Jun 10 2020
Poetry review – EMPIRE OF EDEN: P.W. Bridgman takes an in-depth look at a collection by Tom Laichas which reimagines the Book of Genesis
In his intriguing and lyrically written first collection of poems, Empire of Eden, American poet Tom Laichas boldly reimagines, then reconstitutes and supplements, the writings that comprise the Book of Genesis. The manner of this creative and intrepid reimagining suggests that Laichas approaches the first book of the Bible and Pentateuch with a wary but still respectful scepticism—as a figurative “creation story” in other words and not as a less worthy and wholly invented “creation myth”. But Laichas’s reworking of Genesis is, indeed, an audacious and aggressive reformulation of traditional Jewish and Christian accounts of what happened “[i]n the beginning”. It is sure to unsettle readers in precisely the way that thoughtful and provocative creative works that use scriptural texts as a departure point ought to do.
Thematically central to the suite of poems that Laichas has presented us in Empire of Eden is the premise that what unfolds in the creation story did not unfold “in the beginning” at all. Neither is the boy who first wanders the Garden—the Adam figure—wholly bereft of knowledge ab initio. We quickly see that this boy is querulous and inquisitive as his dialogue unfolds not with God but with the “Voice”. Moreover, he is neither diffident nor deferential. When he asks the Voice, “What’s your name?” and receives an unsatisfyingly tautologous “I am what I am” in reply (foretelling a passage in Exodus), the boy presses the Voice for better: “That’s not an answer. We’re all what we are, nameless or no.” The Voice declines to elaborate.
On the first day, when performing the naming of animals that he has been commanded by the Voice to do, the boy in Laichas’s cosmology cuts his hand while “finger[ing] the earth’s unfurrowed soil.” Curious to discover what caused this injury, he digs deeper with a stick and, in time, unearths humanoid skeletal remains. The boy thinks hard but is unable to conceive of a “right name” for this buried creature with the thick skull “salted with sediment” and the receding jaw. Then, giving voice to a small epiphany, he asks:
…If I am not first, what am I? The Voice does not reply. Instead, sleep overcomes the boy. While he dreams, a blade cuts his question from memory. Awakened and refreshed, the boy remembers nothing. At his feet, the soil lies flat and undisturbed. The boy wanders off, back to naming birds. Meanwhile, below ground a mineral slurry ingests the ancient body’s muscle and infuses its bones. Below this newly petrified skeleton lies another and, under that, still another. Down below the layers go: mammalian, reptilian, amphibian, pelagic. Buried beneath the boy’s feet are a thousand other Gardens, all of them burned in other Judgments. Best that the boy know nothing of this. Best that he believe he’s first, born without sin into a new world.
We see from this that while Laichas’s reconstituted Book of Genesis tells the story of a beginning of a sort, it does not recount the story of the beginning. We come to realise that many “beginnings” have gone before, and that all of the predecessor Gardens have burned in Judgment. When the boy’s curiosity and reason open his eyes to this anomaly, the Voice intervenes swiftly with a blade to sever his discovery from memory so that he might continue on believing, in error, that he’s the first in the new world and that he was born without sin. In the empire of Eden, over which the Voice holds dominion, such inconvenient epiphanies are not tolerated and so they are quickly and permanently obliterated.
No. This is not the beginning, certainly. And the Voice is gradually revealed not to be the benevolent—though demanding and sometimes wrathful—God we recognise in the accepted, scriptural texts either. The Voice in Laichas’s poems is given to pettiness and petulance; to word games and to deception. The Voice is a figure to be feared, to be sure; a figure less obviously to be loved.
Long before he tastes of the forbidden fruit, the boy continually reveals in Laichas’s poems conspicuously human failings and flaws. In the poet’s words: “By the time the syrup drips from the bitten fruit / the boy knows all its sweet poison can teach.” For example, exhausted by the scope and scale of the naming task the Voice has imposed upon him, the boy falsely responds to the command “Name them all” with a lie, saying “I have named them”. At first the lie shames him, but soon “…his pride swells”. The boy realises that he can keep secrets. Before long, “The lie pleases the boy.” Similarly, it is not Cain who commits the first murder in Laichas’s empire of Eden. Rather it is the Adam figure himself, the boy, who first snuffs out a life when he crushes a brown cyst on a leaf with his nail:
…It bleeds crimson. The first murder is exactly this small. So small, the Voice says nothing about it. So small the boy asks no forgiveness. So small, the verses forget it happened.
