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One Woman's Jonesing for Wonder
By Gail Wronsky
I want to dye the world red for a day. I want to read the nonpoems of a gray parrot, the nunpoems of the secret, underground sisters of the night, the gleeful jerkings off of the crazy gay men with wild beards who haunt the freeway offramps of Van Nuys. Dye me, die me, lie to me, lie with me, words, swords, wharves, scarvessee it can be endless, all mind-phucking rosie-colored and squawk-mouthed if only we lissen, listen, hasten, and piss on what's given . . .
I love poetry. I even love the language poets but why do they so often put me to sleep? Because staring at a page is not at all like staring at a painting, or watching dance, or listening to music, no matter how fervently we wish it were. Words go to a different part of the brain. A part ruled by logos, where meanings are nattered out even when we try to escape themeven when our souls are horny and want only what is sensuous. And so, even Gertie Stein is boring sometimes. Repetition, repetition, repetition that's simply not as viscerally pleasurable as looking at, say, Warhol's Cow Wallpaper, or listening to a piece by Phillip Glass. The brain will want to know what the language, in its essence nominative, is naming. And Wittgenstein, the other hero of many brainy contemporary poets, well, in the end he's just a bit too inaccessible to be widely of use. I mean you can't read the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which is beautiful and dense like a poem, without reading what comes before, without reading his Philosophical Investigations, in German if possible. You're just not getting it. You're getting maybe a whiff. And even if you do get it, getting it doesn't guarantee that your poems won't be so obtuse, irrelevant, cryptic, wink-wink, masturbatory, insiderwhich is to say so dull as to die quietly inside some utterly unread journal with which the scabrous survivors of nuclear holocaust might some day bandage their blisters. Okay, that'll probably happen to all of our writing . . . all but what's published online in the light and ether of this glorious neither/nor land.
Thus assuming we want to escape the romantic contours of the poetry of loss and sex so beautifully limned in the seventies by Kinnell and Co., their poems the soundtrack to which so many of us fell in love again and again and which is now so dated, we look elsewhere. And although we deeply admire the contemporary intellectual force brought to the page by people like Jorie Graham and Joshua Clover (it saves us all from looking like hearts-on-sleeves), we find that postmodern poetry, much of which I regard as fauxthe work of scholars posing as real poets doesn't feed our more primitive hungers. And although we admire, too, even love, even translate, the urgency and significance of testimonio poetry, when we try to write it we feel perhaps a little disingenuouswe still feel ourselves slamming our shoulders against the walls of our unreal prisons, including the one which North American poetry incessantly becomes. What do we do? How do we find that space/time where pleasure, pain, the brain, the world, the word, and the self dissolve?
Two-three years ago, I looked for it in art, art-talk, art theory. I looked for it in the shape of a prose poem. I looked for it underground where the Surrealists lietheir coy bedsheets draping like ivory curtains in a dream, their bones full of sky, their cups lined with fur and vanity. And I wrote the Subterranean Verities poems, which appeared here in The Drunken Boat.
And then I moved my writing space from a musty, condemned cabin in Lower Fernwood, Topanga Canyon, California, where I live, to an airy shed-with-windows high on a hill above the Theatricum Botanicum in another part of the canyon. I rent the space from Ellen Geer, a brilliant actress and director, daughter of Will Geer who bought the land and opened the Theatricum during the McCarthy Era so that blacklisted writers, directors, and actors, like himself, would have a space to work in while they couldn't work in the film or television industries. It's gorgeous here, full of live oaks and rose bushes. Woody Guthrie built himself a little house on the property and lived here for awhile, and signed his name in a concrete staircase I see every day, which gives me unaccountable delight. Every summer Ellen produces a theatrical season with a fairly classical repertoryShakespeare and Aeschylus, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller. But every year because of the enchanted-forest setting of the place, regardless of what else is scheduled, she produces A Midsummer Night's Dream. Other things go on there too, so now when I write I sometimes hear actors rehearsing, or sounds from the children's Shakespeare camp, or from sword-fighting lessons, or from Peter Alsop's peace gatherings. The words and music float up in fragments or simply serve as a rhythmic murmuring background to my working.
