Word Group by Marjorie Welish. Coffee House Press, $15.
Reviewed by Standard Schaefer
Billed as a combination of Language Poetry and the New American Poetry, the latest book by Marjorie Welish is better explained as a cousin of Norma Cole’s Spinoza in Her Youth or Leslie Scalapino’s New Time, but one which raises more serious questions about where avant-garde poetry is headed. Out of a concern for the materiality of language, Welish shares a sort of speculative lyricism not unlike Cole’s. Like Scalapino, she seems to want to address big concepts, though not quite as ambitiously as Scalapino’s forays into phenomenology and the ontology of time. Reminiscent of “the analytical lyric” (and indeed analytical language is evoked), Welish’s central focus is more writerly, perhaps. The book features a concern for order: what it is, how it is achieved, whether it is possible and how sound and pattern contribute to it. The most provocative element of this exploration is her musicality. Cadence lends credence to otherwise uninspired meditations on textuality or reading theory, and were the music not there a series such as “Begetting Textile” might be seen as a rather mechanical attempt to touch on every possible parsing of “text” and “tile” with an emphasis on the interplay collage technique, whether used or simply alluded to. That series does avoid being overly regimented but to do so relies on further parsing games, sometimes venturing on explication as in “Textile 14” where the word picare and explicare are given extensive treatment. The irony there, however, is that the poem rolls into moments of statement and perhaps only in lines such as the following really invokes the New American Poetry of Donald Allen: “Because sequence is the pilot driven to commitment / because sequence is not automatic pilot but story committed / a rhetoric/-hot-.”
Moments such as these are the most intriguing because the series, and to a large extent the whole book, is filled with repetition of certain phrases, often rather short, pithy rhymes such as “hot” and “not” slanting off words like “Pollock.” These sounds drive the music. It’s as if using rather automatic rhymes undercuts the larger automaton-like feel of the larger serial poem. That the poem then includes a seeming insistence that whatever is automatic, whatever is story is simply rhetoric really enhances whatever stance the book takes to official critical theory, the erstwhile subject of so much of Word Group.
The larger intellectual aim of the book, that part most reminiscent of Scalapino, is often to engage critical strategies, though perhaps with too much reliance on the critical terminology or the rather pedestrian if not overused references to such thing as Freud’s use of the fort-da game. The opening poem, “Else, in Substance,” which refers to “Helen, merely as a limiting case,” establishes a major theme for the book: the exploration of Otherness via “unfetishized” means, as Norma Cole aptly describes it. In this poem, the words “dress” and “address” in all its possible emanations are explored until the Other is given spatial associations beyond those of the mind such as memory or idealization. At its fiercest, the book is filled with such moments when ideas are augmented and emended by exploring their relation to substance. Such explorations, again reminiscent of Cole and her Spinoza, also suggest that the Other is itself only conventional or apprehensible through conventions. This is important and even compelling, handled as a jumping off place for critical exploration. It is undermined, however, by the fact that there is so much repeated use of such words as “modernity,” “text,” “neo-lithic,” “coding,” “decoding,” “symptomatically,” and “the class of things.” It is possible that there is fetish for overly intellectualized diction, rather than piercingly unique thought. Rather than producing an entire book of deconstructive force where disjunction coupled with puns causes the ostensible subject to break through to other registers both lyrically and conceptually, only a few moments of such promise take place. Otherwise, the book at times achieves something nearly taxonomical in its exploration of such things as “moieties” and “the logics,” quite a feat considering how it strives for lyricism.
Perhaps the most trenchant pieces are the shortest. “The Glove” opens with “Always in face, never in fact.” The poem is a list of cliches or near-cliches, this first one a faint echo of “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Other echoes of legends, bar humor, sculpture, painting, and Freud appear at first entirely disjunctive. Gradually, what emerges is an oblique love poem, an ode to surfaces. The final line “‘Once upon a time,’ alleged” is the closest that Welish’s work gets to exuberance, but as it plays against the rigid syntax of the whole, provides a moving endorsement of artifice. It enacts something from another poem in the book: the “tendency of ideas to go over into movement,” as it is put in “Textile 13.” Other poems of modest aim such as “In the Name of the Studio” are equally as moving. Curiously, it seems appropriate throughout the book to consider, if not over the poet’s intention, then at least the poem’s aim, as so often they are organized around repetition, even if those repetitions swing pretty hard beyond the usual associations. Little “decoding” seems really necessary, this perhaps a testament to the nature of music in poetry
To her credit, what Welish accomplishes in Word Group goes beyond celebrating surfaces as surfaces. She composes very intricate surfaces that in their intricacy do not become depth, that is, do not take on the traditional or fetishized conventions she is addressing, but in doing so many of them remain dependent on something arguably as dangerous: a critical apparatus of all-too-academic nods and winks, the inside jokes of the smart art crowd that may very well prefer to take the time to explain exactly why we should be laughing than have us laugh.
Welish is smart enough to recognize exactly this problem and may even be addressing it in “Word and Object,” a poem about an art installation involving evergreens, where the art/artery metaphor is recycled through repeated attempts to remind us that “glass” is not “my field” even as it obscures things through mention of “spectacular approximations” and “reinventing rented nomenclatures.” Even in poem addressing tranparency and opacity, a target seems to emerge: the “green” equated with “the unseasoned.” So again with the in-groups, this one standing in opposition to those who “empathize with straw / and confusing it with aesthetic.” Certainly, this is a fair target, and Welish fashionably but without freshness proceeds to then implicate the in-group with the crimes of the out-group in a set of lines not worth quoting (the last long stanza).
The question, it seems, is whether a book billed as a fusion of two avant-gardes should look so much like a set of notes for an essay. At best, perhaps, one could say the essay that would emerge would not likely be a critical one, but perhaps something general about the culture itself. Probably the culture would be characterized as post-human rather than inter-. What then about Word Group as a word group might evoke the much more promising notion of the trans-human? Maybe it could stand on it own without need for a critical apparatus? Maybe it would be closer to philosophy, than just the borrowing its language, and if so, then perhaps it would not explore the same old concepts, but, as Gilles Deleuze suggested, create new ones.