Being invited to choose poets and their poems for a website is a bit like being given the online equivalent of a billboard. Since a real billboard primarily uses pictures to communicate an implied text, or to augment a minimal text, I've chosen to present work by two poets whose work hinges on their use of image: Richard Greenfield (Carnage in the Love Trees, University of California Press, 2003 and Tracer, Omnidawn, 2009) and Joni Wallace (Blinking Ephemeral Valentine, Four Way Books, 2011).
Richard Greenfield's images arrive by way of list and fragment. They gesture by way of suggestion. Against the backdrop of these images, introspection gets threaded through the text. This method of self-interrogation sometimes morphs into a brief meta-poetical asides. Reading one of Greenfield's poems is like viewing a photomontage that quick-flips between exterior landscapes, occasionally highly lyricized—"cerulean west, Venus risen, sole unstar in the black east above the grand wash emptying into a lake"—and empathic interior landscapes—"the rough feel of unraveling sheets on my legs, of the boxy bed." Along the way the montage pauses for a second here and there to call meta attention to the light creating the image on the wall. Through this continual back and forth, the poem constructs a realm that includes everything the speaker thinks, along with everything he sees and feels. By the end of the poem, we have a form of completion, one that doesn't take place on the level of grammar, but instead, on the level of the speaker's experience, an experience that defines the realm. The reality the poem offers is an altered realism, a realism seen through a fractured lens, rather than one that pretends to be a "natural" realism. Greenfield's poems use their fragmented, alternating inside/outside landscapes to also gesture tangentially to pressing issues like borders—social and political. These large concerns, which resist simplification, trouble the already troubled poem.
Joni Wallace's poems are similarly imagistic, also prose, and also built from list and fragment. Like Greenfield's, they lean toward suggestion and away from exposition. The difference between the two poets, however, is stylistically and thematically profound. Wallace's poems have a fast-shifting sonic momentum woven into the disjunctive image montage; the result is a more agitated pace and music, an almost manic tumultuousness. Compared to Greenfield's macro images, which can enlarge to accommodate the entire astronomical cosmos, Wallace's images are micro, sometimes decidedly female, sometimes playfully silver-screen noir: handbag, cut-glass barrette, stocking sheen, seal coat, and Zippo. If Greenfield is a human telescope in a Southwestern landscape, Wallace is a girl with a camera making a dizzying twirl in a department store. But the twirling girl is only apparent in the highly-worked rhetorical surface; underneath the surface is something else, something of ecological gravity: birds crash into parking lot puddles because they've lost their way; deer have been assigned numbers that represent nuclear test times during the Cold War. What is interesting to me about these poets is how they use image to tangentially get at elusive social and political issues, as well as to create a rich sense of interiority. And how well together they demonstrate how expansive the strategy of disjunction is, and how thematically plastic.
Mary Jo Bang is the author of six collections of poems, including Louise in Love, Elegy, which received the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Bride of E. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. Her translation of Dante's Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in August 2012.
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