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SARA NICHOLSON
WITCHY WOMAN: A DRESSING DOWN OF ELIZABETH WILLIS
Raven hair and ruby lips / Sparks fly from her fingertips 
Echoed voices in the night / She’s a restless spirit on an endless flight
– Don Henley

It is not enough to be animated by God’s breath. Today, it seems, one must also be a poet. Elizabeth Willis’s Address, with its mess of inflorescence, base metals, and even a teensy bit of gold, searches out a voice and place proper to writers in a terrorized, terrorizing America. It is also a loathsome book that delights in naming sorcerers.

So what exactly is its “address”? There’s the occasional jibe at suburbia: “the suffocating dis- / appointment of the mall” (1) and “This featureless cottage / about to be filled / with ‘genuine antiques’” (13). And yet, ironic or not, suburban clichés bombard us: “the boat in the driveway” (1), “the dog next door” (31), “a cardinal in the berry bush” (15), “this swingset / above the topsoil” (2). These poems abound with references to lawns, gardens and sidewalks, yet despise provincial life. Garbage, that dark specter, exists not as a necessary feature of our landscapes, but as a symbol of our decadence, an aesthetic teardrop: “Here is a pink ruffle emerging from landfill / at the edge of an unaffordable city” (38). This, in “Year-End Review,” is paired with other piteous images: “the mouth of the boy / who died in dynastic battle” and “the face of a woman / unable to look you in the eye” (38).

In Address, nature exists in a childlike realm. “My heart caves in / the better to see you with” (8) and “What bitter landscape / the better to hear you with?” (11) echoes the wolf-voice of the poet. “I too lived in Arcadia / in a house made of straw,” oinks a little speaker-pig. Willis decorates her cocktail party politics with picturesqueness, garden charm, and a nauseating faery vocabulary. Where Lautréamont would bring us a sewing machine and an umbrella, she brings for poetic dissection fluttering leaves and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. The mind of any poet may content itself with eohippus and polygneiss; after all, HD had her murex, and Whitman his monstrous sauroids. A gnome might slip by her, and in its place some weak observation would follow. In this book, there is too much of the ornithologist, and not enough bird-watcher.

Oh birds, trees, and bees. Alcibiades stroked a partridge while delivering oratories. She does the same with greenery, heirloom flowers, and a barren tessellate poetics. Botanic language is a hobgoblin, and Willis proves that one may read deeply from Theophrastus, Pliny, Thomas Browne, Columella, and Erasmus Darwin without pocketing a bit of the knottiness and power of their language. Address has made me raise my pitchfork at metaphor, that colossus: poems are not flowers that masticate sunlight in the foundries of their stalks. We learn from “Poisonous Plants of America” that she has consulted a field guide. This poem is merely a litany (a form “newly revived” (!) here, says Alice Notley) of silly-sounding plant names arranged in that most creative of ways: alphabetically.

Anaphora and analogy, her twin crutches, litter the otherwise manicured landscape of her poems. As readers, we are privy to an embarrassment of dull descriptors: objects are “held open like a door” (8), “like a coin in a purse” (16), and “coming on like a cold” (41). The word “poem” itself appears ten times, “the poet” once, and “my book” once, all in sixty-three pages. Elsewhere, she resorts to pure free association:

            In Natural History
            Sophocles loved
            Asphodel, but Asphodel
            loved William Carlos
            Williams as hyacinth
            loved France, and honey
            loves a toothache (25)

Yawn. The interplay of poetic and nonpoetic form lies at the very heart of Address; indeed, from its titles, we are told that this book contains a nocturne, a ballad, two sonnets, a hymn, a triptych, a still life, an FAQ, a flow chart, a weather forecast, a classified ad. And yet, with the exception of “The Witch,” the abysmal “This is Not a Poem About Katherine Harris,” and the book’s last two poems, all are nearly identically-formatted short lyrics, rewritten, it feels, endlessly. “I am not bored” she actually says (31). And yet we are.

Enter Aesop: An Ass once found a Lion’s skin which the hunters had left out in the sun to dry. He put it on and went towards his native village. All fled at his approach, both men and animals, and he was a proud Ass that day. In his delight he lifted up his voice and brayed, but then every one knew him, and his owner came up and gave him a sound cudgeling for the fright he had caused. And shortly afterwards a Fox came up to him and said, ‘Ah, I knew you by your voice.’ The poet is by nature scapegrace, and the misdemeanors of lyric are enough to make us the Asses of this donkeyless nation. 

Willis’s politics, like her poems, depend on an insipid, binary worldview: “concrete lane or unconquerable interior” (6), “I is to They” (1), witch and witchhunter, Democrat and Republican. “They” have their states (“Take Florida / Take Ohio / Take Wisconsin / Take Missouri” (5)) and the implied “we” have ours. Her poem cedes these states to the party then in power, and reserves the rest for whom? Poor people, disenfranchised people, convicts, university professors? This poem, with its relentless irony, wags its finger and everyone and nobodaddy, and maybe at us readers as well (hypocrite lecteur!):

            Take this shirt
            in need of washing
            this unread book
            Take this child
            this husband, this
            teacup...

            Take the F train
            but not to Brooklyn
            Take the case
            of the missing cufflinks
            Take this beverage
            with its silver
            Pullman ice (2-3)

Because surely no rich person has ever lived in Brooklyn. Really, I feel in this book nothing but a contempt for (again) two opposed groups: an amorphous corporate power block and an amorphous population of ignorant consumers. “Oh the lies of ordinary people / jumping rope beneath the trees / in a dream of gratitude” (38). This is an image of little girls (boys don’t jump rope, right?), that bimbo of demographics. The simultaneous feminization and diminuization of “ordinary people” robs them of power and speech, but not, one imagines, of Toyotas or lipstick. Accordingly, she uses the trashy language of ads to sweeten occasional phrases: “What follows is the future / still available in black” (39) and “This theory with its / problematic central arc / will be for sale / what the poem is over” (14). I suppose extra-ordinary people, like Elizabeth Willis, are the ones who have conscious thoughts about the state of our world.

Only the politics of Address, that of someone outraged at the TV on election night, could equate Robert Creeley’s support for McGovern (a major party candidate) with any truly magico-rebellious act, such as flying through the air in pursuit of human flesh. In the two “Witch” poems, we see a romantic throwback to the Commie vanguard (O! those flickering WPA days), the Objectivist poets, a few actors, the Fox sisters, Leadbelly, and some of the people who actually did die in the Salem Trials. The first of these, “The Witch,” is a compendium of whimsical superstition, lesson-mongering, and a few facts about sortilege, kobolds, and the yet-to-be-crucified. The second poem, “Blacklist,” reminds us that the connection was made between witches and activists sixty years ago. In fact, you will learn nothing here of the historical phenomenon known in the west as witchcraft, for which many hundreds of thousands of people were persecuted, and slaughtered. There is no Malleus Maleficarum, no cannibalism, no sacrifice. Her witches are artists, wear black, pointed hats and chant labor slogans. They “gaze wistfully at the glitter of a clear night” and “pretend to look at something very small” (19, 21).

Had Willis enough Roman goodness to trust her addressees, her politics might thrive in the very living muscle of this shoddily-conceived book. Instead, the speaker, a rodomontade among poets, gives us compost for images, and tells us that the state of Oklahoma reminds her of “a flag that pops out of a gun / on an episode of F-troop” (32). If this book is an “unseasonable pastoral” and we the chewers of its mulch, then in the words of J.S. Bach, “Bring me my bowl of coffee before I turn into a goat!”
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