Sunday, May 20, 2007



Lilyfoil + 3 by Elizabeth Treadwell
(O Books, 2004)


Chantry by Elizabeth Treadwell
(Chax Press, 2004)

[First published in Rain Taxi, Summer 2005, Ed. Eric Lorberer]

Elizabeth Treadwell's writing, in which human (usually female) figures appear amidst fantastically embroidered surfaces, demonstrates volubility, humor, and intelligence in spades. 2004 brought the publication of two new volumes of Treadwell's piecework, which seems at once medieval in its miniaturized exuberance and modern in its casual entropies.

Lilyfoil + 3 (O Books, $12) is the more manageable of the two books, comprising four clearly delineated pieces. The language in all four poems may be described, in a phrase from the first, as 'gramophone jumpy,' and linked by the appearance of idiosyncratic Feminist archetypes and currents of thought. Though the subtitle to the first poem, 'Lilyfoil (or Boy & Girl Tramps of America)' makes a nod to the non-distaff side, the feminine "America" is the crypto-heroine of the piece. While the goodtime girl Lilyfoil draws a lot of attention to herself -- 'swinging singing/jacques lacan let me rock ya let me rock ya jacques/lacan,' 'sallying' around, and 'making out with blanks. the princess/spontaneity. crumpled hula hoop' -- it is space itself which is the ground and field for all this physical and verbal action, and this space, with few exceptions, feels American: 'a bar/called downtown beirut, in nyc,' the 'pump saloon,' the 'mph city,' 'his beach apt,' 'outside of sante fe,' 'nicks vacation waterfall.' This tramping around gives rise not just to the brief episodes of this quasi-picaresque, but also, one senses, to its magpie language:

the toils of neverland audiocassette. field harnessed
to the great hereafter, but lilyfoils disrepute nones
spearmint drum; the heroes progress, the corny
uproot of raucous clubs. solvent any longer.

It is as if Treadwell wants to reclaim a kind of sprawling, thrilling America in which the 'heroes progress,' and land opens out onto the 'great hereafter' without the cruelty and conquest associated with Manifest Destiny. In this model, heroism is a kind of audacious receptiveness, the 'toils of neverland audiocassette,' and ritual or 'nones' is made not out of purity but from 'disrepute,' from mixing, the bricolaged, American 'spearmint drum.'

Less optimistically, the poem 'The New Elizabethans: Modernity & Tabloid: A History Book' looks backward and over the water to England since the Blitz. Here are female heroes, by all means; the piece opens with an epigraph from the stiff-upper-lip 'Goodnight children' speech by Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in dangerous 1940. All sorts of royal women populate the poem that follows, and their increasingly ceremonial actions provide its surreal texture; they visit their subjects, wed, or just exist, albeit ultrapublically: 'that you may meet your own difficulties with a steady entourage. a photo of her doing so.' Meanwhile, a counter-power begins to coalesce; tabloid 'scenarioville' becomes 'Rumsfeldhouse,' and the rest, unfortunately, is history. Beautifully, Treadwell conjures a 'Dover Beach'-like perspective to figure this diminishment in scale:

faint carvings base the moon, moonfaced seashell,
cottontail, wind.
loose pyjama ship'sprow, little empire, little
amusement drawer,
the no-it's-not banquet, the carousel'spull.

By the end of the poem, our female figurehead is reduced to a mad or condemned woman, a jettisoned queen a la Henry VIII, 'the tin alms plate slid through her door."

With its stability and its object lessons, Lilyfoil makes for an easier read than Chantry (Chax Press, $16), in which Treadwell's choc-a-bloc prose stacks up in combination after combination. In isolation, each of these projects is interesting. The volume opens with a series of "Christines" which riff on and reassemble the writings of that heroic first Feminist, Christine de Pizan; charmingly, in a piece of haywire apparatus, this forerunner interrupts to comment on the proceedings: "Winterstitch cocktail, peaked swarm. Miserable snowcap. In my birth life I do not behave in that manner." This promising series cuts off after just three pages. Another picks up, a rollicking if ramshackle adventure in which Ancient Troy meets the American frontier, indexing the intervening centuries. Upon this tide of language, a figure named "Troy Silver" floats up and is submerged:

Most ancient Tonio. Troy, whatever else may be, oh
Porcelain inky. New elocution. Antisocial pastern.
Queen of the May

                              caw caw caw prosody

He he died by the river. Torn/town

The forward momentum of this poem is built from its shifts in diction and the way phrase shuttles into phrase. The total effect is a capacious, heterogenous unity.

As one series dissipates, another collects, and it is not long before the typography itself begins to intervene and place surprising markers in the middle of all this traffic. The piece "distomap for the coded mountains, pale frontier, or the devotions," dedicated to the poet's sisters, takes as its subject themes that have undergirded Treadwell's work all along, namely feminine relationships and travel itself. As landmarks are passed -- "canyons and rivers and shops in the middle of blind flat states called Uncle Junk" -- oversized intertitles interrupt the poems as if from the psyche of its adolescent inmates (e.g. "why am I a girl") or perhaps, again, from the teenage heart of America itself. The effect is moving, coherent, and far too brief.

As Chantry progresses, it accrues bulk, including a "novelette" and multiple quasi-utopic visions in which text unspools and is regathered into plaques, chevrons, and columns; is titled, subtitled, shrunk, underlined, and epigraphed. The language is consistently piquant and dazzling; to wade through it, with its frantic apparatus, exhausts. Chantry is not a book that can be taken in via a glib, oft-was-thought-but-ne'er-so-well-expressed once-over. Instead, like the chantry of its title, it is a site for multiple visits; a repository of earthly splendor and a site for its effortful conversion into the supramundane; a radiant sourcebook.


Joyelle McSweeney is the co-founder of Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web-quarterly for international writing and hybrid forms. She teaches at the University of Notre Dame and writes reviews for Rain Taxi, The Boston Review, The Constant Critic, and Zoland Poetry.


Post a Comment

<< Home