Elizabeth Willis: The Great Egg of Night

by Michael Peverett

Most of the reviews I've read of Elizabeth Willis' poetry are, at least to appearance, a chorus of unstinting praise; though sometimes it sounds like praise for floral wallpaper. John Latta indeed registers a doubt, but it isn’t a doubt about how marvellously Willis has written, more a "But really what's the use of it all?" kind of doubt - and to grasp the charge more accurately you need to read the whole piece. In other words, it's an external criticism of the kind of thing that's achieved, not an internal criticism of its achievement. And this is also praise of sorts, because mediocre writing never raises that kind of big metaphysical issue; the evidence on the page is too shot to make it worth thinking about.

These reviews, I should explain, are of the full-length volume Meteoric Flowers (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). The Great Egg of Night is an Equipage pamphlet of 2005 containing 16 poems, all of which (with the exception of "Female Figs Supposed to be Monsters") are also in the larger volume, so you can read this as a mini-review of Meteoric Flowers as well, if you prefer. Both books are records of a project: the titles of the poems (and occasionally sentences within them) are taken from Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791).

This is one of my favourites:


The house of mirth is casting its shadows. My bureau, my agency, a wall of sliding glass. Without its leaky reverie, the face is a shield. Who wouldn't love the sycamore in spite of its skin? For a minute the fountain was an indoor labyrinth, a garden gone wild into perfect order. See the bleeding ankle? The meat of the body left alone to run the house. In the company of A or B, in the company of M or W, unfixed by science, a leaning spectacle. The delicate column, the poppied hill.

The structure of Willis' prose poems is not, as that term can so easily mislead us into assuming, the same as typical prose; it is just as formally exclusive as any stanza in verse. Adam Fieled has described the poems as "hard-core paratactic", and this is just as true grammatically as semantically; in The Great Egg of Night and appears only twice, that once and which not at all. Commas are nearly always used paratactically, and when I read the poems discursively - or intone them lyrically - there's a steady thud of full stops, shortish sentences that are exacerbated by the persistent switch of subject, which offers no bridge of passion across, no means of keeping the voice animated. Which monotony tells me that this isn't a great way of going about reading them.

It might be better to think of other highly paratactic forms and how we read them, for example the mise en scène at the beginning of a play:

Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front right, a door. Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins. Centre, in an armchair on castors, covered with an old sheet, HAMM.

Or perhaps, (in deference to Erasmus Darwin and his master Linnaeus), a standard botanical description:

Stems erect, to 1.5(2)m; cladodes on main lateral branches (5)10-20(25)mm, flexible, usually green; pedicels 6-10(15)mm; seeds usually 5-6; grown as vegetable, very well naturalized in dry sandy soils among sparse grass...

(slightly adapted from the entry for Asparagus officinalis in Clive Stace, New Flora of the British Isles, 2nd edn. 1997)

For such passages of parataxis one adopts a particular kind of reading behaviour. One is trying to assemble a comprehensive picture from the materials given; one reads so slowly and with such long pauses for assimilation that all sense of underlying rhythm is sacrificed; one flicks back and forth to check on things (it not seeming important to maintain the sequence of the phrases in the reading); or one dwells for one's particular purposes on a single phrase to the exclusion of the rest. In short, one studies them.

That is at any rate analogous to the kind of tempo and reading-strategies that I've gradually found myself dropping into, reading this pamphlet. One of the things I've omitted to say before in praise of pamphlets is that they are a good format for sneakily infiltrating poetry into the workplace, because a pamphlet looks like promotional or training material and therefore attracts no interest, whereas a book is an object as iconographic of putting your feet up as a glass of beer. Most of the reading, and some of the writing, of this review took place in the office. And this is about the best pamphlet for the purpose I've ever tried, since its sixteen poems, if studied sufficiently in the empty sounding-chamber of work, yield material for sixteen novels.

Indeed even a single sentence, such as this one -

I see the face in flower and want to draw it, I chop the tree without thinking, a book or a subtle lean-to.

(from "Sympathetic Inks")

- it makes so many changes of direction that it's hard to hold all the elements in the mind, never mind review them. I've found myself wondering, as an interesting exercise, if any substitution of the nouns and verbs in this sentence could make its syntax acceptable. (This is not such a trifling consideration as it may seem since there are times in these poems when a noun-substitution is insistently suggested: e.g.

the springing scent of consensual facts

briefly hinting at consensual acts - and then focussing us back with redoubled emphasis on consensual facts.) Or I've wondered about how such mental reverie as is expressed in the first part of the sentence could be combined with such sharp if unpondered action as is claimed in the second - the best idea I could come up with was when driving a tractor. As it happens a scene of business-pastoral (a rapidly changing scene, of course - of mixed farming, horse-breeding, fishing and forest clearance), lies back of this poem. That distinctive juxtaposition of tranquillity with violence is insistent too, as when an evening at the theatre turns out to have destroyed an ecosystem.

"Sympathetic Inks" isn't the only poem to have, in one corner of its eye, a piece of political grit. "The Great Egg of Night" likewise proceeds mistily at first, with the vaguely disconcerting feeling that plural subjects are acting in singular ways, and vice versa -

Palmed and tendered in subaltern shade, I could not shake the memory of a train that whitely striped the hills. The surrendering pike pours out in uniform. Butter-gloved epiphanies slide past us in their muscle car.

A little later the political relevance of language's capacity to personify and aggregate becomes manifest:

What form do women take? Or is she taken like a path to frosty metaphor, a seed easier crushed than opened?

The poem doesn't end there, though. Its end is a conspicuously rigged self-betrayal of language's capacity for huddling together a fake conclusion:

Rigging our descent to decent landings, mistaking angle for angel, piloting home.

But what then of "Grateful as Asparagus", the poem I quoted in full? It isn't only sentences with difficult syntax that are worth fixing on. What could be simpler than

See the bleeding ankle?

But what does it imply about its context? Surely that the person addressed is not the owner of the ankle, who is supposed insensible to what is being said: whether comatose, dead, absent, unable to understand English, or unable to participate in professional talk. "Ankle" tends to suggest a human owner, anyway, but an owner as it were dehumanized. The speaker is, we suppose, an investigator, which chimes with "My bureau, my agency", and also with the dirt-digging notes of "In the company of A or B, in the company of M or W". The poem's title, Darwinian as it may be, is also Chandleresque. Dehumanization brings us to the sentence that follows, the one about "the meat of the body". It may be that the asparagus, that "delicate column", is also a dehumanization.

The quietly elegant appearance of these poems (I am thinking of Latta again) is not to be gainsaid. Still, it may be that this very elegance is an accident of efficiency: that (to take the final poem,"Ferns, Mosses, Flags", as an example) the aestheticallly-pleasing words "weathers", "haystack", "brook", "skin", "eyebrows", "chalk" etc, occur because these are also the most useful words for Willis, the scalpel words. In this case it's the idea of a nation that receives her surgical attention.


Two notes on "Grateful as asparagus": The house of mirth: Edith Wharton was quoting Ecclesiastes 7:4, "the heart of fools is in the house of mirth". The tree called sycamore in the USA is Platanus occidentalis, the American plane. Its bark, like the London plane's, appears strikingly mottled. [The biblical name "sycamore", which in e.g. Luke 19:4 really means fig-mulberry (a Levantine tree) is differently misappropriated in the UK where it is used for the maple Acer pseudoplatanus.]

The Great Egg of Night was published by Equipage in 2005.

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