Sunday, January 25, 2009

Some Brief Thoughts on Turneresque by Elizabeth Willis

I'm too old to ever love every bit of any poetry book I read, and still young enough to enjoy surprises, deviations, obstinacy, doomed idealists and the like.

I often say if a poetry book has more than ten strong pages of memorable poetry in it, I'm happy with my purchase.

I'm happy with my purchase.

These are some cursory observations on the book.

1. Influences are the least enlivening of details but people wonder. Shall I vouchsafe? Oh, I don't know about you but I don't like vouchsafers. I'll guess.

Well, she marries her husband's voice sometimes which is a pretty one. And then there are other poets of Providence who happened to be Providence poets together in their youth. Poets like Pam Rehm. And Fanny Howe seems to be a presiding spirit often. Many of the shorter prose poems seem to be very evocative of early Harryette Mullen, especially her Trimmings book that came out through Tender Buttons press. Possibly Karen Volkman's conception of the prose poem, although here I'm not sure about chronology and who was writing this type of poem first. Possibly the style co-evolved. Things like that happen. Poetry is just another wing of evolution that happens to be linguistic. Duh.

That's the contemporary.

There is also an engagement with the poets of Romanticism and some of the Pre-Raphaelites, particulary the Rossettim (as I prefer to call them). And this is especially so with Christina Rossetti, who is often a figure seized upon by those with a feminist awareness.

That last sentence sounded funny.

"Goblin Market" has pretty much moved into the heart of that curriculum, academic-wise.

She is a strange figure. I like her. I purchased the strangest, ancient, weirdly-designed copy of her Nomma Innominata recently.

Rossettim are sexy. Like Seraphim.

When they're not being God's dogs and killing things, of course.

Or maybe even then too.

2. She does something interesting. She starts with an apologia ("Autographeme") and ends with a poetics ("The day left off with a kind of singing 'bang'...").

The apologia makes funny indictments of male poetics and the male gaze:

The male of the species was
louder than the female

Females made the mush
a sound of offstage sweeping

Boys played a game of torment
and sleepy forgiveness

while girls read their books on the rocks
containers of a solar plot

Willis is tight enough in her feathers to sing and not explain.

That's what birds do. They are supernal and, like, become nature.

Nature's like like. Nature's sympathies. Imagistically. Aurally.

Radiate like nature.

And the gifted poets can pull off that trick.

So mush is the perfect apt note of hilarity. The female does indeed make the applesauce, the mush, and she laughs and scorns at the same time the idea that the female's province in literature is to "make the mush." The sappy. The saccharine.

Hardly, if one knows how to read.

Note the way "a sound of offstage sweeping" will be heard by that innermost ear also as "a sound of offstage's weeping..."

3. One line is particularly interesting, because I think it makes a locus classicus for underscoring how an ear needs to be able to distinguish and nuance contemporaneity and antiquity.

She writes, I was fluent in salamander.

I would have liked this line just as much if John Yau had written it. But in Yau's often campy idiom it would have been humorous in a different way than it is humorous in Willis's poem.

Yau, who has written lines like "I am Tonsil-Trash, the delirious Assyrian," could have penned that line. This is where poetry gets a little spooky, where one begins to see similar linguistic drifts in quite dissimilar poetics.

In both poems there would have been what there is. The idea that someone's voice is being oppressed. They have slithered under a rock to speak. But shibboleths are born under that rock. And that is a place between worlds, and no doubt a place Bachelard would delight in tenanting.

But with Willis, you have to think "salamandrine" and the nineteenth century context of the Salamander as a spirit of fire. He made as freqent visits to poetry as the Basilisk did.

Back in those days.

So here the "under a rock" connotations of feminist statement are also letting you know the poet spoke fluently the language of fire. The 'scoriating burn of gender or other power politics, no doubt.

3. There also seems in my reading to be an indictment of certain tendencies in contemporary poetry which seem to move poetry away from some of its sacred purposes.

This seems not so much lambasting or a prescriptive move, as it seems a statement of the personal and a desire for clarity in her own spiritual aims.

The present was a relic
of a past I was older than

Taking in its language, I became an abridgment
of whatever I contained

A social imperative of silky fears(...)

Taking in its language or Talking in its language?

This opening poem most reminds me of Gizzi, but Gizzi filtered through Willis.

It's fitting that this poem is stylistically a marriage of minds when one considers its subject matter.

But the poem is two married halves and the poem works.

So there is that weird beauty.

4. "Modern Painters" is the next section of the book after the opening invocation.

Short prose poems after a style?


Some work. Some don't. There is always a good ear, and often the pleasurably alarming image.

Among these, I preferred "Catalogue Raisonne," "Little Journeys" (which I remember enjoying in The Germ I believe. Great mag!) and "After Baudelaire."

I thought the feminist critique heavy-handed and too obvious in its punning in "The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest": "Rossetti, 'the great man,' and everything else is woman. She of the elaborate mind, who elevates the evening with a subtle tart. A crystal palace for baking."

The punning with "tart" and the reference to the noted Exhibition's Crystal Palace.

These are the closing lines of the poem so are doubly dissatisfying.

"Arthur in Egypt" unfortunately comes off as Rimbaud name-dropping.

"My pen leaked until there was nothing else to say" doesn't really do justice to the infernal drama that was A.R.

Not for this reader anyway.

5. The next section is "Sonnet" and these poems reminded me of Cole Swensen quite a bit, quite often. Sometimes Fanny Howe's in petto work.

Very few of these unconventional takes on the sonnet worked for me.

I liked this one a bit...

As proud & difficult as Greek
a vigil (or Virgil)
kept bright
waiting to happen
Your father walking
toward your mother
as you briefly look away
then follow like a nonsense syllable
Ma. Pa.

