Promise to go on (PoemTalk #154)

Elizabeth Willis, 'The Similitude of This Great Flower'


For this 154th episode of the PoemTalk series, Al Filreis remotely convened Simone White, Kate Colby, and Angela Carr to talk about a prose poem by Elizabeth Willis, “The Similitude of This Great Flower.” The poem was first published in the Cordite Poetry Review in January of 2008. Our recording of the poem comes from a Close Listening session hosted by Charles Bernstein on March 17, 2008.

“You promised to go on” indicates mere survival in the end. The compressed and converged idioms of the previous sentences — there’s a fly on the wall looking through a keyhole “trying to read the wall”! — have a comic, almost punny multivalent quality, but whatever that indicative writing on the wall is, at least “It says we haven’t died.” We’re alive indeed and that’s grimly good — and, the group agrees, such witness to survival is owing to the writing as writing. We “go on” through the resistant act of writing, yes, but also in the writing, in the materiality of those words. The poem is a small machine for going on. The nouns of such writing clank (“noun, noun, noun”), and the words offered produce sayings and strangely logical truisms (“Sand in the shoe doesn’t make you an oyster”), but somewhere in these set-piece koans we hear, we discern, a voice from heaven, notwithstanding the “hell behind it.” Angela reminds us to think about Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. Al offers a reading of the role of the mother in the beginning: from whom there is an inherited or socialized coldness, a spareness that makes such successful observant concision possible. You take whatever beauty you can get from the impulse to remove entirely the vines that have already been trimmed. Simone sees the piece as dark and expressing lack of promise, notwithstanding the barest survival in the “promise to go on” at the end. Kate emphasizes all the ways in which discernment is difficult, in spite of its time-honored theme of similitude. Even similitude, it turns out, is “misty in the dream.”

The Similtude of This Great Flower

These vines are trim, I take them down. I had my mother’s features in my heart, the darkest gem, tripping in the tar, an affinity for Iceland. The world is clanking: noun, noun, noun. Sand in the shoe doesn’t make you an oyster. This river runs constantly. ‘The similitude of this great flower,’ its violent fame. Forfeit your interests while moonlight chucks the sun. Is the dog behind glass, glassed in? Heaven’s voice has hell behind it. I’m looking at the evil flower, a fly in the keyhole trying to read the wall. It says we haven’t died despite the cold, it sells the green room’s sweat and laughter. It’s misty in the dream. It says you promised to go on.

This episode was directed and engineered, using Zoom, by Zach Carduner. The same Zach Carduner was once again our editor. We’re grateful as always to Nathan and Elizabeth Leight for providing funding support for PoemTalk, and to our partners at the Poetry Foundation.