Review: Patti Smith – The New Jerusalem

In 2005, Patti Smith released a well-received book of poetry, Auguries of Innocence, that clearly indicated her affections for the work of William Blake. Some thirteen years later, the influence of Blake is once more evident in her latest collection, a series of seven prose-poems entitled The New Jerusalem, a handsome volume that has been released by the Nexus Institute in a bilingual, English and Dutch edition.

As well as the poems themselves, the book includes a series of illustrations, some of them reproductions of Smith’s own work such as her silkscreen print of South Tower Copper. The Nexus Library series (of which this is a part) has been an eclectic mix, including works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Garry Kasparov as well as Smith’s latest offering, and the images and texts are preceded by an essay written by Rob Riemen, founder of the Nexus Institute and a longtime admirer of Smith’s. It is his introduction that offers the clearest link to Blake as he recounts a meeting the two of them had in New York:

“I’ve just started on a poem that’ll be called The New Jerusalem.”

“The new Jerusalem! Like the prophesy at the end of The Revelation of St. John in the New Testament? Or like the visionary poem Jerusalem by William Blake?” I knew what a passion she had for that eighteenth-century poet and painter.

The immediate cause of the poem is actually the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thus the political act of recognising the “universal” city as the capital of Israel. Regarding literary influences, Smith herself goes on to list a long line, including Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Andrei Tarkovsky, Allen Ginsberg – and the one that surprises Riemen the most – Jesus Christ. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the introduction is Smith’s insistence of the interlinking of art and religion. She cites Wilde’s De Profundis to argue that Christ was an artist, and though it is a little more oblique she certainly knows of Blake’s repeated references to Christianity as art. This becomes part of Rieman’s argument, that we have replaced concepts such as soul, forgiveness, God and creation with innovation, popularity and consumption, and that all art – not merely that of the sixties and seventies – is an art of counter-culture. He cites the line from Blake’s Laocoön, “Art Degraded, Imagination Denied, War Governed the Nations”, but with regard to Patti Smith’s ideas he could also have quoted: “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian”.

Riemens links this very Blakean conception of the Christian art of imagination to a counter-culture, operating both against the religious right of contemporary America but also current political trends of Trump’s America, which he mournfully compares to the tribulations of Lincoln, a party linked by name only across the centuries. Despite this somewhat melancholy end to the introductory essay, however, begin with a much more powerful tone: “Matter of Time”, the opening piece, is redolent of Ginsberg and, to my eyes, Yeats as well as Blake, as in the following passage:

The new time slouched then accelerated, visceral, chaotic, yet soon governed with a terrible lucidity. God usurped by Goal. Chemical commerce the prime directive. Cultivators initiated an unremittent engineering of nature. Controllers enforced a neo-naturalization, devoid of charity or human quality. Mercenary priests devised the moral center. Iron and steel rose from the face of the holy city, the earth shuddered, and it was holy no more.

The accompanying image, South Tower Copper, indicates that there is something about this passage that is explicitly imagist, of a tower rising in the literal city of Jerusalem to form the new embassy. At the same time, it is also clearly visionary, and while some of this verse literally sticks in the mouth as I read it (“enforced a neo-naturalization devoid of charity”) this is, perhaps, appropriate to the language of Ulro. Although not quite the howl of Ginsberg’s poem, there is something about this opening passage that is very reminiscent of his accusations against Moloch:

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

The first poem is also a retelling of Blake’s account, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as to the origins of religion. Originally the preserve of ancient poets, who “animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive”, this inspired form of worship was soon abstracted into a system and “thus began Priesthood”. For Smith, modern priests are consumer culture, automation and mechanisation which drives us along as part of alienated modernity.

It is against such mechanisation, the Moloch of Ginsberg or Blake’s Ulro, that she is clearly writing her new Christian art, inspired very much by those two poets as well as the other artists and writers identified by Rieman. Thus in the second piece, “What manner of herald flies over”, offers a visionary account of a Caravaggio, not explicitly identified but probably his “Decapitation of St John the Baptist”, the marking of an end of an epoch of art that is followed by a scene of literal sacrifice of cattle: it is the institution of priesthood, but also – via it’s title, “Triumph and Deceit” – a mocking reference to the politics of the 45th President of the United States, who sacrifices truth in the service of power.

The style of all these and the remaining pieces – “The Alchemical Sovereign”, “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, “The Cup” and “A Time of Gifts” – is highly allusive. That it has its roots in a specific political event is not immediately evident without Rieman’s introduction, and these could be read as a series of narrative images that are frequently hauntingly beautiful in their simplicity:

In a dream, a woman gave me a small object, wrapped in brown tissue. It was a cup, delicate, near transparent, created long ago by one who had aspired to transform mute material into gold… He saw carnage and famine and the bleached arms of power. He saw himself shackled to futile ambition. None shall enlighten, he cried, save a nature I shall never know.

Throughout all the poems, allusions to Blake are frequently as delicate as the porcelain cup that Smith holds, but they are very much in evidence. As “Prophecy’s Lullaby”, drawing both on Blake’s famous declarations of prophecy and his Songs of Innocence, is especially redolent of his aphoristic style in works such as The Marriage and Auguries of Innocence. It is also a key to The New Jerusalem, a series of songs that are intended to revive that lost idea of a soul through the act of prophecy. The collection ends with Smith collecting up her writing tools as a voice inside her tells her that she is (re)born, a voice of “inexhaustible good”.

 

Patti Smith, The New Jerusalem, Amsterdam: Nexus Library, 2018. Bilingual edition, 76pp. €20, available from nexus-instituut.nl/en/publication/the-new-jerusalem.

