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PSALM 151

Bay Area poet David Meltzer has been exploring the pathways of Jewish mysticism for contemporary poetry since the 1960s and his own generosity as a publisher and reader of poetry has inspired generations of poets — including those he teaches at the graduate poetics program of the New College of California at San Francisco. He has published a massive body of work, most recently “No Eyes: Lester Young” (Black Sparrow, 2000).

In this selection from a longer sequence titled “Serial Gum,” Meltzer told the Forward in an e-mail, he is addressing, among other things, “the New Age, spiritual crises, malaise & upswing, & how the spiritual becomes material & material becomes spiritual.” Drawing on Gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and improvising like the rock musician he is (he and his late wife, Tina, had a band called Serpent Power, recording three albums between 1968 and 1970), Meltzer mediates between mystical wisdom and whimsy, giving a casual spin to the gyrations of the cosmos and mining the profound in a series of exploding puns. For example, “meat’s the error/ meet the terror” tells us all we need to know about incarnation. The poem itself is the musing of every soul trapped in a body and wondering what botched processes of creation led to the mess we call our embodied reality, “kindness made animate bone… intelligence tangled up in hair.”

The poem specifically references the Gnostic concept of the archons, powers subordinate to God responsible for the creation of the universe, and which in kabbala are transformed into 10 sefirot. Meltzer also evokes the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl,” the story of every soul’s journey into a body. According to that ancient text, each of us has been sent on a mission, to recover the “pearl of great price,” however, living in the material world, we lose sight of the mission of our souls and end up asleep to our own depth. We ourselves are “beauty exiled/ banished in bitter abandon” or, as the poem’s title suggests, we are aliens in flesh, foreigners, displaced people or, in the lyric of a Brazilian pop song, “estrangeiro.”

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