Saturday, August 07, 2010

Lissa Wolsak’s Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005

We have here a body of work at home in its own elusiveness. Language sculpture? That’s one possible, though unlikely, name for what we find here, about which it can be said: it carves into time, as if, in the actual time of writing, poetic process had incised directly into “time matter,” cutting through to undisclosed layers of undertime. Or, from another angle of experience: once inside this elusive work, this unfolding language substance—feeling its attractions (some strange, all at least partly not-yet-known)—one senses a multidirectional crossflow: so much is happening from moment to moment, so much is coming through, one hardly knows where to stand. Quite clearly the poet has chosen her words at a level resistant to immediate thought, no doubt in part for their musics, their senses, and their sensualitites. (“Introduction,” by George Quasha with Charles Stein)

There is no central form, the introduction tell us, to Vancouver poet Lissa Wolsak’s Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005 (Barrytown NY: Station Hill, 2010). There aren’t that many poets of Lissa Wolsak’s generation the author of a published “Collected.” Some older Canadian poets have their versions, from the almost-selected of (up to that point) Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes (1989; 2001) and Barry McKinnon’s The Centre: Poems 1970-2000(2004), or Peter Van Toorn’s Mountain Tea (1984; 2004). Much like some other Vancouver poets I could think about, such as Christine Stewart, Susan Clark or Maxine Gadd, Wolsak has published furtively over the years, from The Garcia Family Co-Mercy (Vancouver BC: Tsunami Editions, 1994) and An Heuristic Prolusion (Vancouver BC: Friends of Runcible Mountain, Documents in Poetics, 2000) to Pen Chants or nth or 12 Spirit-like Impermanences (New York NY: Roof Books, 2000), A Defence of Being, First Ana (Hereford UK: Spanner, 2002) and A Defence of Being, Second Ana (Bray Ireland: Wild Honey Press, 2005), all of which appear in this singular volume of some two hundred and fifty-plus pages. How can a reader catch anything when the author refuses to stand still?

as essential to her task

as teeth or hands

how often, did

by walking the Camino

it is cried to them

to play on the posed hole

of the asp (“Pen Chants”)

There is no central form, instead Wolsak’s extended works embrace an expansiveness, writing directly out a field of fragments, narrative lines and lines of thought; Wolsak writes a precision scattered, deliberate. Calling her work (and the work of Susan Clark, Kathryn MacLeod and Dan Farrell) “both excessive and minimal” in his “Empty and Full Speech: A Lacanian Reading of the Kootenay School” in the recent Open Letter, Fourteenth Series, Number 3, summer 2010 [see my review of such here], Vancouver writer and critic Clint Burnham goes on to say that “this is writing that refuses reference [.]” Reviewing Pen Chants or nth or 12 Spirit-like Impermanences for Rain Taxi, Jen Hofer wrote that:
In Pen Chants, Lissa Wolsak’s practice is not to “eliminate stress,” but rather to place stress accurately—to highlight, illuminate, suggest, declare, question, celebrate, disparage, chant—not through “blindfolding,” but rather through its opposite: an unfolding and enfolding of language that is in Wolsak’s poetic world the sharpest form of expression, through such sharpness—being slick, beautiful, edgy, pointed—entails, appropriately, more difficulty than ease.

Where is the difficulty, and where is the ease, and how is it possible, here, to separate them? As she writes to open her “_______An Heuristic Prolusion_______”:
~ I speak as one silenced. Transhumance, as understood and utilized in late 12th C., early 13th C. France, was an agricultural motion or migration, a seasonal moving of livestock and the people who tend them….but transhumance also was a possible personal~social act of symmetry, reciprocity and redistribution. Co-mercy, the art of harmlessness, equivocating sexual/theological, fiat, fiat lux .. to lay the supremely ambiguous, phantomatic faces .. to let, to kneel, along the place of the abyss, to linger as long as possible .. where the same relation may be observed throughout the whole universe, where significance “bleeds into an unconstrainable chain.”

What lies beneath my copy of eternity?

What coils spoken space?

How does one engage with an writing that “refuses reference,” other than being as completely open to the possibilities as possible? But I’ll end with her own words, her last paragraph of an interview at the back of the volume, conducted by poet Pete Smith:
LW: I have an antipathy toward flatland embrittlements within normative sentence making because I have not often enough experienced the truth of their/my constructions. Moreover, the mind is non-local and undermines my smooth to the eye approaches. I choose, rather, to activate consciousness, and to keep a loose hold on the smoky, beguiling and sometime fatuous muse of controlled meaning, but not to exclude the genuinely intended or navigable. I am more a receiver of shape and form than an architect of same. By its very fracture, I write to surprise myself.


judith Copithorne said...

Hi Rob

I think that an important part of Lissa Wolsak's writing that sometimes isn't emphasized enough is her interest and ability to work with the philosophical, emotive, ethical aspects of our thought and language. Thus although this writing is involved with the varietal and abstracted aspect of much "language writing" it is also more varied in it's focus which makes it more complicated, but to me, extremely interesting and important to read

judith copithorne said...

Also, I should make it clear that I shouldn't single out "language writing" as the font abstract forms of writing as there are and always have been many different forms of attending to the aspects of writing which are not just to do with saying one thing at a time as clearly as possible.