Paul Valéry wrote that poetic language creates “the need to be heard again,” whereas ordinary language “tends to bring about the complete negation of language itself” as soon as the message is understood. The particular music of a phrase may bring about this desire for repetition, but Valéry also noted that a phrase’s difficulty may endow it with poetic value, since “the person who does not understand repeats the words” until they surrender to sense.
Readers of Marjorie Welish’s new book, Word Group, will want to read and re-read her poems for both somatic and semantic reasons. The curious text inquires into the most basic assumptions of cognition and understanding. At stake is the procedure of translation, a situation that invites—no, requires—criticism, since the text so plainly refuses to reduce itself to a single reading. Take these lines from “Detained by Rest”:
The politics of reading
have caught those moving stairs (as they were once called),
for epic purposes. In what sense are they then translations? In the climbing valley,
our gradual ascent, our newly incremental elevation ready-to-hand, escalators are
“redirected toward unprohibited objects.” (“Faster,” say the montagists.)
Whereas the shopping-mall escalator delivers consumers to “ready-to-hand” commodities, Welish encourages readers to take an active role in the general economy of her poems, experiencing where meaning is risked, lost, and redoubled. She reminds us that the act of writing is always an act of reading. Moreover, translation is necessarily indeterminate—since meaning depends upon context, which is never fully saturated. This notion of the indeterminacy of translation recalls the argument presented by philosopher W.V. Quine in his book Word and Object, the title of which Welish borrows for one of poems:
The clarity of the lack
seizing eye level provides a companion
to epistemology in the description where it folds back.
We live in a harrowing relativism
of hue flaring into value. Apprehended when spreading
(ever rain green bow rain bow ever card
ever green ever ready ever view green ever
green card ever green re view life jacket).
Readers new to “language-centered” poetry may first notice the apparent loss of meaning, wagered by the spreading syntax that favors force and velocity over semantic clarity. The preservation of music (“We live in a harrowing relativism”) should ensure that all readers hang around to witness its complement: “hue flaring into value” in the three-line word group enclosed by parentheses. The recombination of simple terms yields all kinds of references and cross-references: evergreen trees, green cards, green bows, bow tie and jacket, rainbows, even Eveready batteries. The book’s title, Word Group, seems to put a lid on all these riots of passage by suggesting that the book is (merely) a finite bank of words (one waiting to burst its seams once the reader appears). But the title also signals a shift in emphasis from the word as the significant unit of sense to the word group. A word can be expected to correspond to one referent; a word group can convey multiple meanings through a dynamic grouping of material signs.
It is easy to see how Welish’s poetry grows out of an ongoing engagement with linguistics, semiotics, and translation theory—conventionally the realm of the theorist standing outside the poem. Welish embraces these intellectual demands within a lyric setting, often as a means of interrogating the basic premises of lyricality and Romantic ideology. For instance, Word Group’s title poem begins this way:
modern American usage
a writer’s guide to copyright
a manual of style
“I” may investigate
“I” might have sung
The relationship between an “I” that sings for itself and an “I” whose itinerary is ideological (“modern American usage”) soon becomes intertwined with the history of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker who pioneered cinematic montage, then later produced conventional films such as the nationalist masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky.” The poem concludes by alluding to the famous battle scene on ice:
shot numb for that residuum
of ideology, as for that shot
delighted with it, retentive
ignited. Freeze frames radiant:
“Freeze!” he shouted abundantly
in ideological ice.
Ideology, be still.
Lo! Tableaux vivants.
Look! Vivid arrest!
Welish keeps her prosodic tools sharp, embedding rhymes like “numb” and “residuum,” “delighted” and “ignited,” “radiant” and “vivants” into these compressed tercets. At the same time, she writes against the custom of presenting in the lyric a reassuringly stabilized and unitary voice. “What if the lyric were not a voice, were not an utterance,” Welish asked in a 2003 interview, “but written, hence construed through a presupposition of literature rather than through a presupposition of orality?”
