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pia aliperti

Fence Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1934200490. 80 p.

Today I write; I wait for
the form around which
I was formed.

Laura Wetherington, “My poitrine made of clouds”

Is order inherent or created? Does form come first or does the form-giver? Laura Wetherington explores structure – the visual, the functional, and the physical – in A Map Predetermined and Chance, published by Fence Books as C.S. Giscombe’s selection for the 2010 National Poetry Series.  Visually, the map is her key.  One poem is plotted like notes on staff paper. Others use typography to create meaning; words and phrases surface from the text as if two poems are unfolding at once.  Thematically, Wetherington circles around the dictum “The map is not the territory” (Alfred Korzybski) or “The description is not the described” (Jiddu Krishnamurti). For A Map Predetermined and Chance lacks a standard cartographer. In this collection, “there is no narrator, no barrier.” No overarching speaker or form-giver. Instead, Wetherington tells her reader: “Figure yourself […].”  Draw your own form. “Your vagina is a country. / Your orgasm takes over agriculture.”

Like a map, grammar is functional, orderly, and descriptive, just another structure on Wetherington’s page. Readers of Craig Dworkin’s conceptual project Parse (Atelos, 2008) know that something transformative happens between the moving parts of a sentence and its fully-formed self. Dworkin parsed the 1874 textbook How to Parse: an Attempt to Apply the Principles of Scholarship of English Grammar by using the book’s strict grammatical code as his guide. Language is translated into its role (“Singular Noun genitive pronoun Proper Place Name intransitive passive voice indicative mood incomplete passive voice…”). Wetherington, too, is interested in functionality, and tests language at the seams: “Of course I won’t lose you / because I never had you to begin with.”   She pulls apart punctuation, questioning “how [one can have] a question with a period” with a period, and syntax (“What is the verb to have? […] What is the verb to have to?”). In You slip from my fingers, she investigates the grammar of sexual desire, creating order even as she splits newly created sentences apart. Form is slippery; tactile:

This is a verb: your fingers.
This is a noun: my
desire. They make
a sentence: you finger
my desire.

A Map Predetermined and Chance ends with the remarkable series Visiting Normandy, which weaves accounts of D-Day from an oral history transcript by Lt. Carl H Cartledge into present-day accounts of a speaker’s extended stay in the same region.   Directly following a poem that references poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje’s hybrid work The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, the series seems to follow Ondaatje’s impulse to blend forms.  (“Even now I am not sure if it is the poems that anchor the book in a mental reality or the prose that does so with its physical actuality,” Ondaatje explains in the afterword to his book). For her part, Wetherington lends the poems set in the present-day a more physical actuality by enclosing the text in a black box while the poems that derive from the Lt. Cartledge oral accounts are free from such a barrier.  The speaker’s visit to Normandy becomes a series of fleeting moments frozen, as if in a snapshot. (“It’s not about the moment. / It’s about a fleet of moments,” Wetherington writes elsewhere in the collection). Past and present events are linked by a shared place or a shared history, yet, there are strange tangents.  A seemingly offhand remark, the very last line of the series, casts a new shadow over Visiting Normandy and hints at another version of events, another perspective.  With this possibility of a rewriting – a reordering – the collection loops around to Wetherington’s initial warning from the opening poem:  “the present is a pasture […] it points to itself.”

* * *

Wetherington is most interested in self-created form.  It is the atlas of her desire that she wants to study (“I want to explore your deep / structure. / Map it out on paper) just as she wants to be studied (“my primer / is a desire: see my desire get / fingered”). The imagery in her poems often stretches like a coastline or the orientation lines on a map. “I am a river long and unknotted […] the same ocean of elbows for rivers and not longer,” she writes; and: “I wasn’t long”[…] which is to say I take a long time to fall into gold light.”  When Wetherington says “I am longing,” in All I want is universe, we sense that what she’s really doing is elongating, creating new physical terrain with every articulated desire. There is always the universe, after all: “Any possible somewhere.  Any / possible long. And plus and plus and plus.”

Canarium Books, 2012

We lie in every word.
Did I say word? Oh dear. I meant mode.
We lie in every mode.

Darcie Dennigan, “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze”

Darcie Dennigan announces in Madame X, her second collection of poetry, that we have been “wis-hearing” syllables “since the Tower of Babel’s ceiling fan stirred M and W into topsiturvitude.” In “Some Antics” we find the speaker “at Macy’s searching for an honest clause.”  We are told: “When the honest word eludes, try to substitute.” Finally, at the end of the book, Dennigan acknowledges her readers: “If anything emerges from this book’s mistakes, it is thanks to [their] generous readings.”

Mistakes run rampant through Madame X. As large-scale disasters they are droughts and hurricanes, nuclear holocaust and water contamination.  But mistakes also arise as verbal collisions, as a misunderstanding or misspeaking.  Dennigan favors dramatic monologues in a prose style that is rich with ellipses to signal interruptions, erasures, verbal tics or a trailing off. The ellipses allow the prose poems to escape their box bodies (yes, these are prose poems with line breaks) by separating words with lapses or pauses, often highlighting language’s slipperiness. In “The Atoll” Dennigan describes the native Atlanteans, driven out of their island homes by the negative effects of fisson testing: “We escorted them … to a very nice … resort-like … laboratory”…“They were nodding and bowing … maybe politeness … maybe vomiting.”

These poems inhabit a site that is almost recognizable. An abandoned Los Angeles. A dreamscape with vivid flourishes.  A sense of normalcy, for instance, in the surreal preparation of a fancy dinner – thirty duck hearts – against the backdrop of a simultaneous hurricane, blizzard, and 4th of July. The recipe keeps changing, depending upon who hears about it, always with some new ingredient to add, some preparation method to tweak. “That’s not the way it goes … anymore,” the chorus of dinner guests reprimands. “Each heart should be served raw … and drowning … in a sacred diamond-flavored fountain” is an impossibility in a poem entitled “The Drought”, where the riverbed is dry.

Symbolism, for these characters, is often undermined.  The hostess in “The Drought,” frustrated by her guests’ servitude to ritual, finally blurts out: “But these guests! … Honestly … They were just … They were as hungry as I was.”  Divorced from symbol, objects become purely functional again.  Baptismal water and communion wafers are consumed for sustenance. St. Augustine’s book flips open to a revelatory passage, not through mysticism, but since “the freaking book probably always falls open to that page because … who’s always reading it … creasing it … who owns that book in the first place.” As Dennigan puts it bluntly, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well –/ I’d probably just want to have sex with it.”  Dennigan’s poems often return to the body, the desires and perceived failings her speakers constantly try to transcend.  “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs, and mouth and fingers.”

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” famously wrote Robert Frost.  “I whispered precipice” Dennigan answers, “[…] because precipice contains ice (practically twice).”  If the end is near, as Dennigan proposes, at least the language is hearty.  The crux of the book seems to hinge on our ability to dismantle words to make meaning, to misspeak to create new understandings. True loneliness, Dennigan says, is a place distanced from the disaster zone or, as above, removed from verbal topsiturtivitude. “When the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must / hold in your arms a strange thing.”