Elana Wolff, Everything Reminds You of Something Else
Guernica Editions, 2017, Toronto, ON
$20, 978-1-77183-189-5, 69 pages
reviewed by Keith Garebian
Attentiveness in terms of mind and heart is a salient feature in Elana Wolff’s fifth solo collection. Its very title, Everything Reminds You of Something Else, connotes a compulsion of perception that in itself is nothing new in her poetry, but this collection is a progression in the author’s already sophisticated technique. Wolff has been compared (by George Elliott Clarke) to Marianne Moore for her “sharply cut images to communicate by her plain-toned shock at the unexpected inconsistencies and awry events,” but a better reference point would be Louise Gluck. There is no “Swiftian savage indignation” or “courtly feline bitchiness” that Maureen N. McLane claims are found in Moore, and Wolff’s lyrics (like Gluck’s) are spare, introspective, elliptical, and heart-probing. Although some of her individual titles have a contemporary satiric cast (the entertaining, easy “Thin Girl”) or a low-key wit as in “Update on Nearness” (which attends to the mystery of relationships and why we repeat what we shouldn’t) and “Horse and Ride Her” (with its bad homonym puns), the complexity in her best poems involves a delicate certitude of knowledge, especially in intricate human relationships. “Riding to Ronda” (which is at first about “the unsure eye”) ends as if in an undefined dream:
I recall deciding
at the stony lip of a bridge—
singularly beautiful and Romanesque, like Ronda’s.
Or was this only in a poem…
or had I already leapt?
And was it into water after air, or into arms?
And didn’t you not let on,
for the sake of subtlety,
The concluding humour is not sentimentality but irony. And it would take a mind and heart of lead not to be moved by the ending of “Meridian”:
The whole countryside
pulsed with the hum of becoming. We’re finishing,
it whispered into the distance. Then to the greater
distance it whispered, We’re not. The ending word
returned to be retold. After seven—eight—the
lemniscate. Shadow at the crossover point and curves.
The larger wit is, of course, in the sense of a mind working itself through objects and creatures in the outer world. As in Gluck, for Wolff knowledge is something that passes through you by slow accumulation or even through liminal states—rather than something you simply possess.
Although Wolff’s poems are about subjective passions and states of mind (e.g. shame, insecurity, doubt, despair, secrecy, rage, benignity, trust, bliss), the real dynamic at play is a balance of outer and inner (“Meridian”) as the poet transforms what is perceived and is transformed herself by a relationship to things in the world. There is a loaded landscape (water, clouds, birds, animals, bower, tower, insects, highway lights, bathers, moon, etc), yet the lyrics are never heavy in their progression. They sometimes have a drift that survives an occasional unnecessary inversion of syntax (“Punctilious the Cutter” in “Altarpieces ”) and that doesn’t betray an architecture where the weights of thought and feeling are well proportioned and distributed. Her sharply cut lines are achieved even through blended language of the oracular and quotidian: “First commandment: drown and all is water./They pull me from the lake~/fish-slippery~grappling at the raft” (“Jerusalem Day”); “We laugh/but I am gasping, clothed & drawn from water.”
Her book is saturated with the illusion of creatures speaking to us, but are they speaking or is it Wolff herself speaking to them in order to discover how the world is taken within, pondered, and transformed by a sensitive sentience? This is yet another way in which Wolff resembles Louise Gluck—especially the Gluck of The Wild Iris where flowers speak to the human condition, analogizing compulsively. Like Gluck, Wolff produces exquisitely crafted lyrics with fine sonic qualities and engaging antitheses in a minor key, but by “minor” I simply mean that Wolff does not engage with the epical, monumental, or overly dramatic. When they do occur, explosions come within the heart or mind. She is not as much interested in experience itself as she is in understanding or illuminating experience by metaphor and metamorphosis.
No wonder that one of her literary obsessions is with Franz Kafka, whose Metamorphoses she idealizes (in an approving quotation from Elias Canetti) as “one of the few perfect works of poetic imagination of the 20th century.” Some of the richest poems in Everything Reminds You of Something Else (“Meridian,” “Update on Nearness,” “The Bower,” and “Metamorphoses”) have language attuned to metaphor and reflection. In “Metamorphoses,” phrases branch out, yet are knotted into the crux of Kafka’s metamorphic imagination. The academic formality of “nihilistic piety” or cliched phrase (“pull of despair”) are outflanked by polysyllabic prose diction (“having been bequeathed such an insignificant tail”), epigrammatic wit (“Some are born human, most have to humanize slowly”), and a surprise final line that puts a seal on the central metaphor as well as Wolff’s enviable neatness of finish so characteristic of her poetry in general.
Keith Garebian holds a Doctorate in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature from Queen’s University. He is the author of six poetry collections, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Freefall Poetry Award, the 2015 GritLit Poetry Award, and the 2015 Gwendolyn MacEwen-Exile Poetry Award for the Best Single Poem from a suite. In 2013, he was a judge for the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award.