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Daniel Kane reviews

Meteoric Flowers
by Elizabeth Willis

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. 79 pp.

This review is about 2 printed pages long


Elizabeth Willis’s Meteoric Flowers offers the reader a strange and at times almost overwhelmingly pleasurable world, one that is inspired (as Willis informs us in her “Notes on the Text”) by Erasmus Darwin, “the late eighteenth-century doctor, botanist, inventor, poet, and intellectual precursor to his grandson Charles.” Considering that Darwin is Willis’s muse, perhaps it makes sense that the pleasures in Willis’s book are generated by a kind of baroque scholarliness which Willis puts to use exploring and enacting relationships between conventionally unrelated phenomena. Vines, Walt Whitman, devil’s bush, asparagus, what seems like a ghost of the ghost of Hamlet, and all sorts of other flora, fauna, and literary specters interact with each other and ultimately enchant and inform the audience.

The book is structured as a series of prose-poem “Cantos” which are occasionally broken up by lyrics that Willis entitles “Verses Omitted by Mistake” and, in one case, “Errata.” Darwin is credited as a source for this approach: “The poems of [Darwin’s] Botanic Garden are interrupted by prose footnotes, supplementary notes, summary descriptions, errata, and dialogues on the relation between poetry and prose, painting, and music. The prose cantos and lyric interruptions of Meteoric Flowers reverse the relation between prose and verse in Darwin’s work.”

The shapeliness of the prose stanzas often suggest Joseph Cornell’s boxes, filled as they are with disparate objects and sentiments that cohere to become charged relics:

The Nettle

Idly I turned your name into a kite. Poor bloom couldn’t find itself among the interrupted lady. A little less air for the megaphone, a larger flag over Brownsville. We’re knotted in eights at bossomy altitudes, foreshortened in the wind. Feet are but a bit of leather, breaking through the turf. A stroke of sunlight in a wreck of a bedroom, a mirror of temporary verbs. As for the daisy, I know I frighten you. My face a red bookishness. The rose willow produces other kinds of monsters but the imperishable nettle thinks for us all.

There is an entire cosmos contained in this Canto. The unnamed “I” links fragments of the material world – a “stroke of sunlight,” a “bit of leather,” “the daisy” – with a world of, well, magic where nettles think for us and monsters emanate from rose willows. This prose passage might remind us of the “prose” of Lorca, Jack Spicer, and especially the universe of fairy tales. (After all, Little Red Riding Hood even makes an appearance in this book. As Willis writes faux-ominously at the end of the Canto “Near and More Near,” “What long teeth you have”) (51).

This is not to say that the “Cantos” are lacking in “poetry” in the technical sense of the word. I suspect Willis includes the lineated and prose stanzas in order to complicate the aura of the modern many readers immediately cede to prose. For example, one can look to “Errata,” a lineated poem propelled by anaphora and see-sawing word pairs (“for isle, read isles / for boated, read bloated / for poetry, read poetic / for second, read third / for his, read her”) (59). This poem is immediately followed by the prose Canto “Loud Cracks From Ice Mountains Explained.” “Loud Cracks” agitates against the lyricism of the preceding poem by beginning with an inherently Surrealist discursive line – “The alarm in my heart is made of silly brass, some of us can’t help but mourn the end of Lorca.” However, as if to resist the linear trajectory of prose, “Loud Cracks” ends with a single line that, when scanned, reveals itself as two lines of Blakean iambic tetrameter: “A footstep bound for weary day awaits its sound upon the grain.” Prose resonates with the “errata” of poetry and all ends hymn.

Willis doesn’t just make genre trouble to perform the fact that she’s writing poetry and we’re reading it. Indeed, after a couple of readings of Meteoric Flowers we sense the book aims in part to question and even trespass the lines that divide the past from the present, particularly as that past is represented in literature. The poetry in this book (as Willis puts it in “Tiptoe Lightning”) is “a modern letter sent from antiquity,” (47) one which reinvigorates the possibilities in a millennia-long tradition even as that tradition is leavened and implicitly critiqued by an at times biting and colloquially-driven humor. Look at the poem “With New Prolific Power,” for example:

Let me just say that I’m hanging from this screen into an icy darkness. All this planetary turning on a hinge. My head is fair but plain, thinking of Rutherford. I was looking in the window of a newer Canaan, but the dew on its lilies tasted like salt. This piece of my mind is just beyond the hammering, a dog in the yard drifting like trash. Every season cannot be thought at once, even when the world can name it. (48)

The good Dr. Williams makes an appearance here when his hometown Rutherford is summoned. And yet the radically material nature of Williams’ poetics, one that insists famously (if at this point perhaps tiresomely) that there are “no ideas but in things,” is here gently subverted by Willis’s inclusion of specifically Biblical allusions. (We should note that Williams appears in the very first poem in this book, albeit elliptically, in the line “The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun”) (3). Materiality becomes metaphysics: the reader is led from Williams’ hometown to the pre-Israelite land of Canaan, then to a contemporary “dog in the yard” “drifting” surrealistically “like trash,” and ending with “Every season cannot be thought at once, even when the world can name it.” This last line is crucial. I’m pretty sure it’s designed as an improvisation off of Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, which begins “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Even when we in the world can “name” its objects, its seasons, we are still not capable of transcendence and simultaneity. That, as poem after poem makes clear, is possible only in the realm of what we can tentatively call the spiritual.

In light of the variety of worlds provided us in Meteoric Flowers, I think it’s safe to say that Willis is an ambitious and – dare I say it? – inspired poet. And let’s not forget how gorgeous so many of the lines are throughout the book. I can think of very few poets who would risk writing something like “I don’t remember my first brush with pollen, yet I’ve watched words flower sideways across your mouth.” Willis provides us with this and other intoxicating delights. She works onward to position such consistently surprising and mysterious beauties of language within an intellectually-driven framework, one predicated on the exploration of literary, natural, and spiritual histories as they determine our contemporary “reality.” I can’t wait to see what Willis comes up with next!

Daniel Kane’s publications include All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2003), What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (Teachers & Writers, 2003), and, as editor and contributor, Don’t Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing After the New York School (Forthcoming, Dalkey Archives, 2006). His poetry is published in TriQuarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The Hat, Fence, and other journals.

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