April 2014

Rachel Mangini

poetry

Gazelle in the House by Lisa Williams

It is not surprising, considering the book's title, that in Gazelle in the House, Lisa Williams pushes us up against the natural world again and again. There is the beehive in the opening poem, "To an Exterminator," that has got to go:

Because civilization is always
a retort to another's guts --

remove the hive. It is in
the wrong place, nestled and humming
as if error could become a home.

And the sea creature she addresses in "Anemone:"

Almost anything that touches you
is yours. How can you seem
foreign to us who so often
surround, draw forward, and then close
over, even as we gesture,
a separate body?

I know this need to encompass
and seize with delirium's lines.

There is the octopus in "Octopus," that is, "Not so different / from the grasping mind." And the octopus in "Mayhem" that the speaker imagines herself embodying:

Take from me myself
all I know as mine
bound into a center,

explode it out
but delicately, to the tendrilled
end of each arm.

As these excerpts show, many of the poems in Williams's third collection are odes to the natural world, but by calling them, simply, odes, I am selling them short. These poems are layered with human complication. The humans in this book destroy a beehive, they eavesdrop on cicadas, they get lost in thought, they cannot cope with the relationship of predator to prey, or the violence inherent in the natural world. They meddle. Their meddling makes its way into the poetry, and as it does, it creates a space for both the poet and the reader. We do not witness the magic of a hummingbird aviary unmitigated, we experience the place through the eyes of the poet who notes that, in comparison to the tiny birds, we humans burden ourselves with "cumbersome slack," which includes the net we have placed above the birds' buzzing airspace. A poem about cicadas is about us, too, about how we do not matter to the insects; they hum on despite us. These poems not only give us a space in the natural world, but they also make us question the way in which we occupy this space. They serve as evidence that Williams is what Jorie Graham (in her Introduction to The Best American Poetry of 1990) called a "classic believer -- perhaps only apparently unperturbed by the desperate fray; [a poet] in whom the repose of counted language is perhaps the highest form, today, of bravery."

Williams opens Gazelle in the House with a quotation from Charles Bergman: "I wanted, as it were, to see with my feet, connected to the earth." Because there are so many nature poems in this book, the epigraph is fitting, but her poems about experiences of youth honor this sentiment just as closely. What is more grounding than remembering your vulnerable adolescence, than looking back and saying, yes, that was me, that is me, there is beauty there? In the section titled, "Experience," Williams includes two versions of the same poem, "Exhilarated Walking Past High Trees..." and "Experience (--1979)." Both poems call up the timidity, confusion, and disconnection the speaker felt after having sex for the first time. The 1979 poem is more linear, more raw, more hopeful. The newer version contains the exact same lines arranged differently. The new arrangement is more disjointed, as the experience may have been. It creates a poem that is morose, and maybe even bitter. By reworking an old poem, Williams invites the reader behind the scenes, into her conversation with her younger self.

In this collection, Williams makes her inspirations clear. There are several poems in which she engages with the work or words of other artists. "Varying Lines," is a poem in three parts, each meditating on a particular Cezanne painting. Then there is a series of five poems collectively called, "Suite for Bonnefoy," that plays with phrases from an interview with the French poet. "Desert Appearance" opens with a quotation from British painter Francis Bacon, and "Inspiration and Impediment," was inspired by an essay in The Threepenny Review.

Obviously, there is a lot packed into this volume, but the poems that stand out most for me are the ones that are the most visceral. Williams excels at constructing nuanced descriptions of living things like insects and birds. Listen to what it sounds like to be surrounded by cicadas in "Leaving the Field:"

[...] the cicadas drone
through leaves with an off-key, faltering hum
that strengthens as it resolves. You are down,
it intones and we are: still, separate from
cicadas that vibrate on limb after limb
in slurred, ragged waves of excitement, flung
by the monumental furnace that drives them.

Right? That is exactly what it sounds like. Now, feel yourself in "The Hummingbird Aviary:"

[...] in an eternal

hummingbird paradise -- quick -- there's one
emerald-throated propeller-winged phantom
of a bird, not a bird, a spirit, a sprint,

like an arrow that missed us.

Perfect. Reading this is like standing in the aviary; you cannot look away. This prose is racing itself to the punch.

I would guess there are more poems about nature than about any other topic, with the possible exception of love. It takes a certain amount of, as Graham says, bravery to try to write a poem about hummingbirds. Williams has a poem about that, too. In "World's Witness" one must

[...] con

oneself into imagining that between
things' long-established contours there is room

to begin, intrude, continue to intrude [...]

The poems in this collection prove that if you can find the confidence, even if you have to imagine it into being, there is room.

Gazelle in the House by Lisa Williams
New Issues Poetry & Prose
ISBN: 978-1936970247
89 pages