The moral absolutism with which we associate the Eden of the conventional creation story thus yields, in Laichas’s poems, to a form of moral relativism of a kind Christians would say is peculiarly human (not divine) and which was supposed to have been ushered into being later by The Fall.
We are, plainly therefore, in very different territory in Empire of Eden. The resemblances to the creation story in which so many of us were steeped as trusting, credulous children diminish with the turning of every page. Woman in the domain Laichas has created is not fashioned from the rib of Man as the story is told in Christian teachings. Rather, Man (the boy) is an hermaphroditic being “complete in itself, male and female”—a being that is crippled by loneliness. While this alternative characterisation invokes some Jewish interpretive teachings found in the Midrash, God’s benevolent purpose in creating Woman is nowhere to be found in the Voice’s harsh and violent response to the boy’s longing for a companion. As Laichas has conceived it:
The Voice flakes an obsidian core to a murderous edge, and slices the child from skullcap and sternum, through gonads and guts. They slowly awaken: first girl, then boy. Shocked by their twoness, they throw themselves hard at each other. No matter how bruised their bodies, they can’t break again into each other’s bones. why? they ask why? Throughout the Garden, all beings whose bodies mingle female with male tremble in terror. Snail and slug witness the violence. Sea star and sand dollar bury themselves in the beach sand. Sunflower’s stigma and stamen shiver, sensing the knife’s edge flicking through flesh. This wound will never heal.
Moreover, straightaway after that momentous bifurcation, the boy and the girl begin to display new inclinations, as individuals emancipated from their oneness, toward possessiveness, materialism and competitiveness. An early emergence of male dominance is also revealed. As Laichas tells us, “Each learns the words I and mine…”. Then:
The girl wonders aloud: what name would I have chosen if the choice had been mine… About his own name, the boy says nothing. He thinks: it has been mine all along.
It warrants repeating that, well before the boy (and then the girl) partake of the forbidden fruit, their worldly, human failings are already clearly in evidence. Thus, when the Voice issues to them the simple command, “Don’t eat the fruit,” they parse it the way a lawyer might, their first hedge being, “Not a word about climbing the tree”. In law, as in life, such apparent cleverness—disingenuousness thinly disguised—seldom brings good outcomes in its train. And in the end, these “innocents” do not eat the forbidden fruit at the bidding of a compelling and persuasive serpentine tempter as happens in the original creation story. Rather, it is the sweet taste and scent of the fruit—encountered first in dream—to which they ultimately yield, and they do so easily. (O, the banality of evil.) Though at the very moment they swallow its alluring juice and pulp, “the cosmos collapses in on their skins,” nevertheless the fruit “keeps its promises, and its scent warms their / bodies, its heat driving every slow thought from their brains. / They burn together, the children: alone and together.”
So begins the conflagration that consumes the Garden, yet again.
Who and what else do we encounter in Empire of Eden? A full cataloguing is beyond the scope of this review. But some characters and events call out for at least brief mention.
There is a brief, cameo appearance of “Other-man”—a creature who is also “kneaded from clay,” just like the boy, but who, un-bifurcated and indivisible, retains male and female identities and stays “undivided and whole.” When the inevitable day of judgment ultimately arrives, Laichas conceives a number of alternative destinies for him. One posits that Other-man is consumed in the inferno, and that “[h]is skull splits, his brain pan sizzles”. Another has him escaping the inferno, “running wild with grief / to the edge of a field”. Still another situates Other-man as Cain’s first kill. “Some say that, too,” Laichas tells us, tantalisingly, without committing himself, as narrator, to any one of those differing fates.
