Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Brief Essay on the Work of Eleanor Wilner

By Taije Silverman

There is a quality in the poems of Eleanor Wilner that I admire as much for its ethical force as for the aesthetic skill it requires: a fluidity of perspective that connects histories, mythologies, and the figures shaped by them through transitions at once startling and expert. Gently, relentlessly, Wilner unsettles the poetic voice so we perceive it collectively rather than individually, even as the individual continues to resurface in its ten thousand guises.

I've chosen the two poems here--written thirty-six years apart--for the different ways in which they both speak to this fluidity, and for their shared "roundness," or as Wilner wrote about the more recent of the two, "Turning," how they are in fact both poems of "things circling and circling, wanting to see more." Each moves from voice to voice to recast narrative perspective, shifting our attention from the individual to a space between, and refusing that space any comfortable moral conclusion.

I'd like to look first at how radically "The Round Fish" (from Wilner's 1979 book maya) manipulates perspective to explore the boundary between self and other, and between the human and the natural world. Particularly bold is the unpredictability of the second-person you, that "Failed Pronoun" as Wilner calls it in a wonderful poem from her book Up Against It. It's entirely absent from the first eight lines of the poem, as we're introduced to this strange round fish. Confidently asserted in the poem's title, the very existence of the fish is then undone in its first line, as we wonder what sort of fish has "neither bones nor skin." The answer suggests itself: a fish made of water. And so the poem opens by asking us to consider how a thing is informed by what surrounds it.

But again perspective destabilizes as the fish "plumbs the green depths / not as a stone falls, but / as a swimmer dives for his own delight." Enter the scale of the human. It's an unexpected simile, using a person to describe the utter otherness of the skinless fish. And of course it's exactly this simile that bridges our movement into the unexpected entrance of the second person, as (characteristically) assured as if it had always been there: "on a still night, when you think you see the moon." The poem compares the other-than-human to the human in order to conjure a listener, affirm our impulse to communicate and our place in the world. Rather than looking at the fish through the eyes of this you, however, we look at you through the eyes of the fish. The fish is not a metaphor for you, the poem insists; you are a metaphor for the fish. Empathy, in Wilner's work, is what the three strange angels of D.H. Lawrence come bearing, and its power is kaleidoscopic, protean, and immense. The "someone half-perceived" that the fish regards is both us and what we long to apprehend as more than us, a self that includes the other as other. It is not the moon on the surface of the water (the "twice-removed ... reflected light") but "the round fish / regarding you, recovering his own." I love this line with its puzzling reference to "his own." Recovering his own what? His own you? His own self-regard? The odd amputation of the syntax here throws a spotlight onto each word in the line--regarding, you, recovering, own--so that we consider them as separate entities and as they relate to each other. These four words and the meanings they carry do in fact travel as separate entities through much of Wilner's poetry, prompting the narratives to a more ample vision.
 
There is an audacity about the opening of the second stanza that seems almost like a switch into another poem: "I watched a man one night, by a stream." As surprising as the line is, it also feels inevitable in its casual matter-of-factness. No skinless round fishes here. This invocation of the familiar is where the poem hooks me, with its image of a real man (echoing that imagined man of the first stanza who "may stare intently / at a mirror") slipping into the image of a bear as it tries to catch the round fish. And despite how surely such an attempt to capture the unknown must fail, there's little judgment in the image: the bear is ungainly but endearing, with "all his cunning in his paw." He's a figure seen so clearly that he is easy to forgive. Wilner's poems are rich with such figures. 

When the man "drew back his arm," we expect him to be wounded, but find only that "his hand was silver to the wrist." Another line I love. That expectation of a wound makes me wonder how silver might be a form of damage, and the answer remains hovering and subtle around the poem's edges. He is sleeved now in that "trick of mirrors" which the second stanza condemns, that "infinite regress / of self-regarding mind." His hand becomes an emblem of the self disconnected from the other, sealed off from the water it invades. In this stanza that begins by offering the familiar solidity of first-person observation, what Wilner ultimately reveals is the peril of the I. We must continue our shifts in perspective.

