"I have always treasured Wilner's poetry
for its visionary amplitude and
REVERSING THE SPELL;
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
Her translation of
(THE PENN GREEK DRAMA SERIES)
Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems.
By Eleanor Wilner.
Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368. 1998. 342 pages, $16, paper. ISBN 1-55659-082-2.
Reviewed by Rebecca Seiferle
For those who do not know the work of Eleanor Wilner, this book provides a generous selection of the riches contained in her four previous volumesOtherwise, Sarah’s Choice, Shekinah, and Maya–while offering powerful and moving new work. The title is apt, showing the poet’s preoccupation with reversing the spell of culture, whether "Reading the Bible Backwards" (as in the poem of that name), or trying to see in Hindu myth what was "kept out of the story of elaborate ritual/ or parting and redemption, the gorgeous/ sanction of sacrifice" ("What Was Left Out") or in a cave in Bali where
we can see what was once our world
upside down as it is
and wonder whose altars
those are, white,
encrusted with shit.
Part of the richness of the work is the range of its concerns: from Greek myth with "Leda’s Handmaiden" to Norse myth with "The Lament of the Valkyrie" to current events with "Operations: Desert Shield, Desert Storm," to art with Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers, Repossessed," to current cinema and the madness of anti-abortion protestors in "The Love of What is Not." Indeed, in this review, there is room to only hint of Wilner’s poetic range, though it is a range distinguished, as most contemporary poetry is not, for the range of its concerns. Wilner’s work is equally remarkable for its lack of self-preoccupation, the I is often a persona, a speaker, a witness in her work, and yet we know nothing of the poet herself. One of the compelling gifts of Wilner’s work is the gift of affection for all that it lights upon, a gift which is made possible only by combining awareness with the quality of self-forgetting.
Reading these poems, we have the sense of a distinctive voice, a warm and compelling personality, its turns of intelligence and of humor, and yet none of the self-preoccupation we have come to associate with contemporary poetry. Wilner’s work reminds us that our time’s obsession with personality is not synonymous but appositional to the quality of the personal, the person after all buried within it. For it is always the person that Wilner wishes to rescue, lost within the myth, the historical atrocity, the current event, the conversation with a student, a walk with a Japanese woman–and yet rescue requires rescuing the speaker as well, the dominating perception in which the experience is framed, and so always reversing the spell.
In "Trummerfrauen," the powerful opening poem, we see the juxtaposition of what is framed and what escapes from the frame. The title refers to "The Rubble-Women," those women who in occupied and bombed Germany would sit outside "the ruined church and the bombed museum breaking the mortar from the broken stones." The first section evokes the "perfect triangle of the Virgin with her glowing skin, the child in her arms" and how, in this religious framing, the body became a "long disgrace/impaled naked on the crossroads of the grid." In the second section, this static perfection has been literally reduced to "the ruined church and the bombed/ museum," and all that is left is a sound, the sound of the women hammering "like the ghostly tapping of woodpeckers in/ the burned and blackened place the forest stood." The eye of the poet falls upon these women with kindness, even though they are "descendents/ of Thor, of Luther," even though they "seem at times almost stone themselves" and cannot "bear to conceive" of a future "alone as they are, and cold." These women are, of course, not without culpability, for the stones that they are crushing seem "crushed bones," but what escapes from the spell (the long spell that began with the "baby fattened for sacrifice" and that ends with these "altars...the broken walls of the fallen hearths") is a kind of hope. A hope that thrives because it grows out of uncertainty, a hope like the movement of wind or water, the "percussion of life."
At such times, the "tap tap" of the "relentless percussion of life" is hope enough, particularly facing the most baleful aspects of the spell, for the spell is that which makes one dead in life. In the Spanish Civil War, those who supported Franco, shouted the slogan, "Long live Death!," and Wilner gives us an unflinching view of the deadliness of this perspective. She begins with what is left, the white wall against which Lorca, the great Spanish poet, was shot, and positions us so we, too, are "Up Against It" (the title of the poem.)
Elsewhere, no doubt, men are drawing up
their plans. Out here, the women sit,
each on her pile of stones, their hammers
never stop: tap tap, tap tap, tap tap.
And the wall was marked
The wall was white, whitewash lime
that shines in the sun till white is pure pain
searing the eyes.
pocked by a spray of black holes, like nothing
so much as the dots in a child’s puzzle, waiting
for a line to make sense of them, to pull
from a scatter of points, a familiar shape.
It is this wall which we, and the poet, are up against, "At the beginning of the bad time/ we have come to think of as usual." Yet with "a line," (a line of verse as much as the child’s line,), the poem pulls forth, out of these woundings, these bullet holes left in a wall, "a familiar shape," the restored shape of the person, the human being, Lorca himself.
For this restoration is finally the hope of Wilner’s work, which can be seen most clearly in the penultimate poem of the opening section of new work. "The Messenger" takes a form on the page like the messenger running like "the wind before and behind him" carrying that "which has no likeness/ what is curled up inside...a code/only the heart could break." This messenger who is "carrying whatever it was that could not/ be put down, would not be cast aside," is the poet herself, bringing to us "whatever it was," almost the indefiniteness of life itself, "though of course he couldn’t say, for he was only the messenger."