The Lily Will
by Melissa Dickey
Strung together by associational logic and spare, minimalist language whose spiritual heft and dark humor recalls the fascicles of Dickinson, The Lily Will reads like an SOS signal thrown across oceans or thousand-mile stretches of land. The category of language most likely to be missing here (surprisingly, given the collection’s tensile strength) are verbs (from “Wash”: “a fly found me/ his experience expedited/ kicked engine/ humming heard/ surrounding take role/ a mess of a meeting/ breeze wheezing/ hello to that same tree . . . ”), and the relationship established between the speaker and her world (and the titular “Lily Will”) is one of great fragility—a fragility objectified through reference to icicles, veils, invisible cartilage, and flakes of dust. The reader is instructed to read the poem’s titles as indicative of a now-familiar trope—that of post-apocalypticism, yet one that doesn’t name players or concrete events, opting instead for the creation (decreation?) of threatening atmospherics and mood. An example of such fraught parataxis can be found in the poem “Event Log: After the Disaster”: “We forgot to name our children/ so they named themselves:/ Nim/ Goest/ Whoso list/ A bubble lies between worlds/ How terrible ginger it was/ As one who watches birds . . . ”
The Lily Will asks its reader to consider a world that is all limitation, which is to say all possibility—a paring down of the objective world that begins and ends with the delimitation of metaphor (a poet’s last strength and refuge, until the “real world” proves tempting enough): “I cannot say what it is like.” Despite claims to facticity, the speaker moves us through the bleakness of what the (inherently subjective and partial) eye reveals; the hope—deeply vested—she retains through a “foray into each other,” revealing hidden desires that are equal parts self-preservation and lyric abandonment. “I wish I was so mystical as to be moved/ by you, behind me, singing.// No, the factual reaction is not free/ of desire. When I look at hills/ I expect ruins . . . This is the hour of lust . . . When you share a bed you find/ other ways of hiding.”
In 1998 Stephen Burt defined a certain species of poetry in this generation as “elliptical,” to a hailstorm of responses from the contemporary poetry community—what can be said of a poetics such as Dickey’s, which also risks indirection and opacity to achieve its aesthetic effect? Lineated in the style of Creeley or Oppen, these poems, instead of employing their (or any) decided projects, tropes, or themes, ask us (a now-timeless endeavor) to investigate the complicity of language and subject matter, as if the question of any book’s—but particularly a poetry book’s—“about-ness” has become only something one’s grandmother would ask.
It’s difficult to write poetry at this postmodern altitude, where the air is thin and semantic particulars (what Marianne Moore called “real toads”) scarce. It’s also difficult to read it, though The Lily Will rewards the reader for her patience at various junctures, and upon subsequent rereadings, it’s true. In this quietly authoritative first collection, we are asked to contemplate not just images (those abound as well as commentary on their auto-reflection) but to imagine (via the force of the “will”), a “field empty of field”: “what makes it/ all as large/ moved you by distance/ dear distance.” This “field empty of field,” seems the most appropriate description of the poet’s “lily will,” echoing as it does an epochal line by Mark Strand (“In a field/I am the absence/of field”) and again, a line by Louise Glück: “I will constitute the field.” In addition to a Nietzschean “will” (to power or being) the reference to “will” in this collection could also refer to a futuristic tense in which the speaker and/or another subject gives witness to a time wherein, “peering into that white blank/ to etch,” all manner of things shall be well—“Shadows at noon respond negatively. I wish/ I said yes to them always. (You will.)”
Also by Virginia Konchan:
A review of It is Daylight by Arda Collins
A review of A Witness in Exile by Brian Spears
A doctoral candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Virginia Konchan’s criticism has appeared widely, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Best New Poets 2011, Boston Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Believer, The New Republic, Notre Dame Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Jacket, and Poet Lore, among other places.