The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

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JUNE 2011 Issue

Rapid Transit

Elizabeth Willis
(Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

Elizabeth Willis shares her Address, making the word and the world one. Magic is at work in the “willed adventure of the alpine grass.” “Yesness Park” signals go. These poems are surefooted, yet unpredictable.

Willis has written about the poet Lorine Niedecker as “recasting folk material.” She follows that lead, notably in a couple of list poems. The first is a litany of poisonous plants in alphabetic order.

The names are a delight, although the first line, “April fool,” suggests this is not a totally reverent flora list (though mostly it is). “Gagweed” almost sneaks by. “Witches’ thimbles” reminds us how vital the connection between language and nature can be. 

This poem is followed by another list poem laden with spellbinding language, “The Witch.” Modern day witches are included in “Blacklist.”

Willis refurbishes forms, subverting vernacular and converting research into poetry. Her wide-ranging vocabulary doubles back on itself, offering vivid perceptions into the possibilities of poetry.

Her imagistic conceits are bold and convincing. “Time is just that melted thought / a mirror to hold your fire in the marsh.” Sometimes shifting thoughts appear ethereal before snapping into focus. “Naturally, not everyone understands.”

The closer you read, the more you’ll understand as in this linguistic play on sight:  “Overseen like labor / overlooked like a valley.” Humorous, political, engaged, and deeply resonant—at the end you’ll start again.

Will Alexander
Compression & Purity
(City Lights Spotlight, 2011)

Welcome to the hallucitorium run by Will Alexander. He’s a unique wordsmith, kin to the Surrealists’ Breton and Cesaire, and in America the San Franciscans’ Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman, and Ronnie Burke. Alexander is a Californian as well (though from South Central L.A.).

Transmitting trance-matic blasts of auricular combustion, Alexander’s lexicon is a “glossary of vertigo.” His seventh book of intense techno-lyricism is expressed in fissionary monologies teeming with “engrained astonishment.”

Cosmological, astrological, philosophical, geological, mathematical, and hypnogogical in scope, he finds concordance in chaotic discord. “Creativity being an ongoing praxis, is a continuous trance, in which one deals with the unification of worlds.” And who better to unify the language of different disciplines than a poet?

Like a force of nature, a procession of seamless symbols, the lines roll out as variant strata compress into a crystalline composite. Endlessly surprising juxtapositions commingle, requiring the reader to continuously refocus and synthesize novel renditions.

Such an onslaught of sensations, descrambled and re-presented, is sublime. In “Water on New Mars,” the author speaks from an alien perspective. “Being water / I am the voltage of rocks.”

Alexander seizes pieces and particles emanating from a semiotic cyclotron. Unparalleled images of beauty erupt in the mash-up of worlds: “like diamonds falling from a fabulum of ciphers / like rivers of moons flowing over slate.” 

Surrounded by sigils, this poet is mad potent.

Fay Chiang
7 Continents 9 Lives
(Bowery Books, 2010)

Journeys in space and time. Searing queries into the moral nature of society. Serene passages about family and strangers, joy and sorrow, life and death. This cinematic unveiling of Fay Chiang’s life in America is honest, clear, and necessary. Work from previous collections is included, spanning 30 years.

With no irony and with passion tempered by pain, Chiang faithfully frames her circumstances. She gathers the vital light and places it in the correct spot.

In poems about key moments and memories of relations, we witness the soul tangled in bloodlines, but ever alone. Her father and brother died of cancer and she suffers as well. Summoning strength, Chiang confronts remorse in dedicated poems. After her brother’s death at 34, she writes: “I hear the ticking of clocks. / Healing has its own pace; nothing to do with logic.”

Deeply personal, the first-person narratives become prisms, to refract others in the world: father, friends, activists, and a feisty grandmother. Parts vividly recapture a Chinatown childhood in the ’50s. The poignancy is delivered evenly, developing inverted buoyancy.

In “Portraits” she examines citizenship, wondering how we can build prisons faster than schools. Why can’t Homeland Security plug the drug trade? How can we “gain the skills to challenge social injustices?”

Chiang’s name means peace, wisdom, and horse-taming ancestors from North China. Father directs: “Write your name.”


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

JEFFREY CYPHERS WRIGHT is a poet, publisher, critic, collage artist and eco-activist involved in the community gardens of New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

All Issues