our urge/upward to return to the place/of our spawning—‘ (‘L’ from ‘Spiritual Alphabet in Midsummer.’) Tares and wheat, the monstrous and the divine flee from and chase one another throughout this fugal, challenging new book by one of our most stylistically and thematically intrepid young poets.
–Virginia Quarterly Review
Bruce Beasley has written a piece of supreme symmetry, has crafted an architecture so streamlined as to be the subject of a Charles Sheeler gelatin print . . . a careful, well-thought and highly ambitious treatise on the interrelation of the Profane and the Sacred . . . Blurring ages-old lines is just the least of what Beasley does. He has, in effect, created his own mystagogia, the very word he used to name his third book—a word he uses in the epigraph of its title poem to mean ‘the period immediately following the initiation into a mystery.’ This is not a book of heresy, not the easy rumination-in-the-mirror on some ‘tattered soul’—Signs and Abominations is the present and future of poetic, theoretical thought; it is indeed the best road map yet for divining the mysterious relationship between the human and ethereal energies.
–Contemporary Poetry Review
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Ethan Paquin, Contemporary Poetry Review, review of Signs and Abominations