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In Review

Edited by liz gonzález



by Elizabeth Willis

Burning Deck, 2003

Elizabeth Willis is the author of two other books of poems: Human Abstract (Penguin, 1995) and Second Law (Avenue B, 1993). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, The Germ, How2, etc. She teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.


Reviewed by Catherine Daly

In Turneresque, Elizabeth Willis collects poems that collectively continue to ponder the classic problem of language in contemporary American experimental poetry: referentiality. To what, if any thing, state, or external reality, does language refer? Who observes, writes? What is poetry’s content? Willis answers these questions in slightly different ways in the different sections of her book.

Turneresque begins with a poem entitled “Autographeme.” A grapheme is a letter or other symbol that represents speech. An autographeme would then be a letter or other symbol that represents itself. In Willis’ poem, each stanza is a different definition of language. As the poem begins, “A thought on the lip,” the book begins at the moment speech is about to be uttered. Since Willis’ definitions are in language, they define themselves—they are self-referential. Language, and hence poetry, is “An easy messenger,” where messages or meanings are conveyed not by a vehicle but by a person; a mirror isolated from the myth of Narcissus in the lines, “The reflecting pool / no one could read”; the author, and form itself, becomes an editor in “…an abridgement / of whatever I contained”; and the Tradition—formalist poetry—becomes an alien structure in “Others formed an invisible order.”

It is no surprise to find aspects of ars poetica in sophisticated poetry concerned with language and poetry itself. The first section of Turneresque consists of a suite of poems that refer to painters or other artists in some way, “Modern Painters.” The painters are mostly precursors of or influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painters of which Willis is an expert. Of course, J.M.W. Turner is included. So is Richard Dadd, a British painter and patricide who continued to paint after he was institutionalized. Dadd’s style changed after he was committed in the ways Willis notes in “Catalogue Raisonné,” “The plane of foreground and background is equal.” His picture plane collapsed, and fantastic detail became as important as figures in his pictures. But the poem also contains references to Willis’ concerns regarding language and meaning:

          The grass full of writing
          A victim’s head contains a letter
          the color of water
          “Induce” across her hand (p. 18)

Throughout the book, Willis explores all of the possible definitions or associations with the book title. Beyond J.M.W. Turner, painter, and Ted Turner, media mogul, a “turn” is a metaphor or trope, and a “turner” is a poet. The contemporary poet’s concern with referentiality oddly echoes I.A. Richards’ explanations of metaphor using his terms tenor, vehicle, and ground. Richards is not concerned with the ornamental image and the meaningful idea, per se. The tenor is the underlying idea, the vehicle conveys it, and the tenor and the vehicle share the ground. Or, as Willis observes in “The Tree of Personal Effort,” a poem after Charles Rennie Macintosh that begins the “Modern Painters” section, “The lost highway of ornament fades into origin.”

The J.M.W. Turner poem in this section, “Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, Ships a Sea, Getting a Good Wetting,” contains perhaps the most thematic line or ars poetica in a section rife with such lines as “A heavy craft in wordy water, taking on a master.” The vehicle is poetry, “a heavy craft.” Reality is “wordy.” The vehicle precedes the “master”/author, but conveys her.

The more contemporary version of referentiality, revised from Pound’s imagistic movement between things, perceiving them, and depicting them, and from Wittgenstein’s ideas of language systems that reference themselves, involves the relationship of language and its use. Much experimental writing seeks not to refer to or carry meaning as a symbol might, but to form meaning. The untitled prose sections in the last poem and section of the book, “Drive,” seem to illustrate these ideas beyond representation most clearly. The section begins with a quote from Canadian poets Liliane and Cyril Welsh, “…one’s private automobile ‘locates’ human concern and effort: the conveyance which contains intrinsically no reference...” In the sixth section, Willis writes,

          “… we drive without a future, left to wish outside the forward rush of things. 
          Who would not leave the mess for the illumination, the culture for the poem?”   (p. 90)

Like the sections of “Drive,” the poems in the title section “Turneresque” are prose poems. While Willis’ default unit is the line, many of the poems in Turneresque are unlineated. The juxtapositions of phrases that as lines seem abstract, disjointed, or fragmentary, are still “enjambed” in the sentences. The qualifying clauses and commas in the longer sentences lend Willis’ words a different sort of richness and complexity than the “hard candies” of her lines.

Portions of the section entitled “Sonnet” were published online at HOW2 as “Eight Untitled Sonnets.” One of the wonderful features of the poetry in HOW2 is that it is generally accompanied by “Working Notes” written by the author. In the notes for “Eight Untitled Sonnets,” Willis writes, “I spend a lot of time commuting so my line is often sporadic & sprung, filled with minor subject matter except for the backdrop of transitoriness, which seems to run through the sonnet as a form.” The poems are not sonnets or related to sonnets except perhaps as Willis mentions, that she sees in her poems and in the sonnet a transitory tenor, a disposable referentiality outside of a minor meaning. As she begins the first section of “Sonnet,”

To live in someone
else’s music (the musician
not the composer is free)      (p. 31)

The poems in Turneresque frequently relate to works appreciated for their transcendence of genre: sonnets, classic B movies, canonical artists who are outsiders in some way (painters Turner, Dadd, poets Blake, Baudelaire). So, too, these are love poems, located where referentiality breaks down, and is rebuilt.

Catherine Daly is author of DaDaDa (Salt Publishing, 2003) and Locket (Tupelo Press, 2004). She is also a widely published reviewer currently compiling a book of review/essays about contemporary women’s experimental poetry. She lives in Los Angeles, where she curates three reading series.

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