July 2008

Olivia Cronk


Isle of the Signatories by Marjorie Welish

“Through… regard for differing modes of cognition one can begin to understand not only the intellectual but also the creative process: how the mind puts things together, takes things apart, explores its own world, sends out flares to unknown worlds.”
-Marjorie Welish, from a 2003 interview

I like a particular idea that Marjorie Welish articulates in the above comment: the mind, once it’s got a hold of something, wants to “send out flares to unknown worlds.” We have an impulse to take our thoughts and transmit them. Certainly, the concept of self-broadcast has never been clearer; that’s kind of what the Internet is for, in many respects. Also in her comment, though, is the implication that a fair amount (or all?) of the information we send out is going to an undeterminable location, with an infinite and unknowable number of possible translations. And if that’s true -- and it is -- any notion of human societal organization can take on an awful and chaotic hue. I mean, what does any of language mean, anyway? And once you have to consider the abysmal universe that is the human mind, how do we make sense of things? Apparently, if we want to follow Welish’s example, we catalogue, we tinker, we find the creepy nether-region space between taking in a bit of language and having a thought. You know that strange sensation of accidentally seeing someone through the crack of a public bathroom stall (on either side of the door)? There are weirdo places that the brain can go when handling bits of information, especially if Marjorie Welish is serving up the bits.

Welish’s newest book, Isle of the Signatories, is not for the poetry reader lacking endurance. It seems to me, from my sparse reading of her other texts, that this is in keeping with Welish’s usual, but also, as it should be, something a little pushier (in terms of transgressive poetics). Isle smashes up the concept of meaning like a word-piñata, breaks with any conventional notion of persona, fiddles its way through play and pun and deconstruction, and suggests that any incidental reading that takes place in our daily lives is fair game for tossing into the larger frame of poetry. Welish also claims, through the rollicking ride of the poems, that incidental reading (the text of daily life) is not just negligible background noise; it’s much more sinister. This is not, in the strictest sense, pleasurable reading. The emergent thoughts related to the reading experience offer pleasure of a sort -- but no daydreamy, quality-time-in-the-hammock stuff here.

There are two large frames (a title section and another, “From Dedicated To,”) and within the first frame, there are seven sections. I suspect that the seamless and efficient arrangement of things is directly related to the fact that Welish is also a prominent painter (abstractions, deconstructed strands); she’s got an eye for placement and a clearly present sense of theory. The notion of “ear” that you might want as you read is lovingly gestured at, but never fed to you outright. The effect is a little like humming to yourself in the presence of a great and soothing din (a machine, a train, a vacuum).

We shall have left
tickets in your pseudonym at the ticket window
an index

carbon copies,
the chorus wore shades as they chanted
and digested narrative

he wore
they said to say to her that he wore her breakaway work.
Again, the incident

deploying self, in self-addressed envelope enclosing
signed lease
commemorative rubbing face down

This is probably one of the less challenging moments in the book. In other moments, Welish plays with a sign for a lost dog, juxtaposes a series of signage-phrases against one another, trolls through pieces of familiar syntax, interrupts herself (if “she,” in a conventional sense, is actually there), reveals, experiments, toys with the reader, toys with reality as it is situated in language, and generally wanders through (what is suggested as) an infinite pile of words. By the time she gets to her final line (a punch line effect that should be worked for -- don’t skip ahead), the poems seem like brain vampires, Welish’s minions.

My favorite moments are unquotable, as Welish is staunchly unavailable in that way; her poems have to be mentally handled, all over, piece by piece. There are changes in font, sometimes unnerving, sometimes sloppy seeming, and sometimes exciting (like you’re reading the posters for a word apocalypse). These visual tricks lend a nice pacing to the book. I don’t think anyone can resist this phrase: “WALL, YOU ARE MINE!” Or this: “when next severing a violin from the violinist…” “Or this: “‘German has not so many words/ as it has heartbeats/ and staggers.” The slight boredom I felt moving through the beginning of the book was erased as I read on, and as I realized that Marjorie Welish is for the good of the world, just as this book is against the ownership of words, and against the false structures of language.

Isle of the Signatories by Marjorie Welish
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 9781566892124
98 pages