Duncan's Celestial Hierarchy
Peter O'Leary

The two parts of Robert Duncan’s Ground Work—first published in the 1980s as Ground Work: Before the War and Ground Work II: In the Dark and recently reissued in a single volume by New Directions—remain, to my mind, the poet’s least understood works, even as their contents have inspired the most lore. “The story is well-known in poetry circles,” begins Michael Palmer in his introduction to the new edition of Ground Work.[1] “[A]round 1968, disgusted by his difficulties with publishers and by what he perceived as the careerist strategies of many poets, Duncan vowed not to publish a new collection for fifteen years.” In registering Duncan’s seriousness as a poet, it’s become commonplace to signal the importance of 1968, when, following the publication of Bending the Bow, Duncan began a poetic vow of silence he would carry out for fifteen years. This period, writes Palmer, “would allow the grand design [of the poem] to emerge in its own time . . . .”

The reality, as ever, is less straightforward. The fifteen-year period following 1968 becomes much harder to designate as one of “silence” when we know that Duncan published voluminously during the 1970s, reprinting earlier work from the 1940s and 1950s (including Caesar’s Gate as well as two volumes of early selected poems from Fulcrum Press in the U.K.) and issuing fine-press and limited editions of the new work he was producing, nearly all of which would end up in the Ground Work volumes. The most important of these publications was the limited edition of Tribunals put out in 1970 by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press, a book that Duncan was furious about, since he felt his poems had been thoughtlessly mishandled by both Martin and the book’s typesetter, Saul Marks.[2] This edition seems to have focused Duncan’s disgust and to have firmed his resolve not to issue another book for as long as he could manage it. On October 4, 1971, he wrote to Denise Levertov to describe his progress on The H.D. Book, an ambitious literary study-cum-poetics manifesto that he never completed, but that he was hard at work on at the time. “I’ve been typing the first volume of the H.D. Book for publication,” he writes, “having decided to issue it at this stage in typescript edition. I have come to dread printed publications—I’ve had such bad luck with proof-reading and faulty printers. And now I have it to issue all first editions from my typewriter straight off. Where any errors will be my own.”[3] Though Duncan’s use of the typewriter as a kind of printing press was nothing new to twentieth-century poetry, his insistence that it was a highly controlled typographic medium free from flaw is an intriguing readjustment of the standard progression scholars use to understand poetic production: from notebook to manuscript to fair copy to typescript to proof to journal to book. What really happened during Duncan’s period of “silence” is that he began to believe that the typescript represented the apex of poetic production.

And it’s in a facsimile of the typescript produced on Duncan’s IBM Selectric that we find the printed text of Ground Work: Before the War, originally published by New Directions in 1984. It’s a huge book of poetry: over 180 pages, in extra-wide trim to accommodate the capacious lines. Over the years, readers have been led to believe that this was how Duncan insisted on seeing his books published, using this procedure to prevent any printer’s errors from coming through. But even this account gets complicated, since archival evidence of the manuscripts indicates that Duncan hired typists to help him produce the typescript. Therefore, though Duncan was of course overseeing the project, the finished typescript can’t be accepted as “from the master’s hand.” My sense is that these two physical features of the book—its daunting size and its aggressive, unappealing typography[4]—matched with the incredible poetic ambition of the work (in which, to borrow Palmer’s words, “the agonistic dance of Eros and Thanatos, chaos and form, darkness and light, permission and obligation” was given its fullest expression), have scared even dedicated readers of Duncan from plunging into Ground Work. We’re trained to believe that such books require decoding in order to be understood, let alone appreciated. As such, Ground Work appears as the most Sphinx-like of all Duncan’s poetry, a monumental riddle erected at life’s end.

Yet the pleasure of these poems doesn’t come from solving them or answering them, but from reading them. For all that can be said about Duncan’s writing, too little has emerged about what a dedicated, inventive reader he was. Ground Work is replete with the evidence of his far-flung, elaborate, and creative reading, from Greek myth to newspapers. He discovered as much in Thom Gunn’s Moly as he did in the Metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century, and among poets who lived in the twentieth century, perhaps only Osip Mandelstam was as great a reader of Dante. By the time he was writing the work included in In the Dark, Duncan appears to have absorbed Baudelaire so completely that he begins channeling the poet in his native language. (And, as Clément Oudart has demonstrated, he begins to channel Pound’s “Canto I” into French in “Et (Passages)”[5].) Among Duncan’s poetry, some of the strongest evidence of the inventiveness of his reading can be found in one of the most perplexing and least attended to sequences in Ground Work, “Regulators,” which appears as an unnumbered “Set of Passages” in In the Dark. Characterized by capacious, sprawling, heavily caesura’d lines that occupy the entirety of the wide trim the book is given, “Regulators” seethes with daunting allusions, a mythos of catastrophic disintegrations, and bizarre angelic messengers clad in disease who constellate the poetic heavens of the sequence. The opening of the first poem of the sequence, “The Dignities,” sets the excessive tone for the rest of “Regulators”:


Bonitas . Magnitudo . Eternitas . Potestas . Sapientia . Voluntas . Virtus . Veritas . Gloria


Blesst the black Night that hides the elemental germ,

the Day that brings the matter to light and its full term.

