By Sam Witt
Named after a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Sam Witt's debut
collection Everlasting Quail (winner of the 2000 Katherine Bakeless
Nason Prize) is chockfull of poems perhaps best described as strange-strange
not only in terms of their voice and subject matter, but also in terms
of their form. "Rhapsody in Crisper Green," which begins
Part One, is addressed variously to "Uncle Bitch," "Uncle
We," "Uncle Years," "Auntie Me," "Uncle
Salt," and "Uncle Sated," a cast of characters/personas/voices
that appear, albeit altered, in later poems such as "Americana
1" and "Americana 2," and also in "The Mortality
Tree," the collection's foreword. This early introduction of
disembodied voices defamiliarizes the world that Witt describes, a
world we sometimes recognize, yet are reluctant to admit is our own.
It is the world of the Everlasting Quail, a place where young women
are murdered ("Colors Are the Deeds of Light . . ."), old
women undergo electroshock therapy ("The Nap"), young men
try cross-dressing ("Her Blue Dress"), and little boys receive
enemas ("Zeromass/Erozmass"), all rendered in such heterogeneous
registers, even within single poems, that we may be forced to ask,
like the deliberately anti-confessional narrator of "Rhapsody
in Crisper Green," "where is the real person in all of this"?
The forms of many of these poems are almost as strange as their content.
"Zeromass/Erozmass" makes use of both margins, form mimicking
content, to suggest the shape of an enema bag. In "The Nap,"
words and phrases seem almost randomly indented, lines and stanzas
erratically broken-the idea being, we might offer, to reproduce the
episodic nature of a dream. This experimentation with form appears
in other poems as well, poems such as "Late Snow Falling,"
"At the Greyhound Terminal Requiem," and "Her Blue
Dress." And while we might think this experimentation is interesting,
while it might, at times, instruct us about where to take a breath-the
pauses and breaks giving weight to the words that precede them-more
often it comes off as merely clever, distracts us from the poetry's
beautiful language and complex thought. This is most glaringly the
case in the poem "From a Book of the Dead," in which Witt
plays not only with the spatial arrangement of lines on the page,
but also with the typography. Attempting to invoke antiquated language
(which the poem does well enough when incorporating quotes from Robinson
Crusoe, Tom Jones, and others), Witt uses a typeface with archaic
S's and F's. The negative effects of this choice are twofold: one,
we are beat over the head with the antiquated language "idea,"
and two, parts of the poem become downright frustrating to read.
Rather than suggesting profundity, all of this experimentation with
form (not to mention the collection's surfeit of literary allusions,
enough to justify endnotes) points to an overarching self-consciousness
on the part of the poet. We read many of the more experimental poems
in Everlasting Quail and feel like Witt is trying too hard to sound
intelligent, like he has deliberately appropriated obscurantism. But
we don't come to this conclusion immediately. First, we blame ourselves;
we're simply not smart enough to crack what we think is only the poems'
superficial inaccessibility. Following this, we suspect we're being
condescended to and become irritated. And finally, once we've stared
long and hard at these poems, we end up feeling sorry for Witt. In
trying to prove his already obvious intelligence, he loses us completely.
The worst part of the whole affair is that he knows not what he does.
Witt is at his best without all the special effects. And it's a pretty
impressive best. Poems like "Rhapsody in Crisper Green,"
"Americana 1" and "Americana 2," though obscure,
overcome this obscurity in their mock-confessional tone and breathtakingly
original language. These are poems we can move around in, poems that
show us how an expert mixes the colloquial with a more high-pitched,
traditionally poetic diction. In "Americana 2," for example,
once a room held me, a stutter
between two walls, motherspace, suckle,
what passes through me,
O get it up for your food.
By this point in the poem images of ingestion, dialogue between mother
and speaker, and meditations on space have accrued so much weight
that this climax is the perfect combination of funny and disturbing,
high-art and low humor. All the seemingly disparate elements in the
poem come together here with a bang (signaled as such by Witt's lovely
portmanteau "motherspace"), and what a big bang it is, a
bang with a distinctively "human thump." We're wooed by
the poem's creative use of language and its effortless evocation of
ideas. Neither of these relies on experimental effects. This poem,
like the best poems in the collection, hugs the left-hand margin.
It has regular line breaks. It does not bombard us with allusions.
Still, it is an ambitious poem that asks us to accept it on its own
terms. And when we read it, we're so taken that we can't help but