Reviewed by Thomas Fink
The sole “blurb” on the back of Turneresque, Elizabeth Willis’ third book of poetry, is Arthur Rimbaud’s: “The world marches on! Why shouldn’t it turn around?” Willis joins the diverse company, since Rimbaud, who have attempted derangement of the senses and of commonsense sensibilities to “turn around” (trope) worldly referentiality’s linear “march.” Like feminist experimentalists from Stein and Niedecker (on whom Willis has written) to Susan Howe and Ann Lauterbach, she is more attuned to gender complexities during the course of this derangement than most of the guys.
After the four-page introductory poem “Autographeme,” Turneresque is divided into five sections. Section one, “Modern Painters,” features poems and prose-poems inspired by (yet never excessively imitative of) Mackintosh, Turner, Chardin, and Constable, but also such authors as Ford Madox Ford, Blake, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. The second section, the fourteen-page poem “Sonnet,” moves swiftly through varied meditative topoi (the influence of others’ “music,” women’s vulnerability within patriarchy, linguistic instability, and love) without settling on any. The title-section consists of prose poems parodying Hollywood romances and adventure films. “Elegy” is an apt title for the death-centered poems of section four, including one for Matthew Shepard, the young victim of gay-bashing in Wyoming. The eleven-paragraph prose poem “Drive,” the fifth section, free-wheelingly examines desire, movement, illumination/darkness, impermanence and the will “to last.”
“Autographeme,” a mostly unpunctuated poem of couplets and single-line stanzas, with capitalization signaling a new sentence, features a speaker, “fluent in salamander,” who confronts how “everything / wrote itself onto skin / with a tangled blowing.” Also sailing through less immediately recognizable topics, the poem subtly shows how patriarchal culture has written upon the female body. An aura of many forms of local resistance accompanies this demonstration of the oppressive “abridgement” of women’s possibilities:
My colony sought revolt
in every yard
The present was a relic
of a past I was older than
Taking its language, I became an abridgement
of whatever I contained
A social imperative of silky fears
I wanted air
I wanted the balloon.
The “I” (as part of the category “woman”) asserts that she is “older than” patriarchy, which “yard”-bound, “colonized” women see as making “the present” into a mere “relic” of its former force. Another artful paradox unites the female subject’s truncation and her ability to enclose. Fear stemming from this condition generates the “social imperative” for vital expansion. “The male of the species was / louder than the female,” and “females” are said to produce the “sound of offstage sweeping,” domestic indicator of secondary status, which, phonologically, contains “weeping.” Might not “Turneresque” in such feminist poems signify the movement from victimization to self-empowerment in Tina Turner’s music and life?
In “Modern Painters,” though, the single-paragraph prose poem, “Van Tromp, Going about to Please His Masters, Ships a Sea, Getting a Good Wetting,” articulates the expansiveness of J.M. W. Turner’s brushwork and chiaroscuro in his sea paintings, his “revision” of natural processes that anticipates abstract expressionism’s gestural energy: “Consistency scribbles itself out in waves: a revisionary litter of brown light. Fleety with anchor and going abroad, a fulcrum pulls to left of center. A slap in the face of a sail. A device spies down a-swing in salt and gunpowder, an amber passage.” The noun “litter” strikingly compares storm-water-in-motion with garbage’s potential sprawl at the same time as it indicates an organizing structure—of new-born animals. Alliteration (of “a,” “f,” and “s”) mimes the agitation of a storm engaging in a violent “writing” and seemingly disrupting the picture plane’s “constancy.” In this perilous “arena,” “Van Tromp at the prow” struggles to control his intercourse with the elements by maintaining “his inner course,” but he is “asunder surrounded”—the first adjective largely constituting the effect of the second—and “afield and legion.” Like “legions” who endanger themselves “to please [their] masters,” Van Tromp is destabilized in a “field” (starkly “the opposite of grass”) that exceeds his choosing.
In Section three’s prose poetry, characterized by disruption of predictable cinematic flow, “Turneresque” recalls Ted Turner’s defamiliarizing colorization of “classic” Hollywood fare. Perspectives on characters and their interactions shift rapidly. In the Romantic touchstone, “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s male speaker uses the device of “ignorant armies” that “clash by night” to persuade his beloved that they should “be true to one another,” but the romantic leads in Willis’s “Clash by Night” may be the clashing “armies,” or perhaps the sentences themselves are at odds:
A good man’s up to his waist in mackerel. Sometimes
there are no other fish in the sea. A stormcloud roils over
his primitive kitchen. Her eyes are starlight headed for a
crash. She wants the part but not for long. Dancing
shows everyone where she comes from. The projectionist
is a dark horse, but he’s at home there. The pin-up’s a
bunny in jeans, drinking milk, thinking up babies, a lesson
in endurance. The martyr trades her wings for a day at
the beach, but who can blame her? You can’t reform a
lighthouse. The worker knows he’s been gulled. His
catch is no match for noir. (“Clash by Night”)
The word “fish” in the second sentence tweaks the word “mackerel” in the first by pointing in a cliched way to a love situation. Further, “primitive kitchen” displays Willis’ ability to fish for startling metonymies. When a woman is introduced with references to “starlight” and “part,” should we view her as a character or as the actress playing her? This double focus may be the poet’s aim. The assertion about “dancing” and origins undermines its authority, because the connection’s specifics are left unsaid. Then, inclusion of “the projectionist,” “at home” in his booth’s “dark,” in aesthetic distance, widens the drama’s scope; this Brechtian “alienation effect” shows how cinematic fiction is materially constructed. But since “dark horse” signifies an improbable candidate, could this be the “good man” of the text’s opening? Does he “project” his fantasy onto the so-called “pin-up,” who herself endures objectification for inherited ideals?
The next difficulty involves whether “martyr” and “lighthouse” both refer to the woman tempering her self-sacrificing endurance with a little hedonism, or whether the second noun conveys how illumination influences the woman. To “reform a lighthouse” would be to blunt its luminosity; if Hollywood cinema is such a “lighthouse,” the prose poem’s dislocations perform that function. Has the fisherman (“worker”) been “gulled,” as though transformed magically into a sea-bird, by his own fantasy, or by large cultural framing, or by the woman’s conscious seductiveness? At the text’s end, Willis stays a step ahead of us with the slippery word “catch,” suggesting that the “fish”/woman, like the fisherman, is “no match” for noir cinema’s dark manipulations, or the fact that “his catch” will slip away from him, as each sentence of the text has eluded a perfect fit with its predecessor.
In 1890, Fredrick Jackson Turner affirmed the centrality of the frontier in U.S. history and considered the West Coast an end to possibilities of “beginning again.” Some may hold that poetic experimental opportunities reached their California in the twentieth century and that poets should return to traditional modes. While Willis would challenge the “Turneresque” valorization of Manifest Destiny, Turneresque implicitly acknowledges the accomplishments of past literary “frontier” exploration yet manifests continual efforts to keep the linguistic frontier open—if not with grand flourishes, then with subtle “turnings.”