A Short Firework Display

Meteoric Flowers
, Elizabeth Willis
[75pp, Wesleyan University Press]

Some of the individual lines in this book of prose poems are stunning. I particularly like these ones:

'The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun. Sand in the shoe doesn't make you an oyster.'

'Butter-gloved epiphanies slide past us in their muscle car.'

'Idly I turned your name into a kite.'

While we dug up the garden of western expansion, my witty rope frayed.'

'Without its leaky reverie, the face is a shield.'

'The devil's in shirtsleeves, smoking with Vandals.'

'I don't remember my first brush with pollen, yet I've watched words flower sideways across your mouth.'

'The boy assigned to find the missing ball has climbed my mental fence and isn't leaving.'

'Of further benefit, America owns the moon.'

'Even if I don't write it down, I'm just a form of tuning. I take this green to build my shirt. I do this work to word you.'

'A bee in its lace is the author of something.'

'This is my heart, a bird in the building. So much for paratactic liberation.'

It's for lines like these that I read poetry. And try to write it, or 'word it' as Willis puts it. I wish I could have written some of these lines. But there's little else here that interested me. This new book is, apparently 'a stunning collision of the pastoral tradition with the politics of the post industrial age.' I couldn't see much evidence of the 'pastoral tradition' at all; nor 'the politics of the post industrial age', save for one lame reference to us all living 'under the rule of Pepsi', that line about 'Western expansion', and the other about 'America owning the moon'. There was no stunning collision, such as the meteor that may have wiped out the Cretaceous biosphere.

However, there is a welcome feminist discourse, and it was interesting that Willis's 'texts' (neither poems, nor prose poems, but 'texts' mind you) borrow from the poems of Erasmus Darwin late 18th Century botanist, poet, philosopher of science, and grandfather of Charles. That kind of relationship between books, writers, ideas and times is interesting. Or can be. The interrelationships here are hermetic and obscure; masked by Willis's processes and agenda. This, to me, reads like a hugely over-intellectualised project.

The titles of Willis's 'texts' are drawn from Darwin's own work. The sudden leaps of Darwin's poems are cited as: 'an apt model for riding out the inter-discursive noise of the early twenty-first century.' Again, how that actually works remains pretty much hidden. Unless of course you are a reader who is well stuck into the deconstruction of 'interdiscursivity', of the non-narrative narrative that is postmodernity. The prose cantos (cantos, no less, like Pound wrote best give that a capital C) and lyric interruptions of
Meteoric Flowers reverse the relation between prose and verse in Darwin's work. In fact, the 'cantos' are simply 4 equal-length sections of 13 prose poems, each interrupted by a single snippet of free verse, such as this in toto entitled 'Errata':

     for isle, read isles
     for boated, read bloated
    for poetry, read poetic
     for second, read third
     for his, read her

     for bursts, read burst
     for the, read her
     for "departure of gnomes"
     read "transmigration of matter"
     for shut, read shuts
     for sinking, read shrinking
     for frigorific, read frigorescent
     for her, read its
     for word, read world

Firstly, this 'lyric interruption' is an idea unashamedly stolen from Paul Muldoon's poem in his collection
Hay (published at the end of the last century, done much better by Muldoon and, it must be added, an idea he himself borrowed from OuLiPo-ian processes). It has also cropped up in a number of other poems over the years. Secondly, that word/world thing; that's undergraduate thinking and wordplay isn't it? I've seen that one crop up in many many writing classes. Thirdly, isn't this just a lame list; a list that is doing nothing more than dressing itself up as something else (for lame, read lamé)?

'A poem is a meteor' goes the epigram from Wallace Stevens. Although Meteoric Flowers does bloom to some degree at the level of individual line and of conceptual framework, on the meteor front it's more of a short firework display.

          Andy Brown 2006