In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare has Theseus describe poetic undertaking as that which “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” It is therefore fitting that Elizabeth Willis titles her fifth collection, a study of poetry’s role in society, Address. The book’s poems mine the multiplicity of meanings and associations behind its single-word title, and while doing so they contemplate the ineluctable link between poetry and politics, art and civic awareness, and the necessity for collaborative examination of political matters that affect us.
Willis’ associative leaps and juxtapositions astonish and probe, often testing its reader of his or her own demand of history, art, and current events—one may, as this reader did, bow her head in shame after recognizing only a small number of “witches” in the poem “Blacklist,” which refers to literary and political personalities from Ronald Reagan to Sappho and Maria Tallchief. The book will present a challenge for most readers, even perhaps for those well-versed in language poetry (a strong influence on Willis as she discussed in an interview with Mark Tursi), and I wonder how much any general reader can harvest of the poems their various significations without a strong grasp of avant-garde poetic movements and Willis’ own idiosyncratic research interests.
Willis has written extensively on Lorine Niedecker, a “regional domestic” poet who, influenced by Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky and Imagist poet Ezra Pound, wrote in terse form using quotidian imagery, reaching the height of her popularity in the 1960s. Willis admires Niedecker for her rendering of everyday working-class and folk preoccupations in modernist aesthetic, and for what she perceives as Niedecker’s affinity for socialism. Niedecker’s influence on Willis can perhaps be recognized in Willis’s own view of the power of poetry as an arena for political critique, and in many ways Address is a very political book, particularly in its stand against our post-9/11 political climate, and in the way the collection forces readers to engage charged views to which they may not be sympathetic.
The materiality of language, its insufficiency and reliance upon syntactical form, is everywhere in Willis’ poems. The titular poem that opens the book deploys the main formal strategies used throughout most of the book:
I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer
The sun belongs to I
once, for an instant
The window belongs to you
leaning on the afternoon
They are to you
as the suffocating dis-
appointment of the mall
is to the magic rustle
of the word “come”
Turn left toward the mountain
Go straight until you see
the boat in the driveway
A little warmer, a little stickier
a little more like spring
While the lines proceed syllogistically, the accompanying expectation of neat correspondences and inferential conclusions are left unsatisfied. The commonality between “I” and “they” as subjective pronouns in the first line is countered by the opposition between a “barge” and “river” in the second. The next line further rejects deduction in favor of ambiguity, as a “convert” can be either on the anti- or pro- side of a “picket line.” As the poem continues, end-stopped lines give way to enjambment, consciously enacting the interrupted logic and suspended conclusion behind the poem’s syllogistic structures, as the grammatically incorrect line “The sun belongs to I” is modified as occurring “once, for an instant,” further hinting at the elusiveness and precariousness of signification. The enjambment turns radical in the break between the word “dis- / appointment”, which happens to appear within the only syllogistic statement in the poem that is unambiguously oppositional.
Consistently in the poem is a continual shifting of referents and a destabilization of signification through lines that contradict preceding ones. “Meaning” in the poem occurs through derivations from structural patterns, rather than direct correspondences in linguistic significations. Further combinations of liquid syntax between antecedents and object pronouns, and the prolific use of the possessive prepositions “of,” and “to,” as well as the word “belong,” collapse any hierarchy syllogistic structures purport by undermining subject-object dichotomies. Finally, the metaphorical barrier represented by a transparent “window” can be read as a liminal point between public and private spheres, public and private speech, between social and personal concerns.
The syllogistic linear units lead to a conclusion (but not a logical deduction) of sorts in the last five lines, which consist of imperative statements that define the use of “address” here not as one-way directed speech, but rather as realization of the poem collectively by speaker and reader. Rather than offering resolution, the poem engages the reader in creation and expansion. In an essay entitled “The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric,” Willis outlines the same view:
The work of the modern and contemporary lyric is not to unify or commodify or even represent human experience but to stress language in such a way as to evoke an alternate experience for its readers, not an objective correlative to a universal experience but an engagement in the process of finding out. […] [I]ts aim is to point outside any accountable meaning, to provoke an excess of meaning.
The lyric makes use of language as a tool for the proliferation of meaning, and perhaps the convergence of the political and cultural backgrounds of both speaker and audience, as the guiding units of “human experience.” By this maxim, any reading of Willis admittedly falls short of the multiple evocations the poems aim to create. And perhaps this is the trick to interpreting Willis—not to attempt conclusive extractions of authorial design, but to generate meanings beyond intentions on the page.
In Address, Willis directs excesses of meaning into political examination and, by extension, into civic participation. It is telling that Willis arranges the book’s poems with the most overtly political poems in the middle, at the very heart of the book, so to speak. “This is Not a Poem About Katherine Harris (R-13th District Florida)” criticizes the current hypocritical state of neo-conservative legislation. The poem is particularly surprising, if less effective, in its plain and direct reproof, contrasting with the more oblique preceding poems, which relied heavily on reader interpretation:
[…] It’s time to expand homeland
security through terror.
It’s time to honor our veterans
video games distributed free
to wheelchairs everywhere.
It’s time we referred to their
poorest hospitals as
“You’ve Lost Your Card” recalls the REAL ID Act that was raised in the wake of the Patriot Act. It implemented more detailed and stringent requirements on state identification cards and licenses in an attempt to better track would-be terrorists. She draws parallels between this and the ignorance that led to Vietnam:
[…] But that was another war
before we knew what we know now
and before we forgot what we knew then:
the appearance of another flag
The appearance of a continent with handles
as if it could be lifted by a rhetorical gesture
above the big round heat of the rest of our lives
Criticism is not limited to politicians, however. As much critique is directed at the ignorant bliss of apathetic citizens. Willis, exasperated, exclaims, in “Year-End Review”: “Oh the lies of ordinary people / jumping rope beneath the trees / in a dream of gratitude.” The state of poetry in such a perilous political environment is further explored in the poem “Vernacular Architecture”:
Seeing to the creature:
leaning, bending down
What grass is tendered
in what state of the union?
Any body can be unionized
A governed love for the people
The government of love
is to believe itself unwritten
Love’s office is devotion
to the ungoverned, like justice
somewhere else, in a while
A school beside its architect
A child next to a picture
The family in its tunnels
Pure products feel their power
to feed the engine
Their movement a document
that totters into being
written with their elbows
and their hands
Here is what I found today
or what I am
As is often the case with Willis, the poem is full of allusions. The reference to“[t]he government of love” and “Love’s office” recall Willis’ nod in one of her essays to Percy Shelley’s claim that poets are society’s “unacknowledged legislators,” suggesting their ability to reflect public sentiment and influence public opinion. Such ability, however, appears jeopardized in the ominous opening lines, which echo the conclusion of Yeat’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” (“And what rough beast… / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”). The poem continues to assert poetry’s endangered state in today’s political climate; the third line borrows from Whitman’s depiction of creative wonder (“A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full / hands”) only to claim that it is “tendered” or exchanged for “what state of the union,” an allusion to legislative agenda connected to another usage of the word “address.”
Not all the poems in Address are politically charged, although most contain a provocative statement within them, urging the reader to action, to challenge a given stance, or at least to more closely examine one’s own. As Willis asserts in “Sonnet,” “None of this is free.” No statement, claim or response is unhampered by beliefs or biases, or outside of the political-economic system in which we toil—every person at some point finds one’s self called to defend their work, and to have their surroundings reflect it accordingly. Willis perceives part of her job as poet as galvanizer, pushing readers to take such duty seriously, as she urges us “To rise to this / To speak its fury.”
Abigail Licad is editor in chief at Hyphen, hyphenmagazine.com.