I’ve been meaning to write about Elizabeth Treadwell’s Lilyfoil (O Books 2004) for a while now, but as readers know, between the three month hiatus and my preoccupations with art, poetry has suffered my attention. At least in terms of blogging. And not only my attention. The poetry blogworld has suffered several losses in fact–Treadwell’s own Secretmint vanished, as did Jordan Davis’ Equanimity. Is this blog burnout? Is it symptomatic of the centralization of poetry on the web? Has that force fractured the single-author blog? Do people check blogs regularly anymore?*
But I digress.
Lilyfoil + 3 (O Books, $12) consists of four sections/poems and is a kind of girl’s own that spans–as Treadwell’s interests do–across at least two centuries of girldom, from Aphra Behn to Queen Elizabeth. A wartime speech from a young Queen Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth of course…) begins the section “The New Elizabethans: Modernity and Tabloid.”
What interests me most about Lilyfoil is the language, and representations of nature that occur here. Tracking the natural world, its glint, we trace the seams of narrative/myth/culture even as we watch Princess Di careen out of control. This celluloid scenarioville is impossible to stake down. As Juliana Spahr points out on the back cover, it’s Lilyfoil, not Lilyflower…so the familiar is made strange with a slight shift of meaning, not only in language, but in jarring lyrical associations:
may be a well-known or a little-known
with your lovely friend, your
body of ferns, fold of
heard herself, lilyfoils distance
from ribbons of print. measure the weather
from stoop to store.
Like fellow San Fransico poet and artist Yedda Morrison (who has photographs up at Presentation House in Vancouver at the moment) Treadwell works the seams between representations of nature, exposing the poem’s underwires. Regarding Morrison’s photographs:
Fakery becomes a larger and more explicit element in later works in the series, such as Bioposy #4 (Underwires) and Bioposy #6 (Red Devil Green Beast), which reveal the plastic stems, coated wires, and punctured mounts usually hidden within arrangements of artificial flowers. –Georgia Strait
The impulse of blending natural and artificial is hardly news in either the poetry or art world. And yet of course it’s still very much news. And more so the insistence on seeing the seams, where things meet, not just in terms of benign layers, but how human desire and its byproducts are factored in. “Conventional” poetry still clings to pristine representations of the natural world, resists the impulse to include the scruffy and toxic underbelly of the water’s surface.
As Joshua Corey points out here in the procedings from an AWP Conference (the one in Vancouver to be precise), “there is barely any distance to travel between Wordsworth’s ‘The Daffodils’ and virtually any poem of Mary Oliver’s you would care to name.” To be fair, I’ve heard Oliver say she never intended to be a nature poet, and certainly not an eco or experimental writer. Perhaps she simply wants to write a life of quiet observation–not carrying a weight of chronicling the unseen in what she is seeing, and with little reference to a wider body of reading or theory. Many poets do–and those that do seem very concerned with those who don’t. But never mind, and never mind that the “nature” in a Mary Oliver poem, though never stated, comes in the form of a national park or a groomed yard. Here is Corey again:
Oliver’s plain poetic speech, meant to serve as a marker of both accessibility and authenticity, represses the strangeness and vitality of language beyond its usefulness as a resource. Her language gestures at wildness, tries to terrify you like a lion at the end of a leash—but it is tame, and we never lose sight of the lion tamer’s whip and chair.
Again, not news, and yet, yes…news. I’ve been thinking about this post for weeks and there are more words in the recycling bin than here because it just isn’t simple…none of this is.
But back to Treadwell’s troubling. Treadwell glimpsing the lily through the foil of what? Theory? Architecture? The shroud of romanticism? What? (I’m skimming the questions off the top here…there are whole structures under these lines if you care to take a flash light in hand.)
There are lovely things in this book which ends in a play with Aphra Behn, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein. (The problem with reading this kind of poetry is that it expands rather than contracts…no simple five paragraph essay structure responses seem in order, or possible…)
Treadwell, like Spahr (and every belladonna poet, and….) seeks to reinvigorate language with new meaning. How in a world where everyone is expecting everyone else to be lying, can we see language as anything more than the glint of surface, a way to facilitate given financial transactions? (Yes, they’ve just hit the miners trapped underground in Utah. Someone is tunneling under Gaza. The US is busy privatizing Iraq as CA Conrad points out…) My mind just flipped over into Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, which impacts with similar associative leaps:
Here is today.
Over eight million people marched on five continents against
We talked on the phone about this glimmer.
We read each other’s reports.
We said optimistic things.
Language attempting to grapple with the sheer quantity of modernity. The number of bodies that can pile up to try and say no, and yet are unheard, even as we tally, they are unheard… What do words mean in the face of this? “As I thought about this, life went on,” Spahr says.
And Treadwell too with her disassociate junctures:
a fair measure of helicopter trees, when mothers
skirt is blinded in the photosun, and never linger.
Where Treadwell dismantles, Spahr begins to both detonate and reconstruct. Perhaps these impulses, not the new sincerity, nor the new/neo/retro formalism, is where poetry can be useful.
This post is far from complete…
One wonders why readers of a forum such as a blog meant to disperse ideas, thinking and influence, continually privilege one voice/blogger over another? And one wonders too where or what the future of poetry blogs might be if this is the case. Will they be subsumed under one banner or another as has been the case with the Poetry Foundation (which seems bent on reaching out to a slightly wider audience, at least in terms of its online presence), or those mega-bloggers who seem bent on having every item of poetry pass through their fingers? Or the linksters, those who scour google and provide us with poetry links, no digesting or commentary, just the links. Or perhaps it will all move to facebook?