Wrestling with Nowlans Angel
by Elizabeth Bieman
Far more is up-ended in Alden Nowlans playful little poem, The Anatomy of Angels, than Jacob. For the academic mind at least since for all this poets protestations of unprofessorial status1 he shows here a highly learned and traditional persona Nowlan sets up literary expectations in his title and first line only to unsettle them vigorously before incorporating much that is related to their matter into his complex of meaning.
The disparate biblical narratives that underlie the action are subjected to the most obvious conflation and distortion: the bulk of what here ensues will elaborate on this awareness. But tricks involving the figure of Jacob are not the only means by which the poetic creator off-balances his psychic adversary and beneficiary, the reader who is trying to pin down his meaning. The linkage of the word Anatomy to Angels calls up, at the very least, the ghost of Donne, perhaps in the company of Milton and Henry Vaughan.2
The ambience is certainly of the seventeenth century. Donnes most immediately memorable angels inhabit his ironic love-song Air and Angels. The word Anatomy, too, chimes with a Donne title: An Anatomy of the World, The First Anniversary, the first of the elegies for Elizabeth Drury. In these poems of Donnes, as in much of the tradition from which he draws, matters of love, life, and the commerce between the human and the divine, are best understood against a backdrop of hierarchical thinking that owes more to the Platonic heritage than to the early Hebrew thought that is to be explored.
The two backdrops, imported inevitably to the modern poem through its title and its substance, can contribute much to the grasping of Nowlans significance in his eight very rich lines:
The Jacob of the Bible and the divine messenger with whom he had to do are not directly mirrored in these lines, yet certain connections can and should be made. The patriarch, we recall, is remembered in many ways: as trickster, besting Isaac his father, Esau his brother, and Laban his father-in-law through a variety of ruses; as lover of Rachel, dogged enough in his devotion to the girl he met by an Aramean well to serve twice the bargained number of years for bride-price; and most of all as Israel himself, father of the sons who fathered the twelve tribes. The line of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob was to fan out in response to Yahwehs gifts and behests until the seed of the patriarchs inherited the earth, and through it all families of the earth came to be blessed [Gen. 28:14]. The more obvious sexuality of Nowlans Jacob, then, has genuine roots in the early Hebrew tales.
Yet neither of the two accounts of Jacobs commerce with numinous beings presents directly sexual particulars. The better known, of course, that in Genesis 28, follows the young Jacob as he journeys away from his family, having just won his fathers blessing by guile. He falls asleep in a stony field, and dreams of a ladder set between earth and heaven upon which behold, the angels of God [are] ascending and descending. At the very top stands the Lord affirming Jacobs place in the patriarchal line, and reaffirming this covenant with the seed of Abraham. The dream-encounter is marked by no physical struggle; but upon awakening Jacob feels such fear and awe that he names the place Beth-El (house of God), sets up in propitiation the stone that has served as his pillow, pours a libation of oil upon this new altar, and vows fidelity to the God of his fathers. Ultimately, sexual dimensions do surround this tale of Jacobs first view of angels: the covenantal promises here renewed must be realized through procreation; and the narrative setting as arranged by the priestly editors of the Pentateuch reinforces such significance. Jacobs journey was initiated in his fathers command to go and find a wife of the proper lineage, and in the bloc of narrative immediately following the dream sequence Jacob meets Rachel by her tribal well.
The poem has more recognizable analogies to the later encounter in which Jacob wrestles all night long at the ford Jabbok with a man of great strength and mystery [Gen. 32:22-30]. Upon prevailing, Jacob wins a new identity in the name of Israel, and a blessing from his antagonist; yet he sustains a wound in the thigh that will mark him for the rest of his life. Although at no point here is the man called an angel, Jacob sees him as so much more than mere man that he calls the place Peniel [face of God] for he says I have seen God face to face.4
The nocturnal wrestling in the poem and the wound implied in his bone /mending, together with the commemorative stone from the earlier dream-vision, provide clear enough links back to Genesis, but nothing in the biblical narratives provides grounding for the transsexual operation Nowlan performs upon his angel, for the cryptic phrase the god whom she befriended, or for the cobra that the angel wore / . . . like a girdle. What is to be made of these novelties and reversals?
