Alive: New and Selected Poems

Elizabeth Willis. New York Review Books, $14 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-59017-864-5
Willis (Address) has been enthralling, challenging, and frustrating the poetry cognoscenti with hermetic, allusive, scholarly, and startlingly opaque verse and prose since the early 1990s: “When I point to the island I mean a body on a map. Think about the heart: it doesn’t have to form a sentence.” Her prose blocks, strings of sentences, and short, dense lines tend to reach toward the mind before the heart, and this selected volume, her first, might engage more (and baffle fewer) readers if it is read backward, the newest poems first. The evocative declarations within her prose poems—especially in 2006’s Meteoric Flowers—belie the evasions their imagined voices imply: “What sudden rhetoric trembles at the door? I see clouds reflected in the gutter, but they’re still clouds.” And her earlier investigations of lyric form and elusive meaning require deep thought and deliberation: “Human understanding is a savage construction// of dilation and resistance... We live in a sunspot// ‘little o.’” Willis also stands out for the many various ways she uses sources from the visual arts, incorporating Ruskin, Giorgione, J.M.W. Turner, Joseph Cornell, and William Blake. Willis’s challenging, cerebral work rewards the patient reader, and this selection should help her reach a wider audience. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/16/2015
Release date: 04/14/2015
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