Michael Heller


The Passion of Phineas Gage & Selected Poems by Jesse Glass. West House and ahadada books, 2006.

“The life of the poem” writes Jesse Glass in this selection from a wide range of his experimental works, “resides in the middle ground between trope and memory.” The poem’s life, both its being and effect on readers, can be the resultant of a donnée as straightforward as one of Glass’s visual poems, a rectangle enclosing “My Sculpture” defined as “The Distance between/Your Eye/& this page.” But it can also emerge out of the odd quirks and complexities of language as in his brilliant “Seth’s Pillar” or “Man Without Air,” poems that move by surreal ellipses through myth, personal history and the odd enjambments of symbology, producing, for example, in “Seth’s Pillar,” a magically rendered epiphany of “the buried mirror/uncovered by the tide/now reflecting a heaven of gulls after centuries.”

Glass’s armory of tropes is most significantly brought to bear in “The Passion of Phineas Gage.” This central poem in the book, a work using interior monologue, news reports and medical documents of an actual incident from mid-nineteenth century America, is a meditation on the structure of language, illness and morality. Gage, a worker for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, has an iron bar driven through his skull by a premature explosion. Gage survives, but the accident brings about a complex change in the psychological and ethical bearing of the man. Much of the telling is by indirection as Glass’s sequence intersperses the discursive excerpts from diaries of observers and doctors and citations from medical and philosophical works with Gage’s fragmented “poetic” self-narrations in which a number of literary devices are used to render Gage’s brain-damaged and troubled sequences of thought. In the monologues coming immediately after the injury, Glass brackets each word by commas, attempting to give the feel of a mind re-discovering its way in language, as in this excerpt where Gage explains what has befallen him:

The, bolt, that, stove, my, left,
cheek &, breached, the, top, of, my, skull,
was, a, Watcher’s, tower, forged, of, Aaron’s, iron.

The hesitations, and in later passages, poetic leaps and irregular line lengths, while registering the effects of the injuries, show clearly that Gage’s powers of ideation and metaphoric creation are intact. In fact, from the beginning, the broken language of the interior monologues strikes as a kind of knowledge superior to the more discursive excerpts of the observers.

&, I, fell, upon,
my, kneez,
Jesus, Apocalypse,
&, I, should, have, died,
&, did, die,
alone,
&, came, back, ANOTHER, howdy, fella,
                         damn.

As the poem progresses, Gage sees this ‘rebirth’ demonically, not as God’s will to save him for good works, but rather, with the ambiguities of the “howdy” and “damn” above, as catapulting him beyond judgment. My hunch is that Glass wants us to see that Gage is not so much a damaged individual as one who has taken his traumatic experience as a kind of license. Glass’s poem stands on its head Susan Sontag’s idea of “illness as metaphor” (an idea she was at pains to discredit). In his “Phineas,” the trope is closer to something like “metaphor as illness,” the metaphor generating possibility, the ‘illness’ induced by the explosion, turned by Gage’s imaginings into corrupted human failing. Glass’s Phineas Gage is a kind of accidental Faust, reminding us of the imagination’s razor edge that divides the light of the world from its darkness. That middle ground between trope and memory—the arena of their interrelationship—is where the play of signifiers gains ethical bearing. Glass’s book is a compelling investigation of that ground.