The joy at the heart of us

Elizabeth Willis's 'Alive: New and Selected Poems'

Alive: New and Selected Poems

Alive: New and Selected Poems

Elizabeth Willis

Wesleyan University Press 2015, 208 pages, $14.00 ISBN 978-1590178645

First of all, what would it mean to be fully alive? One thinks of the archetypal unicorn, the ever-present poet that can’t quite get enough of something, but what? In Lacanian terms, we might think joy, jouissance. In terms of Romantic literature, we might think love, or romance, or the spark of God that is, indeed, the last romantic that our world could know, now that we are moderns.

According to Elizabeth Willis, this “aliveness” is found “affection / only to be seen // when the mind’s a heart.”[1] One thinks of what it would mean to remain ever-pure, ever-condensed, and full of beauty, and it is a difficult thing to imagine, at least at certain times of year. However, Willis’s poems make this state of fierce purity seem more prescient, and even possible. Is this poetry itself, enacted in lines that are fully alive? It would seem so. 

In the following lines, Willis writes this purity:

What rules a body’s buried factions
when laundered by morning

When called by our names
although we are invisible

Sleeping I forget my animal
When the animal comes
I’m forgotten because of it

How was it called
in its own country

crossing a street
in order to come inside (20)

These lines are from “The Human Abstract,” which is an expression, in part, of abstract thought that one might find in the world of metaphysics, long since annulled by Heidegger — a death poets often lament. Willis seems to do this, and her poems attest to a human waking that is (as in this poem) assuaged by “the animal” — to be forgotten because of the preoccupation with the body rather than the mind, suddenly, as if lost. One wonders who exactly is doing this forgetting, and if it’s the poet’s peculiar role to think of things that would be unseen by others. As she forgets her “animal” in sleep, maybe she wakes to remember that there was someone who found his or hers and forgot her because of it. It’s ambiguous.

The other poems in this selection stay in the tradition of this purity, saying that “When if is so // that’s a kind of valentine nowhere” (30), as if using the if to create a sense of utopia, a valentine given in the hopes that someone will read it or hear it spoken. This valentine is connected to “the tree I carry” (40), all part of the appeal of “The Human Abstract.” In Turneresque, which is a very different kind of book, poems like “Sonnet” actually carry the reader through multiple worlds, not all of which are pure, some of which are stormy: 

To live in someone
else’s music (the musician
not the composer is free)
a divine contention
like the damp carpet
of liquored olivia trees
(something my favorite you
would say)
finding in a hollow day
a winter keeper
a paper woman
caught in the torrent
not quite falling (50)

However, despite this being “inside” of someone else, there is a sense of purity at the edge, purity almost overcome by the filmesque version of this poem, as if caught up in something and falling because of it. There is not the same height required to write this more recent poem as with the earlier excerpts, and it finds its place in Turnersque

As we move throughout Turneresque, we find a partner in the poems, whereas the earlier poems speak more to a single purity. Poems in this text are lovely and romantic, in all the best senses of these terms, and Willis writes well of “[l]ovely missions / in early green / [a] dream of love” (60). However it is unclear whether the speaker is dreaming of someone far away, or whether the lover is present: “dearest curtain / painted just / beyond the face” (60). Whose face is this, and what can we make of it?

The poems in Turneresque sometimes appear in prose, too. In “On Dangerous Ground,” we get the sense that there is a scene from Macbeth close at hand: “Jim’s a bad one whining down a concrete river slick with night […] Her brother’s heart is an inward tree, but he’s got blood on his hands […] There’s no turning back for a cop with snow in his shoes […] He sinks against her ivy wall” (70). Here we have a scene that could read of something ominous, and clearly represents a poetry of lovers who are torn apart, who are not really in love but are something different.

Meteoric Flowers, my favorite of Willis’s books, is something different, and a girl takes center stage. In “The Oldest Part of Earth,” we read about “Mary saying yes and no, he and she” in which the speaker and the interlocutor presented are “living on, anyway, immaculate lawns. Neo-forsythia” (90). This purity is presented in the figure of a human, but we get the sense that we know who Mary is, the genderless figure who always wants to be something different, a sign of the times, but not a sign of an older time unless one is reading religion into it, which could be possible. The sense in which Mary is epic is repeated in “Bright o’er the Floor,” in which the speaker and interlocutor are “rowing like Greeks before those trees turn to treason, erased of all their writing” (100). 

She writes beautiful poems in New and Uncollected Poems, even taking a turn toward the sonnet in “Sonnet 63 ½.” I’ll quote it here in lieu of a closing, for I think it speaks to the position of purity and shows how Willis tends to shift into judgment of this pure day, at least eventually:

Against love’s battle lies: ungrammatical.
Inevitable meadow. A future tensed of all its past.

So time may take this beauty down
but beauty will fight itself to death.

The vampire day, top-heavy, white.
Erase, erased, erasing.

Aggrieved belief. He was my east and west.
He bound my breasts, I cut his hair.

I lay my words upon his mouth,
my mouth upon I cannot say.

All of grace is not device. Love
loves its past but not its thief.

May all its punishments remain untamed
upon this green unsentencing. (170)

1. Elizabeth Willis, Alive: New and Selected Poems (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 10.