Thursday, February 02, 2017
heteroglossia: [poems] by Lindsay Illich
by Lindsay Illich
Baton Rouge: Anchor & Plume, 2016
Reviewed by David P. Miller
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines heteroglossia as “a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view in a literary work and especially a novel.” This chapbook by Lindsay Illich makes it clear that, although a novel may be the expected setting, a collection of poems or even a single poem will do as well. Illich’s poetry is conversational, erudite, slangy, elegant: often accessible right on the level of music, sometimes asking a pause to look up definitions (or a note-to-self to look them up later). This review will hint at some of the voices and stories brought together, with a closer reading of the title poem. All titles are given in lower case in the book.
“apologia for mountaineering” begins simply enough, with a reference to Stevie Nicks’ song “Landslide,” then begins again, introducing a term strange to most of us, made clear in context and moving right into psychologically complex territory:
I climbed the mountain because Stevie Nicks
made it sound so nonchalant.
I climbed the mountain because I knew the word
krummholz referred to the trees
penultimate to treeline,
leafless and arithmetic, barely able to sustain
love at that height.
We might have to come back later to consider the arithmetic-ness of bare trees, because the climb down the page continues toward “you” and “our // topos was radiant.” Topos: “a traditional or conventional literary or rhetorical theme or topic” according to M-W online. And there’s a pun buried as well, as a “topo” is a diagram of a mountain including details of routes to the top. We might assume that the “you” in “I climbed the thing / to be interesting, to say I did you” is human and the “did” is sexual, but perhaps it’s the mountain? Or both: the topos (traditional theme) of human attraction, is as radiant as the map allowing the mountain to be “done.”
The couplets of “december 30” address a loved one, and the bafflement of relationship via a sequence of remarkable analogies. “I sometimes think of us as forgetful / & only remembering each other // like claustrophobes wanting the dense / space of football fields”. This may very well resonate with anyone needing more personal space, but how much more interestingly said. And immediately countered with “Or deep / in the night’s sorrow, when you hear me // breathing, we are one / continent.” As a single instance of Illich’s attentive awareness of line and stanza breaks, see how the almost expected “breathing, we are one” is flipped to a massive image simply by saving “continent” for the next line.
By the time we’re well into “broken down west texas”, it’s easy to forget that almost all of it is an extended metaphor following from the second line of the opening:
To love someone in spite of yourself
is driving down the same road
every day without knowing
where you’re going.
The poem evokes the hazards of day-long desert driving in an unsound vehicle: “The truck chuckles at your / nervousness. The gas gauge / falls asleep” … “The sun / doesn’t go down / so much as the mesa / sucks it out of the sky.” So a reader like me, picturing the scene and glad that it’s someone else’s reality, might be temporarily puzzled by “the truck a skin / you can’t climb out of” near the end, before remembering that this is about loving wrongly as like a vehicle. It really can be that risky.
Here are a couple of brief examples of the poet’s mutable diction. In “cleaning house” we read:
we’ve grown into each other
like the limbs of those
trees and from here I don’t
know whose branch this
or nest that.
The last phrase is without an expected “is” following “this” and “that”: “whose branch this is, whose nest that is.” But as “branch” and “nest” are also verbs, the grammatical turn after “whose” means a simile for the identification of sisters swoops into activities of branching and nesting.
The opening of “what he did with the moon tonight” couples casual diction with an atypical outcome: “What he did with the moon / tonight was he / pressed her through a sieve”. The conversational “was” is grammatically odd but serves almost as a conjunction, compressing the possible, much wordier “This is what he did with the moon / tonight. He / pressed her” etc. The flow of “what he did was he” sweeps us into the image. And in heteroglossic manner, not long after this we learn of “the stars / coupling, their penurious / leaning into each other’s / gravity” – elegant and multisyllabic. Some readers may want poets to maintain a unified voice, at least within a given poem. This reader does not understand that to be a necessary virtue.
The title poem, two pages of couplets (mostly), is an elegy for someone with the initials T.H.M. Its multiple types of diction evoke heteroglossia itself, and again evoke the question: why must a poem speak in one voice only? Or rather, why speak using only diction that’ assumed to continue as it’s begun? Let’s begin with the first couplet:
The birds have woken me before dawn,
in the left margin of June without you:
In the first line we are set, not in a specific location, but at a time of day and in a place that we can understand – a place where there are sufficient birds to wake the speaker. But the second line begins immediately to shift the tone. We understand that there is a “you” that the speaker misses, and that we are in the month of June. But “the left margin” suggests the visual image of a calendar, so we participate in a leap from aural to visual image. Or it might be the left margin of a piece of paper in June, as the next couplet is
some loves are textual, coming paratactically,
Alexandrine, getting smoked like a Cuban.
We need to know the meaning of “paratactic.” One definition is “The juxtaposition of clauses or phrases without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, as It was cold; the snows came.” There’s now the suggestion that we readers are facing a sheet of paper with a paratactic juxtaposition of phrases and quasi-Alexandrine lines. Which we are. This digression into process is interrupted by stanza breaks before and after the almost-simple single line:
And you, caesuredly.
The framing caesuras make the poem actually do what it says it’s doing – evoking the absent addressee, who stands between two silences.
This heady wrenching-away from the initial place and time comes back, now in a tone with a hint of ironic distance:
So the morning is about to do her rise
thing, the lupines, the vireos, and I’m back
There’s a hesitation to fully give over to rosy-fingered dawn, emphasized by the line break, but after that sight and sound place us a little more surely among flora and fauna. The speaker has apparently returned, but where?
in the rivers we waded in, floated down,
discussed abstractly and mythologically
So, not back in an exact moment, but rather into memory and metaphor. The poem is beginning to seem like a river itself, creating its own bed and landscape as it flows, as compared with poems which are more like canals, constructed to end in anticipatable destinations.
A few lines later, we veer back to the loss, which now seems a death, though soon backed away from:
Nothing has kept you on the globe
where I learned the word gypsum
yesterday. How boring is the
heaven-is-a-mansion thing, esp. since
how much better would a river be
where you and me are alive
and always alive with moving.
The near-explicit statement of death is allowed to stand before the stanza break. But immediately following, “the globe” is pivoted, from the home of the missing person to the setting of a personal anecdote not otherwise explained. This is followed by a dismissive reference to conventional means of comfort, including the abrupt “esp.”, as if the speaker could hardly spare time for the linkage to a wish for “you and me” together again in an actual place.
We’ve followed through something less than half of the title poem. I’ll leave the rest for your contemplation, except to add a couple of examples of wordplay. The phrase “the bird derries, the beautiful derrières / on the ferry” is an instance where the sound creates the world, and vice-versa, simultaneously. (“Derry”: a meaningless phrase used in a song, as in “derry-down.”) And the curious final word, “ceasuredly.” Spell-check doesn’t know where to go with this, a pun on the already-invented “caesuredly,” stemming perhaps from “cease.”
Poems to take your time with, to read multiply, for their heart and carnality as well as their intelligence. It’s worth nothing that a full-length collection, rile & heave (everything reminds me of you), will be published by Texas Review Press this winter.