David Herrle reviews Marie Lecrivain’s THE VIRTUAL TABLET OF IRMA TRE

published by Edgar & Lenore’s Publishing House
Los Angeles, 2014

order the book here or here

I can spiel about many subjects somewhat handily, but alchemy is one that ultimately escapes me, or, rather, that I haven’t chased very far.  The subject is never far away, however.  One can’t be a fan of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or dig anything by comics-writer Alan Moore, Jacob Boehme, Eckhart (not actor Aaron), H.P. Lovecraft, Friedrich Schiller and Hermetically-seasoned Swedenborg without encountering alchemy.  Also, lovers of Nietzsche can’t deny that his call for transfiguration, transvaluation and annihilation/re-creation of the Self involves the alchemical processes of solve and coagula: disintegration and reintegration, filling in the void of deconstruction with a better synthesis lest nihilism toss us into an existential trash heap.  As Schiller wrote in On the Aesthetic Education of Man: “Like the chemist, the philosopher finds combination only through dissolution, and the work of spontaneous Nature only through the torture of Art.”

OK, maybe I can spiel on the subject with some vim, but I defer to author Marie Lecrivain as an abler enthusiast – or, rather, an in-the-know practitioner.  I, frankly, haven’t the patience nor finesse to attempt a coherent book involving alchemy and such.  (I’m much more apt to say “The philosopher’s stoned” than seek the Philosopher’s Stone.)  However, my shortcomings on the matter aren’t what make me respect The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre.  It’s the fact that the book is smart and insightful, and it’s as simultaneously simple and deep as ABC – literally: the poem titles are in alphabetical order (which must’ve been a feat in itself).  I like when an author’s particular style is applied to abstract ideas and grand universals, so I’m pleased that the book imparts Lecrivain’s own brand of the esoteric.

As I understand it, alchemy is essentially about finding and enhancing the Self, which is truly the final frontier, a dwarfer of oceans.  The Self business requires one to go beyond where science can go.  It’s about progress – and art.  “Alchemy is evolution,” Lecrivain writes in a brief preface.  For her “[t]he Universe is an ongoing experiment in alchemy,” and “everything [she does] is alchemy, including writing poetry.”  This is benign poison against nihilism.  There is a goal, a dialectical flow, a bright future, though all is cyclical and repetitive, as symbolized by the Ouroboros, the dragon/snake swallowing its own tail.  (In typical thoroughness Lecrivain covers the letters O and U with poems entitled “Oroboros” and “Uroboros.”)  A clip from “Trituration”:

Remember: All of this has happened before,
and will again.  It won’t lessen the pain,
but it will put a smile on your face.

And in “Distillation”:

…This is the time to
focus on what, where, and who you become on
your next turn of the wheel, the centrifuge of
incarnation that separates the karmic detritus of
your past and future selves. 

This reminds me of Nietzsche’s endorsement of (probably not belief in) “eternal recurrence of the same” and finding joy in everything that happens in a lifetime as if there are endless exact reiterations of it.  However, that notion doesn’t allow for karma’s variability, prioritizes necessity over what he sometimes called mendacious idealism and rejects the possibility of a world-beyond (Hinterwelten).  Lecrivain seems to appreciate both the given and the transcendent, and she celebrates the orchestration of existents, without the Nietzschean hierarchy of rule of the best.  “We’re all grapes on the cosmic vine” goes a line in a poem called “Wine.” Just as unlikely, diminutive Hobbits determined the fate of Tolkein’s Middle-earth, even the smallest of earthly things is worthy and can enhance the universe, as shown in “Stone”:

Whether it be a boulder
on which to build our kingdom
or a pebble skipped across
the streams of time…
Even the cobblestones
have a great destiny.

Great destiny isn’t easy to accept, however.  The Self is hard-won.  As the closing caption in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15 (featuring the origin of Spider-Man) says, “[w]ith great power there must also come – great responsibility.”  Speaking of comics, I’m reminded of something Alan Moore said:

[Y]ou can almost understand the desire to simply wipe out that awareness [of being a Self], because it’s too much of a responsibility to actually possess such a thing as a soul, such a precious thing. What if you break it? What if you lose it? Mightn’t it be best to anesthetize it, to deaden it, to destroy it, to not have to live with the pain of struggling towards it and trying to keep it pure?

Moore’s words, in turn, remind me of “Iron,” one of my favorite pieces in The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre:

In the blood of the spine, there’s a soul that
never breaks, whose blade never

rusts. Fortified with intent, it’s the weapon of your
soul.  Use it carefully, with no

objections and never in anger.  If you follow these
instructions to the letter, then

no one dares cross you in times of war or peace –
unless you’re a fool.

