Reviewed by Stephen Morrissey
ineffable, The Mystical Poems by Edwin Varney (The Poem Factory, Courtenay, BC, 2022).
14 pages. ISBN: 978-1-895593-57-0
Back in 1977, I reviewed Edwin Varney’s Human Nature (1974), published in CV II (Vol. 3, no. 2); it was my first published book review. And here I am, so many years later, reviewing Edwin Varney’s new chapbook, ineffable, The Mystical Poems (2022). Edwin has published over twenty books and chapbooks of poetry, and he is well known for his activity in the arts community, in Canada and internationally, as a poet, visual artist, publisher, and mail art artist.
In these poems Edwin writes of having mystical experiences and although these experiences are ineffable this is exactly what he does, he writes of “that which cannot be spoken about aloud . . .” Many people have been interested in mysticism, including myself; it is defined by W. T. Stace as an experience of the “undifferentiated unity of the universe.” Stace’s book, The Teachings of the Mystics (1960), which I read in the early 1970s, is mentioned in the bibliography of ineffable, The Mystical Poems. But read Edwin’s poems for a less intellectual and more immediate description of this experience. Mysticism is a spiritual experience common to all religions; but, ironically, it is also without the need for the accoutrements of organized religion.
Edwin uses a format in this chapbook that is similar to several other chapbooks he published with The Poem Factory, a press that he founded with my wife Carolyn Zonailo. The format is a running prose statement, or a single sentence, in the header of the page or several pages, and the poems are placed beneath this header. This format gives a unity to the book as well as, in this case, a description of the mystical experience in both prose and poetry; however, in describing a profound experience, poetry often trumps prose; poetry is the experience, prose describes the experience. He writes, “Poetry, because of its use of metaphor, simile, paradox, and generative use of language, is the most evocative, precise, and highly charged form of communicating these experiences.” (7)
While this chapbook offers only eight of Edwin’s poems, he has notebooks full of unpublished poems; I have seen his notebooks and diaries lined up on library shelves in his former Vancouver home, and Carolyn Zonailo edited Solar Eclipse, (The Poem Factory, 1994), a chapbook of some of these notebook poems. The simple, direct, style in ineffable, The Mystical Poems is the product of a lifetime of writing and also of a particular type of personality, one who values truth and authenticity over obscurity, one who values the human dimension. He writes, “I was there, completely there./ A door opened to somewhere else/ and I entered into the world.”
In “The Field” Edwin remembers a summer day when he saw a snake shedding its skin, “leaving behind a dry husk”, and this image becomes a metaphor for his own life; “I too will shed my skin/ and flesh, too soon.” Life is short, it is an experience of chronological time in the timeless cosmic zone. This poem is about the transience of life and our life in this world, in which every phase of life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age— is an incarnation and a gateway to the next incarnation, we shed lives as the snake sheds his old skin; “There is only the present”, he writes, so don’t worry about the future.
Edwin’s poem, “Angel”, describes our common spiritual/psychological journey in life. It is the archetypal fall from innocence into experience, as described by William Blake, and perfectly expressed, succinctly expressed, in Edwin’s poem. “A man fell from eternity into time.// In another age,/ he might have been called an angel/ but that was when people/ knew more about these things.” And then life unfolds and one “wandered thru work,/ relationships, money, love/ politics, health, and all the things/ we share as occupiers of this planet.” The final two lines of the poem illuminate the experience for us; he writes, “When I hit the ground,// I was broken but I remembered.” And what did the narrator remember? He remembered the eternal, his metaphorical angelic origin, the divine inspiration of nature, and that while we are in the world we are not necessarily of this world. It is where “. . . all contradictions vanish,/ a point where love is the only motive.” (“Point of No Return”, p. 12)
The authenticity of Edwin Varney’s poems bridges definition and the thing defined; his work is an achievement of expression, his work is authentic. He writes,
So look around and listen, be present,
If you look deep enough inside yourself,
you see the world.
You will be at home wherever you are“Lighthouse Park”, 5-6
ineffable, The Mystical Poems may be ordered by writing to:
The Poem Factory, 4426 Island Highway South, Courtenay, BC, Canada V9N 9T1
One: All poets should know something of mysticism in poetry, whether in Rumi, Rimbaud, Whitman, William Blake, or other poets who have been “inspired”, which means they have had spirit breathed into them, by God or nature or serendipity. Poetry can be an expression of a mystical, cosmic, experience; prose rarely is.
Two: It benefits poets if they publish chapbooks; with desk top publishing it is very easy to self-publish, or publish others, at low cost, in editions of any number you want, and distribute these chapbooks free of charge, or at any price you want, to other poets in order to keep in touch with our small community of poets, to build relationships, and share current work. The message is: keep a dialogue going. It is also more important now than ever to publish in print, poetry is a print medium, print on paper. Reading on a screen is not the same as reading something printed on paper.
Three: Two other books I would add to Edwin’s bibliography on mysticism are Colin Wilson’s Poetry and Mysticism (1969) and R.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousnmess (1901). Colin Wilson writes about individual poets, for instance Wordsworth, and discusses examples of mystical experience in specific poems. R.M. Bucke describes cosmic consciousness as a mystical experience that he claims all great poets and artists experience, including his personal friend Walt Whitman; Bucke’s book is a compendium of poets and artists whose work has been an expression of cosmic consciousness and how it finds its expression in their creative work. For Bucke this is part of the evolution of consciousness, moving away from an isolated consciousness to unity with life, nature, other people, and even the universe. Anyone interested in this subject might read all of the books Edwin lists in his bibliography.
Four: Another book, of less importance but still interesting, and not for inclusion in Edwin’s “Selected Bibliography About Mysticism”, is Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy (1998); Leary’s book is about the LSD experience and I mention it because psychedelic drugs seem to offer some promise for healing psychological problems; psychedelic pharmaceuticals offer a analogous mystical perception of life, but it is not a mystical experience.
About the author
Stephen Morrissey is a Montreal-born poet who also writes criticism and book reviews. His most recent book is The Green Archetypal Field of Poetry (Ekstasis Editions, 2022). Visit the poet at www.stephenmorrissey.ca.