Two poems by Elizabeth Bishop come to mind here and in the stanza that follows: "The Fish" and its darker sibling "At the Fishhouses." The end of Bishop's "The Fish" offers the benediction of "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" before the narrator lets her fish go. Wilner's narrator has no such control over her fish, nor interest in control: "And the round fish / with neither bones nor skin / swam near, the sky blazed blue, the fish / was rainbow-hued, right before he disappeared." Never was Wilner's narrator going to hold the fish. And having seen the man's silver hand after he breaks into the water, never would she have tried. But in "At the Fishhouses," it is not simply the man's hand but the whole world that has been silvered, and the consequence of reaching into the water is utterly clear: "if you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn .... It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." Bishop's water is not the "green haze of a golden sea" in the first stanza of "The Round Fish." Rather its bottomlessness becomes a backdrop--almost a warning--for the scene in this poem's second stanza.  It's a warning, perhaps, that "Turning" goes on to fulfill.   

1979 to 2015: I'm as fascinated by what is different in these two poems as by what is shared. Certainly they employ the same flexibility of perspective, and specifically a pattern I've seen in much of Wilner's poetry: an abrupt switch from a mythical past, which refuses any static location, into a specific and singular present tense. This switch occurs at the end of "The Round Fish," after the fish evolves its disappearance onto shore and makes tracks which the narrator follows: "Surprised, I saw a jut of land I hadn't seen before/ and climbed ashore, following the tracks/ the fish had left, which fit so strangely/ with my own." We're then yanked, without so much as a line break, from this mythical past tense into a present that is at once momentary and linked to a continuum: "The trail now is not so fresh." The certainty of this sudden "is" feels shocking, but "now" implies a before which has always been. And then: "still, it was something to have been started on at all." The tone of this line is wistful, a voice looking back after a long time, forgiving that human inability to transcend the refractions between second- and first-person speakers.
 
Unlike in "The Round Fish," neither the first nor second person voice ever quite shows up in "Turning." They are implied--none but some form of a self would observe as it does in the second stanza that "here, the air is clearing now," making that abruptly Wilnerian break away from the more mythical past tense of the poem's opening. But these more intimate first- or second-person voices are only implied. Instead, it's the third-person impersonal pronoun that opens the poem, almost unwillingly: "Some days it was nothing more than a whine/ in the wires when the wind plays/ the power lines across the plains." The marvelous sounds here--the long vowels and the whining alliteration--evoke the sensation of wires plucked by wind. Then the pronoun shifts through "the sound of shuffling cards" into "the click of thrown dice," and finally into the gorgeously tangible "slight percussion of luck." What "it" suggests, in each of these images, is chance, and the last four lines of the stanza plunge that suggestion into the deeper issue of what if anything is behind chance: a god or explanation or "huge eye staring in at you, / cyclopean, cold blue, an incurious malice" to which we might ultimately assign blame.
 
How differently we are watched by this eye than by the "round fish / regarding you" in Wilner's earlier poem. The fish intends to recover a more comprehensive self, and there is a tender carefulness in its watching. But the cyclopean eye will not instruct us out of our limits, or even interest itself in them. Its "incurious malice" is the worst kind, with that hissing alliteration like smooth ice. All that tempers the gaze here is obfuscation, and it belongs to us: "slightly veiled by the blur of breath on glass." It isn't the eye whose vision is partial but our own ability to be seen by it. Thus, what individual voice--be it you or I--could gain entrance into the second stanza, even as Wilner makes her trademark switch out of the past tense and we feel the menace of the eye vanish into the indented space of clear spring air? The blurred glass of the first stanza has injected a shard into this one, displacing the individual self (even as it seems poised to enter) with the simile of the bear.
 
