Lissa Wolsak Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005. Introduction by George Quasha with Charles Stein (Barrytown: Station Hill, 2010)

Reviewed by Peter Larkin

What is it squeezes light? These poems suggest that whatever it is has already happened but without closing anything down. The title-figure is so potent it's rather a jolt to learn from the adventurous introductory essay by Quasha and Stein that "squeezed light" derives from a research field in quantum optics, virtually a closed field to most readers, but here a juxtaposition that reaches out to recoup the metaphoric play from which its scientific nomenclature had first been gathered. Like so much in Wolsak's work, this charged phrase reimports to a common language field a determinate freight which has swerved or been tilted but not jettisoned as such – figures don't cease to be partial captives but also offer their burdens, here as much weightings of experience and desire, or the obstructions which are self-challenges both stretching and re-compressing ontological wires enabling a poetics to mesh – or simply make a formative dash for it. As such, can "squeezed light" be taken as a surge from within a greater ontological diminishment, or is it a darker radiance extracted from too raw a light? Does the squeeze suggest a quasi-erotic intimacy with source itself, a closeness which also risks being an embrace overshooting its object? Wolsak remarks in an interview ("An Interview with Lissa Wolsak/Tom Beckett," Dorward, 67) that "light can and does exceed its own speed". Is the urgency therefore rising or falling?

then every line of
    sight would
come from a star..     (166)

Light also risks metaleptic relations with silence:

swerve word              with
silence at its core        (6)

a swerve which a few pages further can descend on "lies of origin" (13) via a "struck glance" (12) but more persistently to a sliver of optative mood: "if you would only / sip" (12). Was it the sip which struck, glancing deliberately, becoming a provocation to launch onto a new plane of tautened (squeezed) receptivities? This may actively:

..    distill light        as we do
           silence as unsound   (40)

in which the silence appears to have stolen something of the resonance of sound, a silence no longer echoing voice but switching in its own symmetrical negation. Wolsak's poems are full of these headlong dangers so that what dazzles opens up gaps which also introduce corrosions and collisions into the field, though not without a co-passional element in which the raps of spirit can include:

hurry ourselves then, and
you will call it useful, some
depth of mercy and a
         wrapped spark   (196)

The poetry knows that "only a finitude is a piercing of the lights" (235: original bold italics) but ceaselessly debates the latitude and orientation of that piercing – is it a piercing for, to, with, towards or on behalf of? What most breaks out of light, it seems, is just what is squeezed or compressed by horizons stretched right over but not displaced or fragmented as such. So "agape sits lightly upon us" (ie settles light upon us)

     or rather…less
and less chthonic thrall,
    release us
    fee-simple      (218)

but this had already been compressed to "I am full of rammed earth" (83) which is likely to be a packed light pushing further the allure and glow of earth until remoteness becomes a granule of surface, but not part of a surface inertly lateral or securely horizontal. This distilling of light away from or back towards compression induces triple l's reaching a punctum of concentration as "wrapped" light is coiled enough to work its field:

protagonies of self-capture
    magnitude, primary re
   duced to sighing figures
       as if divesting no
      filllight.   (168:original italics)

The narratable anguish of tamping (primary agonies on behalf of) doesn't suffocate the earth but enwinds it or reveals its coil to itself. Those three consecutive l's in "filllight" scintillate the first letter of light itself ploughing radiant furrows, perhaps already uncoiling but still curvaceous enough to be an occupying light, swirled by the field it fringes.

We meet swathes of singulars coalescing this poetry which bend and cut across any solo privileging of singularity itself. What it is singulars may become or how they engrain composition leaves gaps or scattered plugs simultaneously the energies of pursed or fluted moments of healing, articulating a between which doesn't suspend itself ideally but plunges into frank aspirations which have their gaugings no less than being gouged, or, as Wolsak might have said, dis-figments strung with para-offers. Wolsak writes: "I wish to question the vincula (connections) between grace and the abyss; Being in duplicity; apparency; things in their oppositeness (153). Reflecting elsewhere on Hank Lazer she detects a "fluent vehicle of mattering or opening of a mass…so that one might manifest a midst, uncanny but revelatory" (Wolsak, 2). The "between" implicated here is what William Desmond would call thought of the "metaxalogical" where the Greek word "metaxu" indicates both a feeling for the midst and the sensation of a beyond or what is more than any formal whole but not surpassing it merely hierarchically.(Desmond, 2003, 270) For Paul Ricoeur human weakness and fallibility must be sought within a structure of mediation between a pole of finitude and one of infinitude involving a disproportionate existence between finite capacity and infinite excess (Treanor, 6,9). Chez Quasha and Stein the "torsional journey between motivates an originary articulation within language, which cuts through space (the page) and edges time towards a mercurial outside (voice)" (xix). This maps onto a tangibility of the invisible within or beside the visible (with Merleau-Ponty a specific intertwining) or what Peter O'Leary calls the "qualia, or temporary states flagging immediate reality, that form the essential features of consciousness." ("What Lies Beneath My Copy of Eternity?", Dorward, 76). John Milbank insists poetry weaves across its own proclaimed sensory boundaries until there is in fact no sensory space available, but just this is a "common sensing" (sensus communis) which actually "proves" the soul, such being the proper but bastard sphere of poetry, exceeded ground granting the original operation of human thinking as such (Milbank, 4):