We also encounter Cain. We find him at a time when he aghast at his brother Abel’s sacrifice of the ram (a creature that, like all other creatures, the brothers’ father first named). From a distance Cain watches the lamb struggle and then become limp:
…listening as the Voice praised his brother for the knife’s sharp work… There’s a word Cain’s wanting, a word that makes it right. The word, he remembers, is sacrifice.
But no sooner are we told that than we are also told this:
Cain is mistaken. The word is not sacrifice. It’s murder. A fine distinction, but enough to force Cain to flee his father, to plug his ears against the Voice’s anger. Enough to palsy Cain’s right hand, the one that held the edged obsidian…
In Laichas’s cosmology, then, Abel’s sacrificial offering of the ram to the Voice—a sacrificial offering that is rightly recharacterised as a “murder”—nevertheless attracts the Voice’s praise for Abel and for his “knife’s sharp work”. This is indeed a creation story that, in the reworking, has been turned entirely on its head.
So we come to this question. What is one to make of this re-imagining, by Laichas, of the Judeo-Christian creation story? In this skilled poet’s reformulation, in his empire of Eden, many familiar scriptural landmarks are either missing altogether or are quickly toppled. Others are misshapen and disfigured, virtually beyond recognition. The needle of the moral compass is left to spin endlessly. How does one find meaning in this discomfiting suite of poems, at once so beautifully crafted and yet so alarmingly transgressive? For this reviewer at least, there are no ready answers, just as there are no ready answers to the question “What was Wallace Stevens really trying to say when he introduced his spectral “Asides on the Oboe” with these puzzlingly beautiful lines?
The prologues are over. It is a question, now, Of final belief. So say that final belief Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose…
Laichas’s purpose, or intent—to the extent that it can be divined from the poems that make up Empire of Eden—seems less concerned with offering up a new schematic lens through which matters of religious belief might be rendered more coherent, and more concerned with setting loose in his readers’ minds questions about schemas which we all tend, unquestioningly and out of lazy habit, merely to accept. If that, indeed, is Laichas’s purpose, then for this reviewer, he has succeeded. But, like Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Bunting’s Briggflats, Laichas’s Empire of Eden demands repeated encounters between reader and text, spaced apart by long pauses for deep contemplation. And study. Empire of Eden is discomfiting and provocative precisely because it raises an obscuring barrier between observant Jews and Christians and their long-held and seldom-questioned assumptions and beliefs about the scriptural record of what transpired “in the beginning”. Those with the intellectual honesty and confidence to welcome such disruptions from time to time will therefore embrace the challenges that this important book sets for the reader.
With more pauses, more time for deep contemplation and more study, this reviewer would be in a better position to venture more confidently hypotheses about what Laichas may truly be “getting at” in this first collection of poetry. For now, it is hoped that a sketching in of the faint outlines of what appears to be a cornerstone element will suffice.
It is suggested that Empire of Eden shows us that this poet—a consummate literary craftsman—has, notwithstanding his manifest poetic talents, a complex and troubled, love/hate relationship with language. This, of course, is not Laichas’s exclusive preserve. In our modern, increasingly social-media-dominated world, we are all subjected more and more to active and successful attempts to reconstitute language to serve particular ends, many if not most of them entirely unworthy. At least since Orwell first introduced us to “newspeak,” if not before, we have collectively become more astute therefore to the tenuous relationship that exists between Truth as an independent ideal and the words that are employed so as to express it (or to seem to do so). Seeing language used effectively (and, now, quite unapologetically) by interested players in public life as an instrument for deception and manipulation has, in turn, led some to view language itself warily, and in a new and different light. Laichas would seem to be one who now approaches language with particular suspicion and distrust.
It cannot surely be mere coincidence that the malevolent proxy for the Godhead in Laichas’s re-worked creation story is styled the “Voice”, that is, the primary instrument by which human language transmits meaning. As one reads along in Empire of Eden, the gulf that is revealed between the Voice’s decrees and actions, and what we think of as generally accepted norms of truth-telling and moral virtue, grows steadily—the same way that, particularly (but not solely) since 2016, the gulf between the behaviour of some public figures and what were heretofore generally accepted norms of moral uprightness in office and statesmanship has become a gaping chasm. Though at first instance a book with its spiritual focus trained upon events that occurred at the time of humankind’s very origins, Empire of Eden is, seen in this way, a book with very modern resonances as well.
