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BobSward's Writer's Friendship Series


Needto Know



Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

No Part of This Has Any Point

A Point Is That Which Has No Part
by Liz Waldner  

71 pages. University of Iowa Press

by Adam L. Dressler

The central purpose of this review, i.e., answering the question, “Should I read this book?” can be achieved with one word—“no.” This may seem rather pointed, but let me explain.

The dust jacket of Liz Waldner’s second book, “A Point Is That Which Has No Part,” promises, or at least intimates, that the contents is of high quality: it was published by the University of Iowa Press, and awarded the prestigious James Laughlin Award for 1999 by the judges Agha Shahid Ali, Lynn Emmanuel, and Marilyn Nelson. But I am baffled and saddened—baffened, if you will, by the acclaim this book has received.

The book opens with an epigram by Sir Thomas Browne:

     Circles and right lines
     limit and close all bodies
     and the mortal right-lined
     circle, must conclude and
     limit all

Who would have expected a mathematical metaphor to open a book with such a title? Ms. Waldner’s hand must have painstakingly rifled the quotational universe to find this particular gem, so suited to the setting of her book. Or, perhaps this epigram, like so many of the words, themes, ideas, and structures of this book, was selected for no apparent reason, or—and this is what I believe—for no reason at all, other than the fact that it references mathematical terms. It does, however, serve as a caution not to proceed—a lasciate ogni speranza over the gate.

As I disregarded the epigram’s warning and headed into the book proper, I found myself asking other painful questions. Why, for example, does the book’s first section, Point, consist of only one poem, “Accord”? Does it differ so greatly from the poems of other sections to necessitate its independence? Let’s have a look at the poem:

     Sticks stick up out of the brittle leaves the leather color of
winter oak. A donkey
     trundles its burden of cordwood and hock. Seeds arabesque
a stalk, describing
     the shapes of Farsi to those who have eyes to hear. I’m not
one, but I know what
     it’s like. It’s like here comes a shadow, the sun on my ankle,
all the body’s weight
     on my poor old ass. Jesus rode an ass into Jerusalem where
people waved
     palms. I wave my palm and a wind rises fast. So far I’m
happy with this arrange-
     ment; I only hope it lasts.

Whatever the poem’s message may be—any guess on my part would be just that—the mechanism is wordplay. The double-meanings of “stick,” “ass,” and “palm” are all employed, as are the rhymes of “hock...stalk,” “hear...here,” “one...sun,” and “ass...fast...last.” The rhymes, like the double-meanings, are both obvious and self-serving, i.e., exist only for themselves—they further neither motion nor emotion, neither structure nor sense. Other, slightly more subtle wordplay is at work here as well. Shifting, for example—“leaves...leather,” and off-rhymes—“trundles, burden”—but to what effect? Even though the shifting and off-rhymes enhance the flow of the poem slightly, the clanging, straight rhymes are like brick walls, interrupting that effort. Thus, the wordplay fails not only in sense, but in sound as well, rendering it purposeless. So much for the workings (or lack thereof) of the poem itself. The question of why it has been accorded its own private section remains unanswered.

Perhaps the solution lies in the section’s title, Point, i.e., a single, indivisible thing. If so, the placement of “Accord” would only be explicable, not justifiable. And even this argument is not supported by the book’s other sections—there is no particularly rounded or self-enclosed quality to the poems of the third section, Circle, nor is there anything angular or three-sided about the poems of the fifth section, Triangle. The poems of the second section, Line, are flat, and the thoughts within them do proceed in a somewhat linear stream of consciousness, from vague a to boring b to half-baked c. But so do nearly all the poems of this book. In fact, it’s completely unclear why any particular poem in this book occupies the place that it does. If some subtle, meaningful structure is at work here, it’s far too abstruse to be visible, let alone useful. Furthermore, there is no apparent movement from poem to poem, no order, no flow. The poems could all be randomly rearranged with no perceivable difference.

The same could be argued, to a large extent, of the poems themselves, which tend to arise from some abstract occassioning. Take, for example, the opening of “Trading Little Trinkets [do trinkets come in larger sizes?] With the Gods”—“So OK. Soak. Souk. Bazaar. Bizarre. Why am I—was I?—printing? I like the press of pen? Press. Press your trousers.” They then proceed into the nebulous, lazily-constructed landscape of distinctly uninspired wordplay—e.g., from “Straight Flush”—“Meanwhile, and it was mean,” from “This Is Not Normal Movements of the Animal Kingdom”—“Whell, which typo...reminds me of the shell whelk is, but I mean well...Whelk OK, if you say so. Lawrence Welk...” As for conclusions, resonating notes that bring home the final point, the poem as a whole, they are nowhere to be found. Instead we are served table scraps for desert, e.g., the ending of “The Laundress Maunders II”—“A whole parakeet with eyes closed was one feather of the wing of another. I see what this means. A cloudy tabby stretched out in mid-pounce above me. Better I live in the middle of nowhere and hang my laundry to dry on trees.”

I could go on, searching, toiling, hoping that there is a greater purpose at work here. I could read the book a third time. Yes, I managed to make it through twice. But I suspect it would prove pointless.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has ridden the economic wave from dot come to dot gone, and in the fall will be attending the MA program in poetry at Boston University.