When selecting a text for bibliomancy, there are several important considerations. First, is it long enough? Anything under 100 pages doesn’t give the demiurge of chance enough room to operate. Second, are its contents diverse? A tightly plotted novel or a thematically unified collection of poetry is fine for pleasure reading, but for readings of the divinatory kind you need the greatest possible variation in content from one page to the next. And third, does the text combine straightforward syntax and expression with esoteric and sometimes thoroughly recondite content? This is essential. The highly selective listening employed in divination presupposes a broad spectrum of notes in many keys and registers.
Lovesick, the first full-length book by the prolific chapbook author Howie Good, easily meets all three criteria. Even the titles of its five parts are suggestive: “Apocalypse Mambo,” “A Tiny Fugue for Tomorrowland,” “Ghosts of Breath,” “Abandoned But Still Burning” and “Sleep Rituals.” Its main drawback is the lack of a hardcover edition; ideally, the divinatory text should open flat. The author’s own evident secular humanism might seem to be a problem, but diviners and other fanatics have been actively conspiring in the death of the author for thousands of years; one more shouldn’t prevent much difficulty. If some American Sufis can turn a Charles Simic poem into a parable, it shouldn’t be hard to make Lovesick into a manual for the lovelorn or a touchstone for the touched-by-an-angel crowd.
Allow me to demonstrate. I’ll ask a basic question, something for the lovelorn, making sure to phrase it so it doesn’t require a yes or no answer: What does X think of me? I riffle the pages rapidly back and forth under my thumbs, 49 times in all, then catch the edge of a page with my thumbnail. The poem is “Let it Burn.” The third sentence reads, “I can still hear gas hissing from shower heads, still feel the sun like a scabrous hand on my back.” Well, that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?
Let’s try another typical question people ask: Should I file for bankruptcy? This time the book opens to “Giant Killer.” Whoa, this is intense.
The barking grows fiercer. In his panic and confusion, the giant trips on the uneven cobblestones. Maybe it’s the drugs everyone took in college, or the years of road rage since then, but people just step around him, pretending he isn’t lying there, huge and helpless.
Another question people are asking a lot these days is Should I go back to school? Tell us, oh universe-in-a-book! I lose count of the number of riffles before I jab my right index finger onto a random left-hand page. It lands on “How to Write a Story,” second sentence.
It’s important that there be
lost children, but the search dogs
should be tired, or even better,
dubious, and with no way
to stop the bleeding
in the region of the brain
that controls our tears.
Now let’s try some questions with farther-reaching implications. How about this: Will the Republican Party achieve a majority in either house of Congress in the mid-term elections next fall? This time I hold the book upside-down just to make sure the results aren’t biased by my right-handedness.
My finger lands on a poem called “The Dystopian Imaginary,” a one-sentence piece that ends:
…wearily wheeling an ash barrel
into the ghostly precincts of dawn,
a stranger’s name flowing in loops
of soiled thread just above my heart.
Sounds ominous. The interpretation, of course, would depend on which political party the client favors. Divination long ago recognized and embraced the observer’s paradox.
What will it take to bring about peace in the Middle East? I ask next. I hold the book behind my back this time. The results are very interesting. As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up: it’s “Black Friday,” about shoppers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, entering stores ravaged by an unnamed catastrophe and trying to buy fire in another color besides red. This might sound somewhat discouraging, to put it mildly, but the words “new hope” are there, and with a little creative spinning, the media-savvy diviner should have no trouble making lemonade out of it.
Bibliomancy is, of course, not the only lens through which to read this new classic of American surrealist poetry, nor is it necessarily the one I would recommend to the faint-of-heart. You could also read it front to back, breathlessly, exclaiming over the ones you remember from Howie’s chapbooks, saying things like “You’ve lost a couple of words, haven’t you? You look great!” You could keep it by the bed and read it whenever you’re waiting for a phone call. You could keep it on your desk at work, next to the computer, and pick it up everytime you’re waiting for something to download, upload, or update. This morning, I was re-reading Lovesick in between saving videopoems to a different format. And at the moment, I am using it to procrastinate on preparation for tomorrow’s public reading from my Odes to Tools. But hey, here’s a poem that relates even to that: “Clawhammer Snapdragon.” “I stagger out the door under an armload of poems,” it begins,
feverish red ones, friendless gray ones,
dark purple ones like the aftertaste of a scream.
Women cross the street to avoid me.
Cars honk in derision. Nobody asks, Hey,
do you need any help with those?
The poem ends:
I stare as if in challenge
into the hooded eyes of storefronts,
nod hello to words — snapdragon, clawhammer —
almost too beautiful and broken to repeat.
Beautiful. Broken. Now I have a notion of where to begin.
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)