Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Amputee's Dream

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 27
Jillian Weise, The Book of Goodbyes: Poems

Jillian Weise is an amputee. Let's discuss that first, because her altered body, and its attendant demands on her spirit, recur early and often in her verse. Does her prosthetic leg make her disabled, disfigured, different? Like the best poets, she resists answering her own questions, preferring the process. After all, her leg isn't her only interesting trait, just the one outsiders see first, and judge.

And that dominates the greatest portion of her verse: not how she responds to her own disability (if that's the word), but how others respond to it. She appears to take it for granted. Poems like "The Ugly Law," about how cities formerly used legislation to keep undesirables out of sight, or "Elegy for Zahra Baker," about a murder victim similarly transformed, unpack how others perceive women with prosthetics.

Therefore, Weise crafts remarkable voice poems, creating wholly realized identities who judge and criticize, dissecting herself vicariously. Sometimes Weise slips among voices, sudden and unannounced, mid-poem, creating a dreamlike texture where everything and nothing coexists simultaneously. At times, it's impossible to determine exactly who's speaking, as in her thirdhand self-examination, "Café Loop":
She had it easy, you know. I knew her
from FSU, back before she was disabled.

I mean she was disabled but she didn't
write like it. Did she talk like it?

Do you know what it is exactly?
She used to wear these long dresses

to cover it up. She had a poem
in The Atlantic. Yes, I'll take water.
But despite this motif, Weise doesn't write a book about her amputation. She's written two previous books; perhaps she's already come to grips with this theme. Instead, she expounds how her condition colors how she receives others, and how others receive her. Friends, lovers, lost loves: this is a book about people communicating, or failing to communicate, with one another.

Recurrent throughout this collection, Weise revisits Big Logos, a mysterious, self-destructive figure and apparently burned-out poet. Weise calls herself Big Logos' mistress, and speaks of his other woman as his girlfriend, lover, wife... Just as other voices meld into a dreamlike gestalt, one suspects Big Logos is an amalgam of men who have hurt her, as in "Semi Semi Dash," which I quote in full:
The last time I saw Big Logos he was walking
to the Quantum Physics Store to buy magnets.
He told me his intentions. He was wearing

a jumpsuit with frayed cuffs. I thought the cuffs
got that way from him rubbing them against
his lips but he said they got that way

with age. We had two more blocks to walk.
"Once I do this, what are you going to do?"
he asked. "I wish you wouldn't do it," I said.

Big Logos bought the magnets and a crane
delivered them to his house. After he built
the 900-megahertz superconductor, I couldn't go

to his house anymore because I have all kinds
of metal in my body. I think if you love someone,
you shouldn't do that, build something like that,

on purpose, right in front of them.
Big Logos arrests Weise's attention: his massive generator, his struggles with ancestry, his apparent violent streak. But who is Big Logos? Weise is inconsistent, probably because she has combined many men to create this monument to her pain. Big Logos becomes, not an individual, but a prism through which Weise examines her own Todestrieb. Consider "Poem For His Ex," where she enumerates her perceived unworthiness:
So what's up? Where are you these days?
Last I heard you worked at a bakery.
Last I read your poems were lower case

with capital content. I used to like
to read them in the dark. It's weird
you're not his girl anymore.

You were the picture in a snow globe
on his desk that I'd go to, shaking,
when he left the room. That room.
Weise's catalog of disappointment could easily slip into a self-parodying dirge. Indeed, she dances close to the maudlin more than once. But she retains her essential humanity, and her readers' loyalty, by keeping her gaze clear during her long, minute self-autopsy. She doesn't make herself either a romantic hero or the dregs of something lesser; she's just herself, capable of emotional extremes like you or I.

Weise might call herself a partial woman. She might call herself a disabled soul. But her ability to know herself, and show what she knows, makes her greater, and more direct. This isn't easy reading. But it is very, very honest.

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