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BOOK REVIEW

Dara Wier
Selected Poems
reviewed by
Michael D. Snediker
Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2009. isbn: 1933517387, $22.00

book cover


Twinkling Gravitas

Also see Dara Wier in conversation with Cynthia Arrieu-King in this issue of Jacket.

1

Zeugma, conventionally speaking, depends on a shared understanding of categorical propriety. He broke the dishes and my heart is zeugmatic to the extent that we agree on the different registers of breakage’s objects. One way of beginning to understand Wier’s poetics is in its obsolescence of zeugma as trope. The adventuresome, intrepid promiscuity of this poetry dissolves categorical difference, leaving a Steinian world ashimmer. Wier improves upon Stein in that the spreading difference of experiential openness finds not only a syntax but a vernacular, as though what is most challenging and unfamiliar already could house within it a proleptic memory of comfort. The discomfiture of such wooing mettle cozens one into thinking one has had these thoughts before, when surely one has not.

2

[… ]
The dead are making up

questions too hard to answer
and they still don’t love each other,

so leave the dead alone.
The dead have to eat

the pearly scales of the heavenly
gates, hold up the phosphorescent

bones, to be struck by the other-
wise simple pleasure, we didn’t plan

on our plane dropping us in
the frozen Potomac.

The dead keep the peace
and they’ve got things to do,

so leave the dead alone….

(from “A Graphic Map of Eternity”)

Dara Wier

Dara Wier

3

Leave it to Wier to make her dead seem busier and more ebullient than my living. Wier’s poetry is the slam of a shotglass on a sticky counter, and the bartender is Dickinson. The dead, here, are from a 1984 poem, and as such the plane may well be Air Florida Flight 90, whose 1983 DC crash in part resulted from what a certain website (yes, wikipedia) calls “false high readings.” The poem itself is a set of false high readings, negotiating from outset the fictiveness of “making up”: what is made up versus what is bound by protocols of veracity (non-necessity of a blackbox in a poem less interested in what happened than what is happening); alongside the reparative affectionate diplomacies of “making up,” the soldering of disjunct into some new accord; alongside the inquisitive largesse of “making up/ questions.” The second line’s “questions” doesn’t foreclose make-up’s other pre-enjambed possibilities. If anything, the traffic of fictiveness and affection sheds light on at least some of the questions the dead might be raising, trying to rise.

4

The second stanza’s amorous criteria illuminate much of Wier’s work, its insatiable curiosity and responsiveness to what flies into and out of our usual radar (felicitiously, nearly acronymic with Wier’s own name). Making up unanswerable questions should be enough for the dead to love each other — if that’s not enough, the poem implies, who knows what is. Why would making up questions too hard to answer be a form of seduction or reason for amorous reciprocity? Or are we being too quick to imagine a causal relation between these lines. Maybe we ought imagine the double jeopardy of the dead lacking both love and answers (sequential, metonymic, rather than relational, even as the duress of relations describes both predicaments). The dead, the poem suggests, have enough on their hands, as though the dead, in crossing into Dickinsonsian posthumousness, nonetheless remain phenomenologically saturated — “they’ve got things to do.”

5

This anti-elegy, both reverent and funny, anticipates the funny reverence that Wier finds, makes up, and sustains throughout her decades of subsequent writing. How serendipitous a beginning, and how gratifying for the trajectory of a poet to make good on itself so grandly, humbly, impishly, without for a moment sacrificing the magnanimity that insists this is poetry with great stakes, not separable from the lure of sequins, chili pepper lights, novelty gadgets. Each minutia of the bricoleur is non-suffocatingly loved. And the nearly meteorological negotiation of commitment and errant interest, in these pages, is inimitable. It’s not just the dead who have problems; we do too, and the gravity of the latter obviousness at very least finds consolation in writing capable of making even gravitas twinkle unfamiliarly. In a 1992 poem from Blue for the Plough, we are most alive in being dead, florid in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch:

6

I’d like your bony hand
going through my hair;

I’d like it touching
the contours of my skull.

That would make me calm.
I wouldn’t have anything more

to say but maybe I’d hum
like an arroyo of bees.

It isn’t easy is it?

