Coffee House Press ($16)
by Terence Diggory
“Nature is a temple where living pillars / Sometimes allow confused words to arise.” These lines, from the opening of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (in Elaine Marks’s translation), provide the starting point for Marjorie Welish’s extended meditation on nature, architecture, and language in In the Futurity Lounge / Asylum for Indeterminacy. The two-part title designates the two sequences, or serial poems, that comprise the book. The second links directly to Baudelaire by recycling phrases from “Correspondances” through various levels of translation and abstraction. But the first sequence, too, explores the postmodern consequence of a process to which Baudelaire bore witness under the name of modernity: the replacement of nature by artifice. Architecture (the temple in Baudelaire) is the sign of artifice for Welish, or as she might prefer to say, the sign of construction. As sign, it is subject to the condition of language. The High Line in Manhattan, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, as landscape architecture raised (literally) to a higher power, provides a paradigm of these relationships: “You are not pretending to be nature the garden pretends / but this garden professes textual strategy.”
So much for the subject matter of Welish’s book. What distinguishes the book as poetry is its ability to engage readers in the process of construction that creates a text in time, as much as “textual strategy” constructs a building in space. Welish practices a materialist poetics. Matter acquires emphasis as we move from a poem entitled “Subject Matter” to the next poem, entitled “Matter in Hand,” where textual matter is manhandled: “inverted involved upside down scrambled sampled and / put through a sieve crushed with the blade of a knife cubed / and quartered split off from plaintext.” As descriptions of physical process, these actions read metaphorically, but they literally perform a textual process, the multiplication of various expressions of roughly the same meaning. To bring this device into focus, we need only to think of a thesaurus, one of the models for textual construction that Welish invokes repeatedly. Another model is the dictionary entry, exemplified a few lines later in “Matter in Hand” when Welish picks up on the word “involve” from the previous list: “as ‘involve’ is a warrant to roll up or wrap to engage as a participant.” On a theoretical level, this passage alludes to the operation of folding, a theme dear to poststructuralists and frequently invoked by Welish. On a more practical level, this passage is about reading, another theme that runs throughout Welish’s book. Here, the italics, which are Welish’s, leave no question about her designs on her readers.
Among these designs, one important tactic is to engage with readers in the plural, especially the first-person plural: “we, a compendium”; “We, the world.” While the first-person mode “recollects a lyricism,” the plural number creates a voice with a public dimension—perhaps a “voice-over,” as Welish suggests—that turns inside out the presumed inwardness of the romantic lyric. With increasing concentration since her 2004 volume Word Group, Welish has been reconsidering lyric voice as written artifice, the mode of inscription signaled in the title of Isle of the Signatories(2008). In her most recent volume, the parallel exploration of architectural sites as “PUBLIC SPACE” (even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is an example of a private residence now open to the public) highlights the political implications of the “discursive space” of inscriptions, from epitaphs (“HERE LIE / THE FALLEN”) to legal notices (“THIS IS A NON-EVICTION PLAN”). However, the politics implied is “the realpolitik of utopia.” While “public space” has to an extent been realized in the present, in the architecture that Welish points to, the fragmentary nature of the “discursive space” that her words construct suggests that the public, as polis, resides in futurity. Poetry still resonates, lyrically, with the “confused words” that emanated from the “living pillars” of Baudelaire’s temple. As readers, we stand outside the temple—literally, in a pro-fane space—where our use of confused (indeterminate) words determines our relation to each other. As Welish puts it, “some assembly required.”