Poetica Critique: Peter O'Leary, "Depth Theology"

Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Peter O'Leary, Depth Theology.
University of Georgia Press: Athens, 2006.



Visiting her religion's historical center, the distinguished Jewish novelist, Tamar Yellin, wrote:

"Jerusalem lay sleeping on the ashes of her seventeen destructions. Houses were built upon houses; ruins tottered on a foundation of ruins. Sometimes there were earth-tremors and the ruins collapsed down into each other like an ancient honeycomb." (1)

From "the miraculous birth of St. Ambrose with a swarm of bees around his infant mouth, that the bee attendance portends the gift of honeyed speech, a golden tongue, a promise of nourishing words,"(2) Perhaps this is a good place to begin to consider a poet who has taken the central nourishing myth of the West into his heart, and to reflect on it in a language whose tain can be seen in its face as a "discontinuous light, a mirror's

broken surface. Blood of two mourning doves glazes
the cut plane. A history of breakage
is the history of the unconscious.

Some poets write on the edge of the mind's abyss, where they dream of a center, a supernatural numinous force pulling them in. Others slide down awake. In Depth Theology, his second book of poems, Peter O'Leary writes: "We've spent millennia chasing the outward world, hapless / experts at exploring it. We need now to look inside." (3) The wound that never seems to heal. The tear between who I am and who I am not, between "inside" and "outside," more phenomenological than physical, bleeds again.

A former student of O'Leary said, "It was hard not to want to know exactly what he knew."(4) For that, you would have to be not just a believing Catholic, but an enthusiastic one, and perhaps have a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. However, it is not so simple, as O'Leary is a brilliant scholar, adroit not only in theology and Church history, but also of literary history and contemporary poetics, and whose spiritual breadth ranges from the Tibetan Buddhist Milarepa to the Sufi Al-Hallaj.

To get a sense of the complexity and convolutions of O'Leary's mind—folded like the contortions of the frontal cortex—, here's a quote from a recently published essay of his: "The peculiar power of a truly apocalyptic poetry is its expression of the vitality of a God all in all, beyond history but knowable somehow in it, who does not yet exist, but who pulsates a profound, irrefutable influence from an unforeseen future obliquely but entirely recognized in an exegetical totalization of language."(5) This erratic circumambulation of the Ineffable makes me think once again of the Zen Master who said, "Anything I could say would miss the point."

What would the Throne that held me clasp with, or utter?
Nothing. He's bodiless, voiceless. Same with the salamandrine
Cherub, fire-breather whose cry is more fumarole than noise.

Here the poet approaches the environment with a vision of a cherub as speechless lava. Although he counsels looking inward, which would mean letting go of the endless stream of words and images that constantly flow through the mind; or perhaps C.G. Jung's "active imagination;" or, Allen Ginsberg's "...calm breath, a silent breath, a slow breath breathes outward from the nostrils"(7)—O'Leary's poems continue to keep the mundane world in view.

Cathedrals, for Xavier, dreadful as dark forests.
Not for the organ roar of room but the habit of

waking in them accursed. The people in their
similitudes, the gurgle of phlegm in their throats.

Dante entering "a forest dark," Longfellow's translation. "The Lord of Birds," O'Leary writes, "reads plover prints like a young poet reading the Cantos,"(9) Birds flock throughout this book. But, for now, I'm wondering whether he means Dante's Cantos or Pound's. Pound because a young poet is more apt to read him than Dante. Which brings up the question" How many young poets will read O'Leary?

He brings this up himself in an essay on the poetry of Frank Samperi, "an obscure, experimental American poet of the twentieth century who wrote out of an explicitly Roman Catholic vision of the universe."(10) He goes on to say that "Samperi mainly emulates Dante, who looked through the communal vision of a medieval Catholicism, out of which his own vision emerged." He questions who the audience could be for a poet "who writes out of the abstractive useless?," reminding me of Thomas Merton's thought: "The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the 'emptiness' and 'uselessness' which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth."(11) Although Merton was a monk, as soon as he received permission, he took the hermit's path.

"So which is it, then?," O'Leary asks.

"Does the poet immerse himself in spiritual language toward eventual 'reexamination of experience' as that which substantiates the spiritual path in poetry? Or does the poet fix his eye on the unfixable, immutable, always-hidden God beyond the Ptolemaic universe he imagines himself in? The point is, you can only do one or the other. You can’t do both." (10)

O'Leary seems to have written his long essay on Frank Samperi in order to articulate, if not justify to himself, his writing religious poetry in a world that is basically secular, by which I mean the community of Western poets and critics. So it is almost predictable that he would conclude the essay where he began, by asking himself the question: "What will make the new poem both thoroughly Catholic and completely American, reflecting the spiritual essence of both? Toward that unknown, I turn my attention Thither."(10) Or, as the late Robert Creeley liked to say: "Onward!"