Thus where the bear was a forgiving simile for the individual self in "The Round Fish," it takes the place of that self in "Turning." We feel him as a stand-in, just as the (third-person) man in "The Round Fish" is a stand-in for the speaker, conjured by that narrative first-person self as a medium through which to understand what's beyond the self. "The Round Fish" ends within the process of the speaker, still working toward that understanding. We sense that the quest begun will continue, and that the mystery of this being with "neither bones nor skin" is scary but trustworthy. "Turning," on the other hand, ends in a kind of threat, as the indentations that begin the second stanza are whittled into "a monstrous top." The bear won't conjure a first- or second-person narrator but instead hears a song that is far beyond the realm of any living individual: the song "spins a world from elegance/ and chance.... / and as it spins,/ the dice/ like/ distant thunder, roll." The tone is one of threat, by the end of "Turning," and the fact that we don't know what threatens is more frightening than what the threat might contain. Is it blameless, turning chance that threatens? Is it the cyclopean eye as it morphs into Hindu gods who "just destroyed the world they made?" Perhaps what threatens is simply nature, given that the dice are likened to thunder. If so, then we ourselves are as much threat as threatened, since we are at once made of nature and acting against it, as Wilner often suggests in her writing. But the poem refuses any hint at an answer; the dice roll but don't settle into place. The poem ends with a sensation of tabula rasa that is as unsettling as the determination at the end of "The Round Fish" is reassuring. 

I don't see these two poems as a movement from reassurance into threat, nor have I seen any such trajectory in the overall body of Wilner's work. Surely they are both aspects of the same reaching beyond self, a desire for transcendence on the one hand, and on the other, a suspicion that whatever we might find beyond ourselves is vastly indifferent. Reading the two poems alongside one another reminds me of Wilner's essay "Playing the Changes" about Ovid's Metamorphoses.  In it she defines the notion of the "transpersonal," suggesting that there is a "less binary way of thinking about the poet's necessary remove, a distancing that permits vision for which impersonal seems the wrong formulation."  Both these poems reject, as she urges in the essay, the "too neat ... dichotomy between the personal and the impersonal--pushing us to take sides pro or con--to place, as it were, too bulls in one pasture." Ultimately it is not an impersonal voice that grips "Turning." It refuses the dichotomy between the personal and impersonal as rigorously as "The Round Fish" does, and rather abandons its impulse toward a first-person voice in favor of the quick and constant motion of similes, where we might locate ourselves anywhere and, at the same time, not quite. The desire to become the round fish is denied. Instead, we're given a sense of possibility that is more neutral than any silver mirror, and with its refusal to make promises, I trust it.

The Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review will be printing a reciprocal essay by Eleanor Wilner on the work of Taije Silverman in our Issue Two, Fall 2015.
by Taije Silverman

There is a quality in the poems of Eleanor Wilner that I admire as much for its ethical force as for the aesthetic skill it requires: a fluidity of perspective that connects histories, mythologies, and the figures shaped by them through transitions at once startling and expert. Gently, relentlessly, Wilner unsettles the poetic voice so we perceive it collectively rather than individually, even as the individual continues to resurface in its ten thousand guises.

I've chosen the two poems here--written thirty-six years apart--for the different ways in which they both speak to this fluidity, and for their shared "roundness," or as Wilner wrote about the more recent of the two, "Turning," how they are in fact both poems of "things circling and circling, wanting to see more." Each moves from voice to voice to recast narrative perspective, shifting our attention from the individual to a space between, and refusing that space any comfortable moral conclusion.

I'd like to look first at how radically "The Round Fish" (from Wilner's 1979 book maya) manipulates perspective to explore the boundary between self and other, and between the human and the natural world. Particularly bold is the unpredictability of the second-person you, that "Failed Pronoun" as Wilner calls it in a wonderful poem from her book Up Against It. It's entirely absent from the first eight lines of the poem, as we're introduced to this strange round fish. Confidently asserted in the poem's title, the very existence of the fish is then undone in its first line, as we wonder what sort of fish has "neither bones nor skin." The answer suggests itself: a fish made of water. And so the poem opens by asking us to consider how a thing is informed by what surrounds it.

But again perspective destabilizes as the fish "plumbs the green depths / not as a stone falls, but / as a swimmer dives for his own delight." Enter the scale of the human. It's an unexpected simile, using a person to describe the utter otherness of the skinless fish. And of course it's exactly this simile that bridges our movement into the unexpected entrance of the second person, as (characteristically) assured as if it had always been there: "on a still night, when you think you see the moon." The poem compares the other-than-human to the human in order to conjure a listener, affirm our impulse to communicate and our place in the world. Rather than looking at the fish through the eyes of this you, however, we look at you through the eyes of the fish. The fish is not a metaphor for you, the poem insists; you are a metaphor for the fish. Empathy, in Wilner's work, is what the three strange angels of D.H. Lawrence come bearing, and its power is kaleidoscopic, protean, and immense. The "someone half-perceived" that the fish regards is both us and what we long to apprehend as more than us, a self that includes the other as other. It is not the moon on the surface of the water (the "twice-removed ... reflected light") but "the round fish / regarding you, recovering his own." I love this line with its puzzling reference to "his own." Recovering his own what? His own you? His own self-regard? The odd amputation of the syntax here throws a spotlight onto each word in the line--regarding, you, recovering, own--so that we consider them as separate entities and as they relate to each other. These four words and the meanings they carry do in fact travel as separate entities through much of Wilner's poetry, prompting the narratives to a more ample vision.
 