For goodness’ sake we’ll snuff the candle out and turn again to dark,

for there the spark occluded rests most firm   bright flower of what we know,   bonny fleur,

your seed returns to work in what we cannot know.


The smallest particle vertiginous exceeds the Mind.[6]


In these lines, Duncan’s readers might recognize familiar but disparate trends in his writing expressed in curious unison. The atavistic listing that begins the poem is reminiscent of the opening and closing of “The Fire, Passages 13,” while the lilting rhythms, rhymes, and off-rhymes of the following five lines ring with the voice heard in “My Mother Would Be a Falconress.” And the adjectival inversion of “vertiginous” in line 6 makes for a peculiarly Duncanian syntactical amplification, something overtly provocative and excessively poetic flaunted at his readers almost as a dare.

I’ve puzzled often over this poem and the others in “Regulators”—“The Dignities,” “Stimmung,” and “In Blood’s Domaine,” in particular—because they resound with the apocalyptic, prophetic voice that Duncan, with a manic clarity, channeled in his later verse. A definitive interpretation of these poems, while undoubtedly useful to our thematic understanding of the work, would not necessarily explain the allure of this prophetic voice, whose call works so persuasively on my imagination, to say the least. Instead, I’d like to try to read these poems, to make use of my own readerly intuitions and associations, coaxing them into the kind of formulations that this late sequence of Duncan’s authorizes any of his dedicated readers to make.

Even the opening lines of “The Dignities,” proposing a metaphoric germination of the powers of the imagination, suggest the appearance of archaic forces that the poem attends to, or is directed by. In naming these powers—both in this first passage and throughout the sequence—Duncan invokes angelic properties. The opening line itself, made up of a list of words in Church Latin, gives descriptive names to these angelic beings. The final name in the list is invoked again later in the poem as the angel Gloria, clothed as the morning glory flower:


GLORIA    into color    flare    vermilion petal o’er pale green leaf    blue star and violet

                deep purple into bronze    wing spread    into golden wing    bright yellow spoil

                Spring’s prolific patterning     and here, a further shade within the shade

                the eye draws in     where trembling leaf by leaf among a slumbering mass    light

                     strikes    its momentary elections    the passage or limen   the where-Glory-abounds


That this “Glory,” in Duncan’s reckoning, thrives in intermediary realities—in shade deepened by an angelic, florid presence or in the liminal existence between divine and earthly matter that angels occupy—serves to make these poems sound litanical, very much like the “Litany of the Saints” in the Tridentine Roman Missal, which is sung on the feast day of St. Mark (March 25) or at any time the Church is seeking to avert a calamity or to implore the mercy of God.[7] The significance of this invocation is made clear earlier in the poem, when Duncan insists, “The Power holds     in what we do    undoing    claim.” The capitalized term “Power” refers directly to the traditional name—“Powers”—given by the early Christian theologian Dionysius in his Celestial Hierarchy for the fifth rank, or circulation, of angelic beings. Later in “Regulators,” the provocation that forms the powerful opening of “In Blood’s Domaine”—“The Angel Syphilis in the circle of Signators    looses its hosts    to swarm /  mounting the stem of being   to the head”—is followed in the subsequent poem, “After Passage,” by the statement, “And if terror be the threshold of Angelic In-Formation,    the Masters / of Nuclear Power, malevolent dreamers,    knowing and unknowing,” which conjures a different kind of destructive angel, related to the arms race and the terrible power of modern science: “the Angel of this Polluting radiance [. . .] does and undoes the concordances of the DNA helix.” What I’m regularly struck by, whenever I read these poems, is the menacing hybridity of traditional conceptions of angelic beings with Duncan’s novel, apocalyptic profusions of disease, illness, madness, and the powers of war. Where does this combination come from?

