Alive: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Willis

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Alive: New and Selected Poems is a stellar gathering of work. This whirlwind blast through some twenty plus years of publications by Elizabeth Willis offers definitive exploration of poetry’s lyric measure. Willis expertly handles the particular moment in time and space of the poem’s encounter, presenting sculpted instance(s) of momentary recognition full of significant impact, charging the language with multi-layered depth. Her points of reference are rich not only in terms of connotative meaning but also sonic resonance. Willis successfully utilizes the lyric form in such manner as extends it beyond familiar limits avoiding the casual slip into autobiographical self-reference typically associated with many another poet’s work.

Although Willis’s poems generally don’t involve straightforward autobiographical narrative they are nevertheless an intensely intimate and personal engagement. In a conversation with poet Sean Patrick Hill published in Gulf Coast, Willis remarks how her poems in part reflect “the internal struggle that I think we all have with language. How do we make our interior world manifest? How do we understand the relationship between abstraction and embodiment, agency and identity, spiritual and erotic life, what we inherit and what we do with it?” Willis firmly believes in pursuing the possibilities of taking the world as created within the boundaries of the individual poem-at-hand as the primary reality of worthwhile note. As she states in the same conversation: “When you travel through a poem, it is your reality, it carries you.” And leaving no doubt of her absolute fealty to the poem itself: “when it comes to poetry, the answer is always in the poem.”

Willis is not however above hazarding the occasional note of confession, “I worry that my youth was wasted / in obedience, which it was.” (“Survey”) Yet she is just as inclined to take up interrogation of the personal pronoun as poetic device. Often using the opportunity of the poem as the framing for presentation of a hyper self-awareness which places the textual nature of the occasion front and center: “This I, this me, I’m speaking from a book.” (“Primeval Islands”) Acknowledging that the nature of the first person speaker in a poem is always shifting, so “that I that began” (“from Songs for A.”) a poem, or even a single line of a poem, undergoes such continual shifting of identity it never remains the same “I” for long. The speaker encompassing several selves alongside any sense of a singular self: “An assemblage makes of an I a “we.”” (“Steady Digression to a Fixed Point”) This is perhaps best envisioned metaphorically by her interlinked complex image of the rushing current of voices informing the text of any poem: “I is to they / as river is to barge” (“Address”)

willisThe examination of the poet’s relationship to her work is of reoccurring concern for Willis. What gets said within the momentary occurrence of the poem serves, if even temporarily, as an identity-defining act of discovery “Here is what I found today / or what I am” (“Vernacular Architecture”) which, with the writing of each additional poem, is under a state of constant reprisal “I & I / to make it new.” (“Sonnet”) Willis writes poetry in a state of bibliophile bliss displaying reverence for her poetic fore-bearers whether it’s in rather standard lament “some of us can’t help but mourn the end of Lorca” (“Loud Cracks for Ice Mountains Exposed”) or playfully re-mixing familiar tropes to serve anew in her own appropriation of William Blake: “Innocence shags experience and I’ll never grow.” (“The Human Abstract”) Unlike many of her contemporaries comfortably exerting proprietary control over the poem as their own space to do with as they please, Willis continually reminds us how the grounds of the poem are inviolate territory distinct unto itself, apart and alien even to the poet herself: “The poet is a trespasser.” (“About the Author”) This sort of smartly engaging self-awareness emboldens the already invigorating sense of Willis as a one of today’s poet’s searching out open-ended paths into poetry’s future. 

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →