Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Elizabeth Willis

Turneresque and Meteoric Flowers, both by Elizabeth Willis, who (along with Kate Colby), will kick-off the belladonna reading series in just two weeks. And what a kick-off. I've carried Willis's two recent books around for a few weeks now, dipping in, dipping in: there are lines in here so good you simply can't move beyond them without pause. And so you pause:
Such a tree I think is sweeping out this country air... (25)

Idly I turned your name into a kite. (8)

I stain lengthwise all I touch. (5)
For sheer pleasure, for the arch, erotic touch, for the breadth of references packed into each line, I am reminded of Anne Carson, but moreso, Lisa Robertson. And readers will know how fond I am of Lisa Robertson, and of the prose poem in general. Like Robertson, Willis proves my point about its formal flexity (yes, I said flexity), its deceptively simple structures, its lyric capability. Particularly in the era of the autonomous new sentence, as Ron Silliman has suggested, the whole unit shoulder to shoulder, minimal and modern; the one and the many; intimating, stating, inferring, moving the poem along.

The titles of the prose poems are taken from the text of Erasmus Darwin, the text's muse. And what a wonderful thief Willis is, excising gems like "her mossy couch," "grateful as asparagus," "glittering shafts of war," and on and on, each one more gleaming.

As for the lyric interruptions, these also put me in mind of Lisa Robertson--The Weather in particular with its dispatches from "Residence At C___". Robertson reverses the notion of interruption, much like Willis has here, and both to great effect, challenging the notion of ragged right margined poetry, recognizable as couplet, or narrative driven poetry, its tonal sincerity, its accommodating flow.

Here's Willis from "Verses Omitted", the lyrics that punctuate the Cantos of prose poems:
Belimbed as a willow
I'm burning with wingedness
or
I joy to dream
a more fortunate planet
In a review of The Weather I suggested that the more lyric aspects of Robertson's text were the prose lines, not the interruptions. I might not say the same here.

Turneresque
is a perhaps a less precise gem than Meteoric Flowers, but here is a case in which the less polished, or less tucked in nature of the former pleases more than the high-gloss of the latter. There is something "perfect" about Meteoric Flowers. Not a bad fault if one has to have one. But in a time when there is much to say about relative states of completeness, there is an argument here, for a few strings untied. In some ways, Meteoric Flowers is a kind of ode to beauty. There is an edge, of course. But like the boxes of Joseph Cornell--which more than one other reviewer has pointed out--the form is a brilliant container for the disparate objet therein.

There is similar energy in Turneresque with its play on Ted Turner's TV world, and Turner the 19th century landscape painter, and again with its investigations of the prose vs. broken line, but much more edge. Thanks to Penn Sound you can hear Willis read from much of Turneresque, and you can find excerpts online, a sonnet sequence in HOW2, the final sequence of prose poems titled "Drive."

Here is an excerpt from "Elegy" that gets at Willis's ability to "turn," a trick that drives the poems in this collection.
The day I drove

in a driving rain
from realism to impressionism

a moving hillside fooled the town
While a poet might strive for this kind of slight of hand, not many achieve moves with such grace, without showing the string up the sleeve, the clumsy shifts usually caught up in words "like" or "as" or "such" that expose--and not in a good way--metaphor, or metonymic structures.

Ah, the prose poem. So much to be said about the prose poem, the sweet gait that transforms the drone of sentence to the new, the studded engine, escalating from one idea to the next in seconds...but I'm heading off now into thoughts I have no time to clarify...

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