This unbreakable soul, this rust-proof sword seems to be what Lecrivain refers to in “Liquor Hepatis”: a wound-healing “unblemished fire of truth.”  More from the poem:

You begin to see
at the soul’s atomic level,
the small and vast miracle of change
that happens without and within.

Transformation is sometimes traumatic, making the resulting pleasure that much better, the horizons that much wider, as expressed in “Cinnabar”:

You and I smash
Against the walls of our souls…

Exhausted and empty,
we carefully place
curious fingers into the cracks
of our fissured selves,
with tender appreciation
for new dimensions.

And in “Vitriol” (another of my favorites):

We never thank the ones who murder us…
We never appreciate the death of love…
until one day
we awaken, tearless
and excited, for the first time
in years.  We rush to the mirror
and find a new face there to greet us…

The quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, the Ultimate Substance or the Self (the Great Work), what Alan Watts might call It, tends to be a trial-by-crucible that reaches denouement only after an Ingmar-Bergman-caliber spiritual mangling or even a “Hulking out,” as many fellow comic-book dorks might put it.  (The cathartic, enlightened Self is likened to an erupting and annihilating Vesuvius in an Irma Tre piece called “Retort.”)  However, though we may have to endure destruction and heartbreak in order to awaken to understanding and a renewed self, sometimes re-creation requires simply reaching out and bringing the poles of the spectrum together, tapping in to the moment’s music.  In “Quintessence”:

…The connection
established, your voices ascend in song,
a sweet trio attuned to the vibration
of the Cosmos.  There’s no need to prolong
the ecstasy from above or below;
from this perfect union will new life flow.

“Xanthosis/Yellow Phase” (the title cleverly covering the letters X and Y) continues the theme of reconciled polarities:

Poet –

With that closing word we come back to Lecrivain’s claim about the alchemical nature of writing poetry, and, while I’m typing this, I realize that “compromise” and “conjunction” render “reconciled polarities” inaccurate.  Perhaps, as Schiller would have it, polarities can never not be polarities.  They can be made to hold hands but only stand politely side by side.  In other words, to borrow from Schiller again, and to riff off of what Lecrivain seems to be saying, it’s not a matter of blurring opposites but one of harmonizing them – or, better yet, to quote Schiller directly this time, “the absolute including of all.”  He saw one’s blindness to human dignity as the reason one is antagonistic to others, since she/he sees her/his own lowly self in others rather than seeing others, who should be treated with dignity, in himself.

If a soul takes so much to be realized, how priceless it must be.  If Lecrivain is correct in saying the alchemical process is evolutionary, then it’s not an automatic, consciousness-from-accident, impersonal evolution.  Anyone who really considers prehistoric cave paintings can see that the keenness of those early humans has been quite underestimated.  How complex and persistent are human minds!  Every individual (whether a boulder-person or pebble-person) has a chance to effect major changes in her- or himself and the world – and beyond.  As an outspoken anti-utopian I usually wince at most reformative/progressive spiels, but I dig the idea of tending our own gardens: refining ourselves and promoting healthy metaphysical harvests so that positive things can happen on at least a local scale, perhaps creating an aggregate “awakening” to cosmic glory.  The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre has stirred and reinvigorated my thoughts on this stuff.  For that I’m grateful.

I’ve addressed some of my favorite parts, but honorable mentions are due to “Egg,” “Hermaphrodite,” and “Fixation,” which contains this brilliant, enviable line: “Soon,/you’ll be asleep,/and when you awake,/you’ll always be a sleep.”  A poem called “Geber” also caught my eye since I’m familiar some Geber and False-Geber.  The best line in the poem: “He’s the pharmacist/who regales you/with tales of what happens/to the unwary who mix/SSRIs with chardonnay.”  And “King” features an arousing pre-coupling of the King, “a man among men” with a crowned “rooster-shaped pompadour,” and an expectant Pre-Raphaelite-wet-dream Queen.  She “manifests beyond the pale:/a vision in virginal blue negligee,” and “[h]is staff is at the ready.”  (Is it getting hot in this review, or is it just me?)

The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre may be the best of what I’ve read of Lecrivain’s work.  She has an enviable knack for being able to produce quality books in a wide subject range pretty regularly.  This latest work inspired me to take a fresh look at magic, alchemy, shamanism and other rich but very misunderstood – even maligned – stuff.  Lecrivain celebrates it all via transformative poetry, a craft she loves, a craft of love, a (forgive me)…lovecraft?

P.S.: The book’s title, The Virtual Tablet of Irma Tre, nods to The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegisatus (the Thrice Great).