Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

Celebrating The Annotated ‘Here’ and Selected Poems by Marjorie Welish

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Marjorie Welish is an Anti-Imagiste who nevertheless, as poet, art critic, and painter, is consummately interested in the image. Only her interest does not fly into a material target with a zing of ecstatic emotion. Instead it hovers, but not familiarly. Not between the self and the world in some version of Romantic or Symbolist dualism. It hovers between three interpenetrating realms, between an object, the conscious act of perceiving the object, and the word that stands for the object. The ferocious, sometimes hilarious ("Ugh! Aargh! Oh, Anna….") and always provocative poems of "The Annotated 'Here'," the most recent section of work in her gorgeous new book, take place then as part of a phenomenological inquiry.

It might be said that in "The Annotated 'Here'," consciousness is defined as consciousness-of-something. This is the "thought about" of the poem "Crude Misunderstandings" and it is the a priori of Husserlian philosophy. In Marjorie Welish's poems, the mind's world and the world of physical event are inseparable. In a sequence of poems entitled "Thing Receiving Road," Welish considers the implications of Wallace Stevens' curious assertion in "Anectdote of the Jar" (a poem woven also into a recent serial by Robert Creeley), that the speaker of Stevens' poem "placed" rather than found a jar (in Tennessee) around which the world ordered itself. The "poetics of seeming disclosure (we have cited)," Welish writes, "sets upon earth or its buried representation." Here, as elsewhere in her work, Welish makes use of a critical and analytical diction but in the service of poetics. She isn't developing logical arguments or pilpulistic thematic procedures. Instead, she conceives a remarkable lyric poetry that manifests itself principally as deployment. Purposive perspectival shifts constitute the literary event of Welish's body of work. At the velocity of cerebration, the poems investigate perspective by shifting perspective. Their exploration of semantic representation develops as language play, as "jars of private language," as shifting arrangements of the letters "i," "p," "t" and then "h" and "p" in these lines from "Still Life," the first poem in "Thing Receiving Road":

is intentionally petitioned at a time of implicative possibilities
To perceive is to intend habitats and plaintiffs,
hence to place…

If "To perceive is to intend," then our attention biases what Welish later in the sequence calls "the clearing toward disclosure." But Welish relishes rerouting our biases. In her lines, disclosure seductively defers itself. Slippage is a primary modus operandi. Documentation methods (a quotation followed by the number "45" for instance) allude to missing sources. Familiar references-well-known poems or paintings-are deconstructed in formal translations. The incessant border crossings are not only conceptual, but visual and aural. The word "gray" slides into the word "gravity," and "gladiolus" gives way to a "bouquet of gladiators." The poems are as much about how we read as they are about what we read. Each word seems to open out into that galaxy of language wherein consciousness takes form. If clarity and good sense are the goals of your readerly application, this poetry is surely not for you. In alphabetical and numerical games, in structures mounted through a constant reworking of text, in formal representations of difference and variation, Welish celebrates the élan of thought in unconsummated and expressively underdetermined sentences. The heady sense of flux we associate with her poems is created less often by syntactic instabilities than by more subtle displacements of conventional contextualization. We must place ourselves in the wilderness of the poems to discover their geometry of implication.

Here, lovely example, is the middle poem in "Thing Receiving Road":

Spilling mien through wilderness, this, after interval. A mien near wilderness, an increase of mien. Demeanor near tarpaulins, and that jar.

That jar in requiem for wilderness even on a fingernail. Mien rubbing itself against folded tarpaulin: folding mien outside domain, place asleep; place, crossing a fence.

Place of two witnesses, and near, place of the first-born. Jars spilling wilderness, wilderness as yet not tithed. Near and far are jars unverified, jars of private language.

Participating jars and tarpaulins are proximate. Tarpaulins tangent to jars lie there. Jars in sections nearly spill.

Diametrically-opposed tarpaulins spill a wilderness. Jars on the horizon, tarpaulins at hand. A wilderness equidistant between a jar and an aspect of a jar.

Ezra Pound warned us to "Go in fear of abstraction," but Welish identifies abstraction as an essential quality of human intellectual experience and curiosity. "The Annotated 'Here'," although divided into sections, might be read as a collect of poems concerned with specific artworks (by Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, and Cy Twombly) and poems (by Wallace Stevens and W. C. Williams) that emphasize the abstract dynamic of subject, object, and field. Readers find themselves "setting out" from the section's first poem in order to address the "in face, to face" of canvas/page, eye, and perception/conception, those necessary orientations to what is the central human activity taking place in "The here of actual space". By the time when, in the last poems of this section, Welish refers to a "tarpaulin with focal points," we construe from the single image a string of simultaneous impressions. Her tarpaulin is the scene itself stretching out around any point (or jar) in the landscape to which we give our attention. It is also the blank page on which the poem (about the jar) is written. And it is the canvas on which a particular aspect (of the jar) may be rendered. It is equally a metaphor for the inquisition (a focused receptivity, a stretching open) we must make if we are to move toward what Welish identifies as "a sentence of significance."
The Annotated 'Here' and Selected Poems is a vital, original, and significant book. No one has ever written like Marjorie Welish.