There is an audacity about the opening of the second stanza that seems almost like a switch into another poem: "I watched a man one night, by a stream." As surprising as the line is, it also feels inevitable in its casual matter-of-factness. No skinless round fishes here. This invocation of the familiar is where the poem hooks me, with its image of a real man (echoing that imagined man of the first stanza who "may stare intently / at a mirror") slipping into the image of a bear as it tries to catch the round fish. And despite how surely such an attempt to capture the unknown must fail, there's little judgment in the image: the bear is ungainly but endearing, with "all his cunning in his paw." He's a figure seen so clearly that he is easy to forgive. Wilner's poems are rich with such figures. 

When the man "drew back his arm," we expect him to be wounded, but find only that "his hand was silver to the wrist." Another line I love. That expectation of a wound makes me wonder how silver might be a form of damage, and the answer remains hovering and subtle around the poem's edges. He is sleeved now in that "trick of mirrors" which the second stanza condemns, that "infinite regress / of self-regarding mind." His hand becomes an emblem of the self disconnected from the other, sealed off from the water it invades. In this stanza that begins by offering the familiar solidity of first-person observation, what Wilner ultimately reveals is the peril of the I. We must continue our shifts in perspective.

Two poems by Elizabeth Bishop come to mind here and in the stanza that follows: "The Fish" and its darker sibling "At the Fishhouses." The end of Bishop's "The Fish" offers the benediction of "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" before the narrator lets her fish go. Wilner's narrator has no such control over her fish, nor interest in control: "And the round fish / with neither bones nor skin / swam near, the sky blazed blue, the fish / was rainbow-hued, right before he disappeared." Never was Wilner's narrator going to hold the fish. And having seen the man's silver hand after he breaks into the water, never would she have tried. But in "At the Fishhouses," it is not simply the man's hand but the whole world that has been silvered, and the consequence of reaching into the water is utterly clear: "if you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately, / your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn .... It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." Bishop's water is not the "green haze of a golden sea" in the first stanza of "The Round Fish." Rather its bottomlessness becomes a backdrop--almost a warning--for the scene in this poem's second stanza.  It's a warning, perhaps, that "Turning" goes on to fulfill.   

1979 to 2015: I'm as fascinated by what is different in these two poems as by what is shared. Certainly they employ the same flexibility of perspective, and specifically a pattern I've seen in much of Wilner's poetry: an abrupt switch from a mythical past, which refuses any static location, into a specific and singular present tense. This switch occurs at the end of "The Round Fish," after the fish evolves its disappearance onto shore and makes tracks which the narrator follows: "Surprised, I saw a jut of land I hadn't seen before/ and climbed ashore, following the tracks/ the fish had left, which fit so strangely/ with my own." We're then yanked, without so much as a line break, from this mythical past tense into a present that is at once momentary and linked to a continuum: "The trail now is not so fresh." The certainty of this sudden "is" feels shocking, but "now" implies a before which has always been. And then: "still, it was something to have been started on at all." The tone of this line is wistful, a voice looking back after a long time, forgiving that human inability to transcend the refractions between second- and first-person speakers.
 
