Friday, April 30, 2010



Aura: Last Essays by Gustaf Sobin
(Counterpath Press, Denver, 2009)

Aura: Last Essays is Gustaf Sobin’s final book of essays, though unfinished at the time of his death. Born in 1935 in Boston, Sobin lived most of his life — quietly and away from public attention — in the south of France, in the Provence region until his death in 2005. A prolific poet, novelist and essayist, his books include poetry collections such as Breath’s Burial (New Directions, 1995), In the Name of the Neither (Talisman, 2002) and The Places as Preludes (Talisman, 2005); novels such as Dark Mirrors (Bloomsbury, 1992) and In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star (Norton, 2002); as well as essay collections like Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (University of California Press, 2000) and Ladder of Shadows: Reflecting on Medieval Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (University of California Press, 2009). As a translator, he had also worked on poetry by French poets Henri Michaux and René Char.

This slim volume of fifty-three pages includes only seven essays by Sobin, each of a comfortable length yet possessing a compact density through which a highly distilled and meditative voice echoes. Already, the essays’ titles convey in themselves an insightful yet precise glimpse into a travelogue that Sobin hoped to share with his readers in times that seemed to have vanished: “Getting the Skeletons to Speak,” “Radiance and Obscurity: Medieval Night,” “Charisma and Eclipse: Two Annunciation Scenes by Simone Martini,” “All the Kings’ Mirrors,” “The Inaudible Aura of Bells,” “The Castle and the Quarries,” and “Quarton’s The Coronation of the Virgin (The Successive Levels of an Elaboration).” Language and imagery is beautiful and lucid in each of these writings that explore the profound meaning(s) of archaeological vestiges in the south of France. Despite the richness of his language, it stays pure and minimalist. Clarity is uncompromised as far as the narrative voice is concerned. As a quest into deciphering the remnants of material culture that both belong to our ancient and contemporary worlds, these meditations lie at the cross-roads of anthropology, philosophy, theology, art history, spirituality — and poetry.

Each essay often starts with a philosophical bent. Although contemplative, the introduction is straightforward when it comes to highlighting the relevance of its subject to our contemporary life. Take for instance the second writing, “Radiance and Obscurity: Medieval Night” in which he makes a comparison between our modern and so-called ever-reliable lighting with the unpredictable candle/lantern-lighting of medieval days, as an attempt to note how our perception of darkness and light, somewhat reliant upon the modern availability of “light” (i.e. electricity) is now devoid of symbolism and spiritual profundity:
With our rooms abundantly lit, each night, by fluorescent and incandescent lighting, it’s hard to imagine, today, those tiny little aureoles of radiance — shed by candles, candelabra, lanterns — that went to light, once, a typical medieval household. Present-day archeological evidence, however, only goes to confirm the extreme paucity of such illumination. Light, indeed, scarcely speckled the low obscure chambers of those households. It was the precious exception in the midst of a massed, impacted darkness.
— p. 7

Out of these concise essays, I personally enjoy “All the King’s Mirrors” and “The Inaudible Aura of Bells” best. While the precedent discusses Roi René’s many mirrors and his obsession with self-image, the latter offers refreshing thoughts about church bells beyond their sonal aspect. Writes Sobin, “Church bells, in fact, have long been invested with a broad range of powers, be they functional or mystical, well beyond that of fulfilling their perfunctory mission.” (p.28) When articulating his observations, the author avoided, however, a factual or historical account, but opted for a richly sensual, lyrical and evocative style. Such an approach proves to be very effective and graceful, as he took care of his readers when immersing into layers of miniature details in paintings, for example, long forgotten by time. The voice he maintained is constantly earnest and humble, never elite nor all-knowing. The fact that he had chosen to do so is very telling; he did not embark upon such explorations by indulging in purely mental or intellectual readings of the erudites, or archival research in ancient libraries. Instead, he lived through such explorations that led him to meditate upon the many indiscriminate details of each remnant found. That is, behind each writing lies a personal experience that Sobin had had intimately encountered. In this aspect, Sobin’s relationship with his adopted hometown and its various religious sites, monasteries or gouttoes transcends a pure association of daily life and survival, but that of living moment by moment with the place and its mysticism.


Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the author of a book of poetry, Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010), and co-founder of Vif Éditions, an independent publishing press in Paris, France. Also one of the editors at Cerise Press, and a guzheng concertist, she lives in France. Visit her website:<

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