Optimism of the Will [on Elizabeth Willis]
The muse of her latest book, Meteoric Flowersi, Elizabeth Willis tells us, is Erasmus Darwin from whose own deliciously varied, variegated and vagrant Botanic Garden (1791)ii she plucks the phrases that become the titles of her prose poems. She finds useful in Darwin’s book “ not so much a form as a sensibility with which to approach a period of political, intellectual and biological transformation” (MF, p.77), and she proceeds to open up her work to the clashing, colliding, destroying and preserving forces that animate our physical, embodied selves, our discourses, our inner and outer lives.
Meteoric Flowers consists of four sections or “Cantos” of thirteen prose poems, with a “verse” coda, or perhaps codicil, at the end of each of the first three Cantos. Even at this level of structure the book invites us to accept the fruitful tensions that arise from the dance of order and what Willis calls “caprice”, the tensions between a willed form and wild, unpredictable eruptions of insight that poetic language makes possible and enacts. Four groups of thirteen: a deck of playing cards, one of our homeliest embodiments of the struggle between mathematical chance and mathematical necessity, and of the need to deal with what you’re dealt, the real world consequences of holding four of a kind or busting a flush. Willis, who often espouses an idiom of the Imagination, is reminding us from the start that it is the pressure and counterpressure of imagination and the world on each other that keeps cunning, questing caprice from becoming chaos. Caprice is politically usable, chaos is not.
From the start, too, one is aware of Willis engaging with Baudelaire’s theoretical sketch of the poetics of the prose poem in Petits Po è mes en prose . In his 1862 introductory dedication to Ars è ne Houssaye, Baudelaire asked:
The notion of such an obsessive ideal has its origins above all in our experience of the life of great cities, the confluence and interactions of the countless relationships within them.iii
Which of us has never imagined, in his more ambitious moments, the miracle of a poetic prose, musical though rhythmless and rhymeless, flexible yet strong enough to identify with the lyrical impulses of the soul, the ebbs and flows of revery, the pangs of conscience?
For Willis, though, “the life of great cities” is a planet-wide condition, the lived spacetime of advanced capitalism whose center is everywhere and whose circumference seemingly nowhere: “We all live under the rule of Pepsi, by the sanctified waters of an in-ground pond.” (MF, p.75) And it is instructive to keep in mind as a ghostly interlocutor with Willis’s voices the speaker in Baudelaire’s ‘The Invitation to the Voyage’, instructive in the sense that Willis will not allow the contending, struggling, puzzling discourses and figures in her poetic prose to be quieted in the formal closure of irony, as Baudelaire does. The “superb country” to which we are invited in Baudelaire’s prose poem is a place where “Fancy’s ardour and caprice [have] found full expression”iv. It is a land “superior to all others, just as Art is superior to Nature; a land where Nature is reshaped by revery, where it is corrected and beautified and remoulded”v. Ultimately, in Baudelaire’s prose poem, this land and the voyage itself become the figure of a self in which the speaker can lose and find himself.
Against this we read Willis’s ‘Her Bright Career’:
Here’s a cloud deciding to decide if nature repeats itself. A form
like Saturday, the easiest cloverleaf. A helicopter spectacle stops
us in the road. I’ve lost the face that brought me here, the brush of
what I’m brought to hear. If a fox tore my throat, I wouldn’t sell it
to lead a life of “curable sorrows.” Vive la guerre, said the box.
