Elizabeth Willis

Turneresque and Meteoric Flowers, both by Elizabeth Willis, who (along with Kate Colby), will kick-off the belladonna reading series in just two weeks. And what a kick-off. I’ve carried Willis’s two recent books around for a few weeks now, dipping in, dipping in: there are lines in here so good you simply can’t move beyond them without pause. And so you pause:

Such a tree I think is sweeping out this country air… (25)

Idly I turned your name into a kite. (8)

I stain lengthwise all I touch. (5)

For sheer pleasure, for the arch, erotic touch, for the breadth of references packed into each line, I am reminded of Anne Carson, but moreso, Lisa Robertson. And readers will know how fond I am of Lisa Robertson, and of the prose poem in general. Like Robertson, Willis proves my point about its formal flexity (yes, I said flexity), its deceptively simple structures, its lyric capability. Particularly in the era of the autonomous new sentence, as Ron Silliman has suggested, the whole unit shoulder to shoulder, minimal and modern; the one and the many; intimating, stating, inferring, moving the poem along.

The titles of the prose poems are taken from the text of Erasmus Darwin, the text’s muse. And what a wonderful thief Willis is, excising gems like “her mossy couch,” “grateful as asparagus,” “glittering shafts of war,” and on and on, each one more gleaming.

As for the lyric interruptions, these also put me in mind of Lisa Robertson–The Weather in particular with its dispatches from “Residence At C___”. Robertson reverses the notion of interruption, much like Willis has here, and both to great effect, challenging the notion of ragged right margined poetry, recognizable as couplet, or narrative driven poetry, its tonal sincerity, its accommodating flow.

Here’s Willis from “Verses Omitted”, the lyrics that punctuate the Cantos of prose poems:

Belimbed as a willow
I’m burning with wingedness


I joy to dream
a more fortunate planet

In a review of The Weather I suggested that the more lyric aspects of Robertson’s text were the prose lines, not the interruptions. I might not say the same here.

is a perhaps a less precise gem than Meteoric Flowers, but here is a case in which the less polished, or less tucked in nature of the former pleases more than the high-gloss of the latter. There is something “perfect” about Meteoric Flowers. Not a bad fault if one has to have one. But in a time when there is much to say about relative states of completeness, there is an argument here, for a few strings untied. In some ways, Meteoric Flowers is a kind of ode to beauty. There is an edge, of course. But like the boxes of Joseph Cornell–which more than one other reviewer has pointed out–the form is a brilliant container for the disparate objet therein.

There is similar energy in Turneresque with its play on Ted Turner’s TV world, and Turner the 19th century landscape painter, and again with its investigations of the prose vs. broken line, but much more edge. Thanks to Penn Sound you can hear Willis read from much of Turneresque, and you can find excerpts online, a sonnet sequence in HOW2, the final sequence of prose poems titled “Drive.”

Here is an excerpt from “Elegy” that gets at Willis’s ability to “turn,” a trick that drives the poems in this collection.

The day I drove

in a driving rain
from realism to impressionism

a moving hillside fooled the town

While a poet might strive for this kind of slight of hand, not many achieve moves with such grace, without showing the string up the sleeve, the clumsy shifts usually caught up in words “like” or “as” or “such” that expose–and not in a good way–metaphor, or metonymic structures.

Ah, the prose poem. So much to be said about the prose poem, the sweet gait that transforms the drone of sentence to the new, the studded engine, escalating from one idea to the next in seconds…but I’m heading off now into thoughts I have no time to clarify…

Perhaps this is what makes a feminist?

Louise Bourgeois produces wonderful texts. Not just as accompaniment to her art either. In fact of the four artists responding to Roni Horn’s Wonder Water which I posted on here, Bourgeois was perhaps my favorite. She is writy (that’s wry & witty), and precise. Very precise. The following is courtesy of notes from the recent show in Philadelphia:

A man and a woman lived together. On one evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbour stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair, the size of a pea.

An excerpt from a story written in 1947 and printed in red on a two-hundred and forty-five foot long scarf… I’m wondering the significance of “On one evening” or whether that’s just a typo in the show notes.

The thing is I’ve felt this. And I’ve seen this happen to women. You find them gathered in storm drains. It’s good for drainage actually, the roundness, but that is really not the point. Perhaps this is what makes a feminist?

Jim’s Steaks

There is always a line-up a Jim’s, and often a car will stop me to ask where this Jim’s is. I haven’t been, but you can’t miss it. Between the line-up, and the scent, which is everywhere. Meat. Grilling meat. Not unpleasant unless you are vegetarian, in which case, well, its very unpleasant. Neighbourhoods have their smells: I’ve had paper mill, an expressway, McDonald’s and Shell, swimming pool and bar. In Vancouver, at the foot of Commercial Drive there is a chicken “processing” plant which stunk up the hood for years. The Lower East Side has similar plants, though I hear they are illegal. Atlantic & Flatbush has its exhaust and sweat, I’m sure of it, human sweat. State Street had pee, human and dog mixed. New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of Johnson & Johnson, has its chemicals: fabric softened rivers, detergent air. One of my old Toronto neighbourhoods was not far from a Cadbury’s Chocolate plant which was a better scent I have to say, though earth is by far my favourite neighbourhood smell, or ocean, or vast tracts of cedar and fir…and this morning we have the scent of a garden, still luxuriating in the rough trade applied from a night of dramatic rain. Just think of it, all those ferns bumping up against each other all night long. What must the neighbours think?

So you want to read in Canada?

Check out these venues:

The Pilot Reading Series is sponsored by Matrix magazine and features established and emerging writers on the 2nd Sunday of every month at Blizzarts 3956-A St-Laurent Blvd. 8 pm
(For more information on the Pilot Reading Series you can contact jon.fiorention-at-gmail.com

The Atwater Poetry Project is curated by
Oana Avasilichioaei and has hosted Phil Hall, Betsy Warland, Di Brandt, Erin Moure, Nicole Brossard, Meredith Quartermain. I’m told there is a website with recordings (as with Test), but I haven’t found it. I’ll update when I do.


Please see the series site (www.testreading.org) for information on and
recordings of past readings featuring Stephen Cain, Margaret
Christakos, Brian Joseph Davis, Jay MillAr, Lisa Robertson, and Rachel