Posted May 2, 2023

Alchemy of Species: on Will Alexander’s The Coming Mental Range

For Will Alexander, philosophy “means inquiry into the broadest view, into the most encompassing range, taking into account the known and what is considered to be the unknown.” This malleable and generous approach is also what animates the writer’s poetics, defined by the understanding that “poetry is aboriginal utterance.” The convergence of these two principals animates The Coming Mental Range. Alexander’s latest collection explodes the lines between the poem and the essay, seamlessly weaving the lyrical and the philosophical together in a searing exploration of our intellectual and political past, present and future. Alexander writes in a dazzling stream of consciousness as if he were “both looking down and gazing up simultaneously,” seeking to give language to the kinds of experiences and observations that go beyond the sayable––our circumstances “fouled by protracted haste, by that which aspires to some form of clinical security.” Concern with the impending colonization of outer space is inseparable from a rigorous yet free-flowing engagement with our grasp of history. Like a dream, Alexander’s writing moves between passages that draw heavily from Ancient Egyptian spirituality and eschatology, to major Western philosophers like Sartre and Kierkegaard, to the implications that theoretical physics and nanotechnology have on our relationship with the material world.

Within the pieces of The Coming Mental Range, poetry emerges as a force almost beyond classification, one that “by its very nature destabilizes.” This is as much a theorization as it is a promise. Alexander’s words destabilize our comfort and normatively held assumptions. Each piece in the book compels the reader to put it down and pick back up again, to endlessly return to a text that refuses stasis. This effect repeatedly takes on existential and mystical dimensions alike, drawing from the work of foundational Indian thinkers such as Sri Aurobindo. The text is not alienating so much as it is provocatively restless, rendering its passive consumption impossible––an almost meditative experience. Just as the poetic and philosophical become one, so too is the religious ever-present throughout the book. “Opened by fumes from telepathic suasion,” every essay dives deeply, and vulnerably, into the self, even as they pull extensively from Alexander’s breathtaking knowledge of intellectual and scientific history. The multi-disciplinary artist’s musical background also seeps into this collection, for “when one thinks of language one is not restricted to shapes and hooks on a page.” The nurturing shadow of Charles Ives and John Coltrane stretches throughout.

The Coming Mental Range is also a book that is highly attuned to the body, uninterested in any attempt at separating it from the mind. The writer’s observations are never fully abstracted from the sensorial, and the reader can feel each overlapping thought process unfolding under the skin. Consciousness requires grounding which in turn requires the recognition of presence within the body. To be out of tune with that presence is to refute our own potential. Alexander rejects our “allegiance to the mediocre” and opts instead for “interior jubilation.” This is, in many ways, the joy of the restless and hungry mind––the joy of free association and fearless interrogation––which is intimately tied to the poet’s commitment to the hyperreal as a liberatory project. The influence of writers such as Breton and Artaud is particularly visible throughout Alexander’s body of work. Writing about the former, he reminisces that to know his work “was to be instantly singed by his struggle.” As with his previous work, Alexander understands that the unconscious and its limitless potential was never a neutral or merely aesthetic category. Through the ruptures afforded by surrealism, the book opens up  the political, tackling racism as an infection preventing us from practicing “the true alchemy of the species.” In inviting us to look, and tumble, inwards, The Coming Mental Range attempts no straightforward solution to said grievances, but rather reminds us of the radical nature of what lies within. 

—Hazem Fahmy
Editorial Fellow 2022-2023