The other day on the subway I caught sight of a sign that read what if everyone in New York was reading the same book at the same time and fell into a deep funk. It almost made me want to give up reading forever. Luckily, I was able to rally my spirits and stick my nose in a book I had with me, one I could feel pretty sure everyone else wouldn’t be reading at the same time. Later, not on the subway, I started to read one that struck me, not as a book everyone wouldn’t be reading at the same time, but one that couldn’t be read by everyone — or even by two people at once — because it could never be the same book for any two people, or maybe not even for the same person twice. Yes, they’d be reading the same words, but not the same book. Probably that’s true of any book, but some of them make more of a point of it. So What So That, Marjorie Welish’s new collection of poetry, is that kind of book — one “constituted of alternative takes,” to quote a poem titled “You Needn’t,” which (given the various musical references embedded in it) I take as an allusion to Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” But you might see it differently. My So What So That will inevitably be different from yours. Somehow permeable to its reader, it finds its form only in a sort of chemical compound with whatever spirit any individual brings to it. Welish’s poetry, like Monk’s music, is a montage of moving parts in which you’d be wise to expect the unexpected. It’s hard to locate oneself inside this poetry, and yet it never seems confused. I recently came across these words from Henry James, quoted by the novelist Adam Thirlwell in an essay on Henry Green: “The muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities.” Like Green and James, Welish is sharp about the muddle that is almost everyone’s daily lot. She doesn’t entirely regret that muddle, and certainly rejects the claimed literary antidotes to it: “Word away are the armaments: / some speak through aphorism, others harangue; still others enlist reasoning arguments / wanting the hearer to do something.” So, in fact, you’ll find no arguments, harangues, or aphorisms here. Nothing meant to line up all readers into a unity. Just what another poem calls “Looking nonstop” as a way to “devise notation for the ambient sounds / and transcribe unbound pages from the age of reason.” (Evidently it’s not reason of which the poet is suspicious, but of “reasoning arguments” with what Keats called “a palpable design on us.”) It strikes me now that something like those “unbound pages” might be what I’ve been looking for, so often, in what might seem unlikely places, the bound pages of books. (“The geneticist / concluded: my search involves the greatest difference that matters to the smallest divergence,” writes Welish.)I’m going to keep looking, but for now, at least, I’m going to put the diary of my search on hiatus. It’s been fun keeping this Reader’s Diary but, well, I needn’t. “Because life — or a different song with a similar beginning / then becoming that companion to on off on of — / is short shrift.”
Marjorie Welish’s So What So That: Poems (2016) is published by Coffee House Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...
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