And this one much more so....

Forgetting the tumbled
sheen of home
we calculate a rescue
out of summer
Lovely missions
in early green
A dream of love
dearest curtain
painted just
beyond the face
a trembling show
attending moonlight
the verso alive
against you

I don't know if the next page is a continuation of this poem or a tiny sonnet. I suspect strongly the former. There is no way of ascertaining (no "Table of Contents").

Grammar is coral
a gabled light
against the blue
a dark museum
Durable thing

As a completion of the poem above I like the lines. As a separate sonnet, they do nothing for me. So I'm fairly certain it's the tail of the poem.

And this one is good....

I find you in a string
I find you every-
where I'm writing
on a leaf, a
satire of flesh-
liness. A tree
is pure intent
and mindlessness
as once, the it
was he or she

Sometimes you can just see a poem being written, you can backtrack.

You know with certainty the penultimate line originally began "at once" because that's the logical truth of the tree.

But the poet moved a letter over to leave the mind between. And to create an opening for the very mortal thought which follows.

The other sonnets in this section, when they don't work, often fall into that great gossamer gnat-winged school of poetry.

But that's the risk when you're beating the language as fine as she is here.

Or she falls into bathos.

less confident
than butter.

Yes, I know how butter melts. But no.

Some of you keep a spray bottle of I Can't Believe It's Not Poetry too close to your critical hand, okay?


"Turneresque" is the titular section which comes next.

These are prose poems seemingly based on movies.

I already mentioned my great fondness for "The Wolfman" with its classic closing line.

Again, I have the same problems with some of the literal positions and the lyrical damage done by the pandering of the puns angling for what? Readability? Easy empathy?

Poetry can be op-ed but it had better be op-ed with witchcraft or something added.

"The girl moves between men like a child tossed in the air. She is always in costume, floating above us like a thumb."

This is not subtle.

The same problems I had with Mullen's early Trimmings, or I should say some of it, I had here.

Mullen worked it out. Boy did she ever. No doubt Willis will too.

In general, I'm not a fan of this genre, this sort of prose poem.

It tends to be too easy to do, and it tends to fetch similar results with various authors.

The desultory is relied on too much.

A good ear doesn't excuse it. She has a good ear here all the way through.


"Elegy" is a series of spare lyric lines, often with a recontextualizing shift between them.

This section reminded me most of her earlier book, the good things about it and the faults.

I like sections like this:

If a dove spoke
lifted into goldleaf

---leaving for home
like a fox through mind

a canned geranium
like what you see is--

would we understand

The leaving off of the question mark torques would interestingly.

The poem plays with levels of artifice and feeling; parataxis isn't abused here (the way younger poets will do that) but used respectfully and to gain certain effects.

The poem isn't answerable and shouldn't be.

The poem queries representation and expression, and then the ideas of representation and expression, engagingly.

"What does the trick?" the poem seems to be asking in complete bewilderment.

As it does the trick.

Other sections are too hermetic or oblique in their constellations of images and phrases. Perhaps too personally encoded. Shit happens. Even in the Aesthetosphere.

Rarefaction kills.

Sometimes we don't even know when we're cribbing. Or is it a case of minor poets borrow, great poets steal? These lines...

"I felt the grass's poem
blown against me
like a fake harp."

The metaphor still belongs to Capote's The Grass Harp.

Who has not remembered that title when looking at wind blowing through the grass on a summer's day?

It's uncomfortable here.

There are beautiful poems, and I feel Fanny Howe's presence here muchly.

It's a pleasant sensation.

But of course it's Willis's lyricism married to that lyricism.

Threading a life
of levered paradox

And later...

to leave behind
an almost empty ivy mind



Then there are Biblical poems where the Bible is being severely rewritten with good results.

In "A Fisher King" there is the humor of

A glitter train
against the sun

inventing a bobby
fischer to live through it

Dear comet
dear rook

who couldn't see
the stardom on your body

empires of loneliness
on board

Her "Book of Matthew" elegy for Matthew Shepherd is sublime agony.

I think it's better than Robin Blaser's elegy for the same, which I always felt didn't do the justice.

I think this poem does.


"Drive" is the closing section and we're back to the small prose poems with the dislocational shifts between lines.

Again I have the same problems.

Poems like this one are (to me) basically all ear:

Valley genes, screening for dust, pump off beauty for a bite. A patinaed stream gutting noon. A town coined with lace. Is it a dove in mourning or homo erectus on a roll to the Genghis Kitchen. Blowing oreward, open-handed, in faulted nature, flushed. An excellent copy, reluctantly boarded. Slightly foxed. Otherwise, fine.

Yes, I understand the language of booksellers and the ephemerality of the book here.

But no.

Get out your little spray bottle of I Can't Believe It's Not Poetry.

"Anything is beautiful if you say it is," chimes in fat Wally.

But doesn't that poem also say "Phooey!"

Even sacred cows fart.


She ends with a beautiful poem, a poetics.

What a perfect place to put a poetics, as one is leaving.

It's so counter-intuitional, it's correct.

The day left off with a kind of singing "bang." Golden-
rod in a small sea-like air, specific and unbroken. I cannot
favor hunger or its alternatives. I cannot describe salt. In
a parallel universe does anything intersect the confused
blossoming blueness of a wall that is not sea, not golden-
rod, but the paper fastenings of you, standing against it?
I favor concrete between our rage and its mirage. Its
broken line. Catch the flying saucer but spit out its metal
mystery. Adore the big green nothing of the past, the
rationing of calm late in the century, like the arches of a
brick heart, letting go.

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