(from “Longing”)

7

The poem is assiduous even as rigor wills its own lapses into concomitant atmospheric speculations, like the simultaneously jagged and somnolent elbows of Pina Bausch choreography. Like her soulmates, John Ashbery and Jim Tate (the Clydes to her Bonnie), Wier extends a poetics that salvages attention deficit disorder as its own particular negotiation of Baudelaire’s imminently shockable flaneur. Pathos of real consequence isn’t vitiated by the poem’s vagabonding, so much as contextualized. Against conventions of lyric radius and concentration, Wier’s poetic distractedness [sic] gives its ruminating a world: not recognizable, so much as imminently so, as though a world were coming into focus on the wings of a lucidity that required it.

8

I know the later poems of this collection more deeply than the earlier, and one of the pleasures of the book is in reckoning the progression of confidences unwilling to sacrifice the exposure of their own frontal curiosities; and at the same time reckoning a pleasure in watching the development of confidence in the sacrifice, the impeccable moment of its not seeming sacrificial at all. The voice, across years, learns to risk itself without jeopardizing sincerity or delight — no easy feat. In a 1999 poem, “Without a Similar Condition Including This Condition,” a repertoire of sincere delight distinguishes itself from that which is merely delightful (whether the “merely delightful” is either delightful or mere, a question for the earlier poem’s dead), in that the poem’s observations are moving, not in the sense of alacrity (although these poems have as much zip as one could wish) but in recording the absurdly significant instance of being moved, so that we might be moved when we least expect. “Without a Similar Condition,” after all, comes on the heels of “A Master Plan,” in which

9

Pam invents a netherworldly new perfume.
We rule out Aperçu.
David monikers it Template.
Peter knows the time has come to run as fast as he can.
Jean Marie finally adopts a highway,
mind-boggling the numbers of chipmunks and squirrels
who survive her drive-by cleaning services.

10

I cite this catalogue as counter-intuitive context for “Without a Similar Condition.” The adventures of Pam and David and Peter and Jean Marie are adventures in the aperçu, the democratization of observation across lines of esoteric (naming of Pam’s new scent) and non-esoteric (Jean Marie’s cleaning services, which might shed roadkill gore for which no number of scrubbed tubs can compensate); empirical (this circle of discerning friends) and Disney (the highway’s freaked out rodents, who never asked to be adopted, who never asked to be in the poem). But if the chipmunks seem cartoonish, who’s to say that Pam and David don’t seem cartoonish? Who’s to arbitrate the terms of the factitious in a set of poems that is constitutively so and in a world that as often as not seems empirically so? The netherworld of Pam’s perfume might well recall the threshold of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Romance, in which the actual slips without warning into the imagined, this slippage itself a nervous attempt not to admit how uncertain the dividing line at any given moment is. And so there is delight and delight, and there is the different light, the different slips of “Without a Similar Condition”:

11

The farther away from the center of power
you build your house

the longer your lightbulbs will last.
An electrician told me.

Through fog, through buds
and leaves touched with red

before they turn colors,
I ponder the blind horse

as it follows the flanks of its mate
through the pasture.

The horse with good eyes
grazes.

I’ve never seen it run,
The blind horse keeps its head

never more than a few feet away
from its friend.

12

This poem, from the same early book as “Master Plan” (titled, as it were, Master Plan), suggests the unflagging variousness of Wier’s writing: as often as not, the unit of a single earlier book is as variegated as the chronological advances and excursions of Selected Poems. We do not need temporal vicissitude to find change in a poetry so committed to its own Emersonian fidelity to the fugitive occasion. We are near thoughts, adjacent to them, without, as Emerson would say, being incarcerated by them. “Never more than a few feet away,” a trusting distance, an unspoken promise that retroactively asks us to think harder about blind aperçus and drafty templates. The template, after all, etymologically is never too far from the temple: purlieus of temenos, an inner adyton where one might worship and sacrifice, and ideally, jubilate.