At a talk and reading Duncan gave after the publication of The Opening of the Field, he explained, after reading “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” that in 1953, following the completion of Letters, “I did have in mind, however, starting a book which would have a definite form, but I wasn’t sure about around what themes I would build the forms. In the notebook, I had composed several poems concerning angels and their orders that I eventually discarded in the making of the book,” by which he means The Opening of the Field. Duncan offered these remarks as a way to put the composition of “Often I Am Permitted . . . ” in context.[8] When the poem came to him while visiting London in 1956, he must clearly have felt that he had discovered the theme around which to build his “forms.” During the talk, he makes no further mention of “angels and their orders,” but my suspicion is that this was a poetic concept deeply embedded in his imagination, such that when the apocalyptic themes of “Regulators” began to appear, he must have sensed, at last, that he could make use of this angelic structure. It therefore seems helpful to me, as a way to begin to approach “Regulators,” to rehearse the nature of the “celestial hierarchy,” and to summon up its place in Western literature, so as to see the texture of the tradition Duncan was invoking in his poems.



The Celestial Hierarchy is one of the surviving works attributed to Dionysius—or Denys, as he was known in the English tradition—believed for many centuries to be the Greek Paul converted to Christianity at the Areopagus at the Parthenon in Athens (Acts 17:34). (Thus was he known as Dionysius the Areopagite.) Dionysius has proven to be more mythic and enigmatic than the scriptural figure whose name he adopted. He’s believed to be a Syrian monk who lived in the fifth or sixth century, who wrote in Greek, and who was deeply schooled in Neoplatonism, particularly in the theological speculations of Plotinus. His Celestial Hierarchy is what its title suggests: a treatment of each of the rungs, or circulations, of angelic powers surrounding God in heaven, with discussion of their abilities, orientation, and meaning. More significantly, the hierarchy constitutes a vastly metaphorical conjuration of the cyclic structures the imagination relies on to approach divinity. “In my opinion,” writes Dionysius, “a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding and an activity approximating as closely as possible to the divine. And it is uplifted to the imitation of God in proportion to the enlightenments divinely given to it. The beauty of God—so simple, so good, so much the source of perfection—is completely uncontaminated by dissimilarity. It reaches out to grant every being, according to merit, a share of light and then through a divine sacrament, in harmony and in peace, it bestows on each of those being perfected its own form.”[9] According to Steven Chase’s commentary on this passage, the numerical values of the arrangement are critical to understanding its figurative content: “The concept of hierarchy being arranged triadically—in three sets of threes, hence the nine orders of angels in three groups of three—is [. . .] important for Dionysius. The famous triad of purgation, illumination, union is a stamp of the angelic hierarchy through which the human soul is led to God.”[10]

These angelic orders, though well-known and often invoked in our literature (Pound gave the name “Thrones” to a late slab of the Cantos, after all), remain mystifying, a condition that oddly reinforces the strength and beauty of Dionysius’ triadic vision, which begins at the innermost and most intense core, expanding outward into creation, into the cosmos:





                {triad of union/sacred order}





                {triad of illumination/understanding}





                {triad of purgation/activity}


Many of the greatest minds of the Church and the Christian tradition have meditated on the angelic theophany represented in Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy, from Bonaventure to Alan of Lille to Hugh of St. Victor to Gregory the Great to Bernard of Clairvaux. Likewise, the hierarchy became a cornerstone of esoteric lore, providing patterns through which the zodiac might be discerned, as well as insights into the emanating, precipitating energies of God. (Rudolph Steiner, for instance, proposed a sequence of “group rulerships” exhibited by each of the angelic orders, connecting them directly with aspects of the zodiac.[11]) H.D. made ample reference to angelic powers in Trilogy, particularly in “Tribute to the Angels,” in which she invokes many of the arch-angels by name, as in the following lines: “I had been thinking of Gabriel, / the moon-regent, the Angel, // and I had intended to recall him / in the sequence of candle and fire // and the law of the seven. . . ”[12] Trilogy was extremely important to Duncan’s sense of poetic reality. Dionysius’ angels, in the words of Hugh of St. Victor, were a “collection of visible forms for the demonstration of invisible realities.”[13] And no poet in the Western tradition has attempted this demonstration more clearly and more dynamically than Dante in the Paradiso.



In Canto XXVIII of the Paradiso, the great inversion takes place that concludes the Commedia, and Dante gazes for the first time on the angelic hierarchies unencumbered by his earthly vision. His initial disorientation is caused by the concentrated intensity of motion with which the three groups of angelic choirs revolve, since this doesn’t harmonize with his own sense of the direction of his journey, which up to this point has led him from atop the Mount of Purgatory, on an earth fixed in place, outward through the seven Ptolemaic heavenly spheres. Having reached the Primum Mobile, Dante, with Beatrice’s help, recognizes that rather than traveling outward, he has been moving all along toward the center of creation, where God’s divinity blooms in a celestial rose. In his commentary on the poem, Charles S. Singleton writes in a scholarly deadpan that this moment of “turning inside-out [. . .] as it is prepared for and then finally achieved, is one of the most impressive of the whole poem.”[14] Once Beatrice explains that the most intense, most sincere circles of heaven, composed entirely of divine fire, are burning so brightly because of their proximity to God, Dante begins to see the angelic orders, which Beatrice then clarifies for him, following Dionysius’ vision precisely. “And Dionysius,” says Beatrice in Singleton’s translation, “with such great desire set himself to contemplate these orders that he named and distinguished them, as I.”

