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Wesleyan University Press, $22.95 (cloth)
Meteoric Flowers, Elizabeth Willis’s fourth collection of poems, takes for its muse Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century polymath, scientist, poet, and grandfather to Charles. Willis has written these prose poems obliquely around Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791), a long poem in two parts that makes surprising connections between nature, politics, mythology, history, art, and the human condition. In fact, many of the poems in Meteoric Flowers draw their titles directly from Darwin’s text, a kind of borrowing he explicitly endorsed when he declared that “single words . . . taken from other authors . . . are lawful game, wild by nature, the property of all who can capture them.” Of such pilfered phrases in his own work, Darwin noted that “like exotic plants, their mixture with the native ones, I hope, adds beauty to my Botanic Garden.” Likewise, when Willis calls her poems “The Great Egg of Night,” “Devil Bush,” and “Pictures Connected by a Slight Festoon of Ribbons,” these phrases take on a luster Darwin himself could not have imagined. Darwin proves a rich subject, and Willis is a brilliant thief.
In their scavenging and breadth, Darwin and Willis are certainly kindred, but their work could not look more different on the page. Reflecting on her muse in an efficient note on the text, Willis explains that Darwin’s work “suggested not so much a form as a sensibility with which to approach a period of political, intellectual, and biological transformation.” This sensibility is embodied on the one hand by the connections these poets make across seemingly disparate fields and on the other by their recourse to disjunctive or interrupted forms. Both The Botanic Garden and Meteoric Flowers unfold in cantos, interrupted in Willis’s case by three poems called “Verses Omitted,” “Verses Omitted By Mistake,” and “Errata,” and in Darwin’s by copious prose notes, explanations, reiterations, and other asides. Willis tells us that The Botanic Garden reminded her how poetry can “be at once an account of the physical world, a rethinking of the order of things, and a caprice.” Hence, as gunpowder, steam engines, the creation of the moon, love, and the gods collaborate to explain botany in Darwin’s text, Willis’s own collection travels from “milky begonias compliant as steel” to “heroic legend” to “leaky reverie” to “a new kind of flag,” all the while interspersing delightful wordplay among acute and often tragic observations. The poem “Near and More Near” self-consciously encapsulates Willis’s principal strategies:
We’re so close to the ocean I can taste it, like the volcanic in Picasso. A hand can fit perfectly over a mouth. I know about the thighbone, but what’s this connected to? A skirt trailing off into scorpion silver at the edge of L.A. Compare this with the habits of the wife of Bath, her passing breezes, the stolen pear, tallied for change, tailed to the last, her little Spanish clock. This star plane is mechanical, it’s having us on. What long teeth you have.
In this poem, as in the whole of Meteoric Flowers, the deep fissures between things hold the emotional core, the sharp intelligence, and the relentless energy of the collection at the same time as they remain the sites of what is left unsaid.
Darwin is often remembered for his provocative use of personification to explain botanic reproduction in “The Loves of the Plants,” Part II of The Botanic Garden. But whereas Darwin employed personification for instructive ends, Willis frames it within conceptions of intent and breaks its engine open. Near the start of “Her Mossy Couch,” Willis takes the very impulse toward personification as her subject: “The world is so touching, seen this way, in fleshtones, aggrieved, gleaming as the lights go out, looking into the crease of relativity.” With this line, she sympathizes with our desire to see ourselves in the world and to understand that which is outside us through the lens of our own, human experience. But this comforting and empathetic vision can’t last in Willis’s poem any more than it can in our unsettled and noisy civilization. Suspiciously, the poem continues, “We’ve seen this before, why?” And it concludes unimpressed, filled with awareness and resignation: “We were supposed to feel more connected to it, we were supposed to feel humanly moved by imaginary strings.” But what is amazing about this poem, and about Willis’s collection in general, is that it doesn’t blame us for trying, for responding, for being intimately touched by a glimpse of ourselves in what we see around us. In fact, the speaker readily implicates herself, reducing our burden at the poem’s close: “Who could get over the blatant radiance of a name like Doris Day, throwing your finest features into political relief, a warehouse in the shadow of apples and streams?” (With beauty so overt, who could blame us?) And Willis goes on to use personification—this mechanism whose failure she has proved—frequently throughout the rest of the book. By the time she tells us in the last poem that “The lake is panicking,” her suggestion is not only convincing but devastating.
Thus Willis’s book stands in contrast to Darwin’s didactic poetry; she presents a different order of explanation, one that is engaged with how meaning is constructed rather than the simple parsing of fact. Calling attention to the equalizing function of the verb “to be,” Willis deftly moves between the personal and the political, weaving them together: “Depending on your subject, a cup may be a sword, dropped on the tile like a capital ‘is.’” Setting is off in quotation marks is one of several techniques Willis uses to highlight language as both the subject and method of her inquiry (“what do I mean ‘spends’? What do I mean ‘his’?”). Language in these poems is a tool and an intellectual idea, but it is also a physical entity (“The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun”), a fact that is captured succinctly and breathtakingly in the last line of “Errata,” which commands, “for word, read world.” Thus, a physical change—in the word itself—tells us what the word really is.
