07 September 2006


Is there a relationship between delight and estrangement? Recently I have read several books of poetry that draw me in, as though a kind of spell of centrifugal force keeps one in the middle of the work, inside the poem (or poems). Elizabeth Treadwell's Cornstarch Figurine (Dusie, 2006) is not that kind of book, but its absence of that quality of attraction does not harm the book, in fact it may be one of its great strengths. The book is so entirely filled with signifiers, jammed against one another, in a way that is undeniably a delight, yet in a way that doesn't quite let the reader enter. But it also won't let the reader turn attention away.

Take this passage from one of the last parts of the book, "My Hello Kitty Rulebook."

button eager nimblemount, carrion side fey,
extraordinary lapidarian menage,greet union
bestiary, for the mixed plum dressing mires,
and we foreshoot,and we mumble, and we glean.

so that yesterday's greenbelt mirage
won't site. won't it miracle. won't it merge.

reorder gambit lesson in the once-over
holiday accord. it will do. it will. it —
oh, beating.

There is an extraordinary display of language music here, and a sense of humor that finds itself in language's sound and sheer play, and there are elements of many potential stories. There is terrific repetition, sometimes of diction, sometimes of syntax, and sometimes of both. There's a practically 18th Century sense of the performance of the poem, uncorrupted by later Romantic notions of the position of self and sincerity (posed "sincerity" can be a terrible problem in poetry), that I find altogether compelling.

Elizabeth Treadwell may be my favorite poet of the last several years whose work I can't quite claim to understand. And I'm not driven to do so, rather to listen & revel in it. It's a work where "vertical lines are IMPOSSIBLE," yet its cover is printed with pink vertical stripes, putting one in mind of popcorn bags, carousels, possibly Victorian carnivals, and cotton candy. And the work is sweetly sung, yet in its movement of mind, its grappling with gender and other personal/social issues, it is also intriguing in its refusal to settle.

There is always a "but" to lead us elsewhere, as in "Genevieve," a prose poem in the "Cornstarch Figurine" section of Cornstarch Figurine, where a paragraph that occupies a little less than a half page contains no capitals or periods or commas or other punctuation but includes fourteen instances of "but" and one "however."

I think Elizabeth Treadwell must love Jane Austen, early Romantic novels, and possibly even contemporary ones, Shirley Temple, and maybe even soap operas. Otherwise, how could one fill a poem with such phrases as "crystal dined at court," "daresay bygone prince," "ruined women," "a girl's peekaboo," "the alderman's newspaper flaming," "nervous christian mercy," and more, as she does in a poem titled "Oona Thompson," whose epigraph is from Beverly Dahlen and reads, in a blind way the legend is moving. Maybe that's one thing you find in Treadwell's work, a sense that everything is always moving, and while it may have all the elements of legend, it's rather blind and can't quite be a legend. We are rather blind as readers and can't quite grasp control of what we are reading, and that is what keeps us at "the banquet."

In this book there are bridge parties, palace arcades, and the remains of the bodies of ladies. There are goddesses and daisies and an apple-jade dancing floor. And there are also sisters, and sisters, and sisters, and "the mother the mother the mother," so that, despite what I have said about being thrown out of the poem all the time because of the not-quite-joined bric-a-brac, there is a feeling of intimacy, of a deeply personal poem under or within what we are reading. There are poems dedicated to sisters, and there may well be codes we can not entirely recover. But again, I don't think that matters, rather I have the sense that the meaning-always-slightly-beyond-the-edge-of-where-we-are, is what keeps us on that edge, reading, listening, seeking.

I find some aspects of the book present in microcosm, in some of its briefest bursts.

lumber mecca (geology)

clarityburg: the high road, half-fate
kitty languid, box-lunch january
slow-down, only the papers
arrive early, tortoiseshell hoopskirt flick of the wrist,
it's all out there, sunshine

I love the way sounds glide into related sounds, clarityburg to languid, high to half, languid to january, and the short phrases between punctuation grind and slow down; but then it all stretches out again in that longest phrase, "tortoiseshell hoopskirt flick of the wrist," like a carefully modulated jazz solo that suddenly lets go with a long lyrical howl. And when it comes back from that stretch, it comes back with a joyous and clear summation, and a call to go forth into the world, because "it's all out there, sunshine."

I leave you with just a few short lines, from various points across the 128 pages of the book, that seem to capture the overloaded and entirely compelling sense of Cornstarch Figurine.

& within a crooked mind
freed & eased by thin branches

and we turned on plaid scratchy filmic futures diverge

something a rag rug:
and swans and
swans and swans

complex of the ordinary
in the sullied modern
peepshow hamlet

the philosophical potion of
the basic understood experimental

overrun with being, being

But in fact challenging consecrated vocabulary, meting out sources
and colors and shares. And in fact, there will be comforts and drawings
and homes. To turn it over to you, ingenue

The last of these snippets is in fact the end of the book, the end of the very fine last poem, "Letter to An Ingenue," which is part of "My Hello Kitty Rulebook," where I began this post. "Letter to An Ingenue" is concerned with "patterns of lovers and loves," with "dream mechanics pushing it all beyond document," with odd attractions and what "thinking can't explain," with the oddness of the present coming out of "Dead centuries at the helm," and with not ending, for there is no period after "you, ingenue" - for who is the ingenue to which the poem is addressed? Perhaps it is you. And you are outside the book, free at last, but free as well to take the book with you, always.

If you have the possibility of choosing an "unbounded instant simple act," let that choice be to read Cornstarch Figurine.

You can read more about this book on Eileen Tabios's marvelous Galatea Resurrects, #3, and you can even purchase it at Dusie Press. It's the first book from Dusie — what a great beginning!