Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Elizabeth Willis: Meteoric Flowers

Elizabeth Willis's Meteoric Flowers is an exciting collection, taking for its source material the poetry and prose of Erasmus Darwin, doctor, poet, botanist, inventor, and grandfather of the better-known Charles Darwin. The book is arranged in three sections (cantos), separated by short breaths of "Verses Omitted," "Verses Omitted By Mistake" and "Errata," which serve in some ways as brief moments of decompression within a collection that's densely woven—I might even call it painstakingly knotted.

When Willis is at her very best, the associative linking that she performs through her lines is guided by an underlying inertia, whether that's in the form of an emotional narrative or closely-guided image set. I love, for example, the tonal coherence of "Tiptoe Lightning," with all its grand and conversational urges:

Tragedy saunters to the pit, swinging its depth charge. If you had X-ray vision you could watch these bones climbing the Mountain Vainglorious without quite touching the ground. Let's ruin our letters, erase all foreign prospect. So many expeditions are but fictive inflections, the garbled ambition of someone stepping up with, like, something less lovely than the legs of Rome. Thumb-power instead of "timber." The answer from above the stage rattles our windows, a modern letter sent from antiquity, its blurred flourish abundantly gutted.

Likewise, there's a cascading effect to the image sets in poems like "Plants Possess a Voluntary Power of Motion" (her titles in this collection are, by the way, snipped from Darwin) and "The Nettle," one of my favorites, where it seems each sentence steps carefully into the next through a particular word-cue, giving her enormous liberty with her leaps while maintaining a discrete tie from line to line: "Idly I turned your name into a kite. Poor bloom couldn't find itself among the interrupted lady. A little less air for the megaphone, a larger flag over Brownsville. We're knotted at eighths in blossomy altitudes, foreshortened in the wind."

In her less successful moments, Willis is simply a bit too much: "At borders everywhere, this is what we fly with, this poppy I'm pouring, coming down like tar," ("Departure of the Nymphs Like Northern Nations Skating on the Ice"). An image becomes another thing—a stranger thing—a bit too quickly, or the images slip away from their language-driven unfoldings and start to feel a bit untethered. Still, these poems are so dense (only seven to ten prose lines a piece) that it's hard to feel lost for long. Especially helpful are the collection's notes, which grant a good amount of insight into the kind of work she's exploring through Meteoric Flowers—that is, what she calls Darwin's "unwieldy asymmetries."

And while usually self-referential moments in poems make me queasy, Willis has pulled it off delightfully throughout this collection, with a wink and a sneer—my favorite moment being in "The Principal Catastrophe":

I thought I was reading but suddenly I'm read. Some kind of artist then, painting his targets. Distinct or indistinct sensation? I prefer clarity when I can afford it. So what if another flower plagiarized the rosary? I'd pick up a dime in private or a quarter in public, money's always been "dirty," some kind of death wish. Sure I'd like to own a pet, not own but take care of, not a monkey or donkey, but something that loves you like money or luck. Not a puppy made of flowers but like music, in dog years.

Elizabeth Willis
Meteoric Flowers
Wesleyan University Press, 2006