Dante’s likeliest point of contact for Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy was St. Thomas Aquinas, who discusses Dionysius’ work in his Summa Theologiae. Aquinas would have known the work through the translation of John Scotus Eriugena, who brought it from Greek into Latin in the ninth century. Beginning with Dante’s description of the transformative moment he experiences in the Commedia, the celestial hierarchy has acted as a gravitational force in literature, drawing poets into its tightening, gyrating choirs in their hunger and curiosity to represent the vision anew. Part of this attraction must be attributed to the authority and tradition Dante represents in his poem. Peter S. Hawkins usefully discerns Dante’s tendency to choose received belief over invention, allowing his poetry, rather than his ideas, to be the conduit of transformation. “When Dante wrote the Commedia,” Hawkins writes,


he no doubt searched the Scriptures, weighed received belief, opted for one authority over another, and came up with a response that suited both his convictions and his purposes. This might mean choosing Bonaventure over Aquinas. . . or siding with Dionysius the Areopagite over Gregory the Great when it came to the precise order of the angelic hierarchies. . . However it was that he actually made these decisions, they are never presented in the Commedia as deriving from Scripture or Reason. . . Rather, the poet gives us what he made up as if it were what he had received through experience.[15]


I think this sense of Dante’s presentation of tradition and authority as based in experience—as manifestations of an interior and metaphorical (or anagogical, to use Dante’s preferred term) reality—is a helpful gauge for approaching Duncan’s involvement with and attraction to Dante. In Duncan’s derivative poetics, Dante is not merely a figure or archetype, but a gushing source, a being through whom “Creation” issues forth in its “fictive certainties.” In “The Sweetness and Greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Duncan writes,


[F]or it is Creation, it is the Divine Presentation, it is the language of experience whose words are immediate to our senses; from which our own creative life takes fire, within which our own creative life take fire. The creative life is a drive towards the reality of Creation, producing an inner world, an emotional and intellectual fiction, in answer to our awareness of the creative reality of the whole. If the world does not speak to us, we cannot speak with it.[16]


Duncan’s “Dante Études” in Before the War are an ingenious elaboration of a poetic indebtedness to Dante’s creative vision. The poem that ends the first book of the sequence, “Letting the Beat Go,” is an improvisation related at least in feeling to the moment of inversion in the Paradiso when Dante gazes upon the circling spherical choirs of angelic powers, baffled by their irradiating glory. Duncan fantasizes himself, as he had famously done before, as a bird of prey:


Letting the beat go,

the eagle, we know, does not

soar to the stars,   he rides

the boundaries of the air—


but let the “eagle”

soar to the stars!   there

where he’s “sent”!   The stars

are blazons then of a high glamor

        the mind beholds

—less “real” for that?—

        a circling power.

In holding so he flies,    an idea

        increasing exultation

we know in the idea of it,    a tower!


The three words set apart in the second stanza—“eagle,” “sent,” and “real”—are marked by the little apostrophic wings of quotation marks to send them flying into the realm of the imagination, in turn sending Duncan into a rapturous, raptorial mode:


O farflung valiant eagle

                venturing in immensities,

wingd hunger    sent amongst starry


seraphic predator!


I’d hover here,    a wheel of

   all the real life here below

   swept up—

   the glutted cities, choked streams,

   you think I do not know them all,

   the “facts” of this world,   most

                in this mere sweeping-up?


They are the facts from which I fly




beyond our conversation,    imperial,


insensate,   “high”,


   beyond this matter of our speech here,

   into this furthest reach,   this


incidence of a rapacious




gnostic invader of the “Sky”!


