Isle of Signatories by Marjorie Welish
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
Challenging. Avant-garde. Enigmatic. The way to describe Isle of Signatories depends on whether you’re a fellow poet, a scholar familiar with the movements preceding Welish, an avid reader able to contextualize her work, or that fabled “average reader” that has come to the page expecting to understand and be moved, to hear the language sing.
If you were that average reader, and new to poetry, this would not be the collection to begin. The varying fonts and fragments of language might confirm any preconceptions you might have about poetry being showy or puzzling:
CLEAR GLASS SQUARE LEANING
LET’S WRITE ALL OVER THE PLACE
IF, THEN; IF NOT, THEN WHAT?
TINTED LINEN OBLONG FOLDED
LET’S WRITE HERE
(“Art & Language Writes an Epitaph”, p. 35)
This particular poem is appealing in its jubilance (there’s almost an impulse to think about inscriptions like “Kilroy was here!”) as it lists the varying surfaces that can be written on—the glass, the envelope, “STREAKED VEGETAL WHITE BINDING,” “GREEN WOOD STACKED WET” and so forth. The danger in posing the provocative question is that you might be tempted to wonder, indeed, so what? What does the poem amount to in the end, what are the aims of the book?
The description on the back cover is as follows:
In her latest collection, Marjorie Welish invents a world of public inscriptions. From graffiti to scholarly dedication and from historical placards to words etched in granite, she employs graphical display to mark the prompts and admonitions of rhetoric, the mysteries of coded language, the intellectual registers of form, the powerful gift of dedication, and the strange sense and substance of both new and dying literary conventions.
Knowing this won’t help, however, if it leaves you at a loss. Had the poems employed “found” text (there are no notes indicating that this is the case), it might have resulted in a curious exhibit akin to something like writtenonthecity.com, a site featuring user-contributed photos of graffiti and signs around the world. The poet would serve as a curator, offering back insights with the added layers of craft and juxtaposition. But we’re not witnessing an easily recognizable world. We’re not receiving missives from voices like our own, in the form of real language garnered from public places. It’s less about finding connection than it is about distance.
We’re offered a writer’s idea of public inscriptions. We’re introduced to a writer’s concerns with text as a protest against conventional poetry, if by conventional one means the lyric / narrative built on patterns of sound and imagery leading to some truth, observation, commentary or discovery.
Isle of Signatories is a cerebral project. The result is both riskier and more original than a pastiche of found poems would be. The drawback is that the poems don’t correspond to the familiar readily, and by extension, are more likely to appeal to those who already enjoy this type of poetry than to casual readers.
The poet is aware of the limitations writing in the margins can bring, even seems to be winking—“the poet is preparing to detonate / meaninglessness” (p. 83), and “What is poetry?” (p. 7). In the title poem, “Isle of the Signatories”, Welish writes:
Through other texts
Her singular voiceprint
Which is to say “I am here”
The competent reader
This can be interpreted as longing—to be understood, to find the like-minded—or as an amusing, self-referential commentary on the process of writing itself, using “other texts” as the source. The more lucid moments in Welish’s poems are attractive for the glimpses they offer at the mind behind the work. The line of inquiry between writing and reading forms an organizing structure in the book. (Other poems mention authors and writing as well.) In “Fibulae Iterated”, the reader appears again:
The reader will be well advised to fathom the obscurity by
asking: in what sense does the editor pre-suppose self-
evidence by remarking “Unclear”.
The subsequent poem, “Unfolding Yes”, picks up the thread:
UNCLEAR. Normative editorial comment.
Later in the poem:
Remark “unclear” calls for change without
articulating the sense that obtains.
“Make clear”, a normative
Editorial remark that assumes its own
Clarify: to which
community, by whose
authority, for what purpose, why?
The poem proceeds, each repetition providing a scaffolding. The speaker’s mounting
impatience with this editor, this thorn-in-the-side demanding clarity, makes us wonder.
It’s a valid point. Why do many of us expect a poem to unfold in a certain fashion?
Welish anticipated the very thing most likely to alienate a reader. Her intelligence and self-awareness allow you to feel reassured that she knows what she’s doing, but the question isn’t fully answered—you could ask the same series of questions in return—why condone anti-clarity, unless as a form of subversion?
If you can move beyond the suspicion that the poems were generated through a series of associative leaps only the initiated could decipher, you can start warming up to the book and appreciating the subtle humor embedded in the work.
The best poem is “Fibulae Iterated”, the one prose poem included here. It may not be representative of the whole, but it is the clearest poem. The first page is reproduced:
Lost tabby, prowling the fire escape and tagged “Minou”,
may be yours. Please claim.
Setting forth. If, in relation to genesis, we shall have
inaugurated advantage, we call the adventure good, a
good thing. If illustrious, setting forth shall have
inaugurated us to our advantage. And why not?
Yet another possibility exists: let cloth drop so that it
drapes across the string now oscillating, pinned to the
wall; take up the cloth. Repeat.
The reader will be well advised to fathom the obscurity by
asking: in what sense does the editor presuppose self-
evidence in remarking “Unclear”.
Yet another possibility exists: pin a length of string at
either end across the wall such that it supports a cloth
when dropped; take up the dropped cloth from the low
string now. Repeat.
Once upon a time, the outcome of our adventures,
seeming advantageous, was called “The End”; so began a
time after time. And later: of our seemingly indefatigable
adventures in large dimensions once upon a time.
Roaming and meowing cats—is it yours?
Roaming tabby tagged “Minou” is meowing; is it yours?
The poem continues for another three pages, weaving back and forth between the adventurers, the tabby, and the cloth. By the end, a whimsical, urgent voice emerges. This voice has every potential to delight. It’s quirky, sophisticated, and downright strange. Unfortunately, other passages in the book are closer to this excerpt [due to Blogger format, this excerpt is not shown as correctly formatted; you can assume a quad-center structure to all lines]:
To the debris for all hints of symptomatic
Intelligibility, the breadth of differentiation
relating A to insentient B. A fairly long breath
and a great deal else besides.
They boast chronologically.
Insofar as naming A
legible elements in lieu of intelligible length,
of uselessness—deeply humiliated but cannot articulate it—
insofar as impotent neo-slumber rendering effect
unapologetic society having put on
a collective plot whereby varying margins of wishful thinking.
(p. 53, “From Dedicated To”)
The most arresting lines, such as “deeply humiliated but can’t articulate it”, convey a distanced, self-reflective feeling. There’s a little bit of Bridget Jones sass in that clipped, telegram tone, in the things left unsaid, an echo also heard in the repeated “Please claim” in “Fibulae Iterated”, but these glimmers are often overwhelmed by the rest of the language.
The poems in Isle of Signatories seem to be about making a statement, about creating tension between the spare, spatial arrangement in some poems and the excess in others, about re-inventing poetics. If that was their purpose, they succeed, but I would recommend them with reservations, if only for the moments that intrigue.
Karen Rigby’s second chapbook, Savage Machinery, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September.