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Monday, September 22, 2014

Four poets

Four Poets: Amy King, Lisa Robertson, Lisa Samuels, Elizabeth Willis

King, Amy, I Want to Make You Safe.(Litmus 2011)
Robertson, Lisa, Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House 2009).
Robertson, Lisa, Nilling. (Book Thug 2012)
Samuels, Lisa, Anti M. (Chax 2013)
Samuels, Lisa. Wild Dialectics. (Shearsman, 2012)
Willis, Elizabeth, Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan, 2006)
I am drawn to the work of women: Willis, Robertson, Samuels, among others. Part 2 of this essay addresses the work of Amy King. By “work” I mean their books, selected titles, not their bodies but their embodiments, a puritanical, self-censoring distinction. Moth to flame, even my reserve sounds creepy. I mistrust patriarchal privilege, no matter how androgynous my self-posturing. I write to resist the “homosocial” bonding that that characterizes the life in poetry of many of my mentors and peers. A boundary condition: writing about the sculpture of Jackie Winsor, John Yau, “We tend to like seeing ourselves in others, rather than recognizing the differences … (Jackie Winsor. Milwaukee Art Museum, 48).

I write to listen, not consume.

Elizabeth Willis opens a “crease” very from different my own always encroaching abyss of uncertain moods. “I stain lengthwise all I touch,” she writes. In response: I’m fingering  a wound, it’s the “crease of relativity,” my text merges with that of “Her Mossy Couch” (Meteoric Flowers 5). Her images belong to my New England of apple orchards and refrigerated warehouses. It’s a political poem and a sensuous poem. Qualities that are true of the book. A red faced “bookishness” (8), like her ancestor, a far from virginal Emily Dickinson. Facts are found in nettles that redden the skin. She sets my task, “Girl is notational. She is an index” (12). Her form is a construction of language. Hers or mine? Her melancholy is transcendent, “The body is always softer than its image” (“Viewless Floods of Heat” 49). A world where the physical is immanent: “Sadness, you can see, is attached to my body” (A Bird of Our Country” 68).

Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip and Niling are prerequisites for the study of poetry. Melancholy, writes Lisa Robertson, is a detachable device, an affective prosthesis (53). The camera turned on interiorized spaced describes the structure of the soul, “internalized capital.” She concludes, “The soul is exuded from the body like an applied perfume. Whatever freedom is prosthetic. … It inflates us or fucks us or loves us in the inflated space of recognition” (54). “Whatever” means “all.”  Erin Moure and Chus Pato also speak of the soul as a prosthesis. (See “Secession Insecession” elsewhere in this blog, Immanent Occasions.) Robertson asserts that a perceptual space constructed from affect and capital, enables irresponsible fantasies that supplant the abyss. “Lucretius say that to flourish we must absorb more than we exude” (Magenta Soul Whip 34). But “All change is substitution” and “The affective / Passage of displacement sheds strata of / Experiment, intensity and guilt … Frankly even our Genders stutter and / Choke” (“Coda,” Magenta Soul Whip 83-85). Apart from the metaphysics of interchangeability which is crucial to my understanding of gender, I appreciate the delicate use of capitalization and enjambment, as if to inculcate within the structure of verse the hesitations of thought while invoking “vigorous paroxysms  / Of excretion” (85).

Lisa Samuels, in Anti M has undertaken forms that scatter across the page, gaps likened to erasures by her readers (Lyn Hejinian for one).  A similar spare parsing of meaning occurs in Wild Dialectics,  white space and various fonts mark divisions. A line: “the lines like episodes!” (38) abbreviates the thrust of a sequence, condensation in extremis. I value the discrimination that marks off high language, “language high” (44) from the quotidian. The reference is to the register of Moby Dick as opposed to lines in Samuel’s distinctive broken and polysemous style, “to grow the scrotum of a real compose / yourself museum, building, make your poster of / the real, inset.” (“The law’s a soft machine fondling your forehead” 28). Samuels takes concretion beyond anticipated limits. The internal near rhymes, “scrotum,” “compose,” “museum” and the quirky enjambment exploding “compose” into “poster of.” These dialectics testify to a culture of self-display. The culminating work in the volume is a love poem (“Love”). The last lines: “imminent so I half-wish / I were sugar curled / girl across last ifs” (82). Sweet hesitations set forth in a tremulous and very subjective subjunctive. Lisa Samuels turns grammar into emotion.

No reason to  connect or disconnect, or elaborate or erase gender. Each quoted line is testimony to the effects of gender. Women write love poetry. Women croon. Despite historical examples, does anyone listen. Spicer’s question of course, effecting each poet, nonetheless. Willis is melancholic. Robertson alters the understanding of the soul. Samuels seems to defer engagement. On a drive, presumably from Reno to Eugene, at least:


                        somehow                 off                   or other        and

                     a great

                                                            car                       having some idea

          strangely bare (Anti M 67).

Beyond defying the wonted use of quotation to extract meaning, the landscape, stripped from memory as details may have been, is swathed in subjective emotion. 

Or perhaps I’m the incontrovertible dreamer. Peter Paul Rubens has conditioned my imagination as much as has the angular Picasso with his surrealistic Three Dancers, as also have raster images of decomposed playmates courtesy of Sigmar Polke. I note the masculinity of my projections. I remember I was once identified as an “anti-masculinist poet.”