If we start with a female and a snake, earlier Genesis provides some obvious associations. Eve, progenitress of mankind, was created to serve her God, as well as her Adam, through her stout loins; Eves sexuality, tainted after the fall, marks her for sorrow in childbirth and subjection to man. Little wonder fallen Eves thereafter hate snakes [Gen. 3:15-16]. But Nowlans female, sturdy and earthy as an Eve, wears her symbolically phallic girdle in insouciant comfortthere is no hint at all that she finds it either fearful or restricting. If Jacob be implied (as he certainly is in some senses) by the god whom she befriended her female role obviously suits her right down to the ground beneath her sturdy calves. This angel, then, seems to know nothing of the fall. Nonetheless death, the consequence of the fall, is implied in the specifically designated cobra, and may also be implied syntactically in the otherwise inexplicable yet that introduces the allusion to Jacobs mysterious wound.
Whatever the evocations through the serpent, Nowlan stops clearly short of bringing the fall narratives to the centre of his poetic wrestling-ring. Something else, more pagan and primitive, is imported even more strikingly through this cobra. Like a girdle the snake encloses the torso of the angel the casual simile, if we try to visualize with some precision, puts the snakes tail into its mouth. The uroboric serpent, in emblematics, is always potentially androgynous.5 But an uroboric cobra, tail enfolded in the concavity of a hooded head, makes the most explicit suggestion possible of the way this angel takes of befriending her god surely a god of fertility. In the receptive imagination the emblem prevails over the dangers implied in the cobra: the lifeforce of the generative cycle, the power worshipped through the gods of early Israels neighbours, is working here conquering death.
Paradoxically, the force that renews the race renders the individual mortal and vulnerable in his flesh. Jacobs wound is of deep significance to all accounts. Nowlans wrestler sustains a bone wound, inconsistent with the biblical sources which are themselves inconsistent. The hollow of Jacobs thigh was out of joint by one account [Gen. 32:55], and alternatively, the mysterious wrestler at the ford touched the hollow of Jacobs thigh in the sinew that shrank [32:32]. Any good biblical commentary can satisfy curiosity as to the possible historical significance of these variants; for our purposes it is enough to note that tissues could need mending after either dislocation or withering, but for a bone to need mending a prior break or amputation is required. Could Adams rib, then, be on the periphery of Nowlans arena alongside Eves serpent? If granted, it must still be recognized as subsidiary to the central spectacle: the image of Adams rib implies a detraction of the female that will not jibe with the mystery and power Nowlans Jacob cele brates when he erects the great stone.
Although he was troubled, during those tedious weeks, by the vulnerability of his flesh and the necessity of hard labour, both consequences of Adams fall, this Jacob seems like his loving adversary to have little or no sense of sin. What Nowlan is about, here, may be seen in sharper relief if we think of one other poem he has rooted deep in Genesis, his Beginning.6 After their initial brave sexual bliss, the parents of that poem suffer a bitter bondage to darkening shame. Ironically, the last words of the piece, Thus was I made, show issuing from that taste of, and loss of, Eden a new lifethe life of a poet who will imaginatively recover, and confer lasting vitality upon, their bliss in this wry verbal memorial. Like the self condemning parents, conditioned so pitiably by inherited sin-consciousness, no blissless man has hope ever again of seeing God face to face in a garden. But in his journeying to find his wife, and in wrestling with fleshly mystery in the dark, the blissful Jacob finds that the divine presence may indeed be felt, even in a stony field or at a watery boundary.
