Undecorating the Lyric
Meredith Quartermain reviews
— Is Faust a figure of modernity or a figure of post-modernity?
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,
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
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.
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”
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:
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.
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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