In an informative review of Depth Theology, Chris Glomski wrote that, "'The Collected Poems of Sigmund Freud,' a poem that appears in a section of the
book called Theopathic Anxieties,
is one of the central poems in the collection, and one that links up to an important sense of the phrase 'depth theology,' about which O’Leary offers this gloss in his copious 'Notes and Acknowledgments' at the back of the book:

'Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss physician who was Carl Jung’s director at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital, is generally credited with coining Tiefenpsychologie —’depth psychology’—for describing a psychology of the unconscious. I take depth theology, then, to be a religious knowledge of the unconscious.'"(12)

According to Archetypal psychologist James Hillman,

"This move (by Bleuler) shifted attention from the activity of taking things apart to the vision of seeing them in depth. The new field was now on different ground, one that was less physically scientific, because less oriented toward analytic reduction into parts, and more metaphysically philosophical, because the reduction now aimed toward more profound understanding."(13)

In other words, psychotherapy was no longer completely based on Freudian grounds, which clung to a medical model, but now also took more metaphysically oriented turn, even though Jung, too, hoped for a nod from the scientific community. However, what I see in O'Leary's work is not "aimed toward a more profound understanding" of the psyche. His immense erudition and lexiconical fireworks seem to mainly take off from the temporal lobes. Surely the human psyche is larger than its "spiritual" emulations!


The poem I feel is most telling of O'Leary's path is titled, "Fear of the Innermost Body within the Body That We Call the Heart," which appears in the very center of the book. Does it strike sparks; still better, shatter some holy vessels?

It begins by continuing the title with "is fear of God." If I'm reading his intentions right, and I'm not a theologian, opposed to the Hebrew traction of fearing Yahweh, "the inner thunder of earlier kings," While Christ, "the innermost body," shouldn't be feared but embraced. In any case, from here, he enters a tunnel in which "lives a / naked person, bent with disease & old age: corrupted rottenness,

worn-out putrefaction of the thunderbird he exists, scaled
with mites & sores of lice. The little
fear that drives him.

As said above, birds, and other metaphors of flight, appear throughout this book, from "headless songbirds" to "the hummingbird voice box in its gluey linen." The woodpecker, with its attachment to oak trees sacred to the Druids, among others, who rose in the Neolithic to the status of a Thunderbird that creates storms with its massive wings, and carries messages between the spirit worlds, is prevalent in shamanic societies. For example, the Cowichan People of British Columbia have a myth in which thunderbirds are shapeshifters, morphing into human form by removing a mask and blanket of feathers. So that when the poem continues, "This sickly thunderbird tended by a sickly keeper broods / over an egg," I see one being in two sticky forms.

Now inside the egg, the fetus is "yolk & protein;" but after it's hatched, it will "feed on worms & darkness." And, "It will learn

to fly on cavernous sound waves amplified
through the tunnels, &—.

The poet stops. Tired of "simpleton's allegory." Then, with a burst of adrenaline he suddenly realizes what he really wants to say. "Here it is: the tunnels are aortae; the caves ventricles & auricles;"

the heart is a little bird, you are the old & sickly one.
The poem is the oracle. Thunder is the nerves, hormonal
alacrity & siege. God in me is an endocrine...

I am stunned by the power of these words shot directly into the bloodstream by a god who "has snared his most secret body in my central nervous system

spread with the most perfect fear. Who
scatters the deer in the woods? Flushes woodcocks
from the hedges?"

It is Pan, who did not die, as Plutarch misreported, but, as Hillman says, was "repressed."

"Pan still lives, and not merely in literary imagination. He lives in the repressed which returns, in the psychopathologies of instincts which assert themselves, as Roscher indicates, primarily in the nightmare and its associated erotic, demonic and panic qualities."(14)

Pan, O'Leary adds, is "like a swarm of bees...like a tempest of allergens—pollens, spores, molds—sifted from the leaves...Pan / is God's aspect." While, to Hillman, the "new shepherd, Christ, with his new means of management" was followed sheepishly, and because of this, "Nature no longer spoke to us—or we could no longer hear."(14)

O'Leary ends his poem echoing an oracular Woody Woodpecker balancing on the Internet's invisible wires: "That's all (folks). Anxiety / in the information. Its news / is God."

It's a brilliant poem, and indeed generates sparks, but no fire hot enough to burn away the hedges Christianity has grown around itself. Instead, it's author leads us downward, into a tunnel where we hear echoes of our own voices, the same tunnel our civilization has been stuck in for thousands of years, dreaming of seeing a Light at its end.



1- Yellin, T. (2005) The Genizah at the House of Shepher. New York, St. Martin's Griffin.
2- Hall, N. (1980) The Moon and the Virgin. New York: Harper & Row.
3- O'Leary, P. From, "The Revival of the Religious Sciences."
4- Letter to Crusherrun (blog) June 20, 2006. http://rogermitchell.blogspot.com/2006/06/peter-olearys-depth-theology.html
5- O'Leary, P. (2011) "Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry."Chicago Review. Vol. 55: 3-4.
6- O'Leary, P. From, "With More Passionate Flying."
Ginsberg, A (1978) "Mind Breaths" In, Mind Breaths. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
8- O'Leary, P. From, "Obsession"
9- O'Leary, P. From, "An Auspex."
10- O'Leary, P. ((2004) "Reversion and the Turning Thither:Writing Religious Poetry and the Case of Frank Samperi." Logos. (Spring)
11- Merton, T. (1964)) "Rain and the Rhinoceros." In, Raids on the Unspeakable. New York: New Directions.
12- Glomski, C. "Leafing the Now." http://jacketmagazine.com/31/glomski2rev.html
13- Hillman, J. (1979) The Dream of the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row.
14- Hillman, J. and Roscher, W.H., (1972) Pan and the Nightmare. New York: Spring Publications.