Daily Bytes

An ecstatic, mystical encounter with the divine: Alex Caldiero’s Who is the Dancer, What is the Dance?

This past September, after I came home from a weeklong river trip, a friend told me I needed to read Alex Caldiero’s new book, Who is the Dancer, What is the Dance(Saltfront, 2016). The book is a facsimile of a poetic journal Caldiero kept on a six-day trip on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, in part the same stretch of river that I had just floated. It’s not an exact facsimile – some of the text is set in type — but the first thing you see is a drawing of waves on the cover, curling up like plants toward the sun, or perhaps grasping at something, like human hands or the claws of an animal. This river is clearly alive, but its nature is not yet revealed.

Caldiero has been around in Utah since the 1980s, and I’ve always thought of him as mainly a performance artist, though he’s hard to categorize. The endnotes call him a “Teacher, polyartist, sonosopher, and scholar of humanities and inter-media”; he calls himself a “wordshaker”; in “The Sonosopher” (2010), a documentary about Caldiero, filmmaker Trent Harris called him as a “Mormon Beatnik poet”; he’s known for unintelligible readings and periodic performances of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

That this is a spiritual journey is obvious right away. Like the Bible, Caldiero’s river trip begins on a Monday with the appearance of light:

So bright a light
can only make
me see
what
otherwise would
be merely
in front of my eyes.

Sky and water appear next, and the next few pages are filled with drawings of curling waves and eddies. The journal was written in June, and at that season there must have been cicadas everywhere. On Tuesday, the poem focuses on “the din of them,” but by Wednesday Caldiero has started to hear the insects as part of a complex soundscape, a holistic voice of the river which is now asking him for a favor:

The water
wants to come
into this page
to tell its own
story.

Boaters refer to the glossy “V” of water that enters a rapid as the “tongue,” and Caldiero picks up on the metaphor: “The tongue of the water speaks out.” At the beginning of the trip the river is calm with no rapids, and easy to navigate, but on Thursday Caldiero writes, “Flatwater is not why we are here.” Downstream the fearsome rapids of Cataract Canyon await. The serenity of the present moment is temporary, and holds an underlying sense of anticipation and dread as the boaters draw near to the whitewater.

Fear lifts
cloud-like
in a clear, clear sky
a single small cloud
directly over a mountain
this is what their fear
has come to.

Now an illustration shows the tongue of the river with a god-like body, the river flowing from its mouth. The river has become a pagan idol, and Caldiero pokes fun at it,

The Rivers’ sound
is not a ROAR,
but very much like an
air conditioning unit.

But then, encountering the full force of whitewater, Caldiero writes:

Am finding that there
is more to this than
meets the oar, and that
is that each portion
of movement called
a wave is as much
alive by its very curve
& shape as any other life
form.

Finally, Caldiero rejects his anthropomorphic image of the River/God entirely. His journey down the river has become an ecstatic, mystical encounter with the divine, a literal baptism, but definitely not an encounter with the kind of God who created mankind in his own image:

Don’t dare call
river
it
don’t dare call
river he or she
or we or whatever
smells of the human.

The work is strongly reminiscent of Sufi mystical poetry and Caldiero knows it. He ends his journey resting at home on Sunday with a verse re-translated from Rumi,

O Water of Life, who can think of death?
You’ve made me an Ever Living Green Being.

So my friend was right. I absolutely loved this book. Like so many other people, I organize my life around river trips, not just for recreational fun but because being on the water touches something deeply spiritual. Caldiero has put this feeling into a book. As he writes, “ON RETURNING/ part of me never returns.”

Who is the Dancer, What is the Dance?
Alex Caldiero
saltfront: studies in human habit(at) 
2016, 93p.

Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

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