   Blessed rages
   across, wholes
affine love's deviations
    from circularity    (174)

Some of the above sources are close to Wolsak herself, others not; her poetry moves nomadically through this phenomenological terrain whilst constantly "squeezing" any bland logic of drift sufficing: displacement is itself under a contraction by which it is re-offered to a relatio of space rather than strategically imposed on a wandering too poised to remain robustly in the midst of. Rather, what avails is that which superfluously coils round fragment by way of figment of pilgrimage, which can at times blurt out a focused poverty of sharp intention:

of a forest razor
secret stings of
welcoming and escorting (134)

An Heuristic Prolusion (a stunning text) concludes its own urgency in encountering a motivated silence rather than further layers of figuration: "For me, the urgent question is.. 'do we have a prayer?'" (156). We clearly do owe what it is we might not have (prayer itself) that very question; for Jean Louis Chretien the way prayer leaps over its own ground is always self-wounding though it is what inaugurates the act of prayer while rendering it unrealisable on its own terms as any modality of speech efficacity (Janicaud, 172).

It is the force of "prayer" which actively disputes with religiosity in Squeezed Light so that there can be no reduction of engagement to wager or pact:

around death we do not speak
but make religious pacts
brittle blades of obsidian
they had so long put on their natures
such halting places (117)

Here Wordsworth's "halted traveller" meets a spate of induration but the poetry also allows a certain glint to the "brittle blades" whose own mock materiality can create new sidelong turbulences where close deviations do not have to be counter-vertical. Invisibility inheres as ontological torsion and it is this which flashes between aesthetics and ethics or sensuous concretion and sumptuous evanishment ("suppose I crane     percuss-vouch" (50)) where "crane" is both stretch and lift and the casting across the gap is a crash of impact chasing more than its own peremptory effort:

    noetics of desire
doors, pencils, standardized kitchens (54)

Dynamic saturation retires to a surface of plain or routine things, pulls down the temple which itself follows in the wake of a "lunacy of the literal" (54) lest it overbear the unbearable precision of what desire is , that "abyss of idealism" (Wordsworth) infilling its hollow with the minutiae of neighbouring externals, the only probable relata amid this separatist intensification:

indefinable flash
to pious incline,
  to feel singly
just..    autopoesies
of thingly beams..    (182)

The "pious incline" can reverse at any instant to a descending impulse ("crab-apples over light a / ground rolled down a / hill ((183))) but it is this distribution of tilting spaces and disparate times that weaves the tensionality of an always partly invisible being:

       I cannot now..  then,
          place where the
curvature becomes infinite…   (181)

This poetry is unembarrassed by any portentousness of "Being" and among the strongest texts collected here are the two Anas constituting A Defence of Being. Defence can be taken as a form of virtual destruction-testing, though the junk-wake of high-energy language collisions releases obstructions or filters residues which inject their own slants of adoption: these are the span of tireless figures which outplay pointilliste springs or brittle fallings-short to mark out how the poems navigate the page, a large mapping with minute enfeaturing, greater horizons of slippage than the swoops themselves:

impig, engorged
   in the ooze
wound upon it
but to whose mass it
        enormity    (171)

This is addressed "With respect to things / known ahead of / time (171), things which build up their own pressure-head of materiality or "world-writhing seed" (170). However, "being" as its own burden of recognition totters before the objects it so grounds, or radically enscarces any enormity conceived simply as a commonweal of things: from the overarched inertia-heap of great things (rather than Coleridge's "heap of little things") being is a coil which slightens, alleviates, aerates, delivering itself from the toll of self-address by seeking out what is between itself as self-consuming whole and its own enormity. Being as a wandering between squeezed light and distended darkness is without let-up as well as unnetted. There is a suffusion which complexifies in terms of (invisible) promise and dedication rather than housing its gesture within drift as such (which would then turn scaly and no longer operate between anything):

         ….. eternity misfits me   largely
   because of my suffused wanderings   there
        and this    without let     (77)

The moments of particularity dazzle in these poems because they have already slid their contingency forwards, both corrugating and fretting it in what has to transpire as a modulation, a species of ontological dentelle which is sheer indentation made from its own proffering impulsion:

           inky    violet sugar
blue rue   chartreuse  horehound,

in umbels or heads,   spike-train,
      unbranched but entangled,   benth, shield-fern, teasel
erect to sprawling    blister rust, slink-lily
swards of silver grass     (81)