Duncan’s approach to these angelic powers is predatory—but the “gnostic” invasion he imagines stains his later work not as a form of knowledge but as one of disease, a recurrent theme in “Regulators.” The migration that occurs from a vision of reality to an internal vision—“the facts from which I fly / aloft”—something Duncan insists in The H.D. Book to be true of the Divine Comedy:


The world-map of Dante is a curiosity, but the poet in the Paradiso looking deep into the profound and shining being of God, for all his theological schema of the trinity, sees “one by the second as Iris by Iris seemed reflected, and the third seemed a fire breathed equally from one and from the other” and it is not the theology that lasts but the seeming. . . This Paradise, like H.D.’s, that once was a place in the physical universe, now is a place in feeling.[17]



The other poet besides Dante who figures in any consideration of angelic powers in the Western poetic tradition is Rilke, who, even more than T. S. Eliot, is the most influential religious poet of the modern era. Rilke makes an important appearance in “Regulators,” as one of the diseased figures in “In Blood’s Domaine”:

                                                                      —where black the infected blood


    gushes forth from Rilke’s mouth,  from his nose,  from his rectal canal


               news his whole body bears as its truth        of the septic rose


This passage alludes to Rilke’s death by the pricking of the thorn of a rose, or so goes the legend, an injury that led to an infection that killed him. The truth was that Rilke had leukemia, which the rose-prick revealed. Legend further tells of Rilke’s refusal of any palliative aid, and of his desire to feel the end of his life with his senses fully dilated. Elsewhere in the poem, Duncan intones,


(No, I do not speak of Evils or of Agents of Death   but these Angels

are attendants of lives raging within life,    under these Wings we dread


But Duncan’s understanding of Rilke wasn’t uncritical. Writing to Denise Levertov in January, 1961, Duncan admits, “And Rilke’s Duino Elegies which once seemd all, show up patches now of make-shift,”[18] and nearly a decade later, in December, 1969, describing to Levertov a “long unripe, if not dry, period” he found himself in, he mentions that he’s been trying to recover his German by translating from Rilke’s Neue Gedichte. “And these particular poems of Rilke,” he explains, “so adverse to my idea of the poem, this ingrown poetry, growing into its confines against its own natural form—like crystals growing within a geode—sets me to work without infecting my own work.”[19] Casual as it might seem, Duncan’s sense that the New Poems wouldn’t introduce a virus into his own work is striking, particularly since Duncan’s letter continues, “Whereas the Duinos would swamp me out at this time.” In a similar vein, Ronald Johnson once admitted to me what he took to be his good fortune to have come to Rilke relatively late in his poetic development, so that he was strong enough to redirect the poet’s influence on his own work.

Duncan’s attraction to the Duino Elegies was an attraction to the angelic. In his essay, “The Matter of the Bees,” which appears as part of the prose epilogue to Caesar’s Gate, Duncan remarks on what he takes to be the extraordinary perception Rilke mastered in the Elegies, as conveyed in the famous letter Rilke wrote shortly before he died to Witold von Hulewitz, his Polish translator. “The process of Rilke’s poetics,” Duncan writes,


is to create a sense in us of the pre-eminence of that other world; but it is also to convert this world into the food of the other . . . The work of the Elegies has to do then with this alchemy in which the elements of our world are transmuted into the honey-gold of an other. The hive of this order may be the skull, and its combs the tissues of the brain, for thought is one of the Invisibles into which the things of our world pass and are stored like honey. Appearing in thought, the “Angel” of the Elegies appears in the Invisible.[20]


In his 1925 letter to von Hulewitz, Rilke attempts to paraphrase the angelic powers he summons in the opening of the “First Elegy,” whose original inspiration at Duino Castle—with the first words arriving in a “hurricane of the spirit”—sets the tone for the remaining elegies, even as a gap of nearly ten years stood in the way of their completion. “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ornungen?”, the famous first line of the elegy runs in the original German. Along with the strophe that follows, this opening is equally familiar in English translation:


Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic

orders? And even if one of them suddenly

pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his

stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing

but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,

and why we adore it so is because it serenely

disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.[21]                               


Explaining himself to his Polish translator, Rilke asks, “Transformed? Yes, for it is our task to imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply, so patiently and passionately in ourselves that its reality shall arise in us again ‘invisibly.’ We are the bees of the invisible.”[22] This is the passage to which Duncan was responding in Caesar’s Gate. Improvising in his letter on this sensation of the invisible, Rilke qualifies the nature of these angels who watch over the process of spiritual transformation, “The ‘angel’ of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angel figures of Islam). . . . The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, appears already mated.”[23] This admission is curious, if only because it demonstrates Rilke’s lack of understanding of Christian and Islamic angelology, which are rather similar. I suspect that he means to say the angels of the Elegies are beings whose power is apocalyptic, revelatory—or, that they are what Hugh of St. Victor said of them in the twelfth century, “[a] collection of visible forms for the demonstration of invisible realities.”[24]

A reference to this same “matter of the bees” in The H.D. Book simultaneously clarifies and confuses what Duncan understands to be the meaning of apocalypse, revealed in the terminology of disease and vehement passions. In his discussion of H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall,” Duncan sees a connection between Rilke’s recognition that poetry is alienated from what Duncan calls “the commodity culture” and H.D.’s nostalgia for life before the catastrophe of the First War. Both Rilke and H.D., in Duncan’s eyes, implicitly understand the poet as one of the “bees of the invisible”:


The “honey” Rilke and H.D. speak of is such “rapture,” the secretion of the life experience of a besieged spirit, part then of a complex that includes the other features we find in apocalyptic statement—anger, outrage, despair, fear, judgment. The flaming cities are not only representations of persecutions suffered or punishments anticipated in heresy, they are also representations of a revenging wrath projected by the heretic, the stored-up sense of injustice and evil will over us raging outward. Within the picture painted or raised in the poem, as in the individual psyche and in the society at large, we see the same symptoms.[25]


Duncan’s insistence that the acts of the imagination are symptomatic of cosmic maladies enacted in the body says as much about the mood of the days (this passage was written in 1968) as it does about his chronic, antagonistic conception of creativity as a form of illness. Something he regards as perfectly normal, ordinary. “The artist then,” Duncan writes, “is not only psychically at odds but physically at odds.”

The crucial term in Rilke’s “First Elegy” is the German “Ordnungen,” rightly translated as “orders” by Leishman and Spender. The word could just as easily be rendered as “hierarchies,” as in Stephen Mitchell’s translation[26], but what is gained by Mitchell in the allusion to Dionysius is balanced by the loss of the Blakean sense of God as the orderer of the stars and angels. The word Ordnung has a commonplace meaning in German—the expression Alles in Ordnung?, which a waiter might ask to find out whether your schnitzel tastes good, means something like, “Is everything OK?”—while the verb form, ordnen, suggests regulation as much as order. (It means to arrange something, or to tidy up.) My conjecture, then, is that when Duncan was ready to write his own sequence of poems about angelic orders, in such a way that he could withstand Rilke’s infectious influence, but still memorialize Dante’s original vision, he chose “Regulators” as his title to invoke this ordering, this regulation—as deranged and irregular as it was.



Duncan’s conceptualization of angelic orders in the Passages sequence was also very likely inspired by a 1974 performance of a Karlheinz Stockhausen piece entitled Stimmung. The piece was performed, according to Stephen Fredman, by “the Ballet of the XXth Century, Maurice Béjart artistic director, accompanied by the Collegium Vocale of Cologne, under the direction of Wolfgang Fromme. The entire program consisted of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, without intermission, and it was performed at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, February 9, 1974, 8:30 PM, February 10, 2:30 and 8:30 PM.”[27] Duncan attended the performance on February 9, with Michael Palmer and Bobbie Creeley.[28] The piece, which has fifty-one sections, grew out of Stockhausen’s experimentation with humming, a word alluded to in the meaning of the title, which, in German, can mean both “tuning,” in a technical sense, and also “mood” or “feeling” in an atmospheric sense.[29] The piece is composed for six singers who are amplified by microphones and sing in just intonation, keyed to a b-flat drone. According to the liner notes from the 1986 Hyperion Singcircle recording, “In 29 of the sections, ‘magic names’ are called out. These are the names of gods and goddesses from many cultures—Aztec, aboriginal and Ancient Greek, for instance—and have to be incorporated into the character of the model.” The voices intoning these atavistic presences encouraged Duncan to constellate, to order, his own notions. As he writes in “Stimmung,” “The Master Architect has arranged horizons in a renewing design.”

“The Dignities” invoked in the opening poem of “Regulators” establish, I think, Duncan’s synonym for angelic beings, with entities such as “Gloria,” for example, designated as a “Dignity” commanding the design of the poem, presumably a characteristic of the work’s Master Architect. Throughout the poem, other Dignities are named and brought forth: 


Veritas.     In truth, Beauty     is a ninth Dignity     hidden in the      fitness.


     In a flash     the Lie     seen     truly what it is     —driven thru to the very core—

                to err     is to     find out     anew    this What     we know     persists

            fitful tho it comes to us     in starts     whose spectral presence underlies

                                             —it is the ground of us—

                   every “where” presides     —follow the leader and its music rides as we go. 


In “Stimmung,” the third poem in “Regulators,” Duncan refers to the utterances of the singers in Stockhausen’s composition in relation to the Dignities,


So the Preacher arises again     just when, exalted, we would call upon the Dignities

     and   luminous   self-evident   transcendent   these, governing,   take their stand


and later in the poem, he more fully describes the performance of Stockhausen’s piece:


All the Time     the Nine actors     stand     “motionless”     staring     into the


    Mind-Space-Time project     the “depth” our perspectives seek out     hearing


                     in the grace of a new music     the root the Preacher thinks to come from


           very like the aura of this Falling-in-Love      Stimmung.