Amy King. “When I move I’m all angles” (“The Goddess Sunburn” 33). Amy King’s  I Want to Make You Safe includes several suites of politicized, ironic, wry poems, “I am the love you light yourself with  / and my gender is powerless in this” (“Men by the Lips of Women”31) or “but making love go dollar-designated” (“How Will my Enemies” 60). Pun noted. Female embodiment, ruddy, bare bones, or abject engages my imagination. King’s multiple “little deaths” (“This Opera of Peace” 83), scattered across sharp caesurae and winding riffs, cause storms of jealousy in the heart of a male masochist. Twice in her collection the reader finds long columnar poems, short twisting, rapidly enjambing lines extending for pages: “cleaning her skin of tags / and rhetorical devices akin” (82) and “I’m carrying a baby / wren beneath my tongue” (86). For Amy King, language is the source of the conceptual “human.” What is my form, her form in our different languages?

My private agenda requires me to investigate the working of long forms and serial forms within a compilation, identifiably lyrical. What rhythms situate the reader within a work that displays dream-like characteristics, obsessively reformulated? Her adroitness angles deep within repositories of larval and in utero images.

Last night, as I struggled with insomnia, Amy King interrogated me about my understanding of reproduction. Japanese scientists claim to be able to create sperm from women and eggs from men. My chiasmus confuses me on rereading. Primary germ cells underlie human and post-human identities. Like me, she has written on the work of David Wojnarowicz, “who among us has finished themselves / until the death knell takes our fingers apart?” (“The David Witness” 53). She uses the word “finished” in this ambiguous sense elsewhere (“The Gilded Zero” 58). Finished / masturbation?

I Want to Make You Safe is polysemous beyond surrealist limits effecting possible jump-cuts. In “finished” there is an both allusion to death and to a failure to realize potential. One of those jump cuts bending other into inner, “”Those left will weep and there’ll be heaven / where none hung before, an inner lining of the soul’s / walls, and us to stand among each other and witness.” Wailing implied and eerie enjambment, a caesural period isolates “wall,’” as if to gulp. David’s own graphic self-presentation changed the understanding of many concerning the relation between AIDS and art. I see his lips sewn together by black threads and little wires. What surrealistic hands led Amy to use a sewing image a  few pages later? Her poems are about witness, about perception affecting our perception of human form.

FOOTNOTE: Robertson’s soul is Leibniz’s monad. It is the womb with its physical properties (King’s “lining”), inner and outer projections that constitute a world.

Often King’s images mime those that already haunt me. Is a socially conditioned subconscious at work in our surreal landscapes? She writes of ice floes as sites of rescue for the forlorn (“Eclipse the Light and Cruelly Divide” 61) and, like so many, of bees in “The Animal Languages.”

She walks in her summer time limp, hoping the masses won’t notice.

We do, the big beautiful bees of us, pulling the veins in our wings,

smoking light through antennae ends we’re sure

could reach another form of life when it comes

down to us.

I’m sympathetic. I can crack the code. I know who shot

the film that plays everyday along the walls along of the black

halls that lead to how many meals we hide in her pantry.

She smelled but couldn’t stand the taste of having every food.  (63).

To my reading, the narrative concerns the death of a queen bee and the provisioning of her after-life larder, as undertaken by her drones. Variation spaces narrative time onto complex rifts. The line, “down to us” is essentially rhetorical in its isolation of a phrase implying reception and responsibility, almost biblical. The four lines after the first creates a period that stretches and reinvents the poetic line. There are two periods and a predicate suspended by enjambment. The phrase, “walls of the black / hall” the hive reminiscent of the lining of the soul, King’s queen picky. after the first verse paragraph is a second of only four syllables: “We did her in.”

The third verse presents a version of the quotidian reality all experience. “The language system” is evoked as embodied in “final directives” and want-ads. Filmic, a camera iris dissolve isolates, “several half-humans post-conscious in beds.” The poem has captured the post-human environment that has supplanted the natural. There is a final verse, cannibalizing in intent, “I elect to eat the heads, leave the stems to purpose—“ The images seek communication with a future, the ability to “turn the code.” The bees awaken and build a new hive, “We seed through the hush, rising from earth, / orchestras through flame.” I may not understand reproduction, language or music but my sense of complexities in overlay has awakened.

I have referred above to lines from “This Opera of Peace.” It is a long serial poem,  the last of the four “chapters” of I Want to Make You Safe. Individual pages in this section may or may not read as completed lyric poems. The reader will note small difference. A page line that has no terminal punctuation carrying forward to the next page. A column of words begins with a lower case letter. A page that begins, “The stomach that speaks” ends “There’s always a lesion to pass the lesser limb through” (81), one of the strongest, most graphic images of the collection. For me an image of cannibalistic intercourse. Then there is white space and more columns spanning three pages, but the third page ends mid-sentence and the fourth page picks up the grammar of the sentence form after a long silence enforced by white space. The construction of the last two pages (86, 87) also has interest. Page 86 presents a column ending with a sentence fragment (and fragments are rare) inviting enjambment with the first line of the next page but that line begins with a capital letter and presents a very differently torqued sentence, “You to crucify continents, / the least of which we / will return to …”. We have arrived at the end of the sequence and the last words of I want to make You Safe:

Until, grooming and mewing

we birth the baby wren,

full of downy coos,

the tiniest nest within

our mouths’ open bellies,

thinning now we love.

The image of the wren continues from the reference to “signature” and “bible” on the previous page. These last pages present an epithalamium to celebrate a marriage. Tenderness and a relation of the mouth to the belly, to language and creation, embodiment calling forth a chromatic resolution to this carefully constructed poem and book of poems within which it nests.

Donald Wellman­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

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