Book Review

Lisa Smith

Elizabeth Willis
Burning Deck ($10.00)

In Turneresque, Elizabeth Willis explores permanence in motion, the
differences between a frozen and internalized moment captured in a painting, and the motion of film. Each ‘still’ creates the illusion of a seamlessly whole work or story, and, subsequently, a seemingly trustworthy physical universe. The ‘Turner’ in the title is a result of two intertwining explorations: the work of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner and a social critique involving media magnate Ted Turner. The discourses and aesthetics seem to collide, synchronically and diachronically, challenging the reader to question how and why our cultural ‘momentum’—our choices—have taken us to these different and often disturbing polarities. At the same time, the speaker of the poems invites the reader to "rise above your life" and to test the self and its surroundings.

However, the reader is not left to his or her own devices in this exploration as Willis unfolds the process through a study of representation, and shows, with a generous acuteness, that our points of reference, though unstable, provide the foundation necessary to rise to the challenge of explaining our surroundings. The trajectory of the book reinstates the impossible arc of an object being let go, its curve created by the tension between something being pushed down as it is simultaneously raised. The book seems to ask, “do things happen to us or do we make things happen?” For example, she writes:

Without an arch
triumph is a fantasy
of daily warfare
lunging into nightly airs
Iron can’t protect
a feeble word, I’m
less confident
than butter The Blind
limits of a ragged
suggestion: to follow
like an Astor, to belong
to dirt, like a question.

These moments, of ‘belonging to dirt, like a question,’ must be what she means by, “I was fluent in salamander” which she writes earlier in the same section— i.e. her language is wonderfully slippery, like a salamander, and forces us to reexamine how confident we really are moving about in the world, this experience, this ‘self.’
The poems throughout the collection are simultaneously sumptuous and spare – admittedly a strange combination, but one that is as alluring as it is exact. This might have to do with her exploration, infatuation, and, ultimately, trepidation regarding notions of the sublime. In the opening poem, Autographeme, she writes:

The present was a relic
of a past I was older than

Taking its language, I became an abridgement
of whatever I contained

A social imperative of silky fears . . .

Others formed an invisible order
felt in every part

Willis explores, manipulates and, often, rescues language from the ‘invisible order’ – a nod to Jacques Lacan perhaps, or, more likely, a critique of the largely male-centered, logocentric social constructions and ‘autographemes’ that consciously or unconsciously determine our reality. She forces us, as readers, to confront and question “the poem scratching its ring against the roof, stalled out in its own country.”

Despite the tension between what we do and what is done to us, and all the blurry possibilities that this entails, Willis celebrates personal effort—a sort of Foucauldian self-fashioning with a paint brush in one hand and a movie camera in the other—throughout the text, showing that a universe which seems separate and in constant movement away from us provides another window through which to observe. Willis's language reflects this effort; the leaps between images are necessarily daring: "like the arches of a brick heart, letting go." But, not to be misunderstood, the apparently disjunctive and abstract images are held firmly within the poem by the momentum between each line, each image held to the page and firmly planted within the poem much like centripetal force will hold water inside a spinning bucket. For example, in the final section titled, Drive, she writes:

Felt things last longer than seen things, says who, drawing out forks of fire, who walking by, tied for departure, packaged into powder. Fled ecstasy as a response like “brilliant” can mean anything. Everything appears to shine given enough darkness. Crushed into brilliance, the bright ball, dished. Write your poem in the space above, erasing what is beneath it. Paper covers rock. Listen. It’s tough, hearts get crushed by metal these days, no matter what.

Willis is interested in the poem’s textuality and language, but she is not afraid to suggest—and really mean—that ‘hearts get crushed’ or that ‘triumph is an illusion.’ Irony and sincerity are odd bedfellows, but in a Willis poem the oddity must be dark enough to make both shine through with amazing and effective clarity. Interestingly, this section opens with an epigraph by Liliane and Cyril Welch: “Not a cathedral but rather a railway or one’s private automobile ‘locates’ human concern and effort: the conveyance which contains intrinsically no reference . . .” Drive is the referenceless conveyance as well as our actual ‘drives’ and desires. ‘What drives us?’ asks Willis, and how can we be expected to make sense within a vehicle (and tenor) that is built to move?

Turneresque is primarily about this momentum, exploring the energy necessary "to make or love anything" while simultaneously pairing the drive toward human growth with the laws of the natural world – its gravity and perpetual turning. This is a brave and generous work, deftly attuned to the dirt, air, sea and light of the world and sharply aware of its own cultural make-up. That the “I” of the poems is an "abridgement" of cultural influences never interferes with the intensity of the speaker's experience of living in a physical world:

What unknown slippered thing of x is thou
a dirty engine shooting out the star
a decoy aurora’d in fig
I myself
in plain flesh, answer

The soul’s a fine thing
less than feathers
free to glitter
in no-light night

a petticoat of sand
the mind’s a hinge
a roughly chestnut arsenal
a little box of nothing
an incidental rose

What exists in-between you and me, I and thou, sign and signifier, tenor and vehicle, slides and crashes into the figurative. The fourth section, Elegy, begins as a drive “from realism to impressionism,” and then beyond; knowledge, the past, memory, the unknown, understanding, and the sublime are elegized. Although loss and absence are part of the momentum that pulls at human experience, there is always possibility and potential, and splashes of hope and humor that fill these pages. The poems are illuminated not only by the thing exhaled into being, but, also, by the responding inhalation of wonder that there are things and things that move and live and grow.