We can see, then, that in up-ending his biblical sources Nowlan is faithless only to the letter of the Law: the affirmation of generative force under God is perfectly consonant with the spirit, the ethos, of early Hebrew lore. The imposition upon the fall narratives of a prurient distaste for sexuality, and the equation of primal sin with forbidden sexual pleasure, is the legacy of a later period in biblical history, a time when Platonic hierarchies in thought were grafted onto a more primitive body of myth.7
In transition from the biblical geneses of Nowlans text towards the Donnean analogies, we should glance back at two words in the opening lines. The angels that inhabit love songs, we are told, are sprites / not seraphim. Neither word fits easily in the early Hebrew milieu, although, as we shall see later, one accommodates itself readily to Donne. Cognate with spirit, which is a biblical word,8 sprite to modern ears implies some lively, amoral imp or daemon and not a messenger or breath of God. Seraphim, on the other hand, at least belong to the later Old Testament world. Literally the burning ones, they make their most vivid appearance in the throne vision of the prophet Isaiah [Iss. 6:2-7], a vision that bears no resemblance at all to Nowlans tale. What effect, then, derives from the oblique suggestion that Jacobs sturdy angel is of the seraphim? Initially it serves to trip up any expectation established through the title that this will be a poem in the seventeenth century mode concerning airy or ethereal beings, and it locates the action neatly in Hebrew scripture. Then, whimsically and ultimately seriously, the word can be fitted to the hairy being who be sets Jacob. She too is certainly fiery, if not in precisely the same sense; and she somehow does serve as Gods messenger, his ministering answer to human wish or need. Whether the ambiguity of the god whom she befriended is tipped towards Jacob (as seen by the fiery female) or towards ecstatic mystery (as seen by Jacob in the bed they share) matters very little. Angels ascended and descended (in that order) in Jacobs first Biblical dream vision. Here divine force is released and realized in the very human wrestling-mating both parties to the encounter participate in it fully.
And now on to Donne, to elaborate the suggestion made at the outset of this essay: that an academic awareness of at least one love song inhabited by angels can provide an added dimension to our reading of Nowlans little comedy.
Air and Angels on first consideration provides more contrast than similitude to The Anatomy of Angels. Articulating the Neoplatonic common places of his time, Donnes lover speaks of a love initially so etherial that it can be known, only as angels are known, as if in a shapeless flame. But, the lover argues, since he is human and his soul has limbs of flesh, his love, child of that soul, must descend to take a body too. And just as angels de scend to rule a heavenly sphere or to assume face and wings / Of air, his etherial love wishes to take on the sphere (by implication airy) of the ladys love. The final twist of Donnes argument reads thus:
Whether understood as a playful disparagement of woman, as it certainly is on the most obvious level, or as an esoterically couched proposition that the lovers converge to form a unity greater than either alone,10 the poem de pends heavily upon the hierarchical image-language of an earlier time. Donnes angels, whether aerial, etherial or celestial, have a much lighter specific gravity than the grossly weighted, cobra-girdled sharer of Jacobs stony bed.
At this point we can begin to see that, using quite disparate vocabularies, Donne and Nowlan have been going about some of the same poetic business. Each poem is first of all a jeu desprit reversing what is expected of love songs and poems about angels, and generating quite enough fun to justify its own existence. Yet each prods the reader further to contemplate something of the way loves deity fits male to female, enlivening the otherwise moribund flesh.
The Jacob of early scripture, like Nowlans Jacob, knows nothing of the hierarchical thinking that informs Donnes language: sacredness for each Jacob is essentially a mysterious otherness, but an otherness that has palpably loving commerce with man. Donnes poem dependent as it is on a hier archical vocabulary that, like the creation and fall myth, tends to debase the image of natural woman whenever it is employed manifests no effort in avoidance of such derogatory effect. This in spite of Donnes capability, as love poet elsewhere, to accord a mistress of flesh and blood all the sturdy dig nity a modern Ms could demand. Nowlans poem, in contrast, belongs to a different age: the matter-of-factness With which Jacob sets about commemo rating his encounter is neither hierarchical nor obviously patriarchal. The very primitive dimensions of the action paradoxically are those that should gladden even a radically feminist reader.
