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Transcendence: The Visionary and Spiritual Workings of Alex Grey's Poetry Collection Art Psalms - A Review
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We seek through art to recover our center, to recover our soul’s task.
In his collection of original artwork and poetry, Art Psalms, American artist and poet Alex Grey reminds us the purpose of the beautiful, though sometimes frustratingly elusive, thing we call art. Being a writer struggling to harness my inner creativity throughout the six years of my undergraduate career at Auburn University, and I do acknowledge this as a rather long time to study as an undergrad, I can often forget the healing and spiritual benefits that come from opening my mind and giving myself purely and wholeheartedly to the creation of my art. Art Psalms, published in 2008,contains visionary works of both graphic art and poetry, working hand in hand, to guide us through this classic artist’s struggle. This collection’s theme is “the power of art as a transformative path,” and it works to show how poetry can serve as a spiritual guide to growth, not only as an artist, but also as a person.
Grey, an Ohio native, weaves his pictorial art throughout this 46-poem collection, with each work of graphic art complementing the themes present in his poems. The opening poem, titled “Art Psalms,” from which the beginning of this review is taken, serves as an introduction to the overall theme: the use of art as medication for the soul. The first stanza reads: “Angels dictate mystic rants / Accompanied by picture prayers. / Precious alloy of art and wisdom, / forged in a soul furnace, / Beaten on the anvil of discontent / Until shaped suitable for the altar / In the Church of Vision / Where creativity is religion.” As the title of the collection suggests, this work becomes a bible of sorts, though in place of a god with a physical body, the god become art through picture and words. As Grey writes, creativity is religion. This poem continues on to show “Creators,” or each and every one of us, as aligned with “Divine Will,” an image I believe he uses as the god of his aforementioned “religion.” Some could read this poem, and the remainder of the collection, as Grey blaspheming traditional religion, and putting Christianity on a lower peg, but Grey’s work does just the opposite. He attempts to open the mind to view what our god-given souls are capable of, and how we should never forget to care for them. Here, he writes, “All creatures, brothers and sisters, / Planet as Holy Temple.” His poetry points to the respect of all beings coexisting together on a connecting spiritual plane. We are all one, and our planet should be treated as a holy temple.
Page 84 brings us to a seemingly simple four-line poem entitled “Master of Confusion.” The poem is accompanied by an image, drawn by Grey, that spans across the open pages, in the form of an intricately woven knot, resembling a wad of snakes with many large and curious eyeballs. The poem reads, “Observing and / Becoming the tangle, / Digesting reality / To undo the knot.” At first glance, I didn’t allot the poem enough credit. Upon further reading, I realized how much it is actually saying. Here, Grey challenges us to never run away from the things we don’t understand. Do not hide, and do not fear questioning. Instead, become the tangle. Dive into the confusion because that is the only way to undo the knot and continue on our path of growth.
In keeping with the biblical atmosphere painted into the pages of Art Psalms, the poem “Forgive Me, Creator” immediately brings to mind a prayer of forgiveness. My personal favorite in this collection, “Forgive Me, Creator” sheds new light on the dangers of the wasting of our time and abilities. It begins: “Source of all art, / Forgive my shirking / Your gifts.” Grey chooses to name god here as the source of all art. This is a powerful image, an accomplished artist and poet such as Grey, asking forgiveness for “shirking” the gifts given to him. He puts himself on a level at which I feel like we can connect, even though I’m only starting out and often feel as though being accomplished is so far off in the distance it’s not even visible. He continues, “I have received your visions and songs, / Been inspired by your / Angelic emissaries and / carried aloft by your grace / And yet have not fulfilled the mission / You’ve given me.” Grey’s words suggest that he acknowledges his gifts, but has allowed laziness or fear or a myriad of other possible distractions to pull him away from his calling. This can allow the reader of his work to feel in good company, at least for me I know this to be true. Many, if not all of us, and I do think it’s all, have felt as though we’ve operated below our potentials, a forgivable act that should be recognized and corrected. He shows us that it’s in our best interest to create, because without creation there would be no life. He emphasizes here that through art—be it poetry, paintings, and any other artful medium—we should strive to inspire others to move toward the connection of ourselves to our own souls as well as the souls of others. “I’ve been distracted by unworthy matters, / Wasted precious time. / I promise to work harder / And devote my life / To sharing creations that cause minds / To catch fire with / Your gifts.”
The content of Grey’s work is clear, and the forms in which he expresses them vary throughoutArt Psalms. Poems are laid out in structures that range from prose to loosely-wrapped rhyme schemes. He also includes poems that rely heavily on the list, as well as longer storytelling poems that resemble the style of epic poems from the writers that came before him. He weaves his words, regardless of form, throughout the pages in a way that even those who have never had a particular interest the formal aspects of poetry can appreciate. It’s not poetry for poetry’s sake. It’s almost as if the form should be invisible behind the poem’s actual meaning. Being an amateur poet, form interests me, but I can appreciate that the content of the poems is so rich that it distracts from their overall structure. Grey uses this collection to tell stories of love, religion, creativity, beauty, forgiveness, passion, and above all—art.
Art Psalms is not a light and easy read. I was first drawn in by the vibrant art on its cover as well as the glossy pages inside. I’ve been a fan of Grey’s artwork for some time. He provides his original works for the cover art and intensely theatrical live show art for the band Tool, a religiously followed favorite in my home. Grey’s artwork has been featured in numerous places including in the liner notes for Nirvana’s album In Utero, the covers of several of the band Bassnectar’s albums, and the cover of Untying the Not, an album by The String Cheese Incident. Grey also created 21 life-sized paintings for his series entitled Sacred Mirrors, a fascinating series that deeply examines the inner workings of the mind, body, and spirit. These paintings are displayed together at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in New York. I didn’t know until recently that Grey is also a poet, and I’ve since discovered that his writings are as moving and intense as the paintings I’ve grown to love.
For those seeking a curiously amazing combination of the visual arts and written word that implore discovery of self and spiritual growth, Alex Grey’s Art Psalms is a collection that should be experienced. For those who don’t find a particular interest in these things, I would be willing to bet that this collection could provide something for them, something that remains to be unseen still by those that do.