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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Chris Tysh

The Annotated “Here” and Selected Poems
by Marjorie Welish

Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2000. 148 pp. USD$14.95. ISBN 1-56889-098-5

AN ASSIGNMENT comes into view: the here of actual space, divided from self. Imagine a logic requiring literature in a bereft state, unpaginated. Jars of private language whose intersections fix reference rather than give meaning. On request, the windows flew open, less decent than a river. Wild emergencies unfold the human figure as a source. Long pole of friendship on a stone. And then ideology had its audition feeling foreign from morning to noon, paraphrasable. The prix fixe of picture and dream came before, despite brute night in the mirror. Its description, shoring up intimate objects, complete with cigarette. It will have been a work, sky-filling yet adoring. And so forth, which tantalizes as fashion says. In the long run, syllables are extinguished.

1. The game of suitors or the perverse logic of the substitute

One of the most engaging and provocative aspects of Marjorie Welish’s lyric is the way in which she banishes singular, coherent, arrived- at- its- destination meaning. A poem might lay out its contents — say, a plate, knife, glass (“At Table”) — in a table grammar that the text dishes out with ironic neatness and pointy abundance. It is precisely the hunger for intelligibility, that quite reasonable expectation of order, “‘a sentence of the glass- on- knife- on- dish variety’” that the poet delights in usurping.
    The quotation marks here and in the title say a great deal on the alleged real of postmodern writing; it is as if once the pointing function is established, it must immediately be preempted and the “scare quotes” only sign the provisional, castles- in- the- air status of any given object within the text.
    Rather than revisit what has become a quasi warhorse in the new version of the Ancients vs. Moderns quarrel (i.e. postmodernism’s rejection of closure and mimesis) and land in jail, one would do better to skip Go and advance directly to some of the ingenious language moves that allow the poet to “scatter totalities” and “ dwindling likenesses.” By hook or by crook, compulsive repetition, sliding up and down the signifying chain, small torques and endless oulipian variations, the author mimes the conditions of a choice, only to heighten the unfixed and variable nature of any poetic utterance.

“Between spur and spurn, loaf and lord
Although it is exactly this declension that carries us off.”

In other words, unlike Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, who must choose the right casket holding Portia’s likeness, we can only hope for the dizzying spectacle of substitutes, for the bride of poetry is nothing but the obdurate fetish in its polymorphous splendor. A card shark, Welish flashes her ace between the (phallic) “gladiolus and bouquet of gladiators,” not so much to raise the stakes as to cancel out the necessary singular, forever fractured and mirrored in its paradigmatic others. That she locates the pleasure of writing (and reading) in this declension of difference argues for a poetics adamantly informed by contemporary theory.

2. In the realm of the other

Within the rich modal music of “Here,” a reader begins to hear other texts (Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marguerite Duras), to trace other engendering matrices (Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly), translated, sampled and run through a luminous field of new possibilities. The fact that Welish problematizes the dialectical relationships between text and supplement, by sending up the notions of source and origin as emblematic of patriarchal authority, but also by relinquishing the outmoded telos of originality, can only “make sense” to a poet deeply implicated in the critical passions of writing, one who doubles (triples) this gift as painter and sharp art critic of the contemporary scene.
    The ideological use-value of intertextuality in Welish’s poetic practice would warrant a lengthy analysis beyond the scope of this review. In a recent letter, the poet explains: “Even in the late 1960s, however, the translation problem presented itself to me as a sublime problem of knowledge that I realized could be a poetics.” One of the many pressing questions that such strategies address concerns the fundamental structure of writing when caught in the meshes of palimpsest or poetic translation. In other words, does the new text efface the old one (murder the primeval father), does it de/form it to the point of non-recognition (cf. “the dwindling likenesses”) or does it prolong its life by disseminating it onto a new axis of meaning?
    In six pieces entitled “The Black Poems,” Marjorie Welish wrings Williams’ canonical “The Red Wheelbarrow” through the rack of her transfer. Here is the second “rotation” :

The Black Boxstall

nothing deduced

the black box

porous with oil

floating black

Understood both in Derridean and psychoanalytical terms, this propping of the real, this tricky business of re/ writing shatters the sheltering space of the self and relentlessly exposes its graftable nature onto the other, contested site of desire and death. Lined with red, the black box poem enacts its filiation yet playfully threatens its ground, where the once white chickens are now floating black hens. The old master’s poem has become a structure for repetition and difference.

