Thursday, October 25, 2012

Elizabeth Willis is

Elizabeth Willis's name comes very close to containing the word "is" twice, but just barely does not contain it at all: once, the pronunciation is there but not the spelling; and once, the spelling is there but not the pronunciation. This, I think, is appropriate.

Early on in The Human Abstract (in "Between the Acts," which is the second section of "A Maiden," which is itself the first section of the book itself), we find this:

A breath "drawn" or taken, meaning
even to be is to use up
When she says "to be" here, it is apparent that we are meant to interpret the infinitive according to its usual meaning: that is, we are meant to understand her as saying "simply by existing, we use something up." But I don't think I'll be suggesting anything too radical if I say I think there's a double meaning here: that we're meant to apprehend "to be" both in its "meaning" and as a word in itself: that is, that Willis is saying that even to say "to be," even to say that something is (or, worse, that something is something else), is "to use up/ something."

The combination of this skepticism toward the copular in combination with the notion of breath reminds me of a fascinating account of the surprisingly varied etymologies of the irregular forms of to be in its English conjugation, which I encountered in (of all places) Julian Jaynes's batty The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Discussing the pervasiveness of metaphor in language, Jaynes writes (irregular quotation-mark practices and all):

Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb 'to be' was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, "to grow, or make grow," while the English forms 'am' and 'is' have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, "to breathe." It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man [sic] had no independent word for 'existence' and could only say that something 'grows' or that it "breathes." Of course we are not conscious that the concept of being is thus generated from a metaphor about growing and breathing. Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.
At the risk of sounding like I'm making fun of Jaynes (who I actually find to be a fascinating and often vital thinker who is onto something in general, unhinged though he may be in certain areas), I must note that he seems unclear--and conveniently, inconsistently so--on the relation between Sanskrit and English: first English words "come from" Sanskrit ones, then they evolve from the same roots, then these separate products of evolution seem suddenly to have a causal link again. Jaynes sources his account to Philip Wheelwright's The Burning Fountain, which I have not read, know nothing about, and cannot vouch for; I can say that the Oxford English Dictionary seems somewhat to agree with Jaynes on "be" (saying it comes from an Indo-European root shared with Greek phuein, "to bring forth, cause to grow"), and does say that "am" and "is" both come from the same I-E root but says nothing about what it might have meant. So the crux of why I'm bringing this all up (the link between "to breathe" and "to be") is, to be sure, questionable and vague, but the association remains, for me at least, interesting; and the fundamental point stands: that even so innocuous a word as "to be" and its various conjugations (the OED also mentions that "was" and "were" come from an I-E root meaning "remain" and that the origin of "are" is unknown) conceals a complexity of meaning, metaphor, and history that we seldom become aware of.

It is difficult to know why I'm talking about these things.* I dislike the too-common use of etymology as a sort of "secret code" that promises to unlock the mysteries of the work at hand, as though literature were identical with cryptography,** but I understand and share in what I hope are the better aspects of the impulse: the recognition in etymology of a history of thought, open equally to the writer and to the reader (and to the critic). Indeed, this history of thought and of ideas seems to be a major interest of Willis's in this work, strewn as it is with references to fairy tales, various mythologies and religions, scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention the transfigured-without-alteration Blake reference in the title.

*I suppose that sentence might make a good motto for this blog as a whole.
**Though I must note, as I will not have occasion to otherwise, that Willis does occasionally act as though her poem is a cryptogram: see much of the third section, "The Relation of the Lion to the Book Is the Number 5."

My point, before I strayed so far from it, is that we have here in this book, and very early on at that, a significant and explicit problematization of "to be." In this context, it is interesting to note that right around this same point (even at the exact same moment, to a certain extent), equally explicit "political statement" begins to appear in the poem--though it tends to remain, for the moment, firmly and willfully planted in the realm of language metaphorical, poetic, lyric (that is to say that while any statement in any work of literature is nothing but language, these statements of Willis's make sure to couch themselves in very ornamented "literary" terms). Just a few lines down from being told that to be is to use up:

At will we show bones through skin
or flounce the word "rumpus" to mean
the trouble one causes on one's own, plane from which

bombs scatter like Havana cigars

On the next page Havana cigars in turn become both winters and antelopes. And then just one more page on,
we have opened the box
shelled buildings with our insatiable hands
fallen forward and against
the stolen meals and borrowed clothes
There is no way we can forget that these bombs she has suddenly brought up and begun stewing over are not real bombs, only metaphor: that is to say, we are safe, both from the bombs' violence and from the guilt of helping to drop them.

I think it not coincidence that these two moments, the problematization of "to be" and the metaphor-as-political-statement-as-metaphor, coincide.

The Human Abstract is, I think, technically a collection (the acknowledgments page certainly refers to it as such, and lists places where portions of it have been previously published as standalone poems). It seems, though, to encourage one to read it as a continuous work, a sort of epic, both through its metaphoric/linguistic systems and its physical layout as a book. And as one does, in fact, read through it continuously, one finds an increasingly overwhelming sense of indeterminacy, of the shifting of linguistic space until it is impossible anymore to say that anything "is" anything--that, as Jaynes would have it, the concrete images on the coin have worn away in the busy give-and-take of talk. For most of the book's length, outside of the context we've already encountered it in, "to be" and its various (etymologically diverse!) forms are used almost always as auxiliaries in progressive or passive-voice constructions ("Night is going 200 miles an hr"; "we are suddenly altered"), in the conditional or subjunctive ("Though my heart were a pear tree"), and in the asking of questions ("Who am I to stop this flowing")--rarely if ever in any declarative statements of existence or equivalence.

