The trial of Elizabeth Willis's 'Address'

Address

Address

by Elizabeth Willis

Wesleyan University Press 2011, 86 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7348-3

When asked about the voices that spoke only to Joan of Arc during the second session of her trial for heresy on February 22, 1431, she answered in Middle French a statement transcribed by the English-financed court in Latin that Anne Carson translates to English as follows: “The light comes in the name of the voice.”[1] By beginning her recent collection Address with the poem “Address,” Elizabeth Willis addresses the selfsame syncopation in our present constitutions. Willis’s first poem “Address” begins as follows:

I is to they
as river is to barge
as convert to picket line
sinker to steamer (1)

From the beginning, Willis mangles proportion by using a form encountered in standardized tests to arrive at iterations of belonging. The first line “I is to they” sets up the succeeding anaphoras by disrupting scales used to evaluate intelligence today. Because of the trace of a sentence unit in the capitalization that marks the beginning of utterances, one can read the first three lines in two other ways:

I : They :: River : Barge
I : They :: Convert : Picket line

I is to they as river is to barge as convert to picket line

By using the Aristotelian format in the first version, “They” can be understood proportionally to “barge” and “picket line,” and they can function as infinitive phrases for the characters of “I,” “river,” and “convert” simultaneously taking place. With the omission of “as” in “sinker to steamer,” the fourth line functions as both a development of the “I is to they” analogy and an end to the sentence unit. A sinker (fishing tool) and a steamer (kitchen appliance) are analogous in that they are both inventions that displace water and use the end rhyme “-er” to render their root verbs (i.e. “sink” and “steam) into inventions. By thinking about the line “sinker to steamer” in terms of water, one can read the narrative gesture in the rise of water from the sinker to water’s evaporation from the steamer by way of “to,” which is present in all four lines.

The first four lines of the first poem in Address initiate the ethical gesture of “to” akin to sounding out “address,” where “to” initiates an element of scale, recognition and action between positions and formal encounters with addressees. By utilizing iterations of analogy within the rhythms of poetry, the collection creates arguments in conflict with its own sense of scale in order to arrive at what Peter Gizzi develops as “a vortex of dissent” in Jack Spicer’s sense of community:

In many ways, dissent is Spicer’s utopia. Since a community of heterogeneous members could never live in agreement without becoming a tyranny, it seems the only hope would be to value instead its disagreements, to see arguments as progressive, and to create a context for heterodoxy.[2]

In the engagement with current poetic record and its heresies, Address arrives at an environment fraught with an argument it creates by also refuting it. It uses names relentlessly over its voices to think about the anxiety of inheritance over influence. In this way, the names in the collection are used to take account of the sonic and historic structure each poem creates and willfully disobeys with others, so every poem titled “Poisonous Plants of America,” which alphabetically incorporates plant names like April fool, Bear’s-foot, Bog-onion, Devil’s-apple, Dog parsley, Doll’s-eyes, et cetera, echoes a poem titled “Species Is an Idea” with couplets that develop the conflict in incorporations of plant and name:

All this reflection
amounting to shadows

Ink eats the page:
It’s Chemistry against the Forest (11)

In the two couplets, the conflict one reads into the poem on the page is seen in how the poet’s act of reflecting (read: writing) about a forest destroys a forest in order to mass-produce the poem. With “Chemistry” and “Forest,” the capitalized nouns are mock species that establish a history of its being used or sounded out inasmuch as they also pertain to the materials in which the poem is rendered readable. One can return to Anne Carson’s translation of Joan of Arc’s response to think about Address and “address,” where Joan of Arc’s light came to mean how it comes with how we come to know it. Or, we can turn to another poem from Address titled “The Oldest Garden in the World” for the selfsame configuration:

A body that fulfills its face
carries into day
what fades behind it. (25)

The arguments of Address exist in the lines, “Of this was told / A tale of our wickedness. / It is not our wickedness” (i.e. George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”), with the relentlessness of the rivers of Rappahannock, Danube, Nile, Niagara, Loire, Cher, St. Lawrence, et cetera and the poetic closure of et cetera (i.e. John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”). This vortex comes to a head in the collection’s two long poems “The Witch” and “Blacklist,” where examples of analogical argumentation are brought to its uttered ends:

The Witch

A witch can charm milk from an ax handle. (19)

[…]

When all the witches in your town have been set on fire, their smoke will fill your mouth. It will teach you new words. It will tell you what you’ve done. (22)


Blacklist

Sarah Wilds, Deliverance Hobbs, and Dorcas Hoar were witches. (56)

[…]

I have personally known witches whose voices seemed to rise out of a hole in the earth as if it were a mouth.

Hannah Weiner saw words — like the Apostle John — and if she is not a saint, she is a witch. (60)

“In Strength Sweetness,” the last poem of Address, is made up of lines that use the slash (/) as a final turn on its mode of argumentation:

in the wind / an inky air

in the air / finchness

in the ink / a stone (61)

[…]

in your anger / a harbor

in your harbor / a boat

in the boat/ open sea (63)

The slash (/) functions as the mark used to harvest the ethical turns in the collection’s dissent. The act of slashing connotes a violent motion similar to how it functions as a punctuation mark (i.e. caesura, abbreviation, solidus, et cetera, et cetera). In “In Strength Sweetness,” this unsettling multivalence becomes a fault line that recognizes the discontinuities in its uncapitalized nouns. Similar to names and their voices, nouns carry the conflict in their history (read: etymology) through the discontinuities created by conflict’s erasure. In this way, the slash (/) also functions as choice (i.e. “or”) and the line break of poetry translated in prose, where the poetic is arrived at through the engagement between its own echoes and a reader’s translation of these echoes. It feels inevitable that Address ends with the possibility of going out of ourselves and our addresses by harnessing materials from our discontinuities into an opening: “in your anger / a harbor // in your harbor / a boat // in the boat / open sea.”

 


 

1. Anne Carson, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” A Public Space (2008), 7.

2. Peter Gizzi, ed., The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Connecticut: University of Wesleyan Press, 1998), 97.