Reviewed by Richard C Scheiwe
Douglas Messerli, the prolific writer of poetry and dramas, anthologizer, and publisher of Green Integer Press, has published a book of poetry that escapes the conventional descriptions of language poetry, a movement with which Messerli has typically been associated. The poems in his recent book, First Words, have the requisite wordplay and syntactical manipulation, but speak in a lyrical tradition, seemingly taking themselves away from the reader’s expectations of Messerli’s earlier work. The overt attention to language and its interaction with the interior/exterior (with what’s going on within the poem and with what’s going on outside the poem in the reader’s mind) is apparent from one’s first experience of the book.
In the book’s epigraph, Messerli illustrates an anecdote that comes to set the tone for the book as a whole: a tone of local ambiguity, and a preference for the poet to stave off his ultimate choice of (what one could assume) his best words, only to realize when the words come that they are not necessarily Messerli’s chosen best words, rather words that come out almost by a thoughtful consideration intermixed with chance. The epigraph shows Messerli as a baby, and his parents in long anticipation for his first words. But, rather than unconsciously taking the prevailing route of “mamma” or “dadda,” the baby Messerli waits until he and his parents are at a drive-in movie, and, upon his father leaving to get some ice-cream cones at intermission, Messerli finally announcing “bring me back a chocolate one.” A sentence at that, and not a mere word. And, conscious or unconscious, this is his first use of language.
The language of First Words comes after the reader is able to absorb the poems and after the slight conflict between the lyrical style balances out with the more language-driven side. As with the first poem of the book “Icarus,” the wordplay at first is jarring, but is shortly resolved as necessarily stylistic. The reader willingly accepts it is the drive of the poem: “the way / sometimes / sometimes / goes forward / the way / silence— / this is what / it is still.” Messerli asks the reader to give him (the poet) leeway with the wordplay/manipulation of “sometimes / sometimes” and also with the breakoff after “the way / silence—.” The two phrases, taken together, could overpower the reader, or confuse, because they are pushing two different syntactical prosodies: on the one hand, “sometimes / sometimes” is a play on the part of speech of the given word; on the other hand, the lack of punctuation before “the way / silence—” and its subsequent dash (mimicking the feel of silence) are manipulations the poet uses as his own freedom, as a writer. If this language and freedom were not so consistent and convincing throughout the book, it would be hard for Messerli to keep his language together. But he is able to keep it together, and simple wordplay becomes not so simple: it becomes its own language.
A lot of attention has been drawn to the fact that these poems began as exercises, taking the first few words or so from another poet and embedding them in the poems of First Words. But as Messerli began these poems as exercises, they metamorphosed into something very personal, and they became ultimately a reflection of his own despair, as the back cover states. It would be somewhat difficult to find the entrenched words Messerli used as jumping-off points, but it remains difficult because of how much these poems became his own, and how much the words of other poets are so insignificant in lieu of his style and substance in these poems. One poem that is hard to forget, and which most readers will walk away with, is “The Resolved”:
I resolved, found
center, it is
a tree beyond view
the weather reaches
only as wind, deadened
by the insistent
and the walk to.
In this poem, Messerli is attempting a more lyrical address to his augmented aesthetic. The importance of “a tree beyond view / the weather reaches // only as wind” resounds throughout the book because, if these new poems are words to/out of despair, how can one reach them and the true nature of despair only through poetry? To Messerli, it is beside the point. It is the fact that he can begin to reach them with poetry, and that this is the vehicle (with language not words) he is using to get at “the insistent / nothing between // something feeling / and the walk to.” The “walk to ” is language for Messerli, and he has found that first words come in media res, whether they be his first words ever spoken, or the first words on the way to seeking out despair, and evolving his style.