           Do they countenance the grinding down of lives,     the

                   poisons pouring out from fortunes and powers,     Here sound their “A”?


           Do they overlook     this ruining of the ways?


As if their faces were flowers     the immoveable masks of the Dignities


      open to the air     lure and regard of a persisting world


In these lines, Duncan echoes a paranoiac mood, anticipative of catastrophe, that he had introduced earlier in Ground Work II in the poem “Cherubim (I),” which begins with an image of the Ark of the Covenant and the sheltering wings of the scriptural tetramorphs: “Across the ark     the wings / commingling / touch in touch     until / the will / of each other both close / dark / and dreaming eyes.” Later in the poem, which includes yet another figuration of the poetic spirit as a bird of prey, Duncan registers the metaphoric powers of the Cherubim as “rapacious,” worrying:


For it is of the stalking I am speaking,

of the tread sinister that follows us thru time,

the attendant wings

surrounding the voice I fear we

                begin to hear


                                           and you. . . . [30]


This mood carries forward into what must be regarded as the great induction of angelic pageantry in Duncan’s poetry: “In Blood’s Domaine.” This is a poem of such exquisite morbidity that, in spite of its grimness, it embodies a great ritual celebration of death and illness and serves as a massive precognition of Duncan’s catastrophic demise soon to come.

In his “Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower,’ ” a Chinese alchemical text, Carl Jung scolds Europeans for their Enlightenment hauteur:


We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal specters, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.[31]


As a devoted Freudian, Duncan was, for the most part, skeptical and critical of Jung‘s ideas. But he made a rapprochement with Jung in his late essay “The Self in Postmodern Poetry,” in which he admits, “Freud’s intuitions are creative; it is his creative certainty that makes him go too far enough to reveal what cannot be known. Where Jung’s reading is always learned and philosophical; he is gnostic. Yet, it is in going back to the texts of Jung, here again, going back to what I thought to disown that I find how striking this knowledge of the Self must have been.”[32] Duncan’s revelatory innovation in “In Blood’s Domaine” is to perceive the Rilkean angelic hierarchies as bearers of disease and zodiac. The Angel Syphilis enters the poem in its opening line, bearing the “spirochete invasions that eat at the sublime envelope,     not alien, but familiars / Life in the dis-ease radiates” that consumed Baudelaire, Nietzche, and Swift. (Swift may be out of place here; though he wrote about syphilis, did he actually have it?) Furthermore, “The Angel Cancer crawls across the signs of the Zodiac to reach its / appointed time   and    bringing down the carnal pride     bursts into flower—,” a figurative construct that Duncan also refers to in his “Pages from a Notebook”: “Only the most fanatic researcher upon cancer could share with the poet the concept that cancer is a flower, an adventure, an intrigue with life.”[33] The poem continues to invoke these terrifying angels,


And the pneumatics torn in the secret workings of the Angel Tuberculosis


    (No, I do not speak of Evils or of Agents of Death   but these Angels

             are attendants of lives raging within life,    under these Wings we dread


and then concludes with its most menacing gesture,


What Angel,       what Gift of the Poem,     has brought into my body


       this sickness of living?     Into the very Gloria of Life’s theme and variations

             my own counterpart of Baudelaire’s terrible Ennuie?


Does it sound like a deflection to note how extraordinary these lines are? In one of his last books, Words with Power, Northrop Frye asks, “What kind of language is appropriate for words that do not represent objects or events, or even the totality of them?”[34] I think these final lines of “In Blood’s Domaine”—as with the entirety of “Regulators,” if revealed in a less crystallized form—are a demonstration of this kind of language, which transcends the representation of objects or events or their totalities and are mythical and metaphorical at their core. To begin to make sense of these poems is to enter into verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery that Keats elicits from the example of Coleridge. In Duncan’s imagination, the body itself becomes a negative capability that the poem, in an act of literary shamanism, ritually dismembers at the hands of the bacterial hosts of angelic beings, “[i]n one way or another to live in the swarm of human speech,”[35] bringing to the poem an “intrigue with life” that is a “sickness with living,” such that every angelic disease is a revelation.


This essay is an edited version of a paper given for “(Re:)Working the Ground: A Conference on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan,” held at the State University of New York at Buffalo in April 2006.


[1] Robert Duncan, Ground Work (New York: New Directions, 2006), ix.

[2] I have recently written about this squabble in some detail. See “Prophetic Frustrations: Robert Duncan’s Tribunals,” in Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, edited by Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[3]  Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, The Letters, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 660.