This interest in exploring the contingencies of textuality yields, in the final section of Word Group, a series of poems called “Delight Instruct” that addresses the framing devices surrounding a scholarly book—the table of contents, the preface, the translator’s note, the endnotes, etc. Welish is fascinated by the “indexical universe” a text employs in its attempt to point to itself, enclose itself, supplement itself, and legitimize itself. This entire apparatus becomes the center of a carefully fragmented scrutiny, as in the opening lines of “Rustling”:
The preface predicts your text to perfection; the text is left to fend for itself; and/or an index rats on the text.
Preface this with a text predicated on itself: it is perfect; the text enters and is alone; as for the index, it antagonizes the text.
Instead of presenting a voice that reflects on its own nature and what opposes it (as in the Romantic lyric), Welish presents a text that reflects on the nature of textuality and what borders it. This is postmodern poetry in a very literal sense—revealing the poet in the midst of a dynamic dialogue (sometimes an argument) with the legacy of the modern poetic tradition.
One of the pleasures of Word Group is the variety of forms that it offers. In the most kinetic of the book’s five sections, “Begetting Textile,” Welish adopts a spatialized, constructivist aesthetic. The 16 poems in this series occur largely as thrown tercets, a mosaic of disjunctive parts (the “tiles” that make the “text”), demonstrating the “tendency of ideas to go over into movement”:
And as in the mind
through and beyond gossip
“Of what is past, or passing, or to come”
and its corollaries.
And its copyright
as in the estate of “Gates of Hell”
As a gyroscope turns freely in multiple directions at once, so Welish’s poem moves by multiple means. “Gyroscope” produces “gossip,” and “corollaries” leads to “copyright,” according to what one might call sound logic. The allusions are swift, the collisions reminiscent of the “ply over ply” technique of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but to more disjunctive ends:
if, then, then even as
such as in voice-over
“ ‘because,’ Schubert writes . . .”
“ ‘Nevertheless, your life / seems
to me wide with potential
because of your / . . .’ ”
to give voice to a cause
to ascertain causes beyond rhetoric
Welish demonstrates that words do not simply organize sense. As individual units, they are free to orchestrate other patterns, too—musical and visual ones—independent of their communicative function. By extracting conjunctions like “because” and “if” from their normal grammatical contexts, Welish challenges syntactic expectation, proffering language as an artificial system in which one word does not naturally lead to the next. Welish seeks “causes beyond rhetoric” in an attempt to liberate language from our habitual uses of it.
Such a project has a formidable forebear: Gertrude Stein, who now and then makes an explicit appearance in the book. In “Seated Recklessly” she appears in relation to the figure of Faust. Implicit in this comparison are two very different forms of recklessness: Faust’s (destructive) compulsion for closure and totality against Stein’s (generative) love of openness. To indicate the limited possibilities of the Faustian position, Welish encloses him within italics and parentheses, while the rest of the writing occurs as a flux of juxtapositions, as if in the open air:
(At a box he perhaps has opened, Faust sits)
Seance—in what sense? With what faculty?
Modernity raised on posts differentiates moods and tenses,
a modicum of reduction differentiates use
from dust and flakes cordial to picture books
for Russian children: children’s things
sheltering alternative poetry:
hunter hunts hunted.
In response to any possible statement one can always ask “In what sense?” and “With what faculty?” The boundlessness of context guarantees that interpretation is never foreclosed. At its core, Welish’s work illustrates how the truly creative act is always critical, and how the writer’s act is akin to the reader’s. Her poetry instructs us in how to become more productive, vigilant collaborators with the text.
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound wrote, “Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.” For Pound, this bank was the reality of facts and objects in the empirical world. But for Welish, there is no such binary between language and the world which guarantees the former’s validity. Validity is not even the issue, since there is never any right or wrong translation. Rather, the text is a lavish economy of signs that invites us to enter into its circulation. It is the reader who must conspire with the well-wrought openness of Marjorie Welish’s poetry to ensure its status as—in Pound’s formulation—“news that stays news.”