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Swallowing the Scroll (1991): What We’ve Done to This World with Words

Lew Daly, Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with Susan Howe and John Taggart (M Press, 1991)

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We can’t show it to you because the Internet fails us (and it’s packed away somewhere I can’t easily get to it).

Before Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk, he was a literary critic. (Full disclosure: I didn’t realize Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk until I was looking up information on Swallowing the Scroll last week. There days, Daly is far more known for books like God and the Welfare State and Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back.) I am going to make the assumption, given the accolades on his biography page at the New Economics Institute, that one of the major changes he made while getting from point A to point B was learning how to take “critic-speak”—that often-unintelligible jargon that makes the public shy away from books of lit-crit—and transform it into something that the public will actually buy and read. Here’s a representative passage, chosen at random, from Swallowing the Scroll:

“Returning only as a poetry in this pattern of both longing and solicitude, another origin begins to loom: if we are bold enough to call into question, rather than simply redistribute the category of the masculine, then a disruption at the divide of the feminine—the prophetic feminine from beyond and otherwise independent of any essence, further from closure than any process, more absent than nothingness, yet more irrepressibly constitutive than the materiality of nature—enters into all continuums as a scourge, and into discord as a salve.” (–66)

I’m going to bet money there aren’t any passages that read like that in Unjust Deserts.

The above is going to be the biggest drawback for anyone who’s not used to literary criticism, and as should be obvious, this is not lit-crit for beginners. (Daly mentions in the preface that this started out as a review, which for me adds another dimension; how does one review a review?) But if we put that aside, how’s the book? Not bad. Daly, through the ancient filter of poetry-as-prophecy, takes a look at new (at that time) books by Susan Howe (The Nonconformist’s Memorial) and John Taggart (Loop). As is often the case in reviews, he focuses on a single poem as synecdochic of the collection and dives pretty deep into it; this is the part that took this from a five-thousand-word review to a ninety-six-page essay. It’s good stuff, as long as you have an ear for the language. That can be a tough barrier, though. Worth checking out if it’s up your alley and you’re not a lit-crit beginner; if you are, you might want to start with someone in the field who writes for a more general audience—Nancy Ann Watanabe or Terry Eagleton or Jodie Medd, as examples—and work your way up to Daly. ** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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