[4] It’s important to note that when Ground Work II: In the Dark was published in 1988, shortly before Duncan’s death, the text had been typeset traditionally. Duncan’s illness had prevented him from overseeing the production of this second volume according to the standards of the first.

[5] Clément Oudart, “Genreading and Underwriting: A Few Soundings and Probes into Duncan’s Ground Work,” Jacket 32 (April 2007). <http://jacketmagazine.com/32/oudart-genreading.shtml.>

[6] Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Duncan’s poetry are from the 2006 New Directions edition of Ground Work.

[7] See The Roman Missal in Latin and English for Every Day of the Year (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1934). In “The Dignities,” Duncan invokes the final prayer of the mass with the words, “ite, missa est”, or, “Go, you are dismissed.”

[8] This talk was formerly archived at the Factory School website (www.factoryschool.org), but is no longer available.

[9] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1987), 153–4.

[10] Steven Chase, Angelic Spirituality: Medieval Perspectives on the Ways of Angels, (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 2002), 257.

[11] See Fred Gettings, The Arkana Dictionary of Astrology (London: Arkana, 1990), 90–1.

[12] H.D., Trilogy (New York: New Directions, 1973). More provocative even than this passage from “Tribute to the Angels” is a passage from “The Wall Do Not Fall,” in which H.D. ingeniously connects angelic presence to a superfluity of unconscious, chaotic insight: “Depth of the sub-conscious spews forth / too many incongruent monsters // and fixed indigestible matter / such as shell . . . we were caught up by the tornado / and deposited on no pleasant ground, // but we found the angle of incidence / equals the angle of reflection; // separated from the wandering stars / and the habits of the lordly fixed ones, // we noted that even the erratic burnt-out comet / has its peculiar orbit.”

[13] Chase, Angelic Spirituality, 189.

[14] Dante, Paradiso, translated, with a commentary, by Charles Singleton, vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Bollingen, 1975), 450.

[15] Peter S. Hawins, Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 93.

[16] Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 145.

[17] Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book, Part 2, Chapter 11, Montemora 8 (1981), 112.

[18] Duncan and Levertov, The Letters, 270.

[19] Ibid., 644.

[20] Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-50 (Berkeley, Calif.: Sand Dollar, 1972), 65.

[21] Rainer Maria Rilke, Poems, translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996).

[22] Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Letters, edited by Harry T. Moore (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1960), 389.

[23] Ibid., 390–1.

[24] In The H.D. Book, Duncan proposes an understanding of the angels of Rilke and H.D. as dedications, in that both poets dedicated their works to their patron-angels. “Just as when we wake at some hour of the night and find ourselves not disoriented, in the dark, but in the thought of some attribute of God, a particular angel, to see things in that light; so we may find ourselves in the course of a poem also in the thought of some attribute of our Life, a particular person, having also his or her particular time” (The H.D. Book, Part 2, Chapter 1, Sumac 1:1 (Fall 1968), 136).

[25] The H.D. Book , Part 2, Chapter 4, Caterpillar 7 (April 1969), 48.

[26] The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1982).

[27] Written in an e-mail to the author, January 25, 2007.

[28] According to Michael Palmer, in an e-mail to the author, January 29, 2007.

[29] On March 5, 1934, Freud wrote a letter to H.D. in which he recounted the events of the recent weeks in Vienna in which Bolshevist rebels had staged a brief civil war against the increasingly reactionary Austrian government. Freud was in no mood to leave Vienna, in spite of the abjurations of his friends. (“[I]t is unpleasant to go into exile at the age of seventy-eight—but now we have escaped at least this danger.”) Writing to H.D. in English, he described the experience of this conflict: “We passed a week of civil war. Not much personal suffering, just one day without electric light, but the ‘stimmung’ was awful and the feeling as of an earthquake.” This letter appears in H.D.’s Tribute to Freud (New York: New Directions, 1984), in the appendix of letters at the end of the book, which was originally published in the United States in 1974, by David S. Godine Books. It is highly likely that Duncan had read this letter and was registering, consciously or not, an echo of Freud’s sense of “stimmung” when he used the word to title a poem in “Regulators.”

[30] The texts of both the initial printing of Ground Work II: In the Dark (1984) and the single-volume Ground Work (2006) print the second-to-last line in the quoted passage as “being to hear”; I suspect this is a typographical error that has never been corrected, since “begin to hear” makes more syntactical and rhythmical sense.

[31] C. G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 13 (Princeton: Bollingen, 1967), 37. Ross Hair recently remarked to me in an e-mail that serotonin is the Mercurius of our age.

[32] Duncan, Fictive Certainties, 231.

[33] Duncan, A Selected Prose, 15.

[34] Northrop Frye, Words with Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990), 109.

[35] Duncan, A Selected Prose, 13.