VAUDEVILLE by ALYSSA WOLFNICHOLAS MANNING Reviews
Vaudeville by Allyssa Wolf
(Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, Otis College of Art and Design, 2006)
Now, here’s an initial admission: I felt scared, often, when reading Allyssa Wolf’s Vaudeville. Not scared as in “unsettled”, nor as in “disconcerted into a certain reconsideration of my readerly assumptions” . . . No, just scared.
Scared as in scared.
I did, it is true, read Wolf’s debut in a dark Parisian apartment at 3AM, with what I can only presume to have been my neighbour’s dog masticating upon the stairs. But the origin of this sound could, I am sure--it is equally possible--have been a dead doll brought to life, or a bird with three heads, a butterfly-rabbit, a raccoon-pigeon or owl, a maggot, or, just as charmingly, a shriveled man licking his own teeth . . .
For all these weird (and wonderful?) organisms make their appearance on Wolf’s creepy little stage of Being, her curbed arena of poetic invention. Ill-lit, haunted by odd and changing back-drops, this is your local community theatre gone gothic. Vaudeville, in the dynamism of its diverse coteries, is full of these points of perceptive light--objects bathed in a stunning luminosity--but surrounded by masses of epistemological darkness:
The simple, quiet
Bird’s dead said
Like a spike of light
Yes, but these “things” are not simple and quiet anymore, Allyssa Wolf, are they? Alive and “drooling”, they have been shoved together, made grotesque under the piercing halogen of a very atypical perception. And in this way many things, appropriately, glitter in Vaudeville, are “washed in glitter”, though we know, from the strength of Wolf’s acuity, that what is, or may be, behind this shimmer, is simply “a luminous loosening/ Flesh” . . . For in the special, squalid dive that is Vaudeville, the light and darkness are so interlaced that it is in the end impossible to distinguish the two: the shadows caked with gleam, and the gleam a simple mirror beaming back an empty light. Thus, “one is not to land in Technicolor/And to establish that land”: one must remember the bone behind the sparkle.
In this diverse and perverse universe, pop culture seems bizarrely out of place: a first sign of precocity, perhaps, for Wolf’s modernity lies not in her winks to “7Eleven” and “Alf”, but in the power of a singular vision. She has the flourish and style--the formal tidbits--of some sort of neo-Baroque, but couched in an indisputable control:
to a flaw
Such verse, in its sound (sublime assonance of hs and fs) as in its spatial weight upon the page, is mulled with a Mallarméan perfection. This is the best of it: it is true that in other places it is all a bit too much, that sometimes we veer off the rails into dryly unemotional territory: but the daringness of this poetry, its assurance and occasional vivid beauty, are easily compensation enough.
Language, Allyssa Wolf suggests, is a menagerie. Words are mutants, deformed by the evolutionary progresses of grammar: a “post-” stuck on as a prefix, a trans- rendering a true trans-formation. To the old Horation rule, then, that
If a painter had chosen to set a human head
On a horse’s neck, covered a melding of limbs,
Everywhere, with multi-coloured plumage, so
That what was a lovely woman, at the top,
Ended repulsively in the tail of a black fish:
Asked to a viewing, could you stifle laughter, my friends?
Believe me, a book would be like such a picture,
Dear Pisos, if it’s idle fancies were so conceived
That neither its head nor foot could be related
To a unified form.
Allyssa Wolf gives the finger, literally. As in this, from "The Recollection of a Finger":
part to uniform the furnace
part hanging by a single wire
Wolf’s is a poetics made of bits of hauntingly complementary debris: not the debris of a waste land, which will not cohere, but a debris which, when brought together, forms strange, new, and living organisms. The very forms which Horace forbids the poet, then--though of course, yes, Horace is talking about the work of art as a whole, and not the wondrous creatures which populate it--are precisely those which Wolf revels in: those “tail-like”, or in “spiral forms”. For where does one object stop and another begin? In our most fluid perception, where does one being distinguish his or her own body (thus being) from that of the world?
How are these “things” all the same thing? Why is it unpleasant to think of their resemblance? (Moreover, the poem graphically mimics this resemblance, letting us have simply no peace).
For there is here a certain fierce theatrical vision of humanity, which recalls the German Expressionists: as many times in my reading of Vaudeville--now at 4AM, raccoon-pigeons certainly getting closer--I dreamt of those faces in the drawings of Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, emerging vaguely deformed from out of some unformed darkness. Now of course, Wolf is her own artist: these are simple associations. There is not, for instance, the same fear or consecration of violence in Wolf as one finds in the artists of Die Brücke or Der Blaue Reiter. Wolf is less afraid too of deformity than they, and though her regard is neither cold nor scientific, she wants still, simply, to know what such “abnormality” might mean.
In this way, Wolf is much less a Lautréamont than a Baudelaire, her vision wierdly genial in the midst of apparent “ugliness”. For finally it must be noted that her strange, living dolls dance:
I did my step and dance
But being built in an unregulated window
My own hands hunted me
When I danced
My hips made children’s circles
I was corrected
More than once
I sought to slice my own forehead
More than once
Maybe not a particularly joyous dance, but as all in Wolf, it is the grotesque mis en mouvement, the misshapen given life, and given thus the chance of becoming other, or rather, of being seen simply in a new and very surprising way.
And for that, and much more, this is a stunning debut.
Nicholas Manning is Assistant Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France, currently writing his doctoral thesis on rhetoric and sincerity in post-war European and American poetry. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in such places as Verse, Fascicle, Free Verse, Dusie, The Argotist, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Eratio, Cipher Journal, CrossXConnect, Shampoo, among others. This year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.