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Literature : review

Eric Dean Wilson on the rushing river of language in Dara Wier's You Good Thing.


Chris Doyle, Untitled, 2004, watercolor and pencil on paper, 9 × 9". Courtesy of Pierogi Flat Files.

“Here does move more than one would suppose,” writes Dara Wier in You Good Thing, a slim wallop of poems nearly all addressed to a mysterious “you,” which as soon as I feel I’ve pinned, shifts identities. A rushing river connects the poems, each block of text placed as one further hunk of driftwood in an unmanageable stream. I read these poems in one, dizzying sitting, but the poems demand multiple go-rounds, and as I reached the end of one reading, I found myself flipping to the front for another ride down the rapids. Immediately. Here does move—in Wier’s case, fluidly, with dark affirmation.

Following several thin collections and a large Selected Poems with works from ten of Wier’s books over the last 35 years, You Good Thing shows a marked change from the parenthetical poems of Reverse Rapture (Verse Press, 2006) and the longer poems of Remnants of Hannah (Wave, 2006). Each poem is of short, uniform length and shuttles the reader through long lines with conversational force, reminiscent of the breathless poems of Frank O’Hara or James Schuyler, and similarly wields their disconnect between dreaming and waking life: “Say, you’re particularly / Lovely today, little penknife. Big backhoe, we couldn’t live without / You.”

The book opens with a scrawled drawing from Pessoa of “a plan . . . to walk with Ophelia from the office where she worked to where they lived, by the longest possible route.” The drawing looks, at first, like a reasoned thing, a scrap from the geometry notebooks of Euclid, but after trying to make mathematical sense of it (wouldn’t the longest distance be . . . infinity?), I’m at a loss. Clearly, I should approach Pessoa’s curiosity differently. And despite their talkative character, the same goes for the poems in You Good Thing.

Whimsical and macabre, the musicality of Wier’s language on the surface, enchants before dunking the reader in its dark undercurrent. In “Hyperlexia” (a title which alludes to an unusual condition in children who are paradoxically able to read without instruction at an early age but are often hampered by an inability to communicate), there’s an attention to sonic sense which buoys around rough edges:

Stern were the words heard through the burns, unnerved were
We with palatial waves firm and fond, fixed and fresh, were
We with a broken crust, a broken crutch, a dozen wet matches

Then, by the end, drops into murky waters:

With knives for dreaming and catapults for steaming, steam on,
Whispered the ancient sailor, steam on, so we heard through our
Hands close to our ears, is this drowning it is drowning.

What began as a steady drive through “firm and fond” sound ends with a disorienting crunch of syntax. A dozen wet matches—a paltry nuisance—suddenly transforms into the whole self drowning. The poem, aligned with the title, mimics one of the many ways that words, intended to elucidate and communicate, overwhelm us, and asphyxiate.

On the other hand, a light approach can lead us out of the mire. The nonsensical joke rescues us from a maudlin trance. “Who covered all their mirrors with sheets / While they grieved,” asks the speaker in “Needle Threader In Need of a Needle,” “who wove together hair bracelets for themselves / To wear.” And just when we’re prepared to shirk the living, to descend into the funeral, she ends the poem with “nearby a llama stepping into its pajamas.” Suddenly, we’re back.

Absurd metaphors—a comical amount, really—cloud the poems with the illusion of clarity. “No more mirrors,” she says, “We’ll need to look elsewhere,” that is, to less literal modes of reflecting the lived experience. One poem begins:

If you were not a socket wrench and I were not a lug nut,
Radio physics would need to be revised to radiate our conundrum

And later:

If you were an obsolete satellite and I were a drop of water
Just about done condensing on the ceiling of a tunnel in a salt mine

What seems to define moves further from the point, itself fleeing. In the same poem, Wier writes, “the more specific it is, the more difficult it becomes . . . ” as if speaking directly to these cascading metaphors. We cannot escape human reasoning in the face of unreasonable acts, unplumbable loss.

Each lineated into 14 lines, the poems masquerade as sonnets but wander far from the form. The sonnet traditionally moves thought forward to its logical conclusion, a poetics of reason. Often Wier’s sentences depart in this logical direction, as if ready to solve an abstraction like a proof, but arrive in a far more chaotic—and, strangely, coherent—place. Still, language of the rational drifts in and out of the lines. In “Not a Verbal Equivalent,” Wier writes, “For the sake of / Argument, let’s say,” readying the reader for a rhetorical pile driver, and continues with “I’m a crime and you’re a clue and someone / Else, we don’t know who, is the detective.” Then drops the metaphor entirely. We’re left with a ghostly sense of purpose. What began as adamant fact switched tracks into the abstract and has been abandoned, what Wier calls a “telescopic line of reasoning.”

With long lines and fluorescent titles, the poems resemble—at quick glance—a row of headstones, but the kind you might find at Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Many of the titles stand as punch lines to absent jokes. “Many Similes Are Protestant, Most Metaphor Is Not.” “Evidence of Increasing Lack of Evidence.” “In Principle, Infinite In Width, In Practice Not Quite That Wide.” I’m reminded of Richard Prince’s paintings of jokes written in run-on sentences: what’s revealed in this stark presentation is something missing. In absence of laughter, we’re left with silence, and turn toward a darker tone. The title of the final poem exemplifies this: “Epitaphic.”

In fact, the general mood of You Good Thing is “epitaphic,” both playful and grave. Absence surrounds these poems. Who is the “you” addressed? Though the identity isn’t revealed as simply one person, the most consistent candidate is someone lost, as in “Without You” where the speaker wonders “if an hourglass filled with someone’s ashes / Might tell me something.” In another, the “you” is compared to a “rubber tombstone in a hailstorm,” and in “Epitaphic” as a ghostlike “haze” that “weighs us down.” Absence is fully present in a kind of electric mourning, and whoever is “not here is who’s kept / In mind.”

“Longing is the absent chatting with the absent,” wrote Arabic poet Mahmoud Darwish in his final collection, In the Presence of Absence. Darwish’s contemporary book invokes a traditional genre within Arabic poetry to self-eulogize, and Wier’s poems bear a striking resemblance to the formal idea of Darwish: both present the text in neat blocks with epitaphic headings, both thoroughly exhaust the second-person, and both revolve around the idea of absence. Both mesmerize and compel. But where Darwish digs his ornate grave in prose poetry, he leaves little room for the agency of the reader. We are told what is happening, and it happens before our eyes in a way that often feels passive. Wier, in her swift wordplay and shifting syllables, implicates the reader with an approach like the Socratic method (which, by the way, is defined as a ‘_negative_ method of hypothesis elimination”—a further tactic of affirming by what is not). She expounds one fact only to retract it, to state its opposite in the next word or phrase:

You are a seahorse unraveling.
You are the back of a landhorse looking backward.

With deft locomotion, each word seems to unravel the next:

Walking up the aisle of a moving train as it passes under an overpass

These are not coy wordplays, but further emphasis that, yes, "here does move." It continues to move beyond what is, into the realm of what is not, beyond our grasp. Wier’s syntactical antics force the reader to pay attention and, unlike the self-eulogy, hint that the “you” may also be literally you, the reader, absent for the speaker of the poems in the same way that authorship haunts our reading.

Dara Wier’s runaway trains of logic and meandering rivers of enlivened syntax reenact the path the brain makes in logically parsing loss while affirming life. We can, she suggests, never fully comprehend an infinite loss like death, but we can try “chatting with the absent,” and we will fail, “leaving us with little to do with our hands.”

Eric Dean Wilson's essays and poems have appeared in The Millions, Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and Third Coast. He lives in New York City.

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