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from ‘The Lessons of Augustus Sprechenbaum’


—for Donald Revell


IT IS ALWAYS rising, even when it appears to be
falling. The spirit, I mean. Agrippa speaks of three
worlds, the elemental, the celestial, and the intellectual.
But I remember the advice of the priestess. Augustus,
she said to me, always remember there is one great
House. Decans, ogdoads, angelic orders, lists of
demonic names. Synods, symposia, conventions:
the learned Hebrew doctors, the Greek philosophers,
the Egyptian wardens of the temples, and all
the stargazers and makers of images delude themselves
or catch a rare glimpse of truth only insofar as they
keep this in mind. “An old man sitting on a high throne
or on a dragon, with a hood of dark linen on his head,
holding a sickle or a fish.” “A young Venus holding
apples and flowers, dressed in white and yellow.”
Pretty pictures to decorate a palace or a book.
Should a religious reform put more magic into the faith,
or take the magic out of it? Does science oppose belief,
or does belief subsume it? Some illnesses can be cured
by restoring balance to the humors, but some illnesses
are the result of such a balance. The body, I mean.
The body politic. Not Athens, no, and not Jerusalem.


A VISIT TO the Sphinx, or a consultation
with the Sphinx. Shadowy figures with
the heads of beasts—jackals, stags,
crocodiles. A meal of lamb stewed with
lentils and herbs, or baked fish with
little cakes of millet. Honey and salt,
mint and citron. Then sleep, but not
overlong. A bath, followed by various oils
upon various parts of the body. All this
to say that life goes on despite dire
predictions, heard or overheard, read
in a letter or cried in the square. News
reaches my consulting room across the miles
and decades. The possessed, the soul sick,
the neurasthenic—how long ago was it
that I set up shop, how many times was I
forced to flee, so that exile became my
modus operandi. And so I let them wander,
refraining from spells and exorcisms.
Let the demons speak for themselves until,
as you hold them, they exhaust themselves
and disappear. But the archons are closing in,
or so Wanderlust reports. My purring familiar,
so cozy there on the rug. I hate to disturb you,
but it’s time we hit the road.


WHY IS THE alchemist always depicted
as an old man in a dusty basement?
I was young in Prague’s winding streets,
spending more time in taverns than laboratories,
more time with barmaids than alembics and scales.
I watched the elemental spirits come and go,
and stared into the mirror of time. The automata perched
on the astronomical clock mocked me as I staggered home.
In Prague they drink more beer than in Berlin.
Even the rabbis were known to imbibe—you don’t
bring clay to life stone sober, however holy
you think the work may be. I can’t begin to tell you
how strange those prayers and spells can sound.
What we have lost in dignity we have gained in power.
I have drawn a circle around these operations,
and only the initiates may enter in. By Magia we use
the chain linking earth to heaven, and by Cabala we use
the celestial chain through the angels to the divine Name.
Who made this? HaShem. And who made this? HaShem.
She sent me the tale in a letter, a commentary upon
a commentary. And so I learned that the letters reached
toward the super-celestial spheres, to capture the power
of the stars. But Pico and his lover were poisoned,
and Bruno was burned at the stake. The apostles
process upon the hour, and Death rings the bell.


CURRENTS AND COUNTER-currents, memories and
counter-memories, lives and counter-lives.
Time streams through me, as I stream through
time. Lost among the years, I would find myself
in another city, another circle, another cabal.
At some point, I began to wonder what else
I could possibly be taught. I lost my voice when
I started hearing voices. I have regained it,
but use it sparingly, though at times I have
plenty to say. A patron is a wonderful thing,
and men in high places may offer protection—
for a while. Once the book is in print, there’s no
denying it. You’ve set yourself up, or you’ve
been set up. It was in the fatidic year 14__,
or was it 19__? We were arguing about astrology
again, or was it telepathy? Time streams through me,
as I stream through time.


SIGILLUS SIGILLORUM. SEAL of Seals. Not Solomon’s,
but Bruno’s. Or perhaps Symbol of Symbols,
Signature of Signatures. How do we bind all things
in Creation? Four Ruling Principles: Love, Art,
Mathematics, and Magic. Love the great daemon,
divine furor, tending us toward the Infinite Archetype,
ceaseless source of all ideas.
But enough for now!
These books you wish me to translate: have you
considered they are not yet written? This is not
an insurmountable problem, but at what point
is time to be taken into account? For into account
it must be taken, if these operations, these contractions,
are to achieve success. Enter into solitude, contemplate
the invisible places, allow yourself to be taken
by fervent desire, deny the body’s appetites,
and immerse yourself completely in speculation.
Then you may consider the work at hand, neither
ascending nor descending, but spreading from a point
across the temporal horizon. Where have you been,
Stranger? To what powers do you lay claim, but above
all else, who do you love?

Norman Finkelstein is a poet, critic, and Emeritus Professor of English, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. His recent books of poetry include The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems (2016) and From the Files of the Immanent Foundation (2018), with a new collection, In a Broken Star, forthcoming early next year from Dos Madres Press. His most recent critical book is Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Imagination (Hebrew Union College Press, 2019). His poetry-review blog is Restless Messengers: Poetry in Review.

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James Gallant
1 year ago

Insistent human assaults on occult reality have been as numerous, various and absurd as Augustus says. I’m not sure, though, that a very short work of bumpy run-on prose offers the best expression of the truth being told. I also prefer a little more sense in the depiction of nonsense.

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