Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Following the conversation between Gary and Jake with great interest. The question of writing with/to/for provokes a lot of thought. I am most comfortable writing with as my quixotic wish (which Jake has very reasonable doubts about) to turn readers into writers reflects. Writing to seems endemic to actually bothering to get yourself published—I feel here is where we engage the question of the economy of recognition that has the folks at Foetry so exercised. You write to someone, after all, in hopes of being answered. As for writing for, I have trouble recognizing a constiuency for myself—"my people—in the manner Jake describes himself feeling obligated to address the people in the southern town where he grew up. My sense of community is much less geographical, largely because I grew up in the anonymous-seeming North Jersey suburbs. Also, I can never not remember feeling alienated from the community as represented by my public-school peers: the rejection I experienced there has left me seeking affiliation with other rejects ever after, which perhaps explains my ambivalence about the "mainstream" invoked by the concept of the Common Reader, who has never felt the need to interrogate the structures of an existence they feel more or less in harmony with and so can be presumed to be blissfully ignorant of "theory," etc. I may envy these "Readers" (who almost certainly do not correspond to any actual breathing human beings) or despise them, but to write for them? What would that mean but abjection—an act of "submission" far more humiliating than the more personal address made when you ask a given editor (and the readership he or she represents) to recognize you and your contribution? At least in that situation you have already potentially elected yourself to a given company of writers/readers—that is, you feel the book, press, or magazine speaks to you. That's why submitting your work to someone who doesn't already in some sense speak to you is a recipe for humiliation, no doubt intensified by the enclosure of twenty-five hard earned bucks.

Right, I've stalled long enough. Grood Poet No. 4 is Elizabeth Willis, whose most recent book, Turneresque, was haunting the side pocket of my book bag for the better part of last year. On my DC trip I acquired two of her earlier works, Second Law (signed, no less), and her 1994 National Poetry Series winner, The Human Abstract. Reading those books, it's clear to me that Willis has more direct ties to Language poetry than the other Grood Poets I've selected thus far: the writing is often gnomic, sprinkled with typograhical oddities, with suggestive individual lines that seem like broken-off puzzle pieces arranged according to some undiscoverable rule. Both Second Law and a large chunk of The Human Abstract have a hermetic quality in the magical sense that I associate with the likes of H.D. and Robert Duncan: they engage with mystical texts that provide another doorway into the poetry if you are initiated into those texts. Which I'm not, particularly (Second Law invokes Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress while a section of The Human Abstract titled "Jordan (H-YRDN)" dabbles in H.D.-ish Egyptiana). I find this kind of thing interesting and even enjoyable as my mind skates over surfaces whose depths I do not doubt, even though (because?) they're inaccessible—but groodness as I'm defining it requires a degree of intensity that such skating rarely provides. That's why I'm drawn to the more lyric poems in Abstract, like this section from the first poem, "A Maiden":
Lovely hero where the lovely hero bounds

an acre hidden between eros and its errors

Finding a dozen darts beneath the skin of

Watching the wire of a skinny flame

No other lovely hero found the back

behind her secret form of symmetry

Her gleaming difference

Her schoolish way in pretty understandings

Said not done Not said Undone

Wealthy sadness has a way of winning everyone

This is the end of my body as you know it

its superfluous penchant for love

its poorer costume, its shiny disaster
This is smart, shimmery, erotic writing, with a degree of the incisive, oblique wit ("Wealthy sadness has a way of winning everyone") that is the dominant note of Turneresque. I love the title, which could be a description of lyric poetry as that which "turns" (as in the volta of a sonnet) and also invokes in queasy simultaneity the "painter of light" Joseph Mallord William Turner and billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, infamous colorizer of black-and-white films. It gets another "spin" from the Rimbaud quotation that substitutes for a blurb on the back cover: "The world marches on! Why shouldn't it turn around?" There's tremendous pathos to this in our current political context (subtly evoked in the book, most obviously in the section titled "Elegy") but there's also a mischievousness. a desire to substitute dancing for marching. (Incidentally, I was quite struck by Bill Knott's attack on music in this interview—it reminds me of accounts of how soldiers in Iraq blasted heavy metal music in their heavy metal tanks, the better to turn the whole thing into a video game.) Many if not most of the poems in Turneresque are prose poems, and they are what first enchanted me into reading the book over and over. Not quite parsable without every being merely surreal, the most fun ones are forms of ekphrasis—as in the "Turneresque" section, where each poem is named for a film in Ted Turner's vast library.
Don't Bother to Knock

Nel's off thhe farm, watched over by a dutch uncle. She writes herself in semaphor and scars. Her story's on a timid fuse of torment like the girl behind the wall. Pilots are never what they appear, flying over Oregon. Even when they tiptoe she hears the watery crash of slamming doors. She meets a creep half made of memory, but his girl's already got him with a sultry lasso. Nel's looking for an ally. But when the house dick comes to, she's already walking the arena into old rooms. It's a wrap.
I love the hard-boiled diction that includes both the world of the film and the world of film ("It's a wrap"), and the sense the poem gives me of unfolding meanings—the stray lyricism glimpsed between the shocks in a B movie. There's just enough of the film's original narrative (at least I think there is; I've never seen Don't Bother to Knock) to string us along—in a good way—through the slippages between sentences. What's consistent is the mood or stance of the poem, the sense of world it conjures, and for me that's one of the greatest pleasures of contemporary poetry: the opportunity to slip into a richly imagined world or world-moment without having to contend with the overdetermining presence of plot or character. It's like one of Browning's monologues without the distracting rhetorical surface—the palpable labor that goes into the rendering of a personality—as fun as that can be on its own terms. ("Zooks!") The last poem in the section considers not a movie, but the romantic comedy of our lives that was abruptly ended by the cinematic spectacle of September 11, 2001:
September 9

It's turneresque in twilight. The word comes at me with its headlights on, so it's revelation and not death. I figure I'm halway home though I've only started. Nothing is moving but me; I'm a blackbird. The neighbor's in labor, but so am I, pushing against the road. Physics tells us nothing is lost, but I've been copping time from death and can't relent for every job the stars drop on my back.
Many of us remarked on the quality of the light on the day of the disaster; what a flawless early autumn day it was. The poem itself records a simple drive home, the memory refracted through awful knowledge after the fact. It's the word that has headlights, that brings the unseen and unspeakable into appearance, that reveals what would otherwise die into forgetfulness, taking that moment of your life with it. Here the letter giveth life. It's that kind of nourishment that has me returning to this book and will keep me eagerly on the lookout for her next one. Her poetry makes the connection between Abstraction and Pleasure very clear: she presents what we would otherwise miss, and how glad we are for the uncolorized light she casts on the very moment of appearing. The quality of Change—the flicker between the sense of language and the sensation of language—is much more discrete (and discreet) in Turneresque than it is in the other books, where I would say it takes priority, and I'm just as glad. That is, it tends to create space between poems or sections of poems more than it does between lines or syntactical units. The quality of Change generates the poems' mystery—their almost successful resistance to the intellect—without I think manifesting as difficulty or hardness. So I would be quick to give this book to someone who was ready to break away from epiphanic verse but might be overwhelmed by a poetry of difficult syntax or word-fragmentation. I'd also be quick to so give the recent work of Grood Poet No. 5, the last I'll talk about, a little later in the week.

1 comment:

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