3. Humor’s hammer

With its gorgeous constructivist cover design, The Annotated “Here” and Selected Poems is a publishing event of the first order. The volume encompasses two decades of work arranged in a reversed arc: from new poems (“The Annotated ‘Here’”) to the earliest book (Handwritten, 1979), with generous and wise selections from Casting Sequences and Windows Flew Open. Poems of exacting beauty and formal experimentation, they insist on their materiality as language objects where the moving borders of in/ out, original/ copy, fixed/ variable, positive/ negative test readerly assumptions and face off discontinuities and “incompatible schemes of logic.”
    Perhaps, the astonishing and frankly exhilarating fact is that this vanguard project thrills with its humor which becomes, not momentary relief from the tall order of a critical lyric but its very flesh, plank and shore. “What’s the manner with you?”
    Whether it be the semantic glissades from floor to flourish to Flora (as in “Corresponding Saints”) or the defamiliarizing torques of recognizable slogans (Sous les pavés, la plage, the famous May 1968 French phrase turns into “Underneath quarrel/lies racehorse”; Cage’s obsessive refrain from his “Lecture on Nothing” “Here we are at the beginning of this talk... I have a feeling we are getting nowhere” gives rise to “we are now in the middle of a similar bulk”) ; or simply the riotous company of a list: “bridle, strap, leash, vanilla,” these disorders and leaps prolong perception and delight with their irrepressible verbal energy. The tenacity of Welish’s humor reinscribes writing’s ruin of the normative and disciplinary only to prefer to it an “ars erotica” which charges the “here” poems with their guilty “plaisir du texte.”
    But the ludic presence of humor also inflects the choice of procedures and devices which hail us with their math or italic geometry. Imbued elsewhere with gravitas, the issues of relation, positionality and fragmentation, to name just a few, without sacrificing their epistemological register, in Here are often legible through the incessant punning and comic play of différance and polysemy, which, raked and teased, press the text into a sumptuous folly.
    If device is “any part of the writing which perceptibly alters, and thereby shapes, an individual reader’s experience of the text,” as Ron Silliman reminds us via the Russian Formalists, Welish can be said to both denude by making a particular linguistic move explicit — e.g. museological restoration, repetition and variation à la Stein, sampling, sequences on the smallest units of signification( a, of, is, no), alphabet and number games, etc. — and to obfuscate.
    For every form that stands in its nakedness ( such as the sonnet in “This Near That” with its anaphoric “a”), there are others which lose the pattern and send us scrambling to calipers, duct tape and reference book to measure, count lines and syllables. But then something always drops, the telephone rings and we realize we’re off by one digit; after all, this will not be a sestina; we give up cracking the code. It is in this characteristic balancing act, between defleshing the forms and concealing, that Welish’s method casts its lure and that we witness the now- you- see- it- now- you- don’t intermittent law of desire. “Young or old?/ For that I don’t need English.”

4. “What is poetry?”

For Welish, the seasoned experimentalist, a central question which has never lost its urgency hinges upon what the lyric can comprehend, what it can grasp in its shifting abode. Writing in the ’30s, Roman Jakobson maintained that the border separating poetic works from what is not poetic was more unstable than the border of administrative territories in China (my paraphrase), inferring that the assumptions which guide our understanding of what passes for poetry are time and culture-bound but that the poetic function or poeticity is an irreducible, sui generis element (Questions de Poétique 123).
    That the linguistic sign is not to be confused with its referent no longer stumps contemporary audiences tutored in the materiality of the signifier by countless experts of the postmodern lyric. What is indubitably harder to allow is that poetry is bound up with thinking on its variable feet and becoming a site for theoretical work —   a deeply constructed and self-conscious language house where knowledge is produced and put into crisis.
    “Testing the lyric’s critical potentiality remains a formal and rhetorical concern,” Welish writes in an answer to my query about formal issues (August 2000). I take this to mean that Here intervenes in a poetics tradition, dialogues with current discursive modes and performs its own research by both citing and interrogating the underlying notions of écriture.

“A lost center
We lose center to
                              A short step.
Lose center to gutter until the labyrinth
Is no longer an explanation.”

Concerned with the specific condition of the lyric, Welish uses the poem “as the inventory of the mind,” a flexible über form which can hold, balanced and clad, theory, art criticism and philosophical discourse, investing “cognitive dissonance” with a full blown dialectical function.

“isles of contraries” “telling of many cuts” “left to right” “make of our one body, two.”

The theoretical presence allows the lyric to be both language and metalanguage, the step inside and beyond the limit, music of ideas and the Poundian “dance of the intellect,” all within the same space, framing “the window for all prompt magic.” By the time we notice it, it has disappeared into our coat like the soap bubbles “the boy leaning over a sill is making” (cf. “Bordering on Skill”), whereas the words have this uncanny staying power, buoyed up by the mind’s vast and aerobic mise- en- scène. Here dramatizes the adventure of poetic language with extraordinary aplomb and cool wit.

Photo of Chris Tysh

Chris Tysh teaches creative writing and women's studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her books include Coat of Arms; In the Name; Continuity Girl. She edits the on-line magazine mark(s) at

You can read by a paper by Marjorie Welish on Barbara Guest in Jacket 10,
and a poem by her also in Jacket 10.

You can read Chris Tysh's poem sequence “Dead Letters” in this issue of Jacket.

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