The impact of light on the human spirit is examined from religious, philosophical, and poetic perspectives in this debut literary meditation.
Babbitt (English/Hobart and William Smith Coll.), a co-editor of Seneca Review, arranges this text around a series of essays on books of hours—a genre of medieval Catholic illuminated manuscripts containing prayers, Bible excerpts, and sacred calendars. His loose-limbed commentaries explore the devotional content of the books and their tangible artistic features, including the feel of the parchment pages. (Babbitt also includes gorgeous color photographs of manuscript illustrations.) Threading through these essays is the story of Ireland’s Saint Columba, who illicitly copied a psalter belonging to St. Finnian—an ethical lapse that seemed blessed by God when Columba’s fingers started glowing with light. Babbitt takes this legend as a celebration of the divine union of light and language in “illuminated” religious literature. The essays, and especially their marginalia, wander into tangents, such as Babbitt’s boyhood memories of serving as a Catholic altar boy; the Norse god Odin’s quest for secret knowledge; and an anecdote about a British scholar who got so excited at deciphering an ancient Sumerian account of the Great Flood that he ecstatically tore off his clothes. Apart from a few lapses into academic jargon—“Scripture is the Lacanian symbolic. God is the Lacanian real”—these meanderings are erudite and engaging.
Babbitt fleshes out the prose with separate poems. Some of these have religious themes, inspired by the canon of the books of hours. There are also landscapes, vignettes about birds and dogs, and intimate looks at relationships. Light imagery features prominently in most of them. The poetry is heavy going—dense with allusions, obscure asides, and untranslated Latin and Greek. Occasionally, as in “De Sanctissima Trinitate,” a stanza gels into a well-shaped poetic proposition, in this case about the mystery of the Holy Trinity: “some mysterious, reasoning thing / puts forth the mouldings / of its features from behind / an unreasoning mask.” More often, poems unfold in disjointed sprays of impressionistic imagery. In “All Along the Reservoir Road,” these form a coherent tableau to catch a traveler’s eye: “pile of bones, bag o’ bones / sun bleached scattered / progress is a winter / and no one planted the flowers growing in the lawn.” But sometimes, as in “Ad Laudes,” the jumble is so cryptic as to defy parsing: “something is a light—sun helps us / somewhere by taking / the eye’s capacity—quo ferrea primum / desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo— / he might even constitute / the abyss—tuus iam regnat Apollo—.” One notion Babbitt discusses in a prose section is that, rather than light's existing to illuminate objects, objects exist to register the efflorescence of light. One may be tempted to take an analogous approach to much of his poetry here—basking in the washes of vividly visual language without worrying overly much about what mere things it may signify.
Rapturous rumination that’s sometimes dazzling and at other times, dimmed.