Unlike in "The Round Fish," neither the first nor second person voice ever quite shows up in "Turning." They are implied--none but some form of a self would observe as it does in the second stanza that "here, the air is clearing now," making that abruptly Wilnerian break away from the more mythical past tense of the poem's opening. But these more intimate first- or second-person voices are only implied. Instead, it's the third-person impersonal pronoun that opens the poem, almost unwillingly: "Some days it was nothing more than a whine/ in the wires when the wind plays/ the power lines across the plains." The marvelous sounds here--the long vowels and the whining alliteration--evoke the sensation of wires plucked by wind. Then the pronoun shifts through "the sound of shuffling cards" into "the click of thrown dice," and finally into the gorgeously tangible "slight percussion of luck." What "it" suggests, in each of these images, is chance, and the last four lines of the stanza plunge that suggestion into the deeper issue of what if anything is behind chance: a god or explanation or "huge eye staring in at you, / cyclopean, cold blue, an incurious malice" to which we might ultimately assign blame.
 
How differently we are watched by this eye than by the "round fish / regarding you" in Wilner's earlier poem. The fish intends to recover a more comprehensive self, and there is a tender carefulness in its watching. But the cyclopean eye will not instruct us out of our limits, or even interest itself in them. Its "incurious malice" is the worst kind, with that hissing alliteration like smooth ice. All that tempers the gaze here is obfuscation, and it belongs to us: "slightly veiled by the blur of breath on glass." It isn't the eye whose vision is partial but our own ability to be seen by it. Thus, what individual voice--be it you or I--could gain entrance into the second stanza, even as Wilner makes her trademark switch out of the past tense and we feel the menace of the eye vanish into the indented space of clear spring air? The blurred glass of the first stanza has injected a shard into this one, displacing the individual self (even as it seems poised to enter) with the simile of the bear.
 
Thus where the bear was a forgiving simile for the individual self in "The Round Fish," it takes the place of that self in "Turning." We feel him as a stand-in, just as the (third-person) man in "The Round Fish" is a stand-in for the speaker, conjured by that narrative first-person self as a medium through which to understand what's beyond the self. "The Round Fish" ends within the process of the speaker, still working toward that understanding. We sense that the quest begun will continue, and that the mystery of this being with "neither bones nor skin" is scary but trustworthy. "Turning," on the other hand, ends in a kind of threat, as the indentations that begin the second stanza are whittled into "a monstrous top." The bear won't conjure a first- or second-person narrator but instead hears a song that is far beyond the realm of any living individual: the song "spins a world from elegance/ and chance.... / and as it spins,/ the dice/ like/ distant thunder, roll." The tone is one of threat, by the end of "Turning," and the fact that we don't know what threatens is more frightening than what the threat might contain. Is it blameless, turning chance that threatens? Is it the cyclopean eye as it morphs into Hindu gods who "just destroyed the world they made?" Perhaps what threatens is simply nature, given that the dice are likened to thunder. If so, then we ourselves are as much threat as threatened, since we are at once made of nature and acting against it, as Wilner often suggests in her writing. But the poem refuses any hint at an answer; the dice roll but don't settle into place. The poem ends with a sensation of tabula rasa that is as unsettling as the determination at the end of "The Round Fish" is reassuring. 

I don't see these two poems as a movement from reassurance into threat, nor have I seen any such trajectory in the overall body of Wilner's work. Surely they are both aspects of the same reaching beyond self, a desire for transcendence on the one hand, and on the other, a suspicion that whatever we might find beyond ourselves is vastly indifferent. Reading the two poems alongside one another reminds me of Wilner's essay "Playing the Changes" about Ovid's Metamorphoses.  In it she defines the notion of the "transpersonal," suggesting that there is a "less binary way of thinking about the poet's necessary remove, a distancing that permits vision for which impersonal seems the wrong formulation."  Both these poems reject, as she urges in the essay, the "too neat ... dichotomy between the personal and the impersonal--pushing us to take sides pro or con--to place, as it were, too bulls in one pasture." Ultimately it is not an impersonal voice that grips "Turning." It refuses the dichotomy between the personal and impersonal as rigorously as "The Round Fish" does, and rather abandons its impulse toward a first-person voice in favor of the quick and constant motion of similes, where we might locate ourselves anywhere and, at the same time, not quite. The desire to become the round fish is denied. Instead, we're given a sense of possibility that is more neutral than any silver mirror, and with its refusal to make promises, I trust it.

The Shining Rock Poetry Anthology & Book Review will be printing a reciprocal essay by Eleanor Wilner on the work of Taije Silverman in our Issue Two, Fall 2015.  Taije Silverman is the author of a book of poems, House are Fields, and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
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