The Isle of the Signatories
by Marjorie Welish
Coffee House Press, $16 (paper)
Outside the rain has stopped. Behind me someone pours a drink. As I write this, an ant crawls across my screen. The rhetorical sleight of hand that such statements engage in—that words on a page can be traced to a single person, writing in a singular time and place—is the shifting target of Marjorie Welish’s Isle of the Signatories. In the book’s title poem, Marni Nixon (the singing voice behind myriad Hollywood screen icons) serves as an unlikely vehicle, if not the tenor, for Welish’s investigations into lyric displacement. Nixon’s “ventriloquism” and “unpaginated / Voice” rivet and warp the fabric of illusive embodiment. Via Nixon, Welish disputes lyric poetry’s similar “problematic expressive” —the notion that poetry should transmit some kernel of so-called authentic experience from “Ego’s avatars.” Not so much the death of the author as the undeath of language, even unto syntactic derangement, is Welish’s compelling alternative: “I death even exist here in Arcady.” (The singer collapses, the music continues.) In the book’s final sequence, “From Dedicated To,” Welish advances her inquiry by making place as much as self the subject of her forensics. The poet questions the authority of epitaphs, placards, and other site-specific inscriptions—“Strategies for attracting Eternity”—to fix loss and location. While Welish relishes the textures of inscription, particularly the “lavish economies” and “encounterable trauma” of graffiti, her abiding concern is the epistemological impossibilities such (re)markers frame. “Poet/essayist lived in this house/stayed here from time to time and/or all her life.” What is memorialized here—author, speaker, or object? Where, on the tilting plane of a turning page, is here? Haunting lyric’s ruins, Welish shores up an unmistakable “voiceprint”—sung by no body—of adamant fragmentation and lapidary wit. Advancing through iteration and paradox, Welish’s finely tuned music, “Scored for / axiomatic valor,” offers an intrepid reader the distinctly open pleasures of poetry unauthorized.