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, June 2018

The big news during June was Tate Britain’s announcement that it will recreate William Blake’s failed 1809 exhibition in 2019. Speaking to Robert Dex at the London Evening Standard, Alex Farquharson said that the main purpose of the exhibition is to shift the perception of Blake as primarily a poet to a visual artist. The show will open next September and will be one of the biggest displays of Blake’s work since the 2000 exhibition that also took place there.

Although it was actually released at the end of May, Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a prose poem written in response to the Trump Administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, became available in the UK in early June. As well as her gnomic, Blake-inspired text, it includes a series of images produced by Smith in recent years. Smith gave a talk at the Festival of Voice in Cardiff and we’ll be carrying a review of the book soon. Other publications in June included Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should be Wild, with nods to Blake in the form of the characters the Blakeleys and a setting of Urizon, while Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk demonstrates the influence of Blake among other artists on modern fantasy artworks.

A truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art came via the Edinburgh College of Art’s end of year degree show. Jack Handscombe, a student at the ECA, produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, crouched above a keyboard as a palm tree sprouts from its back. Entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”, as Duncan Macmillan, reviewing the show for The Scotsman, observed, the piece is a witty parody of the Paolozzi statue that stands in front of the British Library, suggesting that “digital is all very well, but nature will break out”.

Neko Case released a new album, Hell-On, was released on June 1. At least one reviewer (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney at the Financial Times) noted the Blakean connection to the track “Last Lion of Albion”, as in the chorus:

Last lion of Albion
They’ll use you for centuries to come
Your wound’s the main road into London
You’ll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money

Another musical performance announced during June is Eve Beglarian’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at, which will be performed at the New York Bang on a Can summer music festival.

Also in the arts, a new show in London was announced, Wirework. Written by Daleen Kruger, the play itself was actually written in Afrikaans in 2009 but has recently been translated, telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas. The pair created an extraordinary environment in the middle of the Karoo in the Easter Cape, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake to fill the museum with wonderful statues. The play will perform at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from July 3-7. Another performance that carried the spirit of William Blake came from Keith Hennessy’s Sink at The Lab in San Francisco. According to the Bay Area Reporter, Hennessy’s dance and chant invokes both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Also in theatre, Lynne Kaufman’s one act play, William Blake in Hollywood, will show in Cedar City in Utah. Exhibitions during June included William Blake in Colour at the William Blake Gallery, and the owner of the gallery, John Windle, gave a talk on the artist and poet during Melbourne Rare Books Week.

Finally, during June we were also reminded of the Blakean references in Westworld (“Auguries of Innocence”), as a signifier of English identity according to the BBC’s poll (“Jerusalem”), that the Libertines nearly took a more Blakean name, the Albions, and you could have heard a group of Blake scholars – Michael Phillips, Linda Freedman, Susan Matthews and me – discuss the Life and Works of William Blake on the BBC World Service’s programme The Forum.

Innocent Augur – Patti Smith’s Blake

If there is one thing that is incredibly heartwarming for me, it is the flowering successes of Patti Smith. Her passions for Blake (as well as so many other things – from the French Symbolists to the Beats via Robert Mapplethorpe) is well known, enduring and, on a personal level, extremely touching.

One thing that is particularly marvellous about her career is that it seems to have enjoyed a millennial resurgence. Smith, in my opinion, joins those ranks of women such as Louise Bourgeouis and Georgia O’Keefe who just get better as they get older, and it’s a damn fine sign that she is not being brushed out of sight in her sixties – if anything, is becoming more prolific and more admired. In 1999, a bitchy and thoroughly mean-spirited biography by Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley was published which largely wrote her off as another has-been: the next decade proved them both completely wrong.

Very briefly, her list of accomplishments in the new decade has included various collections of her lyrics (such as Patti Smith Complete, which came out a year after the Bockris/Bayley hatchet job, followed up in 2006 by Complete: Lyrics, Reflections and Notes for the Future), some fine editions of her favourite poets, including a selection of Blake’s published by Vintage in 2007, a book of her 2008 exhibition of photography, Land 250, a much-awaited autobiography of her time with Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, recently published by Bloomsbury and which I haven’t had chance to read yet, and – last but by no means least for this blog – the 2006 collection of original poetry, Auguries of Innocence.

In some ways, though the Bockris/Bayley biography annoyed me immensely, it came at a time when Smith probably was something of a fading shadow. I’m sure I’m not the only young man to have half-fallen in love with the Mapplethorpe portrait of her on Horses – one of the very icons of cool itself, beautiful in all its androgynous perfection – but by the end of the 1990s I must be honest that she had drifted far away from the centres of my perception. In the past ten years, however, something of her true value has been appreciated by writers and film-makers, such as Stephen Sebring, whose 2008 film Dream of Life has attracted critical acclaim recently.

Smith’s influences cannot, and should not, be reduced to Blake – but her tousles and invocations of the Romantic should also never be forgotten. Her recent performance at Union Chapel, London, included a rendition of “My Blakean Year”, from the 2004 album Trampin’:

Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year

You can read the lyrics in their entirety on her site, pattismith.net, but I shall end here with one of my favourite quotations from her, taken from a 2000 interview for Tate Magazine:

William Burroughs and I used to talk about this [the influence of Blake]. Burroughs was fond of Blake, and it was just so simple to him. He said that Blake just saw what others did not – and that it seemed like a good answer. I mean, Blake was so generous with his angels that even we can look at them now.