Monday, August 25, 2008

Isle of the Signatories




by Marjorie Welish

Sorry I’ve been a little lax with my posts as of late. I went to Philadelphia last week to visit some friends and didn’t have much time to read or write, other than getting through “The Third Policeman” on the Chinatown bus to and from. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep, but this week should see a good number of posts, as I’m still on vacation until Labor Day, and will be spending the rest of my time reading, working on some poetry, and hopefully applying for grants. Additionally, my band, Twin Stumps, will be playing a show on Saturday at Asterisk in Brooklyn with Drunkdriver, the Unholy Two and Pink Reason. Drunkdriver is one of the best new bands I’ve seen in a while, so I recommend you check it out if you’re in the area! Enough shameless self-promotion though, let’s look at Marjorie Welish’s wonderful new collection of poetry!

What is the “trace” of a word? Does a word signify authorship, ownership, narrative? Marjorie Welish’s new book of poems, “Isle of the Signatories,” concerns itself with the implications of a word’s imprint. These are poems formed from the text we generally relegate to the background– graffiti, signposts, and advertisements. Graffiti’s “unentitled word” is here elevated to the same level as “the entitled word” of poetry – the two become indistinguishable. If we no longer disregard this text, what with our postmodern lens, we are still guilty of assuming it to be authorless. It is basically regarded as negligible, while poetry remains rarefied. But aren’t we in contact with this negligible text to a far greater degree than we are with poetry’s “entitled text?”

“Isle of the Signatories” begins with an omission of text, “The following lines were omitted:..,” which signifies the presence of an ordering author – someone has to be doing the cutting, right? But the book also begins with a reference to Poussin: “Even in Arcady I exist/ e-signature in whose writings/ lies the body/ or its facsimile/ Et in arcadia, I also, Pierre/ Saw “Pierre” there also.” So, here we have a presence! The “graffiti” on the tomb in Poussin’s famous painting alerts the ignorant to Death’s presence. Doesn’t it also signify an omission? Isn’t Death a present omission? Next, the name “Pierre” is a signature and supposes a body. “Name, signature.” A signature is the mark of a name and a name must be affiliated with a body. Here there is an act, the writing of “…A signature-/ Her singular voiceprint/ Which is to say “I am here”…” And an act means there is a narrative at play – a give and take of omission and presence.

Later on in the book, Welish writes through various short stanzas utilizing the phrase “O pen.” This phrase exists on one hand as the physical presence of language. This is a technique that reminds me of a similar tactic used by Rae Armantrout, in which the word is utilized as a thing instead of simply as a referent. “O pen” also literally presents the spacing alluded to by the word “open,” here we have a hole. The word is not a hole, but has holes, as Robert Creeley said. But then, isn’t this also a lyrical reference to the pen itself, without which the phrase could not be written. The pen is both the author, it is what writes, and it is the creative conduit, that is, what the author is writing through. “O pen” becomes nothing a nothing of writing and of reading/ the ink frequents, providing us with a sentence…” There is a nothing, a lack, within words, even a creative word. “O pen” is an extraordinarily ambiguous phrase, destabilizing the stability of the lyrical “O.” The subject is in questions, as we later learn “…that “O pen” is a signature of one who would have his/ epithet “in movement”…” The word is the epithet of the pen, or of the thought even.

In addition to being a poet, Welish is also a painter. We see a concern throughout “Isle of Signatories” with the mark. Graffiti, for Welish, provides a wonderful metaphor for the “signing” which the putting down of words entails. “Graffiti never ceases…Graffiti here is prettily concrete….Graffiti is immediately encounterable…” Graffiti, then, accomplishes many of the goals of modernist poetry. Here we have a text that is concrete, approaching sculpture and architecture. Graffiti is also a thing itself, aside from just the representation of one. Graffiti acknowledges a “…public space as knowledge withdrawing from politics…” Graffiti creates a space to be apprehended and comprehended by everyone. The public text is a democratic text! Additionally, graffiti can be perceived and processed immediately. There is a direct flow from the author to the text to the recipient.

But, then, gaps are liable to appear. Welish is too good of a writer to disregard the discrepancies of graffiti or any text. Graffiti does not provide answers for Welish, but helps clarify her questions. Text is a “Tomb of the Unknown/ name/ date/ name/ birth and death/ place/ name halfway between/ together with/ birth and death…” Words such as “name” and “date” are empty signifiers in and of themselves. They hold space, but also signify space’s lack. There is no specific name within the word itself, but the lack of one. The signature, then, is “…an unoccupied footprint. A footprint unoccupied/ and without impetus in equivalent sentences…” Welish’s assessment of the background jargon of graffiti and signposts does not entirely give into the unpoetic; she does not employ such a jargon at the expense of more conventional poeticisms . There is as much lack in graffiti as there is anywhere else. Even the pieces which exhibit the most Duchamp-esque dissonance, “Unfolding Yes” and “Art & Language Writes an Epitaph” returns, finally, to a poeticism. Welish crafts a poetry of beauty – unconventional beauty, but beauty nonetheless. She shows us “…beauty, the beautiful word.”

“Art & Language Writes an Epitaph” contains the ecstatic invitation “LET’S WRITE ALL OVER THE PLACE…,” referring both to the concrete wall of the streets and the wall or canvas of the page. The text here spirals along the page in bold capitals, grouped in a variety of rhythmic patterns. In “Art & Language”s second part, Welish assumes a step-pattern reminiscent of William Carlos Williams. The theme remains consistent – text, authorship and the creative mark, but her subject shifts from the street-level physicality of the first part’s “NYLON STRING TACKED WET..” to a more ekphrastic rumination- Welish here grapples with art itself, and modernism in particular. “Modernity: where ore when?/ More noise! For some persons, pessimism.” Ah! Look at how nicely Welish ties this section into themes of place and position, as well as considering the pitfalls of modernism, its “pessimism,” she writes. In addition to place, Welish tackles temporality- that of course leading to narrative, because story could not exist outside time. Welish asks “When did the modern era begin?/ Ahh!... When did modernity begin?/ I don’t know./ (ground? groundless?)” Welish admits to her own subjectivity, that as author she is not in possession of an ultimate authority.

Welish’s musical ear and attunement to language’s physicality provide wonderful footholds for the reader who might otherwise be lost amidst the text’s thorniness. Here we see “…the poet is preparing to detonate/ meaninglessness…” This linguistic play and its resultant musicality allows meaning to organically fill the words, instead of the words being force-fed some subscripted “meaning.” Welish occasionally utilizes Celan-esque collisions of words, as we move from “…Transbluensency…” to “…Transcendency..” or hear both “emptying” and “tempting in “…Probably deleted/ Themnpting thought.” Repetition aids rhythm, as a line like “German has not so many words”/ as it has heartbeats/ and staggers.” is immediately followed on the next page by “German has not so many words as it has Catharsis/ Catharsis/ Lyrics…” Welish possesses an innate awareness of sound with the smaller unit as well. Listen to how “rolled” effortlessly transforms a couple words later into “scroll.” I’m personally turned off by poetry that too actively pursues lushness –excessiveness luxuriance often causes the poet to slip into logophilia. Thankfully, Welish displays a smooth deliberateness with words that establishes a physical bond with the reader, instead of simply seducing the reader. This writing does not display its prowess through show or flamboyant, but inherent beauty and unity.

Logistical dissonance and impermeability combine with linguistic nuance to engage the reader with the text. This helps anyone who encounters “Isle of the Signatories” to become “The Competent Reader” mentioned early in the book. The importance of the surface itself is acknowledged. Welish supposes “…breaking the surface with another surface/ is a composition,/ a composition that would interpose a bruise/ “and [so] seemeth greater”…” The text, through its impermeability, allows itself to become an examined text, which leads to an examined life! Towards the end of the book, Welish writes “…the unexamined life is not, is not this, is not this frequented half…” Yes, and here we see that life is not within the text, but suggested by it. Remember the question raised above, of the signature and the presence of its author? That question is not answered by the close of “Isle of the Signatories.” How could it be? Instead, Welish offers the reader a gift, an aid towards transforming a text into an examined text – towards an assertive examination of text and of life. Here are suggestions.

As Welish writes, “The reader will be well advised to fathom the obscurity by asking…” That aligns with Flann O’Brien’s train of thought in “The Third Policeman,” not looking for answers, but for questions.

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