Willis employs these linguistic sleights of hand to dizzying semantic effect. Take, for example, the poem “The Most Powerful Machine in the World”:
It’s later than average, it’s mist upon the blog. Let’s fog the glass, forget the gallows and the digitized chandelier, the element of wonder. Let’s make the emperor cry ink. I want the diamond lane, honey. Soup between the acts. Why Baton Rouge and not Gatorville? “Look the bulb in the eye and you’ll be struck off your horse, pretty girl.” You can see the mare coming off her track, a smeared face, filled with wild turkey, with southpaw. Why is the key in my hand so hot?
The bog—which context and the awaiting rhyme of “fog” suggest in the first line of this poem—introduces not only an evocative landscape but also a sly poetic reference, since it is difficult to encounter a bog in a contemporary poem without thinking of Seamus Heaney’s “bog poems.” The overtones of political violence and societal turmoil intrinsically carried by Heaney’s poems, dark explorations of social unrest in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s, are no doubt purposeful, as Willis’s collection is also deeply and overtly in conversation with current cultural and political crises. But Willis’s bog has been changed to a blog. With the addition of one unexpected letter—the very same “l” that earlier created the world from “word”—she renders simultaneous a particular panorama of poetic tradition, political history, violence, technology, and the contemporary impulse for confession and self-narration. The magic here is that these disparate elements aren’t simply grouped together in one poem; they are made to radiate from one another, quite literally to coexist.
Such expansiveness also engages another of the collection’s referents, Walt Whitman, as Willis freely declares: “This I, this me, I’m speaking from a book. . . . I, Walt Whitman, with Texas in my mouth.” Like Whitman’s, these poems contain multitudes—the organic, the constructed, the moving, the static, the historic, the felt, the human, the growing. But unlike Whitman’s, Willis’s poems seem overtly and acutely aware of the ways they are bound by their context. The very shape of the poems speaks to this difference: in Meteoric Flowers, Willis returns almost exclusively to the prose poem, a form she used intermittently and to great effect in her previous collection, Turneresque. (Here, only the interludes between the cantos are in short-lined stanzas.) Clipped and straight along the margins, the prose poem gives the physical impression of a hedge and provides a wonderfully self-contained vehicle for the jumps and turns that power Willis’s capricious thread, lending wild assertions a matter-of-fact directness. This is not a sprawling poetry of staggering accumulation. It is a structured, trimmed, wrought coexistence, each poem its own ecosystem building on the concerns and language of the surrounding pieces.
In a startling and, I think, direct response to Whitman’s metaphysics, “Plundering Honey,” a poem midway through the last canto, ends, “O, I think therefore I green the grass I’m pinned upon.” In addition to a pleasingly subversive riff on Descartes’ rationalism, we find the questions of agency at the center of Willis’s work: what do we and what don’t we control? Just as Whitman understood it to be, the individual’s power in this instance is vast: “I green the grass”—I change the world, I color my environment. But it is at the same time severely and essentially constrained—I am pinned upon the grass, I do not contain or control the world, and I am not here by my own design.
This issue of “design” is brought up also in an earlier canto, in a poem that adds to the discussion of agency the massively complicating role of subjectivity. In “On the Resemblance of Some Flowers to Insects,” Willis writes, “Moths will leave singed paper on the stoop. Is this my design? An ant crosses my shadow so many times looking for its crumb, I think it’s me who’s needlessly swaying.” Again, the poet sees her behavior bound to consequences in the external world. But this time, instead of putting forward an idea about how such a balance of power might function, Willis allows the subjectivity of her impressions to crush any fantasy of omnipotence.
There are several moments in Meteoric Flowers in which the poet displays such insecurity or ambivalence, moments that add compelling complexity to the collection. In some cases the poems battle with their own intentions: “What’s wrong with falling into starry goo or folding flowers against our dizzy inward heights? This is what drives us farther out to sea, to look at our mess beneath the bleach and bluing of some other weather.” With “starry goo” and “our mess” Willis performs a subtle disdain for emotional need while also defending it as the genesis of her perspective-widening pursuit and, ultimately, the writing act itself. For Willis, noble or ignoble, conflict returns to writing. If we follow her dictum to read “world” for “word,” the wonderful line “I do this work to word you” becomes “I do this work to world you,” or, I write to make you into the world.
Like these moments, the title Meteoric Flowers is itself an amazing collision of the vulnerable and the mighty, the perishable and the explosive, the mundane and the cosmic. It also refers to the first of the Linnean botanical groupings, which describes plants that open or flower in direct response to the sun. Aptly, “meteoric flowers,” as described by Erasmus Darwin, “less accurately observe the hour of unfolding, but are expanded sooner or later, according to the cloudiness, moisture, or pressure of the atmosphere.” In other words, like these poems, meteoric flowers are at once fiercely independent yet still responsive, recognizable while new and strange.
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