I started reading Leif Haven’s Arcane Rituals from the Future on a morning return flight to Providence, Rhode Island, after attending the author’s wedding in the California redwoods this past May. Somehow, a plane ride—being hurled through the sky in a small metal cage to a predetermined destination while left relatively to my own devices—seemed then, as it does now, the most apt environment imaginable from which to have received the communications of this strange volume of rituals and instructions from the future, chosen by Claudia Rankine for the 1913 Press First Book Prize.
In the months before I read Arcane Rituals, my mind had grown weary with work and I had been wholly neglecting my writing. Even in the hours when I should have been free from the boredom and anxiety of capitalism’s plight, the tools of poetry and stories—when I felt able to wield them at all—proved ineffectual at fighting against the weight of a world of diminishing possibilities. My tired language rubbed its tired ribs against the cold bars of its tired cage. My world, my words, felt scarce. And so I approached the first pages of Haven’s book anxious, beleaguered, in need, and drained of creative vitality.
I wouldn’t usually start out a review with a bit of biographical context, but as Arcane Rituals quickly reveals, I—the reader—have played an essential role in its creation. In the second section of this book, titled “Instructions for Making a New World,” a long series of direct addresses is presented to the reader in the second person. The addresses read like guided meditations for anxiety and stress, playful jokes, one side of a bar conversation, and magical invocations of the objects and actions they represent. The text is held in the shadow of Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty,” from which the first section of the book borrows the first lines of each of its poems. “I am for example also convinced that the sun is not a hole in the vault of heaven,” it starts, before continuing: “If the vault of heaven sprung a leak or were blasted open, coal dust would pour out and windshields and storefronts would be blackened for weeks.” Thus we’re reminded that the images and the world the text constructs are only made possible through the playful transposition of language.
The second section begins by asking us to “Imagine something heavy.” It tells us, “That thing is going to fall on you.” We soon learn, though, that it is this particular text’s very lightness, its playfulness, which helps us to imagine another world, which opens up the sublime infinitude of escape routes that are being offered to us out from under the weight of Sisyphus’s rock. Throughout the course of this second person address of instructions, we are impelled to continue, but there is no sense that we are being imposed upon or driven into a world not of our choosing. We’re told: “What is important now is the matchbooks that are in the drawer. Get them now. Build a house out of them.” What’s clear by this point is that we are joining forces, or being joined forces with, as the text reminds us to rediscover within ourselves pathways and destinations that have been forgotten or neglected. The text seems to suggest at times that it is the things that are most neglected, or even those most capable of destruction, which might have the best shot at triggering our imaginative faculties and guiding our language toward cites of growth and realization—however mutable, finite, or absurd they might be. During this process we feel ourselves guided by Virgil through the depths. Yes, you might be in hell, the text seems to tell us, but you are not alone. You’ve now got the comfort of a companion, because I’ve been there as well, and I’m there again, and even when I’m gone you’ve got your own cunning, too, and in case you’ve forgotten, friend, here’s one funny way to wield this last best weapon of language against the terrible oblivion of violence, boredom, and night.
Throughout the course of Arcane Rituals, the text makes clear that poetry and life are always essentially collaborative efforts, that it is in the interplay of earth and sky, I and thou, the real and the remembered, and the eternal conversation of interpretation and deferral, that we may come to make a new world, flawed and nebulous and full of holes but always together, again. It is this act of communion that the text both celebrates and exploits to great affect, and it is the author’s generosity and keen ability to bring this communion to the forefront of its concerns that was, for me, an act of grace and guiding hand at a time when I felt I needed it.