“I is to they / as river is to barge,” writes Elizabeth Willis in the opening lines of Address, the poet’s fifth and most accomplished collection. The analogy offers a key into the various networks that travel through this book of poems, all engaging the troubled process of a self discovering its warp and woof through the vagaries of its relationships to various others. With these poems, “address” is both one’s locale and the means of establishing where the other is through directed linguistic acts. The poems assay the fraught American climate—addressing the deep injustices and missed communications that mark our contemporary social moment. Collectively, Willis’s poems offer “[t]o rise to this / To speak its fury.”
In many ways, Willis has the finest ear for the lyric amongst her generation. With her past books, an unexpected humor would suddenly appear to change the flow of her musicality, to roughen its textures. There are far fewer of these kinds of shifts into wit and punning in Address than in her previous books. Willis’s characteristic torquing of discourse is still present and a complex, paratactic syntax still provides the framework, but intensity is less likely to be leavened by flashes of humor. Thus, Address is Willis’s most political and at times angriest work to date. Regardless, the intense beauty of the work is an unblinking testament to the poet’s sense that the stakes for language are becoming impossibly high. Address shows us that music, too, can have an undeniable ferocity.