Fear companies of righteous thought. The human heart is like a
cheese. Still justice may emerge from love, stained with grass, in
fiercer neighborhoods. (MF, p.30)
In Willis’s work this is the way we travel now, not voyaging to a destination known in advance, but careering with a fierce energy born of our human-all-too-human imaginative powers, no longer trying to dissolve our multiple identities in an egotistical sublime. True, we humanize the natural world in our attempt to understand it in our own terms, often to its detriment; and we’ve covered the world with vast physical and ideological superstructures that we hold on to by endless wars, televised on the Fox Network among the cheese commercials. But Willis won’t let us off with cynical misanthropy. The language of this prose poem asserts and enacts an art of other possibilities, an imaginative projection that retains a Romantic optimism while discarding its promethean egotism: love and justice, realities we won’t give up on, won’t sell out; we’re still on the road, and a cloverleaf winds back on itself to move us forward; and with a cloverleaf, there’s a space for luck. The future is not absolutely determined. As Willis puts it in one of the verse “interruptions” called ‘Verses Omitted’
Even in terror
surely we survive
the scheduled collapse
of yesterday’s cakes (MF, p.19)
Societies do collapse, civilizations fail, and there’s almost a recipe for their demise.vi But, as Gertrude Stein writes in ‘Arthur a Grammar’, “A sentence means that there is a future”; and sentences that abut each other disjunctively lay open a vast range of futures. Importantly, Willis would have us believe that this is not just a matter of textual openness, of adventitious artifice, but that it has consequences in the world to which her texts point. “[F]or word, read world”, she tells us in ‘Errata’ (MF, p.59), the third, brilliant lyric poem in the book. Thus Willis embraces a poetic practice in which the materiality of language dances with the materiality of the world; new meanings flower out of “the confluence and interactions of the countless relationships” imagination finds between words from radically different discourses, drawing from the world words which might be the sparks of its own transmutation. “A name slides home, two words dashed to silly alchemy, a sun uncorked of glory”(MF,p.72). In Erasmus Darwin’s description of flowers that open in direct response to sunlight he characterizes the “meteoric” type as those that “less accurately observe the hour of unfolding, but are expanded sooner or later, according to the cloudiness, moisture, or pressure of the atmosphere.”vii Clearly for Willis this can be taken both as an account of her practice as a writer who is scrupulously attentive to what the world casts up and as an account of how her poems might respond to different readings.
And so, like her overtly didactic 18 th century muse, Willis is trying in this book to teach us several things—attentiveness that draws meanings out of “the inter-discursive noise”, a way of reading that is always beginning again because it always ends with the promise of more, and a trust in the blessed-silly optimism that arises from these.
In a short and wonderful essay ‘Art Against the State; Or, What I Lived For’viii Willis draws into fabulous fraternity John Cage and Norman O. Brown: “The wildly expressionist Brown shared with the quietly procedural Cage a vision of art as elemental rather than ornamental—as lived experience, as method, as process and reality...What Brown and Cage shared, and what continues to make their didacticism useful is the turn of attention from where we’re going to how we’re going to get there. Such attention is the only thing that seems to make cheerfulness possible again, regardless of the ways the end is being written around us.”
Thus, Willis teaches us to confront divisions with connections: “Little bridges connect every century, seasonally covered with the rime of empire”. (MF,p.75). Against the divisions that roll through the world in tanks, against the divisions of gender, race, and creed that states exploit to keep political power within a tight circle, against the imperious pedantry that wants to absolutize the divisions of genre, against the fake connectedness of advertising, Elizabeth Willis sets her elemental art whose very openness and vulnerability are fuel for all of us: “I joy to dream/ a more fortunate planet”, she writes in ‘Verses Omitted by Mistake’(MF, p.39). As do we; because reading these poems extracts a promise from us, a promise to go on.ix
iWesleyan University Press, 2006. MF. Further references will be in the text body.
iiThe Botanic Garden. A Poem in Two Parts. in The Collected Writings of Erasmus Darwin, Volumes 1&2 ed. Martin Priestman, Thoemmes Continuum, 2004. (CW)
iiiBaudelaire, C. The Poems in Prose and La Fanfarlo with an introduction and translations by Francis Scarfe, Anvil Press Poetry, 1989.
ivibid. p. 79
visee Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2005
viiErasmus Darwin, CW, Vol.2, p. 67
ix“It says you promised to go on”, Meteoric Flowers, p.3
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Los Angeles, August 28, 2006
Ger Killeen’s latest book is Signs Following (Parlor Press, 2005). He teaches in the Dept. of English Literature and Writing at Marylhurst University, Portland, Oregon.
Copyright ©2006 by Ger Killeen and Green Integer.