Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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As a legal term, blasphemy represents a privileging of sentiment over liberty. Blasphemy laws outlaw speech and other forms of expression that are or could be read as expressing irreverence toward what a given “religious” tradition claims as sacred. But as blasphemy is defined by those offended (or otherwise interested in employing “blasphemy” as a leverage of power) as irreverence, then iconoclasm and polemic can be described by this term, too. While rhetoric around such problematic laws frame the blasphemer as perpetrating something like a hate crime, motivated by disavowal of the tradition involved (i.e., a cartoon making fun of Muhammad drawn out of contempt for the whole history of Islam) the blasphemer could just as easily be invested in that tradition, a prophetic voice of protest rejecting certain trappings and interpretations while advancing claims of a more authentic, more pure religion.
Bill Yarrow is this second kind of blasphemer. He’s scourging the temple of what he takes to be destructive illusions: theology as determinism, ethics as a cover for a greedy model of reciprocity, empathy as a dodge from facing real evil (“Empathy results in exculpation. It results in: ‘O Doctor Mengele, you poor man!’”), and all those cereal box theologies wherein “God” is some fantasy father, author, or cop. “God can be seen in man’s ability to imagine God,” Yarrow insists. This is his religion, the “Powers of artistic emotion” and the work of real artists struggling to do the new and the true, from the formal experiments of Oulipo to Max Beckmann’s paintings and Hart Crane’s poetry. When he reimagines a traditional Passover song as a ditty about roadside bombs, the act might at first read like the first sort of blasphemy (pissing on tradition), but Yarrow’s piece forces the reader to stare at the horrifically human, and it acts, in its own words, as “the Realignment and the Knife”—art, jarring and slicing, reorienting and transforming.
So Yarrow’s ultimate target in this tract is what he calls “charlatan art,” and he tears into it with satire in “Poetry is Other People” and the stabbing “Overheard at the Open Mic” (“I’m not kidding: this actually happened to me”). This is “blasphemy” as a believer cleaning house, resacralizing by—as the term implies—setting apart, drawing a line between trash and art. And at the same time, Yarrow employs imagery and ideas from religion in order to express his own desires, clutching, for instance, the crucifix that is Ferlinghetti (pocket-sized, a ubiquitous trinket) while longing for the return of that transcendent force which is Pound. No doubt someone, somewhere, would call that metaphor “blasphemy.” Far more accurate, however, to recognize it as a prayer.
Official Bill Yarrow Web Site
Official Lit Fest Press Web Site