13

Lovechild of temple and cabinet of wonders, world-size Cornell box with moving parts and optional glass, Wier’s Selected Poems unsurprisingly grows stranger and lovelier the longer one lives in it. By the time we get to Reverse Rapture (2005), we’ve moved from couplets and prose poems to a salutarily botched batch of nine-line Spenserian stanzas. Or do we call them Spenserian because in the spirit of template, we’re both surprised by and relieved (to feel surprised) that Rapture’s innovations so nearly follow formal constancy (sweet blind horse following his friend). If anything, the systematic nonuplet plays with its own prefix which announces these plets as both nine in number (nearly one perfect 10 after another) and nugatory if not non-existent in kind. Nines lives left or none, we’re back to the dead from whose busyness we might non-intrustively learn. So the prefix that describes Raptures stanzaic decision at once signals formal exorbitance (beyond a couplet) and constraint (beyond a prose poem), Ennead and magic square.

14

The numerological efflorescence of these prefixial possibilities colludes in a lyric voice of which one can get a sense from the first two stanzas of the book’s second poem, “that was a cove, that was an inlet.” And not only these, but here is a temple, the oddness of which might as well show up in a review of Wier’s poetry to the extent that I can imagine such a traveling circus of a temple, likewise making its way into her poetry. Pacal VOTAN was the Mayan prophet who lived in the seventh century of this Christian era between the years 631 and 683. It took nine years after 683, when he disincarnated, to build the nine-leveled Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, and at the bottom of the temple in his tomb. His tomb was dedicated in the year 692. When the departure of the Maya took place in 830 A.D. at the end of the tenth baktun, no one knew about that tomb any longer. [1]

15

Grammatical ingeniousness for its own sake — we have, again, that Paterian “for its own sake,” as though personified versions of grammar, delight, and art lay gazing at their own handsome faces in a reflecting pool; then again, prefixially speaking, there is reason to believe that the “se” of “selected” arises from Latin’s reflexive pronoun, even as reflexivity, like narcissism, like anything for its own sake, has been undertheorized for centuries, although that’s another story — differs from the ingeniousness of this poem’s parenthetical undertaking. Again, like a “non” that counts all but one finger and counts no fingers at all, the parenthetical is hushed and noisy, lexically calling attention to itself as it asks (perhaps) to be heard, internally, as a whisper. It is hide and seek, it is the whisper of conspiracy theory (shhh! this thing is bugged), it is the vulnerable sotto voce of lying next to someone in bed. We are back to “making up” in all its myriad forms:

16

(and then it moves back in at the end of the day)
(they’re sundogs) (there’s no way to catch one)
(you don’t do anything, you try to look like a
rubberneck) (you try not to put a horse there)
(those are pronghorns) (why can’t they be ante-
lopes) (we were walking inside a duststorm)
(you were born in a duststorm) (you say so as if
it means something) (it blew in some magpies)

(it came in under the doorframes) (we were migrating)
(you rolled up the blueprints) (you rolled up the
sidewalks) (it’s a gametrail) (like biofeedback)
(it looks as if it used to be somebody’s backyard)
(it’s covered with lawnmowers) (that’s a solution)
(like bentwood) (like an arroyo) (after a flash
flood) (that’s where we went to find arrowheads)
(it was a reflex) (as if someone had hammered its
kneecaps) (they were always saying they weren’t
saying what they were saying) it made it hard to

follow them)… .

17

The world’s unreliability (from love to the Potomac and back again) makes such innovation both possible and necessary. Wier conjures against a sadness which, in these poems, is only sometimes audible, but it’s there, to be sure: how without it to explain the poetry’s willful orchestration of and percolation in hopeful bliss (vice versa going, per usual, without saying)? These poems are needful things for me in their sweet bamboozling of sadness’ eloquence, for the sake of different eloquences that Wier has been trying out and perfecting all along. This collection makes clear, fleetingly because there is no other way, that trying it out and making (it) up nearly are species of the perfect unto themselves.


Note

[1] http://www.greatdreams.com/nine/nine.htm


Michael D Snediker

Michael D Snediker

Michael D Snediker’s poetry has appeared in venues including Black Warrior Review, Court Green, Crazyhorse, The Laurel Review, and Pleiades. His chapbook, Nervous Pastoral, was published by dove|tail press. His book of poetry criticism, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, was published by The University of Minnesota Press. His book of poems, Bourdon, is forthcoming from White Rabbit Press. He teaches American Literature at Queen’s University in Ontario.

 

 
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