Perhaps more to the point regarding the linguistic shifting I am talking about, the work begins relatively coherently--"A Maiden," the first part of the section of the same title which opens the poem, itself opens with this stanza:

When I found your face on a pillow of leaves
you had already erased it. A nest so heavy
can stay in the heavens only by reversal.
which is a bit odd, to be sure, but nothing too difficult--but very soon this coherence dissolves into near-indecipherability. A mere two lines later (both of which are whole stanzas to themselves, as are many individual lines here) we are given the line "I said to the young man", without there being any certain way of knowing what part of the four lines so far was said, if any, or who the young man is, or for that matter who I is. I said to the young man is treated as a complete sentence, as though the transitivity of "to say" has suddenly changed: as though one could "say to" without saying anything.

And that's just the beginning, and benign compared to what we're soon faced with as we get to passages (as in the second section, "Jordan (H-YRDN)") in which whole pages seem to be missing half of themselves. This is a page from that section in its entirety:

who but you)

captive by the face of the fire

ash came//    ash-sham
a kingdom

-verted in the midst

the woundedness

buoyant in (a world /
the dream in Rabbah:

walls grew up like flames.

(One is reminded, incidentally, that much of what "survives"--remains? continues to breathe?--of Sappho is in the form of papyrus torn into strips and used to wrap mummies, on which can be read only a word or two from each line--and one is glad to see that Ezra Pound is not the only poet who can be inspired--caused to grow? and of course "inspired" itself means "to breathe into"--by this awful but fascinating destruction.)

Much of the book will oscillate between the more "coherent" or seemingly "lyrical" passages and these disrupted fragments (one of which, even, reads "first half of the sentence is lost"), which for me far more effectively uproots one's certainty in the faculties of language than a whole book of nothing but fragments would.

After all this, it is very startling to come across, in the last section (titled, like the book itself, "The Human Abstract") a number of very certain-seeming statements--almost slogans, even--using forms of "to be" (or, occasionally, other verbs just as definitive). The effect is very bizarre and hard to explain, even to oneself; these statements become somehow simultaneously more emphatic and far more uncertain than they would be were there a more conventional work behind them. One wonders, how can she say these things, after all we've experienced? And yet she is saying them!

Property is a form of hearing


Human understanding is a savage construction
of dilation and resistance


Existing means dressing up


I am standing up


The egg is not by nature
better than the full crow

I am every kind of stone
but one

Perhaps most startling is this, which makes up the entirety of one page, and which it is easy to imagine Jenny Holzer projecting on the side of a building:
Emotions are my daily actions.

Each seed has a gender.

The love of fertile ground can be a kind of phobia.

The mustard thrown to stony soil was saved.

All is fair.

Even the periods feel unprecedented in this so sparsely punctuated work.

Please bear with me as I continue to throw chunks of quotes at you; we, like the book, are almost finished. For by now we are indeed very close to the end--and we encounter this page, which seems still to want to make these ringing statements, but seems now, somehow, again unable to:

What I know was divided

by the weather of others

There's a kind of electricity

a fire in the first snow

A mine from the perspective of an owner

a mine as labor

After this only two more pages remain, and they are filled with isolated, sometimes tragicomic lines* like "(deeper, more mountainous)// the continent submerges at a distance// Death wrote a poem and I lost it" and, the last line of the entire book, "I'm late and come adrift".

*Speaking of comedy, I have no legitimate place to put this but I just really want to point out the funniest line in the whole book, which comes much earlier than what I'm talking about now. That line is: "Clue: I'M GOING TO BUY A BAT."

After all this explication, I have to admit I'm not quite sure what to make of all this (let alone what to make of the book as a whole!). It could all be seen as "cheating," as Willis wanting to acknowledge the impossibility anymore of declaration, and yet wanting to declare anyway...but if cheating it is, how then to account for the powerful experience I at least find reading it to be? In seeing these so certain statements, particularly the more "politically" oriented ones, I am struck forcefully both by the "message" itself and by the pathos in their presentation, struggling towards certainty in surroundings that admit nothing of the sort. But have I simply been duped?

I prefer to think not. And it could be that what makes it so powerful is that, for me, to be responsible in the world today is to walk just this line: to acknowledge the impossibility of declaration and yet to feel its necessity; to know the need of action and the hesitance of uncertainty.


By way of a surprise ending.

In my list of the "slogan"-like statements I deliberately and somewhat mendaciously left out one very important one: in fact, it was the very first one that struck me in the way I've described. It is this:

"you" is a man
"you" writes my book
If there has ever been a better demonstration of the way a writer, in the midst of doubt and uncertainty and on ever-shifting ground, can still somehow punch both herself and the reader--who we might call "me"--in the stomach, with accuracy, I have not seen it.

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