Coffee House Press
Marjorie Welish’s disciplined exploration of her mind—how it relates, relays, and imagines information—continues in her new book, Word Group. Her concerns are the structures, the apparatuses, the indexes, the frames we use when we speak or think in language. There is a wilderness that Welish unlocks by so doing, as her narrators utter something but then are also involved with the structure of the utterance. And both at once. Hers is a poetry of notations, scrambles, readjustments of meaning—she reconfigures in parentheticals, for instance, a line about Faust in her poem, "Seated Recklessly". The initial mention is:
(Faust sits restlessly at his desk, in his armchairs)
This line becomes, variously:
(At his desk, his arms, Faust)
(At his desk, Faust sits in his arms)
(Desk, minus Faust)
There are others as well. Apart from the strange plural, armchairs, this notation, as if stage directions, structures the piece, which is a very typical framing device in Welish’s poems in general. One word or phrase will recur, sometimes twisted, between sections of writing. In "Textile 2," the word "because" occurs seven times—six of these times it starts on the left-hand margin. The feeling one has when these gestures occur is often a haunting, an echoing, a remembering, if barely so, of a thread of thought. And this is what makes her poems so daring, I think, as she relies on typically minor details, asides, or a string of asides, to create the boundaries of a poem. Yet the feeling is not of irritating tedium, but of a cadenced distinguishing between things, between words, and due to this the slipperiness of meanings enters in.
There are shades of Gertrude Stein here (even her famous dog who knows her halfway shows up), with wit and displacements of meanings and the same ability to be nearly opaque while being somewhat conversational. She is as likely to say, "Okay, okay, okay" as she is to begin a poem ("Word Object") like this:
Assigning probabilities to fluid
surfaces or spectacular approximations
in a departed polis
For me, the poems are working at their finest when she not only attempts to dislodge basic narrative ploys of causality ("Causality in lyric is trying") by assembling thoughts, descriptions of thought, and destabilizing images and rhetorics, but when she is also destabilizing the very categorical frames that many take comfort in. "When is a portrait not a portrait?" for instance. Or perhaps in the partial title of her previous book, The Annotated "Here".
Welish relates in an interview in Jubilat magazine that she was taken to a museum lecture on art when very young, because her mother enjoyed this type of event. One can see this early training (perhaps forgotten) in a critical vocabulary and a critical framing flowering in her own work. Later in the interview, she relates that she sees herself as "a lapsed structuralist, or the structuralist with a wish to relativize, to keep as problematic the notion of structure rather than to arrive at a solitary solution that keeps poetry and criticism cognitively distinct." There are other poets who are interested in these same issues—Charles Bernstein comes to mind—but the additional element of the painter in Welish brings about a complex perspective or intuition, as if she were dabbing sounds and fraying remarks, emptiness and philosophical guessing, in her poems. Here’s the last part of "Textile 12":
In recent years he has researched the interval
In recent years he has researched the inconvenience
a path formatted across hot water.
There cannot be hot water formatted symptomatically,
she said, like fumes.
Welish’s work feels like the textual equivalent of fumes, of drifting particularities, of the sense of origin but not the thing itself, of movement and slight shifts that cause tremors. Reverberation, pausing, reconsideration, remembering, as if plucking a string infrequently. Being in time and space, literally, with the future haunting the past, a carriage going by, some daily nonsense, a porch with two different shades of yellow. These are what her words conjure for me today, "for instance".