We must gather the threads of argument now by tying them back to yet another beginning, this the first noun in Nowlans title. The word Anatomy, we have seen, in association with Angels and love songs evokes the seventeenth century. In that period the word was often used to signify a literary analysis. In that sense it works very well to label this literary artifact. Yet once the disembodied (or airily-formed) sprites anatomized in earlier song have been dismissed, the word is free to work in another sense irreverently and explicitly in connection with the angelic wrestlers calves, armpits, and loins. Then, when applied to a catalogue of the human body, Anatomy provokes the memory of its root sense, the dissection of a cadaver after the departure of the animating spirit. With this sense to the fore, we are reminded how strange it is to encounter an angel that has, or is, such a gross yet living body.
The realization will dawn, as the relationship of spirit and body in conventional thought is pondered, that if Nowlans word sprite has no place in a biblical habitat, it is certainly at home with Donne. Not in a love song but in a devotional sonnet Donne dissects the microcosm of man:
The painful sin-consciousness of this, and others of the Holy Sonnets, matches the fearful shame of the parents in Nowlans Beginning.
No such sense of a fallen self, internally divided and divided from God, troubles Jacob in any of the literary performances we have been investigating. From the Nowlan word-game the reader gains in sanity if not in conventional sanctity: he is reminded against the backdrops of the fall myth and the history of angelology that the sacred may be manifested in the most physical of encounters. Primitive man, like Jacob, was always at home with such a realization. Modern man has been recovering rarely wisely and of ten frenetically vestiges of that older faith. Such faith has been kept alive more often in myth and poetry than in the biblically-rooted churches.13 In this modern tale of Jacob, Nowlan does much to offer absolution to the strait-laced and troubled lovers of Beginning. He lays the ghost of the parents guilt by elevating the spirit of life in a fleshy messenger.
Moving to yet another Donne poem, we find the world as cadaver to be the extravagant controlling conceit of An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary. The soul of the world, once incarnate in the young Elizabeth Drury, is declared to have fled with her death. The mundane corpse decays now apace. Through a play of discourse too elaborate to outline here the poet contrives at length to moderate his despairing utterance, and to achieve a limited affirmation. Verse and song can hold souls and bodies, subject though they are to deadly separation, in a creative memory-relationship, even if mans words are powerless to repeal his repeated falls and to conquer the inevitable grave. Towards the end the poet links himself to Moses, whose five books of the Law yield both the stories of Jacob we have been examining in the one backdrop, and the Deuteronomic song of victory in voked in this other context a song ordained by a thwarted but merciful God to safeguard his wayward people as it reminds them of his providential care:
Thus, at the end of An Anatomy of the World, poetry provides a median term between the poles the fall has sundered. Poet and prophet are seen to be about the same business; but the poet gains the higher place here, in the reminder that Moses was commanded to accomplish through song a middle-victory where prophecy was destined to fail.
So also for Nowlan, poetic and prophetic roles come very close. He has frequently confessed to an early ambition to be a prophet; he must already have been writing when he was thinking in those terms, since he says he cannot recall a time when he did not write; the adult poet still declares with no embarrassment that he seeks to communicate truth through his poetry, and that he uses it to express a very strong, almost primitive, sense of the sacredness of objects and things.15 The ambition towards prophecy in that biblically-literate but otherwise lightly-learned little boy has been realized through metamorphosis. The man who recalls the ambition is not at all naive; nor is he innocent of the long tradition of English literature and the inherited Neoplatonic image-thinking that informs it. If his conscious literary roots went no further back than D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, both of whom he acknowledges as influential for him at certain stages,16 he would still be through them the heir of the movements of thought we have been examining in Donne.
But I do not propose here to entrap myself into making, or to excuse myself elaborately for not making, the claim that in naming his Anatomy of Angels Nowlan was intentionally inviting the exercise here undertaken. Nowlan himself has sanctioned this sort of enterprise, if it does fly away from his conscious intention, by suggesting that the only criticism worth much is that which tells the poet something he did not know about his own work.17
Enough to say, perhaps, that Nowlan, in The Anatomy of Angels, speaks as a prophet of mystery. He transmits to us a very modern, and very primitive, affirmation of the power of generative encounter to inspirit the otherwise dying flesh of fallen man. In that, the poem itself resembles Jacobs up-ended monolith. A thing very obviously earthy celebrates Gods vital presence in his creation.18