October 2004

Olivia Cronk

poetry

Figment by Rebecca Wolff

Rebecca Wolff’s second collection of poems, Figment, employs a very lush and cerebral minimalism. Yes, lush. Yes, minimalism. Is that possible? Figment makes a mighty witty argument for it. What Wolff does here is something I have not yet procured the vocabulary for.

Look at the shining river
uncovered
by cloud, by sky, nonvegetable
education. Could I grow to be
a train conductor?
Harmonious in little ways, not the ways
I have been show automatically, my neighbor
humming like a tuning fork
rectitudinally [. . .]

On one hand, she is channeling a Mina Loy type -- plucky words arranged in a way that is weirdly sexual or feminine, but severe, smart, filigreed at moments. Strange stuff.

A marriage
is not made for exploration; nylon
is not made to let the air through
to your skin. Why the very idea
of that shy smile is convertible,
something about gorgeous, contour
of reflected moment, the corpse a
head shaking “no” on the table [. . .]

And on the other hand: Wolff’s language, with its airy playfulness, is working overtime in an entirely new space of poetry. I would suggest that the text as a whole explores the odd and unsettling relationship between the seen and heard word. Try reading these poems aloud. Then try it silently. There are multiple voices strung about -- you could get lost in a single line. I think that’s how Wolff likes it.

I hear people call some poetry “difficult,” often (not always) to denote distaste for a particular brand of abstraction. And some readers don’t have the patience for a text that hauls its disparate elements to a messy pile and asks that the reader form a generalized feeling, a sensation. This happens to be my preferred mode of reading poetry—I like lists and unlikely words together; I like to try to solve the puzzle, but only half-heartedly, lazily. Wolff’s book is, in many ways, this kind of “difficult” poetry. She plays games with lines and line breaks, employs enjambment liberally, fiddles with punctuation like a mad scientist, uses all sorts of vocabularies, jumps around in voices and metaphors, tries things on and drops them without notice.

I’m in trouble, Dad, it’s my recombinant

I’m in trouble, Officer, it’s my degenerate

I’m in trou . . . tru . . . truck.
I have a baby.
I write in English within the confines
and that’s a big conflict [. . .]

But I would not say that Wolff asks her reader to look at the pile and form a feeling. She’s sterner than that. When a reader hauls all of Wolff’s language to the pile, there is only the nonsense of actual thought. Wolff’s offering, on the page, is a piece of her brain, not her heart. “I wish I never made you, savage semblance. You play unbidden, you/ point always in the same direction and the sun/ moves around you in torpor.”

I have enjoyed Figment; I find it stimulating in the way that good sci-fi movies and cold weather are stimulating. Crisp. And eerie. The things that make this book good are the things that can make it bad. It is heady, rather than dreamy. It requires some attention; it is not a book you relax with. I will say, though, that Wolff’s organization (five sections of poems related, it seems, by form) aids in tracing a path through. And though she hits a few moments of high emotion, Wolff always brings the poem back to its home in her mind, coded in such cool language. She is never demure when a little of that aforementioned brain shows through the gauze.

Once more I am in the right place but with the wrong feelings.
Festival of Mysteries. Carnival of Absolute Purchasing Power.
. . . (I was born
with a yellow brain
and cannot make up stories [.]

Figment by Rebecca Wolff
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393059189
128 Pages