Karen Weiser, Or, / The Ambiguities, Ugly Duckling, 2015
Reviewed by Ken L Walker
In the epigraph to her latest book of poems, Karen Weiser offers a quote from William James that presents a juxtaposition of the concrete description with which we offer up our feelings and that which might allow us to truly hunt them down.
James states, "We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by…"
In locating feelings, we might find their addition, possibility, and conditions. And perhaps, to go further, in locating the dead, we may do the same. This is what Weiser is after, feelings by way of talking with, to, and from the dead; and what a tricky phrase that truly is—the dead. I personally loathe that phrase—the dead. It comes up so frequently in poetry. But then again, I don't loathe the dead, just the phrase, just its failure at representation through language.
Weiser gets that in Or, The Ambiguities—a multi-layered book that contains 4 long poems and a postscript which Weiser claims "seeks out" Herman Melville by using the text from his 1852 novel Pierre as almost communicative buttons. She goes so far to locate feelings and the locations of their locations, that the book's last poem is in fact more an image, a concrete poem (like that of Kurt Schwitters or Augusto de Campos):
The unlocking or opening toward the "E"—that location where the sun rises, where new days begin, the location Herman Melville used to sail towards and return from, the location all the writers that influenced Melville were influenced by. Moving forward toward history and the passing of time. And there you have it—the prepositional process of looking back at "the dead" and asking and taking and re-offering.
Or, The Ambiguities not only takes its title from Melville's Pierre but also uses it as a template to situate its center as an entire work of not only erasure, but lyric, Ouija, and concrete poem. Let's just get it out there: that's really, really hard to get away with. But Weiser does. Where some readers have called the first poem in the book—"Dear Pierre"—an erasure that acts as stalactite and stalagmite, I think of it more as a skirting between drowning and falling, two keys or barges floating, like here where Weiser writes
"I was eighteen when my parents died in a plane crash. The decade after that is bare"
For as the breath in all our lungs is hereditary, and my present breath at this moment"
as its synthetic opposite phrases to erase, slowly, like credits, like ice melting, and making that feel like a willow on a record-cold day steamed with something on each side of one's life. Weiser turns words like "focused" and erases (or, melts) them down to "used" then to "use" then to "us"; she transitions "beach" to "be" and "how" to "o". Make no mistake, these erasures become both concrete and meditation. We are forced to read each full poem countless times and keep pulling from it. This is the book's inner beauty but also its deceptive difficulty, its enticing longform castigation.
Pessoa once wrote, "Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text." That would make sense in light of this work. Additionally, Mary Ruefle wrote in her essay "On Erasure," that people "make compositions out of decompositions". Think: eulogies, fossil studies, mass graves. Or, take Mallarme's famous dictum that "everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book." Even books exist to end up as books. Ruefle goes on to tell us she has resisted formal poetry her entire life, but in exercising her right to erasure found an irresistible form. She declares, "It is like writing my eyes instead of my hands." I think Karen Weiser is seeing, not writing.
In the middle second long poem, "S: Love, Delight, and Alarm," all the subtitles to that overall title state the speaker of the poem, as here, in "Isabel" where Weiser seems to rearrange Melville's character's sentiments:
The moving parts of hunger
At the bottom of every answer
Or, here, where the "Narrator" cuts in:
The monster dubiously
Is our affective habitat
It's no deep secret that Melville's Pierre was (is) a critically panned text, a read not-at-all worth reading, which is so obviously peculiar since he wrote something so massively canonical and stands as a limb in the body of American Transcendentalism.
Karen Weiser's work, so far, has followed in these footsteps, on this path, but to a certain degree, polishing it to a better core than all its character could propose. To erase or rearrange Melville's not-necessary-to-read text into an entire book (a modern conceptual formation) and then to arrive at the above four lines (The monster dubiously/Is our affective habitat/Habit at/Minimum), to doubly erase again in order to arrive at some conclusion like home is mainly repeat behavior minimized until it can no longer be a contrived thing, until it can become a shell for the unborn (habitat=habit at minimum), well now we're stars and simultaneous fetuses. That's quite a transcendental poetics.
I've watched Bill Morrison's Decasia. Where Morrison attempts to eradicate or decay time itself, I think Or, The Ambiguities seeks to resurrect, rebuild, to give a kind of birth, and not necessarily to words, but to ideas, to an important notion, that how we treat our dead reflects unto our newly born. Apparently, Melville even played a crucial role in Albert Camus's thinking, where in fact, Camus once wrote to Dorothy Norman, something about how Melville seemed to truly understand "the allegory of humankind's real fight". I think he meant, and this book by Karen Weiser seems to understand this as well, that to find the absurdities and exquisitenesses of being alive, we must engage the forgotten scraps and tatters of our past.