Elizabeth Willis’ poetry is alive with lyric intensity and personal engagement. Alive is a collection of works spanning more than twenty years, and the density of her language and thought makes these poems beautiful in their difficulty. A poem needs to reflect “the internal struggle” we have with language, Willis has remarked. “When you travel through a poem, it is your reality, it carries you.” Willis carries us through an internal landscape of allusions and relationships in a separate territory that her poems open up, a poetic space that is not owned by the poet but rather, navigated by reader and poet together.
I found myself reading and re-reading each poem, underlining words and lines that struck me, not often grasping meaning, but not especially worried that I needed to “understand” in order to inhabit this poetic space. Here are some examples:
“What rules a body’s buried factions/ when laundered by morning” (A Maiden, 20)
“Innocence shags experience and I’ll never grow./ Experience catches the dove, and I’m lost.” (The Human Abstract, 24)
“Desire is a form of fastening” (The Human Abstract, 32)
“Human understanding is a savage construction/ of dilation and resistance” (The Human Abstract, 34)
“I was fluent in salamander” (Autographeme, 47)
“To live in someone/ else’s music (the musician/ not the composer is free) (Sonnet, 50)
“To imply or intone the whole possibility of human sun. The rose rose unknit with spring. A dragonfly in your hand for luck.” (The Tree of Personal Effort, p.64)
“If I appear to play the violin, it’s only to keep my head on. Everything heavy falls in September, a fire truck lost on polar seas.” (Solar Volcanos, 101)
“We all live under the rule of Pepsi, by the sanctified waters of an in-ground pond.” (Ferns, Mosses, Flags, 107) This made me laugh! And it’s so true.
“I worry that my youth was wasted/ in obedience, which it was.” (Survey, 146)
“I don’t remember the moment when it became obvious that my own body was meat, and apart from meat, mostly gristle and bone, and very little of me actually produces words, although it feels compelled to speak for the part of me that is dumb meat, which is not dumb at all, only speechless, and not entirely speechless, but needing a translator like Wittgenstein’s lion.” (Alive, 172)
Willis writes about art and mass-culture movies, mythology, and mass murder: “Alabama” refers to the Amy Bishop shooting at the University of Alabama in 2010 in which three faculty members were shot and killed, including Maria Ragland Davis, a biologist to whom the poem is dedicated, and “Watertown Is Ninety-nine Percent Land,” about Tamerlan Tsarnaev hiding in a boat in Watertown, Mass., after the Boston Marathon bombing: “Someday even this will disappear into another death, an absence you didn’t know was holding up the future.”
And there is a sense of the exterior landscape pressing against the self: “I don’t think God created polyester/ I worry water is unaffordable/ I hope we’re not too tired/ to cross the border” and “I’d like to graduate/ from the united states of plastic” (Survey, 148), but the poet creates an interior landscape when the unknowable opens up space. A poem is an act of discovery.
I intend to read through Alive many more times. There is such a feeling of pulsation in the way Willis writes these poems, a true poetic rhythm and heartbeat that, while difficult to discern, does not have to be thoroughly understood in order to be inhabited by the reader.