In the tradition of Gertrude Stein’s response to Cubism and Frank O’Hara’s involvement with painters such as Larry Rivers and Fairfield Porter, Marjorie Welish’s poetics offer an interesting analogue to the visual art she has chronicled as a critic. The Annotated “Here”assembles selections from four previous books (going back to 1979) and presents in its entirety a new collection also called “The Annotated ‘Here’.” It is typical of Welish that the titular phenomenon of a glossed and cross-referenced moment—a verbally concretized version of the constantly relative and therefore immaterial location called “here” should appear in the book repeatedly. Such mirroring, nesting, and displacement of meaning is central to Welish’s poetry, echoing ideas about seriality and the nature of the object as articulated by Minimalism. In her clipped and scintillant off-rhyme, Welish draws upon ideas about pattern and surface-as-depth propounded by New York School heroes like Pollock or Johns: “Let us effect a moratorium on things. / Let us say / an object is not an image, aerodynamically speaking… . The object obsolescent, abject, or gone. / When is an object not an object?” (“Scalpel in Hand”).
References abound to specific artists, and to drawing, painting, and sculpture. But the poems are not “about” these things. This is not ekphrasis, the formal device whereby a poet describes an artwork in a kind of verbal homage. Welish is a painter as well as an art critic and poet, and she takes advantage of the insight this triple engagement with her subject gives her. But she never elides one discipline into another. Her poetry is rigorously engaged with the material nature of words, lines, and sentences. Shapeliness and musicality are deployed with steel-springed humor. Her syntax assembles and disassembles with mathematical grace.
While Welish disdains the “booby-trapped stories” of personal emotion, she does not refuse individual perspective. She simply relocates the center of passion away from the figure of the poet and into the fabric of the work. Her poems function like algorithms, self-contained yet interlocking verbal devices that do not so much record thoughts as generate them. The Annotated “Here” unfolds a grid across which acts of intellection are examined as vivid, even sensual-experience. As poet C. D. Wright comments, “There may be no known correspondences for Marjorie Welish’s mind.” Or as Welish herself admonishes us in “Design, With Drawings”: “Why ask the artist? Ask the art.’