Here the standard abbreviation for the botanist George Bentham as "benth" becomes entangled with a cornucopia of the plants themselves, so that system and nominalisation are sustained by becoming a short-hand back to that naturalisation decisively offered away from itself but still retrievable in snagged form by it. In such a litany the most intimate differences the plants perform is their capacity to be named as parallels to their silent callings, divergences which re-blister and sprawl but are a branching out at this point. There can be an element of mourning too, a brilliance projected ahead of any consummation: "and so on tonguing my / mojo" is how the poetry greets its own litany, while at the same time retracing an acuity of witness with more than a limp echo of Wordsworth's "high spear-grass on that wall, / By mist and silent rain-drops silver'd o'er" (Wordsworth, 75). The attentiveness is sharp enough for plenitude but under conditions of austerity or across the inherent brittleness of uncombining particulars themselves. A Defence of Being eventually mounts its own litany, defiant before the italics of inalienable privilege already wider than what can be wandered to:

next…some of them took
          away the word

          materiality at its
         venerable creation
fresh on all gates
creating simultaneously
           maybe we
naturalize a single chaos
      outrun to grass    (190)

This might be how a chaos of singulars is just what we naturalize enough to exceed the commonality of grass, naturality as the natus of gift.

Squeezed Light might risk preciosity in its elaborate cutaways or etiolated side-growths were we ever very far from trenchant decisions simultaneously a refloating of multiple veils brusquely coiled or drawn short with whip-lash effect. What can't be readily absorbed of this complexity scrapes a harsh rind scarcely amenable to further layering, so that implexure accepts the burdens of inflection. This is the challenge Wolsak sets herself. The mysterious is not levelled out along platforms of curious enigma, the pure product of juxtaposition. Rather, these poems are "phenoumenological", that ballooning term with which Wolsak addresses an actively pulsing horizon of natural desire, by which a molested enigma is offered to whatever such a boundary can be sprung from. Such "phonotextual clusters" (Simon Jarvis) are musters of a "being" that must survive the rhetorical crags and splinters of its own defence:

         Perhaps…I say,
love's whipscorpion cadaver
omnivorously waves be
'tween feeding and lidless
vigilance, yet…free to reply to
            human prayers   (188)

The incommensurate "reply" to "human prayers" is the "be" that merges with the midst of "be-tween" (or what Desmond names a coming to be rather than the self-absorbed seriality of becoming) (Desmond, 2005, 128). Wolsak herself (writing on Hank Lazer) refers to "the crest of a structure" by which poetry is swept more intensely over its ground, but this is no surge of opulence so much as a "disjunctive rapport with the face of emotional turmoil, superfluity, scarcity" (Wolsak, 2). What overflows can trace a less-than which allows space between a nothing and a less-than-nothing before, or what we might call promise. As Henry Gould writes of Pen Chants: "their strange beauty [of the words] begins to suffice: the insufficiency they declare is mended or healed by the sufficiency of the unasked-for gift of the words themselves (Gould, 1). What is unasked is words embodying their own circuit; rather, they stake out a looming poverty of ontological burden, a brittle enactment that is self-emptying before a threshold (present only in the gesturing-to, not secured as such); to requote an unconditional inheritance:

            for here…evidence…an inchoate ear
is my hand smouldering and agape sits lightly upon us,
                                or rather…less
                      and less chthonic thrall,
                                   release us
                                  fee-simple        (218)

As Quasha and Stein write, "the poetic apophrasis that we are addressing as furthering knows that its opening extends beyond interpretation as such, the poet's as much as the reader's" (xx). A "beyond interpretion" is keenly, at times frangibly, extended by these poems as what tries for more than a blank cluster at an incompletable midst-of, but does provoke and endure addressable (though not articulatable) edges of relation:

bigamously nestled
illusion to space
pressure of sunlight
inhumes  belonging   (97)

Above all, what squeezes light knows itself for an "attingency," gaining, attaining, arriving at the co-pressure between separables conduced to offerables:

Beyond…on a convex…
attingent squeezed light,
what-is touches what-is   (201)

Identicals cannot touch, so the intimacy vouchsafed here is one between polar extremes which mirror each other only from within a complicity of disjunct planes of gift, tightly luminous in their condensed multiplicity.




Desmond, William. 2003. Art, Origins, Otherness (Albany: State University of New York Press.

Desmond, William. 2005. Is There a Sabbath for Thought? (New York: Fordham UP)

Dorward, Nate (ed). 2008. Antiphonies: Essays on Women's Experimental Poetries in Canada (Willowdale: The Gig).

Gould, Henry. "Review of Pen Chants or nth or 12 spirit-like impermanencies."

Janicaud, Dominique (et al). 2000. Phenomenology and the 'Theological Turn': the French Debate (New York: Fordham UP).

Milbank, John. 2008. The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences (Eugene,Or: Cascade Books).

Treanor, Brian (ed). 2010. A Passion for the Possible: Thinking with Paul Ricoeur (New York: Fordham UP).

Wolsak, Lissa. "Time of Useful Consciousness: an Experimental Reading of The New
Spirit" (H_NGM_N#4, 2:

Wordsworth, William. The Ruined Cottage and the Pedlar. Ed. James Butler (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979).

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