After moving, when I got back to work on Subterranean Verities, I found that my surroundings, among other things, were changing the poems. I began to hear Meret, the character I'd based very loosely on Meret Oppenheim (fur-lined teacup), as Titania and Motherwell, based on Robert Motherwell (black balls and phalluses on white), as Oberon. I turned Calixto, based on no one in particular, into Bottom. I added Puck, and then some of the other characters from the playHippolyta, Moonshine, Hermia, Lysander. Puck, always for me a figure of black magic and deceptiona potential evil spirit as well as mischievousneither hermaphrodite nor androgyne but quite possibly a symbol of genital disorder (as is the doll in the poem Being, Having, and Lacking)introduced an interesting darkness. A flipside to what could have been read as a flippant midsummer.
The shapes of the poems seemed to be not quite right anymore. Earlier I'd worked in prose poem form to emphasize the synthetic-genre aspect of the work (that they are poems which have characters in a non-linear narrative which also engages theory of art, drama, and language). As the space around me expanded, I began to crave more space and want it on my pages. I wanted the poems to resemble sculpture, one of the art forms I address in them. I wanted words to float up off the page and surround readers the way that bits of plays were floating up and surrounding me as I worked. So I began writing the poems of Anachronistic Night's Dream.
I've kept Surrealism as inspiration and frame of reference; it is simply iconic for meno getting around it. For me Surreality is the true turf of poetrythe space where things turn into other things, where language creates meaning, new meanings, by celebrating accident, randomness, whimsy, and wonder, where dreams are taken as literal reality, where a pair of gloves becomes an unfigurable and totally captivating object, where the logos is always outwitted and undermined. I like thinking of Meret Oppenheim as an immortal, as a fairy queen. And Oberon is larger, more powerful, more magestic and magical than Motherwell was. Bottom, I think, interestingly replaces Calixto as the loverthe third party in the dramatic triangle. He becomes Larry Fortensky to Titania's Liz Taylor. Or Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, to her Lady Chatterly. Even without the magic spell, in my poems there are times when Titania really desires him. I suppose she does in the play, too, though Shakespeare protects her social position and pride with the device of the nectar dripped on her sleeping eyelids.
Engaging Shakespeare in this way, inviting him to dance with Bunuel, with Breton, with Toyon, with Oppenheim, has been deeply pleasurable. I hope the poems are, at the very least, not boring. I want them to resonate sensually and uncannily, to have political significance (as feminist, anti-authoritarian, anarchist), and to pay homage to artistic polish, beauty, and intellectual respectability. None of us would be doing what we do had it not been for Gertrude Stein. (The thing I like best about her, frankly, is that she didn't become famous until she was sixty.) But let's also remember that she often referred to the people who read her work not as readers, or audience, but as buyers. Avant-garde Modernism has its faults. As does any artistic movement. As do my own poems. Finally, I suppose, one can't dye the world red for a day, or make it read for a day. But one can invent strategies for finding wonderfulnesseven through the awfulness which sometimes has to be confrontedand one can, armed with inspiration and the constraints of art, through language, attempt to satisfy our deeply neglected need for the strange, for the fabulous, for the bewildering, for the unsettling, for the revels of the mind.
Gail Wronsky is the author of Poems for Infidels (Red Hen Press), Dying for Beauty (Copper Canyon Press), The Love-talkers (a novel, Hollyridge Press) and other books. She is the translator of Volando Bajito, a book of poems by Argentinean poet Alicia Partnoy. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Poets Against the War, A Chorus for Peace, The Poet's Child, Pool, Volt, and Runes. The recipient of a California Artists Fellowship, she is Director of Creative Writing and Syntext at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.