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Undecorating the Lyric

Meredith Quartermain reviews

Word Group, by Marjorie Welish

111pp. Coffee-House Press. 1566891574

— Is Faust a figure of modernity or a figure of post-modernity?
— Depends on which Faust — after the damnation, or when he was still hungry for knowledge?
— And which modernity — there are many.
— If modernity is concerned with essences, you could say Faust believing he can have knowledge is a figure of modernity; or you could say that his damnation on obtaining knowledge is a reflection of post-modernist consciousness.
— But is modernity concerned with essences?

These are the kinds of questions you find yourself debating, after reading poems like “Seated Recklessly” in Marjorie Welish’s Word Group:

Modernity recto and verso
(Faust sits restlessly at his desk, in his armchairs)

. . .

(In a high-vaulted chair in his only room, Faust sits)
Sitting — in what sense? With what faculty?
Differing to affirm that modernity —
Dust on a Kosovar doll, “you can’t buy it,
you can’t sell it, you can’t give it away” —
sheltering alternative poetry
to that which finds no value in dust . . .

An art critic and visual artist, Welish once set herself the task of thinking about post-modernist or post-structuralist responses to modernist concerns with essence

by putting two yellows on a piece of paper, Cadmium Yellow Light and Cadmium Yellow Lemon.... I said: think about this for a year.... What I meant by formatting this was to create a kind of post-structuralist or post-modern situation by visual means...: if one truism of modernism in the visual arts is that there be necessary and sufficient conditions for a painting or sculpture (instanced, say, by centering on red, yellow, and blue, through which to represent the visualization of the commonplace, called primariness or essence), how would the postmodern react to this?

In Word Group, we find this project reflected in poems like “Clans, Moieties and Other,” where she asks,

Where is the true red, yellow, or blue? is wearing a stubbornness in which two reds, two yellows,
two blues, vie for that distinction. Who’s Afraid of Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives?
Band exogamy: in exchange, hunting, dancing, gambling. Whereabouts of the winter encampment,
whereabouts of less strongly tied margins of error. A fish weir similar to ours.

The reference to a true primary colour is as indeterminate as the reference to absolute meaning through words. Her poem sequence “In the Name of the Studio,” investigates this in painterly terms:

Twin canvases: red and red
this, meaning regal
that, meaning wedge.

Twin canvases: root and reference
commonplace, revised and reiterated
res and real.

Red and red: see Representation,
see Art History, see Art History:
the Discourse of Representing Red

In her explorations of discourse, Welish takes no terms for granted, continually historicizing them or otherwise making them visible as relativised by each other — pointing back and forth in a codified grid, rather than pointing beyond themselves. In her sequence of 16 poems entitled “Begetting Textile,” Welish emphasizes the contingency of speech by prefacing many lines with phrases like “as if,” “as soon as,” “even as,” “insofar as” and other conjunctions indicating dependence.

Textile 6

Insofar as
             the turnstile within sentences attributed spaces
                                                                                    like illness across thick lulls

and insofar as
                 sentences apparently exact hard spaces, posthumous definitions,

            auxiliary surfaces in our reading also.
                                                           “The rush of pealing bells cries out in the gorges”

has forwarded how things might have been different.
                                                                                       A different thing.

In its lightness on the page and its playfulness with phonemes (“met metal.... the mettle of nature”;  “they are called./  Culled”; “summit, the summary./ Similar”), “Begetting Textile” invokes the lyrical, yet pushes the lyric into new terrain with its expository, abstract discursiveness. At the same time, it discusses the nature of the lyric:

                 “What the lyric can comprehend”
                                                                        in many-valued trespass
as soon as
                 trellis everything.

Being short and not obviously epic or dramatic, or odes or elegies, the poems in Word Group must qualify as simple lyrics, but they are anything but decorative little songs. Indeed, “Weeping Branch” might well be a response to Adorno’s famous question: how can one write lyric poetry after Auschwitz? For it expressly discusses the problem of the lyric in modern discourse:

Mist in modern discourse
protesting decor, Lavender Mist.

Dismissive of mist’s specifications
and spacing on canvas, you now have

know-how — decorative, unless it is axiomatic
lyricism; the lyric,

not too decorative, unless it is
complacent. . . .

An answer obscuring lyricism, the lyric
the lyre

in radio waves. Prejudicial against
the lyric, he bruised it,

then he took it from a confusion
of lyricism and lyric

and the calligram. Dissent and enterprising
letters so begetting a folio: the lyric.

Welish is always aware of the structure of thought, the architecture of it; she situates her writing perspective at its doors and windows, as though always on the verge of escaping presupposed or given grounds, constantly reminding us that there is an outside to this structure, that it is embedded in a sinking swamp of assumptions. Although some readers may have difficulty with Welish’s tendency to abstract diction and theoretical investigations, they should nevertheless find plenty to interest them in her highly inventive use of forms. In “Less Music” and “The Logics” for instance, she turns the phrase “this side up” into a trope for investigating grammar and social position. She then uses a series of computer-dialogue-box questions to investigate affirmation and negation. Several poems are constructed so that linked key words force the eye to wander vertically through the text instead of sticking to the left-to-right movement of normal reading. “False Entry” unfolds with a string of riddles. And the series “Delight Instruct” uses the standard parts of a text (preface, translator’s note, thesis, table of contents, index, etc) as hinge points to make the structure of discourse tangible and concrete:

The winged pen rests.
Cantilevering from the content, the other large slab.

In the visual art world, paintings designed to blend in with interior decorators’ furniture choices and colour schemes are merely decorative. Lyrics that blend in to the interior decor of our well-airbrushed minds might also be so termed. But they will not be the kind written by Welish.

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