Monday, October 23, 2006

 

There is an advantage to being the guy who gets the most mail in town – the postal people recognize your name. Meteoric Flowers made it to my house in spite of the fact that it was sent to an address where I haven’t lived in over a decade – and no forwarding address appeared anywhere on the package. Obviously I was meant to get this book.

It’s the latest work from Elizabeth Willis, not to be confused with the chapbook of the same name (and some of the same poems) issued awhile back by Atticus Finch. Meteoric Flowers is filled with brief, well-balanced, brilliantly written prose poems, interspersed with a few works in verse that serve, at least at first glance, as section dividers (or, perhaps more accurately, as bridges). Visually, your first sense (mine anyway) is that these ought to feel simple, even slight. But then you read one:

Glittering Shafts of War

Lost words are lost boys. These woods are combing the hair of paradise. You’re waking and thinking, an opera of our minor ways: Sweet William, Virginia. What we fear in fearlessness turns over the table. You don’t blame the lamp for what you cannot read, the fire in the match not struck. How many coats, by federal surprise, regard you from the banks? We think we see them through the screen, the darkest flower’s gabardine.

Seven straightforward sentences. They would be “new” sentences save for the way Willis binds them together through recurrent pronouns (we, you) and, right at the beginning, sound (words, woods – a play that echoes later both in the deadpan fear / fearlessness and the final whimsy of screen / gabardine). There is an enormous sadness in that first sentence, perhaps because of an allusion back to war in the title (& forward, if the eye has already picked up the forthcoming Virginia a couple of lines below), possibly because of the echo also back to Peter Pan. Throughout, this poem is filled with one terrific image after another – the only one that doesn’t completely convince me is federal surprise.

The text effects of a poem like this intrigue me. Willis here achieves something akin to a middle depth that is unique to her writing. The poem doesn’t live at the surface the way a typical lyric might (think of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets or the greatest poems of Anselm Hollo), nor is Willis after the vertigo-invoking short poem that breaches the real (more characteristic of, say, Rae Armantrout or Jack Spicer), but rather reaches somewhere that strikes me as almost halfway in-between. That’s a difficult balance, precisely because it requires pushing & pulling away from either extreme – which is what the combination of devices outlined above (along with all the many connotative schema) conspire toward.

For what it’s worth, Willis’ source here isn’t, say, a recounting of the multiple battles of Manassas, but rather the work of 18th century polymath Erasmus Darwin, Charlie’s grandpop, Blake’s contemporary, and specifically his 1788 poem, The Botanic Garden. Like Darwin’s text, Willis’ alternates between cantos & a series of disruptions. Only Willis reverses the genre, using prose poems for each of the four sections entitled Canto – the poem above is not atypical – interrupted by verses carrying titles such as “Verses Omitted by Mistake.” The titles of individual poems come directly from Darwin. Here is the passage from which “Glittering Shafts” is drawn:

The GODDESS paused, admired with conscious pride
The effulgent legions marshal'd by her side,
Forms sphered in fire with trembling light array'd,
Ens¹ without weight, and substance without shade;
And, while tumultuous joy her bosom warms,
Waves her white hand, and calls her hosts to arms,

     "Unite, ILLUSTRIOUS NYMPHS! your radiant powers,
Call from their long repose the VERNAL HOURS.
Wake with soft touch, with rosy hands unbind
The struggling pinions of the WESTERN WIND;
Chafe his wan cheeks, his ruffled plumes repair,
And wring the rain-drops from his tangled hair.
Blaze round each frosted rill, or stagnant wave,
And charm the NAIAD from her silent cave;
Where, shrined in ice, like NIOBE² she mourns,
And clasps with hoary arms her empty urns.
Call your bright myriads, trooping from afar,
With beamy helms, and glittering shafts of war;
In phalanx firm the FIEND OF FROST assail,
Break his white towers, and pierce his crystal mail;
To Zembla's moon-bright coasts the Tyrant bear,
And chain him howling to the Northern Bear.

What is the relationship of this passage to Willis’ poem? Is Ens a lost word? Or, for that matter, Zembla, a version that has subsequently disappeared from English, which has shifted to something closer to the original Russian, Zemlya, tho the word still appears as Zembla in Dutch & of course in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. There is, of course, a peculiar irony that Darwin here in the 1780s should actually write this of the future site of the largest nuclear (test) explosion in history. Glittering shafts indeed!

What Willis shares with Darwin is a perspective concerning the integrity of poetry & serious discourse – it was, after all, the views Erasmus Darwin expressed in another poem, The Temple of Nature, that first set grandson Charles off to demonstrate the dynamics of evolution. The idea that poetry is one of the central serious disciplines available to thought & thus not separated from science or philosophy or history is perhaps the deepest belief in this book. And Meteoric Flowers³ is first of all a book, which is to say that individual poems are sections of a larger whole. And that at some level, it makes no sense – or only a crippled sort of one – to try and discuss a single section like this, letting it stand, synecdoche for the whole of Willis’ project.

Yet I don’t think you need to know anything about Erasmus Darwin to “get” Meteoric Flowers – I certainly was sans clue until I came to a note positioned appropriately as an afterword. But if you do, or if you are willing to dig a little once Willis hands you the key, it reframes the text, tho (for me) only to make it more of what it already is.

Willis published the final section, along with others, in No: A Journal of the Arts. It’s entitled “Primeval Islands” and says it better than I could:

This I, this me, I’m speaking from a book. That brain that taught me delicious things, forgivable trains, a signal business. I don’t want to be tragic, even to the goldleafed bug. I, Walt Whitman, with Texas in my mouth. Dismiss this fantasy in favor of our startled shade. I remembered my tricks and what they did. Even apples aren’t free. Our life against the midnight lens: poor Crusoe on Mars. I’m walking through this wall of air to comfort my senate.

 

¹ The OED defines ens principally as being a philosophical term that specifics a being or entity as opposed to an attribute. It was a synonym for an obsolete sense of the word essence.

² Daughter of Tantalus, Niobe wept for her slain children and was turned to a stone that kept weeping.

³ A phrase that does not appear in Darwin, tho discussions of meteors certainly do, while flowers carry many adjectives, including luminous, musky, saffron, honey’d, mellifluous, insect, pendant, radiated & enascent.

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