Other clues suggesting that Laichas has a growing discomfort for language stemming from its misuses—both historical and contemporary—are scattered throughout these poems. The noted misgivings are sharpened by the poet’s recognition of language’s immense power. Theological scholars, too, acknowledge the existence of that power. They generally agree, for example, that the responsibility of naming the animals, given to Adam by God, entailed an element of life-force giving as well.
But in Laichas’s empire of Eden, that power too is twisted and perverted:
…[The boy] names the beast, fixing its purpose to his own. This goes on all day. The animals, dazed, are reborn to the boy’s service. It is good, says the boy. The creatures, denied voices, are shamed into croaks, trills, and clucks.
And, more unnervingly:
Who can resist the little master? Armed to the teeth with tongue, he hurls names like arrows, never missing his mark. Pelt, scale and snout: by the end of the day, they’re all nailed to the tree of his knowledge.
The power of the life-force giving thus rapidly degenerates in Laichas’s Garden, yielding up in time a metaphorical crucifixion of all of the fauna there.
One also discerns an intimation here and there in the poems that, perhaps, an unadulterated and unsullied Truth predated language, existing in the ether, only then to become corrupted through the advent of language. For instance, early in Empire of Eden, Laichas tells us:
The first songs silenced, the Voice revises the verse: In the beginning there was prose.
Near the end of this selection of poems, when the apocalyptic unravelling and dissipation are near complete, the ravages of language (personified as “verses”) are laid out repeatedly in harsh and uncompromising terms. The boy and the girl, now aged and having suffered innumerable tragedies and indignities, are still preyed upon mercilessly:
No matter how far they run, the hungry stories pursue them. Every night, the verses catch and consume them… They’re prophets, this wife and husband. Not that anyone listens. Not that listening matters. The verses can’t be soothed, can’t be resisted, can’t be eluded.
The tyranny of the word—or, perhaps, the tyranny of the word whose linkage to objective Truth has been lost but whose power to subjugate remains nevertheless unchecked—is a recurring motif through to the end of Empire of Eden. Thus, even as the Adam and Eve figures are reduced to “beg[ging] for deaths of their own”:
…Of this crusing abasement, the verses say nothing.
And when the Flood is imminent and the Adam and Eve figures watch Noah constructing the Arc in preparation for it:
…Above the hot plain, verses crowd into thunderheads. Wife and husband know their time on earth is near its end. They smell the storm ahead. There is nothing to be done. You can’t outrun a flood of verses. You let them carry you or else you drown.
The first of the beleaguered pair to die is Eve. Adam laments, “[t]hose verses and I are the same: we’ve let our beginnings go / dark.” When Eve’s time comes, even her passing is de-personified and reframed in narrative terms: “Her story ends first.”
Empire of Eden is a complex, beautifully written, profoundly unsettling and disorienting masterpiece. In writing it, Laichas plainly did not set out to answer questions; rather, he set out to raise them. Consequently, like Joyce’s Ulysses, his is a text to be pored over at intervals and reflected upon.
Believers often turn to creation stories for comfort. They will find none of that in Empire of Eden. As Wallace Stevens observed in the creation story stanzas (Part IV) of his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” our original predecessors likely lived and died in accordance with a script that is more nuanced than the one with which we are all familiar. As he tells it, the first boy and the first girl:
…found themselves In heaven as in a glass; a second earth; And in the earth itself they found a green— The inhabitants of a very varnished green But the first idea was not to shape the clouds In imitation. The clouds preceded us. There was a muddy centre before we breathed There was a myth before the myth began, Venerable and articulate and complete. From this the poem springs: that we live in a place That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
In Empire of Eden, Laichas has pulled back a curtain and shown us his conception of that “muddy centre”, just as he has re-introduced us to the possibility there was “a myth before the [creation] myth began”. And he has also provided us a timely reminder that language should always be approached with great caution. For these gifts—despite the fact that this first collection will likely bring on a disconcerting bout of vertigo—we must in the end thank him.