Reviewed by Stan Mir
Liz Waldner, in her challenging new book Saving the Appearances, extrapolates the complicated relationship between language and self where language’s function corresponds to Kepler’s thinking in Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, “... astronomy has two ends, to save the appearances and to contemplate the true form of the edifice of the world ...” In short, our lives are spent upholding the simulacra around us. Kepler, who shares similarities with Waldner’s project, worked with optics and mathematics in addition to astronomy. Waldner takes Kepler’s dictum to heart as if channeling Kepler into her poetry; she explores what is seen in order to discover what may lie beneath the surface. While she is skilled in her explorations of the appearances, the book’s outcome leaves one wanting. Although she does not offer a world that defies edifice, she points to blights and, in some cases, the benefits of appearances.
From the first poem, “Mirror,” Waldner begins the indecisive seesaw, which runs throughout the book: “I do not notice much about myself for other reasons / This I do not notice for its ubiquity: / I am not too willing to appear.” This is the poem in its entirety and shows a speaker distracted by a self that is hard to pin down. As a poet, Waldner’s interest often intersects with the elusive or missing self. Self and Simulacra, The Dark Would (Missing Person), and Homing Devices are some of her other book titles that demonstrate this tendency. Since she has spent several books’ worth of her time on the pursuit of self and/or home, it seemed Saving the Appearances would startle with new insights, but the book ends up treading familiar ground. Throughout the book Waldner’s approach to ideas echoes a passage from Wallace Stevens’ “Ideas of Order at Key West”: “And when she sang, the sea, / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker.” Waldner’s poems suggest she desires to be this sort of poet, i.e., one that is all encompassing and controlled. The poet or maker, in order to do this, must do more than acknowledge a status quo. Her proclamations lack a significant breakdown of constructions that stifle us; they are more static than kinetic. Nevertheless, Waldner assertively takes the path to demolition. Perhaps her aim is to show how to wreck the walls without actually performing the task for the reader. However, it would embolden readers to see a poet risk a diagnosis with a complete treatment plan. For now though, take a look at what Waldner does offer in these poems.
Language, for the poet, holds the value of a hammer or table saw; it is a tool to wield and shape our perceptions, and Waldner knows there must be a self behind the tool. She elucidates in these lines, “... each word will call to certain others; certain words allow (me) to be.” If language preserves us in the edifice of the world, Waldner uses language in her constant pursuit for something concrete, while oscillating between the tangible and the intangible. From the same poem quoted above, “Self Extension,” Waldner writes, referring to Jesus’ famous saying, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.” It is not the physical presence of Jesus in this line, but the spiritual being Jesus has become. Similarly, language and self are ephemeral yet powerful enough to alter the outcome of one’s life. Waldner implies it is this nature of self and language that makes it difficult to operate beyond the status quo. Interestingly enough Waldner juxtaposes the above example with these lines from the same poem, “The worker’s tools are an extension of his body, said Marx.” In this case, the poet is the worker and language the tool, which may be the only means poets have for instigating change. Waldner presents us with Marx and Jesus, two people with ideals to reveal the truth and, arguably, dissipate the appearances into something actual, like salvation, which, unfortunately, is more fleeting than desired, and in this presentation Waldner provides inklings of how to go about altering the appearances.
Waldner clearly investigates more than language as an extension of self. She also explores notions of how society sees sexuality and family relationships. (Or take this title, which demonstrates how wide Waldner casts her net: “Pro(verbial) (Re)creation in the Time of AIDS.”) Always alert Waldner explores for meanings adeptly, but as she writes in the title poem of Saving the Appearances:
I did it to speak
the language of ice
or the language of white,
I don’t have to know.
The “language of ice” preserves things as they are; it saves the appearances, which is what the poet aims for as indicated in the title of the book. However, Waldner declares language a tool, so she could have used it, like an ice pick, to breakthrough the appearances, thereby startling us all.