Sandwiched somewhere in between the recently published Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, and the amazing trajectory of Ugly Duckling Press Publications, newcomers Lightful Press released their first book late last year: Play, by Liz Waldner.
Play details a sequence of otherworldly occurrences in a land of language play. And it does so in a very theatrical format. From its letterpress cover to the dialogue among its lines, Play contains a multitude of language tableaus that encourage readers to experience poetic form in a tactile and performance-oriented way.
Waldner suggests performance, by bending her poetic text closer to graphic score, through typographic designs, closer to script, via dialogue, and closer to dance through rhyme and repetition, and overt stage directions, like: “I say, don’t I know you from somewhere?/Who are you?/(song&dance ensue)“.
Sometimes, it’s as though the lines themselves are characters in this work, speaking back and forth to one another like separate entities. Take for example, the lines in this poem, “THIRD, MIN(D)OR”:
You are a fountain, are you not?
You like this new free
You are a fountain, are you not?
Fennel fir phylactery
That bird sings liquid
There you go
It’s true, that was me
The lines exist so distinctly separate from each another on the page that the spacing appears to convey separate entities that speak to one another, in addition to separate voices.
Dialogue exists between lines one and two, of the first two stanzas, “You are a fountain, are you not?/You like this new free” “You are a fountain, are you not?/Fennel fir phylactery” as the second line responds conversationally to the first; and dialogue exists between stanzas, as same question occurs in line one of stanzas one and two, bearing a different answer each time.
The parenthetical shapes that Waldner uses in “THIRD MIN(D)OR,” appear ornamental at first glance, but mark very deliberate and stylized pauses in the body of the poem. I’d even argue that they’re pregnant pauses: language felt within, that hasn’t yet found a way out. Or, pauses that occur before a thought, or statement is complete.
I’m interested in the way that Play feels more like a script, or score, and less like poems, and why that is, or how that happens. I find that Waldner wrote Play in a manner that draws the reader to consider form, as opposed to content because of how unsubstantive the content, i.e. the characters and plot, sometimes feel.
Within the framework of the collection’s title, Play, Waldner’s attentiveness to form as opposed to content makes sense. And if we are to consider that she is a poet approaching other forms like script or score, still as poet, with more interest in tackling differences among texts, than developing a traditional narrative, I think that the somewhat unsubstantial quality of the content is okay. Her writing suggests a desire to exist boundlessly, flexibly, with regards to form. Play: both the noun and the verb, becomes the book’s overriding theme.
Even after I realized this, I still found myself expecting more from the book, and in particular, clarity. I wanted the exchanges between characters to be clearer, and I wanted the plot to be more directly told to me. But I think that that’s my own bias, as I often feel this way at dance performances, i.e. “This looks really cool, but what’s really going on.” (I mean, I’m working on it…)
Further, I don’t think that clarity on a minute scale is something that Waldner aims for, finally, in Play. Rather, the work exists in the form of a book that looks outward to motion and performance.
I should note that, according to Lightful Press’ website, Play was read at Melville House Bookstore, here in Brooklyn, last November in a theatrical context. Which reminds me a little of someone like Anne Carson who embodies and reenacts figures from the classic Greek world, like Waldner embodies her interest in South-Asian spirituality in sections of Play.
I should also note that writing towards dance or theater isn’t uncommon in the dark and unmysterious poetry universe. In terms of dialogue, Waldner, steps into the playwright’s shoes like Carson, or even Stein have. In terms of movement, other writers have done this in the past, as well. My personal favorite is Jackson MacLow’s The Pronouns, published in 1979 by Station Hill Press: “Each gives a simple form to a bridge/though seeming to sleep,/& each gets an orange from a hat, takes it, & keeps it;/each is letting complex impulses make something.”
I liked reading Play because of its attentiveness to form, “A form / of taking / it all” as Rosmarie Waldrop says. With respect to Liz Waldner, I’ve never read a book by her before, but this certainly won’t be the last. And with regards to Lightful Press, I look forward to what happens next.
Sara Wintz is the author of a chapbook called Lipstick Traces and lead singer of The Pretty Panicks Press. She curates for Segue Reading Series at the Bowery Poetry Club and runs poetryTV! at Unnameable Books. More of her reviews can be found in The Poetry Project Newsletter and on Sustainable Aircraft, you can hear her read her own work on Ceptuetics. This is her first review for HTML Giant.